In the runup to the health care summit, no one thought a bipartisan bill was going to emerge. Instead it was all about the politics and who would gain the upper hand in the debate. Part of that question is easy to answer. No bipartisan bill is going to emerge.
What about the other question? Who won? It was a draw. And in a draw, Republicans win.
Going into the event, President Obama and Democrats clearly had the upper hand. As he demonstrated at the Republican retreat last month, the president is an excellent debater. He knows how to speak to large crowds and gain the upper hand, which he did at the GOP retreat. Democrats in Congress hold all the cards in that they have the majority and had already passed legislation and are on the verge of passing a bill for the president to sign.
But television is not so much about the spoken word as it is about visuals and tone. What do you sound like in your presentation and how do you look while doing it? Recall Al Gore in his debate with George W. Bush and his sighing? It didn’t go over very well. It made him look inpatient and arrogant.
Having Lamar Alexander lead off for Republicans was a good idea. He is an even-tempered speaker with a reputation for bipartisanship and a former governor. He set the tone for the GOP and the rest of the team followed.
The president, on the other hand, wasn’t at his best. At times he sounded and looked inpatient and he was a bit snippy in responding to the GOP. The most glaring incident was his dismissal of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). In his initial remarks, Sen. McCain brought up the various deals cut in the Senate. He also raised the point that in the election both ran on a promise to change the way Washington works. The president dismissed him with a rhetorical wave of his hand. Not only was it disrespectful, but a significant part of the public’s anger over the health care debate is about the fact that deals were cut and what they were. To dismiss this line of argument was wrong and more importantly bad politics.
On a very positive note, it was a fairly good debate on policy grounds, especially for policy wonks, but also for everyone. Each side did a good job presenting their positions and why they supported some ideas and why they opposed others. Perhaps the aftermath and lasting impact will be to use this format for other issues. The one change I’d make, do this at the beginning of the process because one thing is true, regardless of the outcome of this summit, Democrats are not going to start fresh nor incorporate any of the core GOP issues into the legislation. And I don’t think there was ever any intention to do so.
So in the end, like the presidential debates, the ultimate question is who met expectations and who exceeded them. In that regard Republicans exceeded expectations and Democrats failed them. They didn’t advance the ball, while the GOP clearly held their own. And for Democrats, their one objective was to build momentum so they could pass the President’s plan using reconciliation.
I’m not sure they did that.
William Pierce is Senior Vice President for APCO Worldwide, Inc.