Blair summit can be a win-win-win

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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I watched with amazement at the discussion that occurred last week in Baltimore between President Obama and the House Republican caucus.

I was not amazed by the president’s performance. I knew he would rise to the occasion because he is good at being exactly at who he is. He does not have to make this up. He does not have to try hard. He does not need to write notes on his palm. He was civil and likeable. You could tell that even GOP conservative House members who strongly disagreed with him, well, they clearly like him. And how can you not? He’s a nice guy, a good guy, a decent guy—who is as good at depersonalizing criticism and moving on, as good at not holding grudges (though he might be entitled to do so, in many instances), as any person I have seen in 40-plus years of active involvement in politics.

I was amazed, rather, at how positive an impression the Republicans made on me—despite all my biases to the contrary, and thus, how much good they achieved with the vast middle of the country.

I know, I know. This is contrary to the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that even most House Republicans accepted—that the House GOP had made a mistake because Obama was so good and they, by comparison, they were not so good, and thus, they never should have allowed the meeting to be televised.

Hogwash. Give me a break.

Just because Obama was good and impressive to most viewers does not mean that the GOP members weren’t also good and impressive to most viewers. This is not a zero-sum game.

In fact, the GOP members had more to gain, since the caricature that the Democratic left had successfully created about them—a unanimous group of blind partisans who “just say no”—was shattered as untrue. Those who rose to speak and ask questions were uniformly thoughtful, respectful, anxious to be heard and most important—again, directly contrary to the caricatures painted by the Democratic left—anxious to share their ideas with the president and to try to find common ground so that some type of health care reform legislation might be enacted this year.

I at least wondered why Speaker Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership shouldn’t try a series of meetings as well with their counterparts across the aisle and start out not with the question, “what would you change in our 2000-page comprehensive health care reform bill?” But rather, “what reform bill would you be prepared to support?”

And then listen and have a conversation.

This is exactly, in my view, what President Obama can and should do at the outset of the “White House Summit” he has called for Feb. 25 to meet with Democratic leaders and Republican leaders and members from the House and Senate.

Yet in recent days, some of the House Republican leadership has defaulted—they just couldn’t resist—to insisting on various preconditions before they will continue the civil conversation begun in Baltimore. Some GOP leaders have suggested the President must first renounce ever using Budget Reconciliation procedures to overcome the Republican Senate filibuster before they will attend.

Next they might insist on a different shape of the table!

I have to believe that calmer and more constructive Republican congressional heads will prevail—especially among those GOP members who spoke in Baltimore and others like them, those who still feel the excitement of getting elected to serve in the U.S. Congress—to get things done and make progress in solving our country’s serious problems—rather than continuing the political posturing to gain advantage for the November 2010 elections.

I am hoping that the president would reciprocate and not require any particular starting point for discussions. He can also begin by asking: What reforms would you vote for this year? Let’s sit down together, let’s have a conversation. We can do something this year—even if it is far less than everything, even if it means we leave our strongly ideological bases equally unhappy. We can together take the first few steps towards health care reform—knowing it’s a first few steps on a very long journey.

If President Obama and the GOP House members can begin this conversation, then there will still be a win-win-win—for the president and the Democrats, for the Congressional Republicans, and most importantly, for the American people, who yearn for civil discourse and a civil society.

As President Obama told a packed National Prayer Breakfast last week, in words that inspired everyone in the room—Democrats, Republicans, evangelicals, liberals, conservatives—and which should be the guideline for the White House health care summit:

“….[P]rogress doesn’t come when we demonize opponents. It’s not born in righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God. That we might do so—that we will do so all the time, not just some of the time—is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world.”


Mr. Davis, a Washington, D.C., attorney, served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel and a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07.  He is the author of “Scandal:  How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.”

This column also appears in The Hill newspaper.