The GOP's Health Care Summit Trap

On Meet The Press this past Sunday, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence offered his take on what tomorrow's televised health-care summit means for his fellow congressional Republicans:

Republicans are ready to work. But what we can't help but feel like here is the Democrats spell summit, S-E-T-U-P. And all this is gonna be is some media event, used as a preamble to shove through Obamacare 2.0.

Lord knows the universe doesn't provide us with the opportunity to say this too often, but Mike Pence is right! The health care summit tomorrow is, basically, a trap. But the GOP has contributed heavily to its mechanics. For some time, they've been calling for bipartisan relief and televised transparency, and now they're getting it. House Minority Leader John Boehner is putting the best face on the fact that the GOP can hardly refuse to play along now, telling reporters that the invited Republicans are actually "crashing the party." But that party has the GOP concerned because it plays to President Obama's newly rediscovered strengths.

It's a new phenomenon for congressional Republicans to be worried about the health care debate. For a long while now, they've been winning it. Most notably in the 2009's Townhall Summer, the GOP successfully stoked paranoid fears, direly warning of nonsense like death panels. The Democrats responded by flailing, bogging the debate down with pointless delays, stymieing the progressive supporters of the wildly popular public option, and loading their bills with poison pills -- like Bart Stupak's abortion amendment and Ben Nelson's Medicaid side-deal -- that Americans don't like but that proved necessary to clear whip-count hurdles.

Meanwhile, it became ever clearer that Obama had punted his key campaign promise away, and he started to look pretty dotty to a public that has grown more and more despairing and disapproving of the larger health care reform effort.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the health care summit. Just when the White House's fortunes were at their lowest ebb, President Obama got to do something that he's really, really good at: schooling his political opponents on their bullshit. In a post-State-of-the-Union televised confab with the House Republican Caucus, Obama spent an afternoon parrying the GOP's best shots and flipping their scripts. The media took notice of the sudden return of the Barack Obama who used to appear in public making a damn lick of sense.

There's a lot of things that just wouldn't exist, absent the success of that Q&A: the perceived revival of health care reform's fortunes, the willingness of the media to call out anti-stimulus hypocrisy...heck, the health care summit itself. Plus, since then, the GOP's Good Ship Say "No" To Everything sprung a leak, with five Republican senators breaking ranks to support the Senate's jobs bill. The swing in momentum has been palpable.

It's never wise to underestimate the abilities of the GOP spin machine, even when defending the untenable. But Republican strategists trying to outmaneuver Obama tomorrow go into the summit knowing they face some grave challenges.

They know that what's been sold as generic polled disapproval of health care reform isn't really generic disapproval of health care reform. It includes many Americans who simply want the reform package to resemble the one they were promised. And when asked about the constituent elements of the actual bill, the public is actually extremely supportive.

The Republicans also know in their heart of hearts that, as the health care bills took shape in Congress, the end products were in fact models of bipartisan compromise. As Igor Volsky and Ezra Klein have separately documented, the House and Senate bills were both tremendously accommodating to Republican policy concerns. Tort reform, high-risk pools, small biz protection, across-state-lines policy swaps? They're in there. Which means: if the GOP comes with a demand for any of these things, Obama can simply say: "I got you. Now show me the votes!"

And this is where the GOP finds itself in a strategic bind. The way I see it, they have two choices.

One thing they can do is they can review the House GOP Q&A, study the game tape, and prepare themselves to dispense a better blend of bullshit than they've already served up. Show Obama and the Democrats some new offensive fronts, run some trick plays, invent some brand-new rhetorical devices -- all in the hopes of maybe tripping Obama up this time around, and minimizing the chances that Obama will turn in a repeat performance and make them look like mewling ignoramuses. There's already a suggestion that the GOP thinks this time it will prevail by repeatedly asserting private-sector solutions to health care reform.

Of course, the other thing the GOP could do is not fall into the trap. They could choose to impress Americans by playing a dignified role in the discussions and making strategic compromises without surrendering on their primary concerns. The Republicans could then leave the viewing audience with the impression that they are a serious-minded party and could score points with independent voters.

The only problem, of course, with that option, is that they might just accidentally pass a health care reform bill!

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