Friday, February 26, 2010


Michelle Malkin:

Oba-Kabuki: A Box-Office Bomb

The Oba-Kabuki health care show at Blair House kicked off with a big lie on Thursday morning -- and it all went downhill from there. The taxpayer-funded infomercial backfired by exposing the president's thin skin, the Democrats' naked disingenuousness and the ruling majority's allergies to political and policy realities.

Responding to Sen. Lamar Alexander's opening call for Democrats to renounce parliamentary tactics designed to limit debate, circumvent filibusters and lower the threshold for passage of health care reform to a simple 51-vote majority, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sputtered indignantly: "No one's talking about reconciliation!" Everybody and their mother has been invoking the "R" word on Capitol Hill, starting with Reid.

In a letter on Feb. 16, four Democratic senators pushed Reid to adopt the procedure, normally reserved for budget matters. A few days later, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs discussed the option. Then Reid himself talked up reconciliation on a Nevada public affairs show as an option to ram the government health care takeover through in the next 60 days.

According to The Hill, Reid said that "congressional Democrats would likely opt for a procedural tactic in the Senate allowing the upper chamber to make final changes to its health care bill with only a simple majority of senators, instead of the 60 it takes to normally end a filibuster." A few days after that, Reid snapped that Republicans "should stop crying" about the abrogation of Senate minority rights, since the GOP had used the reconciliation process in the past.

So, the cleanest, most ethical holier-than-thou Congress ever is now defending the unprecedented adoption of ram-down rules for a radical, multitrillion-dollar program to usurp one-seventh of the economy on the grounds of "two wrongs make it right"? Hope and change, baby.

For his part, President Obama responded with one part pique and two parts diffidence. After the summit lunch break, Republicans pushed the reconciliation issue again in the face of the Democrats' refusal to disavow the short-circuiting of the deliberative process. "The American people," an annoyed Obama asserted, "are not all that interested in procedures inside the Senate." Oh, really? A new USA Today/Gallup poll reports that 52 percent of Americans oppose using the procedural maneuver to pass the health care bill in the Senate.

The survey also showed that Americans oppose Demcare-style health care "reform" by 49 percent to 42 percent -- with those "strongly" opposed outnumbering those "strongly" in favor by 23 percent to 11 percent. Obama's best and brightest team of Chicago strategists, new-media gurus and communications specialists still hasn't figured it out: Voters are as fed up with the corrupt process in Washington as they are with the White House's overreaching policies. It's both, stupid.

When he wasn't cutting off Republicans who stuck to budget specifics and cited legislative page numbers and language instead of treacly, sob-story anecdotes involving dentures and gallstones, Obama was filibustering the talk-a-thon away by invoking his daughters, rambling on about auto insurance and sniping at former GOP presidential rival John McCain. "We're not campaigning anymore," lectured the perpetual campaigner-in-chief.

After ostentatiously disputing the GOP's claims that health care premiums would rise under his plan, Obama walked it back. Confronted with more GOP pushback on the failure of Demcare to control costs, Obama told GOP Rep. Paul Ryan that he'd rather not "get bogged down in numbers." Not numbers that he couldn't cook on the spot without staff consultation, anyway.

Obama and the Democrats labored mightily to create the illusion of almost-there bipartisanship by repeatedly telling disagreeing Republicans that "we don't disagree" and "there's not a lot of difference" between us. But the dogs weren't riding the ponies in this show.

This was a set-up from the start. The "we're so close" mantra is the rhetorical wedge the White House will use to blame Republicans for fatal obstructionism, while whitewashing festering opposition from both pro-life Democrats who oppose the government funding of abortion services still in the plan and left-wing progressives in the House who are clinging to a full, unadulterated public option.

While Republicans came off well, the six-hour blowhard-fest was a monumental waste of time. Obamacare Theater tied up GOP energy and resources as the White House readies its "Plan B" (expanding government health care coverage, just at a slower pace) and Democratic leaders prep their reconciliation ram-down for early next week. This Washington box-office bomb is a prelude to much bigger legislative horrors still to come. Don't you love farce?


Jonah Goldberg:

Health-Care Humdrum

The longest week I ever spent was the six hours I spent watching Thursday's health-care summit. The better angel of my nature says that this confab is a wonderful spectacle of democracy. Serious men and women airing serious disagreements in a (relatively) respectful and substantive manner. Huzzah for democracy. Wahoo for C-SPAN. Attaboys and attagals to all involved.

My more devilish side says that this is a debacle par excellence, the policy-wonk equivalent of a show trial where the result is foreordained and the speeches are for the benefit of no one but those who don't understand what's really going on while the posturing is for the handful of Kremlinologists who care passionately about minutiae.

More to the point: It was mind-bogglingly, soul-achingly, sand-poundingly, metaphysically and ontologically boring. It's like driving through Kansas on the interstate (something I've done many times): long, vast stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional brief promise of excitement that would require detouring from the planned route.

It reminds me of that old Monty Python skit where British soldiers are equipped with the world's funniest joke, a joke so funny that even to hear it guarantees you'll die laughing. The British army translates the gag into German (different translators for each word so as to prevent their own deaths), and has its troops read the German version as they march through Ardennes forest. Suddenly, Nazi soldiers start falling dead from the trees. Substitute "boring" for "funny" and you'll get a vague sense of how dull this summit was. At one point I could swear Mitch McConnell was counting fibers in the carpet just to stay awake.

