The Bipartisan Health Care Summit: A Failure In Five Acts

Yesterday, McClatchy Newspapers warned that the proposed health care reform summit -- a bipartisan encounter group session staged in front of teevee cameras for the American people -- faces "long odds against success." According to the report, "analysts" warn: "Don't count on President Barack Obama's upcoming health care summit to thaw the bitter political climate that's stalled legislation for months."

Don't worry, analysts! I wasn't counting on any such thing. Also not being counted on: actual health care reform happening! And that's because the fact that we've moved back into "summit mode," with the grim determination that the American people will be subjected to the full stagecraft, indicates to me that "health care reform" has been transformed from "a desired outcome for millions of Americans" into a "political brickbat that both sides will smash each other over the head with, indefinitely."

Naturally, this whole "summit" idea sounds quite sane. It embraces the all-important, rivetingly shallow virtue of "bipartisanship" over which Beltway types tend to swoon. It promises to appear as if actual achievement might be at hand, because lawmakers have long proven themselves skilled at packaging busy work as achievement. (See also: "Gang of Six.") And the teevee cameras will be there, thus making up for that time the Obama administration didn't put the conference committee negotiations on C-SPAN, which Americans in the tens of tens were no doubt planning to watch.

If this whole thing comes to pass, here is how it will go down.

ACT ONE: Both sides offer up pleasant-sounding monologues on how important it is that Americans' health care concerns are addressed, and the importance of bringing health care costs to heel. It will be high-minded and hopeful and, for a brief mad moment, some of you with bloodstreams delicately balanced by serotonin re-uptake inhibitors might start to think: "Hey! This could really work!" But the words and actions of the people you will see summiting will not match their underlying intentions. This is what is called "dramatic irony." Maybe this will win an Obie Award, or something!

ACT TWO: The two sides will state their ultimately irreconcilable differences. The GOP will say: "We love health care reform! By which we mean 'tort reform!' And the ability to purchase policies 'across state lines!' Can a brother get a "high risk pool?"

Democrats will say, "Awesome! The House bill has all of that! Plus, aren't you guys big fans of deficit neutrality and reduced long-term costs and protecting small businesses and no public money going to abortions? Because it's in there. Plus, we gave up stuff our constituents want, like the public option." Seems like everyone's going to get something they really want, so let's do this thing!

It will all make eminent sense! And experienced theatergoers will immediately recognize that this is why it will fail miserably.

ACT THREE: Health care industry lobbyists will check in on the proceedings, see that their interests are not at risk and immediately commence an enthusiastic orgy. This will be artfully rendered as a very suggestive tap dance, because we wouldn't want the kids watching to get cynical about the process.

ACT FOUR: Here's where everyone gets cynical about the process. The GOP will balk at compromising, explaining that they basically want the two or three things they want and nothing more. That will not be good enough for the Democrats, obviously. Someone like Mitch McConnell will essentially say, "If you let us write the bill, and then vote for it, it will pass." President Obama will say a few things that are sensibly stated and zingy enough to get liberal blogs excited. At this point, both sides will have party strategists copying and pasting the other side's most intemperate remarks and most glaring contradictions from the television, so that they can be uploaded to YouTube as campaign commercials. Both sides will pretend that they were the more serious-minded party at the summit.

ACT FIVE: FORTINBRAS TAKES OVER DENMARK. CRAP! That was the worst possible outcome of all! I guess all that dicking around comes with a cost!

Oh, and yes: none of you will be getting health care reform, because this summit is a substitute for lawmakers actually sacking up and attempting to push health care reform over the goal line from the two, as if they were a New Orleans Saint or something crazy like that. The whole point of this, for reform-inclined lawmakers, is to cull some frozen moments in which they are heroically depicted as being in favor of health care reform, so that November isn't that bad for them. And for the other side, the whole point is Waterloo, just as it always was, so that November isn't that bad for them.

I guess the bottom line here is, just as there are some ideas so crazy that they just might work, there are some ideas so sane-sounding that they are almost certain to fail. In this case, it will fail, because that's how it's been designed.

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