The Blog

Gibbs to GOP: Nope, We're Not Starting Over on Health Care

But there may be something to gain at the president's forum.

12:25 PM, Feb 9, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Obama White House is apparently very serious about learning absolutely nothing from Massachusetts or the public's rapidly dwindling faith in Washington to solve any problem.

When Republican leaders Eric Cantor and John Boehner sent a letter looking for assurances that they and their ideas might be considered at Obama's proposed bipartisan health-care forum, they got this response:

The President is adamant that we seize this historic moment to pass meaningful health insurance reform legislation. He began this process by inviting Republican and Democratic leaders to the White House on March 5 of last year, and he’s continued to work with both parties in crafting the best possible bill. He’s been very clear about his support for the House and Senate bills because of what they achieve for the American people: putting a stop to insurance company abuses, extending coverage to millions of hardworking Americans, getting control of rising premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reducing the deficit.

The President looks forward to reviewing Republican proposals that meet the goals he laid out at the beginning of this process, and as recently as the State of the Union Address. He’s open to including any good ideas that stand up to objective scrutiny. What he will not do, however, is walk away from reform and the millions of American families and small business counting on it. The recent news that a major insurer plans to raise premiums for some customers by as much as 39 percent is a stark reminder of the consequences of doing nothing.

This lends credence to the idea on the Right (Matt Continetti noted it), that Obama's bipartisan conference will be pure theater— "Here's the same plan we've been pitching for a year that almost everyone hates! If you say you still don't like it, you're what's wrong with Washington."

I tend to think Republicans should attend the bipartisan conference because refusing to do so makes them look far more like obstructionists than voting against a bill everyone hates ever has. People like these forums, and Republicans not participating gives Obama a bigger win than he could earn if they showed up.

Is Obama good in this setting? Sure. And, he was widely given credit for having "won" the day the last time he met with the GOP conference to talk incessantly and ironically about how politics shouldn't be about "winning" the day.

But I argued at the time of the GOP conference meeting that getting Republican alternatives on national television, and forcing Obama to acknowledge they exist was ultimately good for the GOP and bad for the "obstructionist" argument.

Could it have made a difference already? Today, the New York Times prints this serious treatment of GOP alternatives, with this rather sanguine opening paragraph:

When Republicans take President Obama up on his invitation to hash out their differences over health care this month, they will carry with them a fairly well-developed set of ideas intended to make health insurance more widely available and affordable, by emphasizing tax incentives and state innovations, with no new federal mandates and only a modest expansion of the federal safety net.

Read the whole thing. A perusal of the reporter's health-care writing archives reveals the last story he wrote focused on the GOP was headlined, "Hopes dim, GOP still vows to fight health-care bill." Today's "On health care, GOP road is a new map" is certainly a better story for Republican p.r. More importantly, it's a better story for market alternatives offered by the GOP, which are in line with the more modest approach Americans want:

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said he and his colleagues were skeptical of “grand legislative policy schemes” and favored “a step-by-step approach” focused on lowering health costs for families and businesses.

“It is arrogant to imagine that 100 senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world’s largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances,” Mr. Alexander said.

Arnold Kling has some very specific conditions the GOP should demand be met before Obama's alleged negotiating session:

1. All Medicare savings must be used to shore up Medicare. None of those savings can be used to fund new insurance subsidies or entitlements. Medicare is unsustainable, and it is going to need every dollar that we can save, and more. There is nothing to spare for a new entitlement.

2. Medical savings accounts must not be killed.

3. Catastrophic health insurance must not be killed or heavily disadvantaged relative to comprehensive insurance.

4. All new subsidies that enable people to purchase health insurance must be on budget, rather than through insurance company regulations that are likely to result in cost-shifting.

5. The bill must provide for at least one of the following:

a. Interstate competition in health insurance.

b. greatly reduce (preferably eliminate) the tax inequity between obtaining health insurance on your own and getting it through your employer.

I think it's fairly obvious Democrats in leadership won't agree to most of these things. There is a significant ideological split on how to deal with health care's very real problems. But GOP solutions fit the national mood far better than Democratic ones. This one televised appearance by the president is not likely to turn the tide for Obamacare, but it could once again give the GOP a chance to pitch solid, incremental, market-oriented reforms in front of a national audience.

As the president says, the problem with health-care spending will have to be dealt with. The Democrats' current plan fails to deal with it, but there is hope that some of the GOP alternatives could. (It helps that Republicans are less ideologically inclined to fix spending problems with more spending.) Liberals were quite right in noting, when the health-care debate started, that the GOP hadn't spent a lot of time or focus on health care before Obamcare, thus lessening their credibility on the issue.

Why not use the president's forum to forge more of the necessary credibility to deal with it when the time comes—either in the event that Democrats acquiesce to more GOP ideas in a last-ditch effort to pass a bill, or when the thing is scrapped entirely? It worked last time. Now, even the NYT says the GOP has a "well-developed set of ideas." And, who am I to argue with the New York Times?

Update: The Politico elaborates on the theatrics involved, here, but I still say it's worth pitching conservative ideas as the Democrats' plan continues to unravel:

Obama hopes to walk into the Feb. 25 summit with an agreement in hand between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on a final Democratic bill, so they can move ahead with a reform package after the sit-down.

House Republican leaders delivered a letter to the White House Monday that included a list of pointed questions that they would like answered before the meeting at Blair House, such as whether Obama would give up on using reconciliation, a way to pass health reform in the Senate with just 51 votes.

“If the starting point for this meeting is the job-killing bills the American people have already soundly rejected, Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate,” the letter read.

So what’s the point? A jaded Washington wondered how a single meeting — in front of live TV cameras, no less — could change the fundamentals of the debate.

Many concluded it won’t.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers