What the Obama-McCain Rematch Really Means


The one small firework at today's otherwise unilluminating health-care summit was set off when Barack Obama interrupted his former presidential rival, John McCain, and told him to ditch the talking points about "unsavory" Democratic shenanigans. "John, we're not campaigning anymore," he said. "The election is over."

For those of us who enjoy political theater—and I'm assuming that includes everyone who's watching the live stream and reading the Gaggle at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon—this was a nice little moment of drama. But Obama was wrong. The election is not over. In Washington, it never is.

Which brings me to the question I've been asking myself ever since this summit started four long, dull hours ago: Who are they doing this for? Who's the intended audience? 

I can identify two. 

For most of the 25 politicians at the table—like, say, John McCain—it's clearly "the folks back home": i.e., the constituents whose only exposure to today's summitry will come through summaries on tonight's local newscast or in tomorrow's local paper of what their senator or congressperson said at the meeting. If you're a House member, you're running for reelection in November. If you're a senator, you may be as well—and if you're not, your top priority is still getting your fellow Democrats or Republicans elected. This is why every Democrat feels the need to recite a story about a downtrodden constituent who was denied care (as if Republicans are bloodthirsty monsters who don't care about dying Americans), and it's why every Republican insists on placing a printout of the 2 gajillion–page bill on the desk in front of him (as if complex legislation should be written in haiku form). And it's why exactly none of them, Democrats or Republicans, seems to be listening, responding, conversing, discussing, or (God forbid) changing their minds. They're reciting prepared speeches to their constituents. They're talking past each other and trying to frame the electoral battle ahead for the voters at home. Like McCain, they're campaigning. 

As I noted earlier, however, there is another audience here, and, as it happens, it's the only audience that's actually watching this thing with any interest: the media. This, I think, is Obama's audience. Did he enter Blair House this morning expecting to hammer out a compromise and make everyone happy? No. He's not insane. He knows, as my Gaggle colleague Katie Connolly has pointed out, that the "preferred outcome" for Republicans is "no agreement" at all. But the president did enter Blair House expecting—indeed, planning—to look like the guy who's trying to hammer out a compromise and make everyone happy. When he calls McCain out for obsessing over "process," or mocks Eric Cantor for placing a printout of the bill on the table, or calls Lamar Alexander unserious for saying that "Democrats want Washington to make decisions for you," he's trying to create the impression that he's the only guy in the room who isn't "campaigning anymore." He's the only guy for whom "the election is over." They are playing politics; he actually wants to get something done. 

Of course, Obama's tactic won't change any Republican minds. It won't persuade any Americans who oppose his policies to support them. He knows that. But what it might do is give the media a narrative to latch onto—a story to tell about today's summit. "Obama tries, Washington denies." And it's possible—barely, but possible—that if Obama's narrative gets traction on TV and in the papers, reluctant House Democrats will finally feel like they have the political cover they need to support the revised Senate bill. That's the plan, anyway.

Seen in this light, Obama's snippy exchange with McCain actually looks less like an unplanned outburst than a strategic maneuver: his preferred post-summit narrative, conveniently condensed into the sort of moment (rematch!) that bloggers, TV producers, and reporters are powerless to resist. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if he planned it.