By Peter Suderman
What does President Obama hope to accomplish with his planned bipartisan health care summit? He says that it will give Republicans an opportunity to share their ideas, and perhaps facilitate a more inclusive, bipartisan approach to reform. But given that the White House has displayed little interest in doing anything other than making small tweaks to the current proposal, it looks an awful lot like a calculated opportunity for Obama to attempt to remind the American people about all the wonderful reforms that he has in mind for the country while Republicans sit across from him with their arms crossed, shaking their heads in stingy, angry opposition. In other words, as far as I can tell, what he is proposing is political theater rather than substantive discussion.
As if to confirm this understanding, Obama said today that he intends for the summit to be substantive discussion and not political theater.
Now, as political theater goes, it's a half clever plan. On one hand, polls indicate many Americans would have preferred to see Obama work with Republicans on health care reform, and this gives Obama an opportunity to seem earnestly post-partisan.
On the other hand, there's some interesting political science work that argues—fairly convincingly, I think—that what the public is most interested in is not bipartisan discussion, but bipartisan agreement. When it comes to major legislation, the public wants to feel safe in the knowledge that Republicans and Democrats both think it's a good idea. But the problem for reform supporters is that Republicans are unified against the plan and Democrats have spent the past year squabbling about how to proceed. The result, as pollster Mark Blumenthal put it, is the view that "Republicans all hate it, and the Democrats cannot agree what to do, so how good can this proposal be?"
Now, Obama would probably take some GOP dissenters if he could get them. But at this point, that's not going to happen, and he knows it. So the point of this bipartisan summit is actually to play up the two parties' disagreement. Given that disagreement over the bill is likely a large part of what caused public opinion on the bill to dip so low, I'm skeptical that a summit that highlights that disagreement is likely to help Obama's cause all that much.