04/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Summit Happily Brings Period Of Bipartisan Illusioneering To An End

The two or three people in the world who believed that lawmakers were going to emerge from yesterday's Health Care Summit having forged a brave new path of bipartisanship or a collective decision on a new Pope must be feeling disappointed today.

The seven-hour session of talk was essentially a lengthy encounter session. The White House needed to look open-minded, the Republicans needed to turn the recitation of talking points into a cathartic experience, and the overall presentation was a political theater performed by players far too cautious to make a spectacle of themselves.

For the process-obsessed media, however, the whole thing proved to be reliable catnip. And the good news for Republicans appears to be that because they didn't enter the room and behave like a gang of raving dicks, they'll be declared the winners of the summit by the thinnest of margins and reasoning.

Seven thick hours of substantive policy discussion, preening and low-grade political clashes had Hill staffers nodding at their desks, policy mavens buzzing -- and participants declaring the marathon C-SPAN-broadcast session a draw.

But in this case, the tie goes to Republicans, according to operatives on both sides of the aisle -- because the stakes were so much higher for Democrats trying to build their case for ramming reform through using a 51-vote reconciliation tactic.

"I think it was a draw, which was a Republican win," said Democratic political consultant Dan Gerstein. "The Republican tone was just right: a respectful, substantive disagreement, very disciplined and consistent in their message."

Well that seems like a pretty low bar! And if any of that actually... you know, healed the sick, or made the cost of health care more affordable, we'd be onto something! But when the best thing that can be said about the "loyal opposition" is that they got through a public debate without resorting to babies or poems or buckets of nuts, that's not much. You certainly cannot say that the GOP did too much to honor the cause of "bipartisanship," not that anyone ever obliges their side to do so.

The only person who ever gets pressure to appear bipartisan is the president. And as I documented at length yesterday, the press has its blinders permanently affixed, preventing them from admitting to the fact that he's already made a ton of substantive concessions. With nowhere left to go on substance, the only thing left for the president to do was to concede on a bunch of Kabuki-process style points. And yesterday you can almost imagine Obama ticking off the last few requirements of the "bipartisanshi or bust" set off of a checklist. They want me to take charge of the debate? Check. They want me to reach out across the aisle Check. They want me to put it all on teevee? Check.

In fact, moderated by Obama, the whole affair seemed stage-managed for maximum channel-switching. Rather than even pretend that the two sides could break ground, Obama basically went around the room, giving everyone in the room a chance to get whatever they wanted to say off their chests. And by and large, what everyone had to say was what they had been saying all along.

And what the Republicans have been saying all along is that they want a "blank sheet of paper." On that regard, they are telling the truth: a blank sheet of paper is the only thing for which they will offer up a vote.

The big story out of the summit is not that Republicans and Democrats extended their hands in friendship, but that the White House has dug its heels into the dirt. The Democrats are not taking reconciliation off the table, they are not paring back the bill, and they are not extricating themselves from the issue. They think they're right on this one, and they're going to try and pass this legislation.

E.J. Dionne put it best: "The Republicans simply don't want to pass comprehensive health-care reform." And if you want to talk about who has to make some necessary concessions, I think that everyone who has been covering the story needs to take a deep breath, pause for reflection and concede that Dionne is right.

The hour of bipartisanship has passed. It was a stupid thing that died a noble death. Now it's time to have one of those protracted partisan battles that actually produces substantive results for the American people.

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