Whichever of President Obama's advisers came up with the idea of the health care summit, that person deserves a raise -- or maybe deserves to be fired for not coming up with it eight months ago.
While it wasn't quite the watershed (I refuse to say "game-changer") that many of the President's supporters hoped for, the 7-hour gabfest was a clear win for the administration. The President once again positioned himself as the authentic, reasonable leader working hard to enact comprehensive health reform, while politely painting Republicans as obstructionists who are more interested in scoring political points than fixing a broken health care system.
Don't get me wrong -- the Republicans scored some points as well. They clearly learned from the rhetorical rout they suffered at the hands of the President at their Baltimore retreat in January and most came prepared to appear serious, substantive and yes, even supportive of some sort of heath reform, though decidedly not the President's version.
Case in point: the soothing rhetoric of Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who can turn on the charm of the courtly Southern Gentleman with the best of them. Alexander made his point in that most time-honored of Southern political traditions, with a story:
When I was elected Governor, some of the media went up to the Democratic leaders of the legislature and asked, 'What are you going to do with this new young Republican governor?' They said, 'I'm going to help him because if he succeeds, our state succeeds,'" said Alexander. "But often they had to persuade me to change my direction to get our state to where it needed to go. And they did that - that's the way we worked for eight years. I'd like to say the same thing to you: We want you to succeed, because if you succeed, our country succeeds. But we would like, respectfully, to change your direction on health care.
Had they stuck to this style of iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove rhetoric, they might have actually used this summit to put the final nails in the coffin of the Democrats' dream of passing major health care legislation.
But they just couldn't resist reducing themselves. A few just had to default to the kind of pettiness and truculence that helped them lose both the White House and their congressional majority in 2008.
And the President took advantage of the opening. His trademark smooth baritone voice had a harder edge as he pressed lawmakers to work in good faith to find compromise without partisan rancor.
Typical of the President's demeanor was his rejoinder to House Republican Leader John Boehner, who had just finished a tirade of standard anti-reform riffs:
John, you know, the challenge I have here, and this has happened periodically, is every so often we have a pretty good conversation trying to get on some specifics and then we go back to the standard talking points that Democrats and Republicans have had for the last year, and that doesn't drive us to an agreement on issues.
This is precisely the ground the President wanted to fight on in this debate -- which is what this so-called summit really was.
Most of the early press reports called the summit a draw, with some, like Politico's indefatigable Glen Thrush, going so far as to give the edge to the GOP:
But in this case, the tie goes to Republicans, according to operatives on both sides of the aisle -- because the stakes were so much higher for Democrats trying to build their case for ramming reform through using a 51-vote reconciliation tactic.
This wasn't a draw, and anyone who thinks so missed the brilliant strategy.
It's been a fait accompli for months now that if health care is to pass, it will do so solely with Democratic support. So the whole game for the administration is to shore up those nervous swing Midwestern and Southern Democrats whose votes are crucial but in jeopardy. Solidifying the support of these two dozen or so Members was the true aim of the summit.
In one fell swoop, the President altered the trajectory of the health care debate. First, merely by announcing this summit, he calmed the tsunami of negative press coverage that deluged him and his party after the GOP Senate victory in Massachusetts.
Next, the announcement took the spotlight off Democratic congressional leaders and put it on the President himself. That was smart, since, despite his travails of the last several months, the President's personal popularity still rates highly among the American people, while that of Reid, Pelosi et al. comes in just north of dirty gym socks.
The gambles that Barack Obama took with this summit were three-fold:
Gamble #1 - Could he strike the right rhetorical balance between big-picture statesman and deal-seeking negotiator?
Gamble #2 - Could he use the summit in effect to replace Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the health reform legislative push?
Gamble #3 - Could he count on the Republicans to continue to be the party of obstinacy and obstruction?
There is no question that the President won all three rolls of the dice.