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By Jay Cost

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The Blair House Stunt

The bipartisan health care summit is either:

(a) An honest endeavor to build a bipartisan coalition in support of health care reform.

(b) A political stunt intended to win the White House a news cycle or two.

My instant reaction when I heard about the meeting was that it is a stunt, that the White House felt that they had "won" the battle with the GOP at the House Republican retreat, and so why not do a sequel? The public loves sequels! Transformers 2, The Dark Knight, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Led Zeppelin II, and so on. Plus, it's not as if an obvious legislative strategy for passing health care has presented itself. As Hollywood has clearly demonstrated, the sequel is the best way to grab attention when you're genuinely out of good ideas!

There are three notable facts about this meeting at Blair House that indicate that it's a stunt:

(1) It's televised. The White House was dinged by the press corps for breaking the campaign promise of televising every meeting on C-SPAN, but the reason the White House broke that promise was because it was a stupid one that had to be broken. C'mon - you can't get stuff done when the cameras are rolling! The cameras completely alter the incentive structures for the attendees. Thanks to the cameras, the participants won't be worried about finding common ground on a bill, or debating the merits of this idea or that idea. Instead, they'll be thinking about their constituents back home, or undecided voters across the country who may swing in November, or whomever. They transform from legislators hammering out a deal to politicians preening for the "benefit" of the voters. Televising these proceedings means that we'll get little more than recitation of talking points, which is what we see every Sunday on the news shows. "Meet the Republicans. With your host, Barack Obama."

(2) The invitation was extended to the party leaders. Just as strong an indication that this is a stunt. If I were a Democrat looking to build a bipartisan coalition, there are about 15 or so Senate Republicans I'd look to before Mitch McConnell. In fact, the whole idea of bipartisanship - at least on a controversial issue like health care reform - is one where the President should not be looking to win over a majority of the opposition. I do not think there is any comprehensive health care reform bill that President Obama could sign and Mitch McConnell could vote for. So why is he coming the meeting? A truly bipartisan legislative strategy would be one where you separate the moderates like Olympia Snowe from the party leadership. So, it's a less-than-great idea to invite the leadership to the bipartisanship meeting! Unless, of course, your goal is to make yourself look good and the congressional GOP leadership look bad. In that case, you'd want McConnell there.

(3) It's in February, 2010. This is just nine months from a midterm election where the GOP is expected to do well. Why in the world would the Republican leadership want to risk that by helping the President bail out his massively unpopular health care reform initiative? The time for bipartisanship was last year, and (as I noted in a previous article) the legislative scope where bipartisanship is possible is much smaller than comprehensive reform of 1/6th of the United States economy. No matter how nice Blair House is, it won't be enough to get Eric Cantor and Barack Obama to agree on such a sweeping legislative program.

This is a PR stunt from a West Wing staff whose major experience prior to entering the White House was the electoral campaign, which is really just an accumulation of PR stunts. They're going with what they know. The White House believes that the President bested the congressional Republicans at the retreat, and they want to try the same thing again.

I think the White House did best the GOP at the retreat, that Obama did get some nice press, and that the Republicans were made to look weaker. So, from a certain perspective, I understand the logic here. But, from another perspective, it is mind-numbingly ridiculous. What is the ultimate purpose of this? Memo to the West Wing: your guy is the President now. It doesn't matter whether he can out-debate the congressional GOP. He gets the credit or the blame for policy output. That is all that matters. This Blair House meeting is just noise that Politico, The Hill and Roll Call will write about for a few days - and that's all it is. This President will be judged on whether the government under his tenure has solved problems, not whether he can out-talk the congressional GOP in some silly debate. In a word, it's not about campaigning - it's about governing.

You'd think that they would have figured that out by now!

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-Jay Cost