Facts Trounce Vapors in Health-Care Olympics: Margaret Carlson

It “could be pure theater,” Vice President Joe Biden said the day before the health-care summit at the White House debuted.

Thanks, Joe, for repeating a Republican talking point like a lovable but irascible child who tells the neighbors precisely what mommy and daddy warned him not to say to anyone.

At the opening of the bipartisan confab yesterday, President Barack Obama respectfully disagreed, saying he was looking for ways to proceed together and not engage in “political theater.” It was the Washington version of the Olympics, a performance with a difficulty of 10, a ticking clock and a chance of salvaging the bronze in a race in which the gold was lost in the opening trials long before.

The president started strong. Basic courtesy demanded that Republicans rise when he entered. Around the room he went looking magnanimous, a word here and there, a man-hug to Senator (and doctor) Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the Republicans he’s bonded with.

As hard as Republicans worked to reduce the home-court advantage, they couldn’t. Obama’s the president and they’re not. He called them Eric, John and Mitch. They called him Mr. President. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio tried to level things by dictating the shape of the table as if the forum were the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the Democrats the Viet Cong and whoever sat at the head of it were in charge.

Shape of Table

Exactly what shape would the table have to be to make people think Boehner was president?

Republicans complained about being in Blair House instead of the White House, about the room being too small, about Obama’s new proposal being too short, the old bill too long (Virginia Representative Eric Cantor stacked it in front of him to make that point). Then there was the rank injustice that, counting the president’s opening statement, Democrats got more talking time. All this grumbling before any real differences were discussed.

There was a repeated exchange over whether premiums would rise or fall under Obama’s plan. Using facts, Obama said they wouldn’t rise. Using vapors, Republicans insisted they would. They wouldn’t answer the question of whether this meant they were rejecting the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis they cite when it buttresses their position.

Lexus or Honda

The CBO reported that premiums would stay about the same, or slightly decrease. To say some people might upgrade their policy and pay more is to confuse a consumer durable with insurance. I might buy a Lexus instead of a Honda if I get a better job, or the cost of a Lexus came down, but that doesn’t mean someone raised my auto costs.

When Obama turned the floor over to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he wisely turned the microphone over to the more congenial Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. When he ran for president, the placid Alexander’s trademark was an exclamation point after his name to connote the excitement he lacked.

Since becoming chairman of the chamber’s Republican Conference, Alexander has taken on a much sharper edge. Renounce, he told Democrats, any idea “of jamming” a health-care bill “through in a partisan way.” By that, he means the use of reconciliation, a process allowing legislation to pass with 51 votes rather than a supermajority of 60, which Republicans have demanded for almost every bill since Obama was elected.

Reconciliation Reversal

Republicans have used reconciliation more than 20 times in recent years, including to push through legislation such as President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Now they say it’s tantamount to fascism.

Alexander also warned the president to lower his expectations. “If you are waiting for Mitch McConnell to roll in a wheelbarrow in here with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive bill, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

This goes to the Republican demand that the president start over on health care with a blank page, perhaps to decrease the disadvantage of having nearly a blank one themselves. Starting over is code for quitting. Fixing the massive dysfunction in an industry that accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. economy requires specificity and legislative language. A several-thousand-page bill isn’t a bad thing.

Only once did the president show frustration. Citing a variety of “special deals” and “special interests” that he said were catered to in the Democrats’ health-care legislation, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, said, “What we got is a process that you and I both said we would change in Washington.”

‘Election Is Over’

Obama might have been hungry (it was close to lunchtime). Maybe there came a limit to his professorial tolerance. The president dropped his polite pose. “We are not campaigning anymore,” he said. “The election is over.”

McCain shot back with his trademark nervous laugh, “I am reminded of that every day.”

There was no “you lie” moment yesterday, but plenty of rudeness. As the meeting ground on, the president was stuck listening to speakers who treated facts as malleable. If they think premiums will go up, they will. If they deny an essential fact of insurance as Democratic whimsy -- that the bigger the pool, the wider the risk is spread, the lower premiums will go - -- it must be so.

Not that nothing was accomplished. The viewing audience learned that Republicans must say no to Obama because they want to say yes to the insurance giants, to let them merrily roll along without meaningful federal regulation, you know, like Wall Street has for the past ten years.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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