Compromise, Obama style

While I was on vacation, President Obama invited Republicans into the legislative deliberations over health care reform. Specifically, Obama said he wants Republicans to participate in a meeting on this subject later in the month, the stated purpose of which is to craft a “compromise” health care bill. Unlike previous, Democrat-only deliberations, the bipartisan meeting would be shown on C-SPAN.
At yesterday’s press conference, Obama explained what he means by “compromise” legislation: he will insist on adherence to his goals regarding health care reform, but will entertain Republican suggestions on how to accomplish them. The president will not “start from scratch,” as Republican leaders have asked him to do.
Obama’s current approach might have passed for bipartisan compromise a month or two ago, when the Democrats had the whip hand. It would also have been a politic approach. First, it might have given Democrats an insurance policy — i.e., a few Republican votes in the Senate. Second, it would have provided some political cover which, in turn, might have made Democrat health care reform more palatable to the public.
For better or for worse, however, the only compromises Obama, Reid, and Pelosi entertained were with Democrats. Among those compromises were the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, and the sweetheart deal for labor unions.
Now that Obama no longer holds the whip hand, the concept of compromise he offers is a poor excuse for bipartisanship. At this juncture, real compromise would consist of Obama giving up some of his goals in order to accomplish others.
The president is correct to argue that real compromise would also entail Republicans signing on to certain ideas they have previously resisted, as opposed to agreeing only to those things they have been amenable to all along. But if the Republicans truly have the whip hand now, then Obama can hardly complain if they bargain hard, or refuse to bargain at all. After all, they have been effectively shut out of the process for almost a year.
I doubt, however, that Obama’s proposed meeting is really about finding a compromise. Instead, I think it’s an attempt by the president to shift some of the focus away from the Democrats’ behavior and onto that of the Republicans. The health care debate has been a significant loser for Dems, not just on the merits but also in terms of process. By publicizing, holding, and televising a meeting, Obama hopes not that he will appear more reasonable in terms of process, but also that Republicans will cast themselves in a bad light. This would occur, Obama probably hopes, if Republicans refuse to attend or if they attend and either (a) behave badly or (b) are out-argued.
This isn’t a bad strategy on Obama’s part, but it’s unlikely to be much of a winner, ether. Given the unpopularity of the Democrats’ substantive approach to health reform, the Republicans can avoid the meeting without much political cost by forcing Obama to say, as he did yesterday, that he is unwilling to start over. Alternatively, they can attend, behave decorously (as they did when they met with Obama in Baltimore), and hold their own or better in the discussion of the merits.
The second of these options is probably preferable, unless Republicans agree with Obama that the primary problem with Obamacare is the president’s inability thus far to explain it well. In any event, the decision by Republicans as to which option to embrace should be based on political calculation, just as Obama’s decision to call for the meeting was.

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