Political Theater or Substantive Debate or Both?

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As Karen just noted, in an interview with Katie Couric that aired just before the Superbowl, President Obama called for another bipartisan meeting on health care. After being pummeled by accusations of back-room deals and sharp partisanship, Obama said he would convene a half-day meeting where Republicans and Democrats would be able to discuss their ideas for reform and defend their positions. Obama promised keep the meeting open to television cameras, including presumably those from C-SPAN.

Obama is no doubt hoping for a sequel to the policy debate victory he notched recently during a televised meeting with the House GOP caucus.

But let’s not kid ourselves. While the public may easily – and understandably – get lost in the minutiae of health care policy, Obama is well aware of Republican ideas about how to change the health care system and he has rejected many of them already. Republicans know this and they have no plans to try to influence the existing legislation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to Obama’s overture by calling for the current health reform legislation to be “put on the shelf,” aka, scrapped altogether. This is not going to happen.

So what we’re left with is some potentially interesting political theater. Obama is betting that he will be able to persuasively debunk Republican ideas for health care reform. He’s also betting that if the American people understand what’s in Democratic proposals, many of those who oppose the legislation will decide to support it. This may seem risky and probably is – after all, it’s not as though Democrats haven’t already tried (and failed) to explain the dysfunctions in the U.S. health care system. But then again, Obama is right about the fact that there is wide misunderstanding about what’s in the House and Senate reform bills. The latest tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, showed that 60% believe Democratic health reform would increase the deficit in the next 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office says this is not true. The Kaiser poll also showed that 30% think those with employer based health insurance would have to change to different coverage. As I’ve pointed out, the Democratic legislation painstakingly preserves the employer-based health insurance system.

We are observing, it seems, Obama’s final health care push. This push is proof that the President doesn’t view Scott Brown’s victory as an insurmountable obstacle to Democratic reforms. The reality, though, remains to be seen and probably has a lot more to do with polls and whip counts than it does with policy arguments and television cameras.