Politicians as (C-SPAN) Reality Stars

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Talking Points Memo, a progressive outlet, is taking quite a bit of joy in House Minority Leader John Boehner wondering if President Obama’s upcoming health care summit will be simply a “political event.” Under the headline, “Boehner: How Dare Obama Televise The Health Care Debate After I Demanded He Televise The Health Care Debate!” TPM posted video of an interview Boehner recently gave to Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. In the interview, Boehner said, “I don’t want to walk into some trap. I don’t want to walk into some political event. I want to walk in and have a real conversation about what we can do to make our current system work better.” Boehner also asked a question we’ve all been asking since Obama announced the summit, “Is this a political event or is this going to be a real conversation?”

Well, herein lies the problem with television cameras – they have a tendency to change real conversations into political events. This was obvious during the C-SPAN-broadcast Senate floor debate of the health care bill when Republicans and Democrats gave speech after speech and offered amendment after amendment – almost none of which was intended to have any effect whatsoever on the final legislation. (I wrote a little about this back when it was happening.)

Obama erred when he promised on the campaign trail to put all health care negotiations on C-SPAN. (Thousands of hours of Congressional testimony and committee debate were broadcast, but some early deals with special interest groups and late key deals among Democrats happened behind closed doors.) Obama’s promise was one he never could have kept and either betrayed a certain naivete or was an effort to score campaign points at the expense of honesty. (Here’s Ezra Klein on the pitfalls of negotiating before the cameras.) This bad promise also opened Obama up to criticism from Republicans who have been hammering him on “backroom deals” and a lack of transparency. Republicans have every right to make these criticisms, but then it’s hard for them to claim that the presence of television cameras at the Feb. 25 health care summit will turn it into theater instead of substance.

Republicans would probably argue that they think the summit will be theater not because it’ll be televised, but because Obama refuses to scrap the Democratic health care bills and start over. But Congressional Republicans just met with Obama behind closed doors to talk about health care, among other topics, and there was no protest about the meeting from Boehner or anyone else. Judge for yourself. Here’s another exchange between Boehner and Van Suteren. (Full transcript here.)

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you make of the fact that it’s televised? The American people are probably delighted that we’re getting this televised.
BOEHNER: I think that’s fine, but you know, is this a political event or is this going to be a real conversation?
VAN SUSTEREN: Well, except that we’ve been hammering them about the transparency.
BOEHNER: I don’t…
VAN SUSTEREN: The president said, you know, he was going to put everything on C-Span, so we can’t criticize him now for when he finally does put it on C-Span.
BOEHNER: Well, that’s fine, but I want to make sure that we’re going to have an honest conversation, you know, an honest, bipartisan conversation about how we can approach this. I don’t want to walk into some set-up. I don’t know who’s going to be there. I don’t know how big the room’s going to be. I don’t know — what the set-up is going to be….

I stand by what I said earlier about the Feb. 25 summit. It will be political theater. There will be posturing and hyperbole and oversimplification meant to obscure the true complexity of the U.S. health care system and how to fix it. But I don’t think I’m alone in hoping there will also be flashes of honest, straightforward substance. What would be even better? If we saw certain policies definitively refuted and others agreed upon. Despite the venomous political climate and seemingly intractable differences between what Republicans and Democrats want for health care reform, there are truths about the system’s dysfunction and how certain policies will affect it. I hope at least some of these will be clearly evident on Feb. 25.

But still, someone will probably come up with a drinking game before the summit that involves taking a shot every time someone says “government takeover” or “Republican obstructionism.”