President Obama is a different kind of cat. Amid all the vitriol and vituperation, all the ignorance and ignominy, all the petty pride and partisan politics of the health care debate, he has maintained his cool. While each side, right and left, has raged against this or for that, he has held himself apart (some might say aloof) from the donnybrook. Even in the face of undignified and racist remarks about his citizenship and faith on the one hand, and outraged accusations about betrayal and lack of conviction on the other. (I'm part of that latter group.)
And just when it seemed the health care debate had petered out, a victim of the rancorous partisan atmosphere that asserts itself whenever Congress is left to its own devices, he pulls a symbolic rabbit out of his hat: the Blair House health care summit.
It is hard to imagine that the summit, which occurs today, will be viewed by the American public as anything other than a magnanimous gesture by the President. We all saw the nasty and ignorant signs that the tea-baggers were waving around during their summer histrionics: Obama with a Hitler moustache; Obama as a tribal shaman; Obama as a radical Muslim cleric. It takes a cool cucumber to ignore all that and continue to make conciliatory gestures toward the very people (Senator Chuck Grassley, Minority House Leader John Boehner, et alia) who did their best to foment it.
But, of course, let's not be ignorant of the President's motives regarding the summit. First and foremost, it is a trap for the Republicans. They may have flirted with the idea of boycotting the event, but that was never really an option for them. They have to appear to be cooperating; they have to seem to be interested in the concerns of the American public, which, while perhaps not supporting the President's plan, still overwhelmingly recognizes the need for some kind of reform. (And thank you very much, Wellpoint, for underscoring that reality with your obscene rate hikes.)
And yet, Republicans also cannot really come out of the summit appearing to cooperate with the President. Their base, those enlightened beings with the Lipton tea bags hanging from their hats, would blow its collective stack at such a development, leaving Republicans with none beyond their fat cat constituency (bankers, corporatists) who, although generous enough with their campaign contributions, don't have many votes.
The President cant' really lose, no matter what happens. He's no real friend to the progressive movement, as he will gladly point out. ("I'm not an ideologue," he recently told the House Republican caucus.) So it's no skin off his shoulder if a health care reform bill turns out to be a glorified sop to the health insurance industry. The Republicans have done him the service of providing themselves as a scape-goat on that score.
But even if, at the end of the summit, Republicans leap in front of the microphones to complain about being frozen out, even if they vow not to cooperate, the President has the trump card of reconciliation to pass the legislation. And congressional Democrats will use it. Because they have to pass something. They cannot go into the fall elections without having a health care reform bill to hold up as an accomplishment. If they do it right, they might even reverse the political tide that, as of the moment, threatens to swamp them in November.
So, if I'm right about all this (and I could very well be wrong), the health care summit is destined to be a win for the President. It's only a matter of degree.
Shrewd, Mr. President. Very shrewd.