For months, Republicans have fairly tagged President Obama for breaking his promise to put health-care negotiations on C-SPAN. That talking point was rendered moot Thursday. But now there's a better talking point: The summit showed why Obama was crazy for wanting to televise this stuff in the first place. Real negotiations never happen in front of cameras because to cut a real political deal in public is the political equivalent of cutting your own throat.

Now, just because the scripts were written beforehand doesn't mean that everyone's lines worked. Obama opened by striking a pose of plausible fairness and open-mindedness but grew more and more snarky (to use a technical political-science term) and less presidential as the event wore on. Obama's condescension to John McCain -- "we're not campaigning any more, the election's over" -- pleased everyone who already loves him and nobody who doesn't.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relied on the Democrats' favorite rhetorical gambit: policy-by-anecdote. Invoking the sad plight of some person no one knows can be effective, but we've been hearing such stories for a very long time, even as support for Pelosi's solutions has plummeted.

But it was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, mugging for his doomed re-election bid at home, who put the ugliest face on the Democratic Party. Cranky, mean and short-tempered, Reid seemed like he was sitting on a carpet tack throughout the discussion. He snapped that "no one is talking about reconciliation" -- a reference to the arcane parliamentary procedure Democrats are considering as a means to ram their unpopular bill through Congress.

That's true, save for the more than 100 House Democrats and more than 20 Senate Democrats who had already signed letters calling for reconciliation. His crotchety dyspepsia combined with arrogant dishonesty made the leader of the Senate seem like the sort of oldster who would pinch little kids for fun if he could get away with it.

The Republicans were arguably more boring than the Democrats precisely because they had to seem nicer. (Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who bizarrely played the race card, had no such concerns.) But when Sens. Lamar Alexander, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn weren't contemplating committing seppuku like that Japanese soldier in "Airplane!" just to end the ennui, they succeeded in undermining the central talking point of the Democrats: that the Republican Party has no ideas on health care.

It may have been excruciatingly dull enough to force Osama bin Laden from his cave, but the Republicans patiently telegraphed an inconvenient truth: They do care about health-care reform, they just loathe Democrats' version of it (and, yes, have much to gain by blocking it). At halftime and again afterwards, when delegates were no doubt mainlining Red Bull, the Democrats' spinners took to the airwaves to insist that the Republicans "don't want anything." But anyone watching knows that's not really true.

That is, if anyone was watching.


"The Times" of London:

Political theater

Thirteen months into his presidency, Barack Obama invited 40 congressional leaders to a meeting yesterday to forge consensus on an issue that threatens to bankrupt the country and derail his ambition of transforming American society.

His challenge to Republicans to abandon politics-as-usual fell largely on deaf ears, but it brought moments of drama, including a rebuke of Mr Obama’s governing style over the past year from his former opponent, Senator John McCain. Mr Obama responded: “We’re not campaigning, John. The election’s over.”

Six hours of televised debate left uncertain the fate of the most ambitious social legislation in a generation: the reform of a health insurance system that accounts for nearly a sixth of the US gross domestic product. It has become a proxy for an even broader battle between liberals who last year sensed an historic chance to reinvent the federal government in favour of the poor, and conservatives determined to bury Mr Obama’s campaign promises of change and render him a one-term president. As one commentator from his home town of Chicago put it: “Obama needs a victory. Either that, or he faces irrelevancy and insurrection.”

Long before the Secret Service shut the streets around the White House to allow Mr Obama to walk to Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, the venue for the meeting, his opponents and even his Vice-President, warned that the event would prove to be nothing more than political theatre. Their words were justified — but it was compelling theatre.

Mr Obama opened proceedings with an appeal for bipartisanship, and for reform of a system that he said had forced his mother to argue with insurance companies from her hospital bed as she lay dying from ovarian cancer.

The Republican reply came from Lamar Alexander, the former Governor of Tennessee, who offered his story of a constituent struggling to pay for his wife’s breast cancer treatment. He argued that the solution was to tear up Democratic health reform Bills and start again. Republicans went on to propose a six-point plan that they said would cut costs and extend insurance cover without the $950 billion (£620 billion) price tag attached to Mr Obama’s plan.

Solemn undertakings to keep the affair cordial and focused on the needs of the American people quickly gave way to partisan tit-for-tat. When Mr Alexander claimed that Democratic proposals would raise insurance premiums for many, the President interrupted him twice, saying: “No, no, no, here’s what the Congressional Budget Office actually says.”

Progress towards comprehensive health reform ground to a halt last summer when conservative activists at town hall meetings successfully branded it a government takeover, draining enthusiasm among moderate Democrats worried about re-election in November. The project appeared doomed last month when the Republicans’ gain of Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat robbed the Democrats of a majority.

Yesterday’s meeting was predictably rancorous, but by no means all scripted. “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts,” Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, told Republicans at one point.

After a dissection of the 2,400-page Senate health Bill by Eric Cantor, one of Mr Obama’s most effective critics in the lower House, Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, came to the rescue with a human interest story to eclipse them all. It concerned two elderly sisters. When one died and the other lost her dentures “she wore her dead sister’s teeth”, Ms Slaughter said. “Of course, they didn’t fit. Can you believe that in America?”

A bipartisan breakthrough was always the least likely outcome of this minutely choreographed event. Playing to a live TV audience for six-hours, both sides sought to score points without seeming to and to appear conciliatory while knowing that their battle lines were already all but fixed. “We might surprise ourselves,” Mr Alexander said. He was referring to his search for common ground. He did not find much yesterday.


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