The White House Health-Care Summit: Jedi Move or Giant Fail?

Jon Stewart has said on a couple of occasions that he can’t tell if Obama is like a Jedi master, three moves ahead of the rest of us all the time, or if this health-care thing is kicking his ass. It’s unclear which category yesterday’s announcement of a televised, bipartisan health-care-reform summit at the White House falls in to.

On first blush it seems like a smart move. Rather than letting Republicans snipe on the sidelines, slowly killing the bill, Obama is bringing them in, squarely implicating them in the legislation’s fate. Keep your enemies close and all that. Republicans will get what they’ve been clamoring for─a transparent set of negotiations, live on TV. They’ll be able to raise their issues with the bill and be forced to articulate their alternatives, rather than just offering blanket opposition. But (and for Republicans this is a big but) they won’t be starting from scratch. They’ll be working to alter the bills that have already passed the House and Senate.

Congressional Democrats should be pleased with this move. For weeks they’ve been publicly pleading for more advice and direction from the administration. The problem for the White House, though, is that it’s difficult to imagine, after all these months of debate, that there’s a solution here that the GOP is willing to sign on to. And Republicans have already discovered that uniform opposition is working well for them as a political strategy. Regardless of how productive the White House forum is, there's little incentive for Republicans to sign on. Politically, they look to gain significantly more if reform dies than if it passes with their approval. So where does that leave the bill?

In the Jedi master scenario, the public sees the president and Democrats acting in good faith, pointing out where Republican ideas have been incorporated and explaining the benefits of the bill. The openness of the discussion counteracts fears that the bill is rife with backroom deals. The public opinion is revived. When GOPers continue to withhold support, they simply look obstructionist. The president and his party feel comfortable that they have the public’s consent to move forward with the House passing the Senate bill and making alterations through reconciliation. By bringing Republicans inside the tent and trying to deal with their objections publicly, Obama effectively neutralizes them and passes a bill in a manner that prompts only minimal backlash. Point goes to Team Jedi.

In the butt-kicking scenario, the GOP scores by having a forum to rail on the bill and point out where their ideas have been rejected. The talkfest produces no tangible results and confirms voter perceptions that D.C. is broken, incapable of leadership and innovation. Already skittish moderate Democrats feel increasingly nervous and just want the bill to go away. Liberal Democrats feel sidelined, their ideas marginalized, and their motivation for passing the bill dwindles. GOP leaders suggest the bill be tabled while the two parties work on alternatives. A disenchanted public, having watched the painful, slow, unproductive sausage-making process on TV, overwhelmingly agrees, but really they’ve lost interest and just want the discussion to end. Legislators move on to other issues. Health care dies. White House: Fail.
So what will this move turn out to be: Brilliant strategy or reform-ending spectacle? Is there space in between? I don’t have the answers, but I’m eager to find out.