In Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the character of Alice finds herself in a world where nothing is as it seems. Its inhabitants, while pretending to help, speak in riddles and nonsense, or employ circular logic in place of actual solutions. Understandably frustrated, Alice must nonetheless find her way through this magical, maddening land in the hopes of returning home, to a saner, more predictable world.
Like Alice, Barack Obama is venturing into the less familiar, often hostile world of his political rivals as he attempts to negotiate his way to a health care compromise with the GOP on February 25th. And while I have no doubt that Obama believes sincerely in his ability to reason with the loyal opposition, I fear his approach will yield no more substantive results than would a conversation with the Cheshire Cat. The Tea Party movement, which I think harkens more to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare than to Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, has taken the Republican Party hostage, and members' ability to reason along with it. So, like poor Alice, Obama will be the only person at the table who is actually there to drink tea -- er -- negotiate on health care.
The Tea Party movement insists on a slavish devotion to certain core principles: lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger military. That those three things don't necessarily correlate is someone else's problem. And that's the real difficulty for Obama. Any Republican incumbent who ignores the party line risks a primary challenge. So no Republican has an honest willingness to cut a deal with the Democratic president. Just as the March Hare shouts "No room!" when Alice approaches the near-empty table set for tea, Republicans will be forced to grandstand their objections before negotiations even get underway.
The other issue Obama faces when making this attempt at bipartisanship is that he will be, like Alice, the only rational actor at the table. Because the Tea Party movement demands any Obama health care proposal be killed in its crib, Republican lawmakers, despite their acknowledgment that health care costs threaten the long-term solvency of the country, cannot deal in good faith on the issue. To do so would be to invite the wrath of those they're counting on to bring back a Republican majority in November. So, just as the March Hare offers Alice wine when there isn't any, Republicans will offer health care proposals they have no intention of voting for if legislation actually makes it to the floor.
Yet another challenge Obama faces at his meeting with Republican members is also similar to that of Alice at the Mad Tea Party: the conversation itself is nonsensical and utterly absurd. We got a preview of this when Obama went to the House Republican retreat and was confronted by one congressman who insisted his health care plan could cover 30 million uninsured, lower overall spending and not cost a penny. This is a great plan if you're only interested in demagoguery. If one actually wants to solve the problem, it isn't much help. It reminds me of the moment in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when the Mad Hatter asks, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Alice spends several minutes legitimately pondering the answer. When she gives up and asks for the solution, the Mad Hatter shrugs, and says he has no idea. President Obama risks the same outcome from his health care summit. Because Republican lawmakers are more concerned with how the summit looks to Tea Party activists than what it achieves for ordinary Americans, not much is likely to get accomplished.
At the end of the scene in Carroll's book, the Mad Hatter requests a clean cup, and forces everyone to move down a seat before Alice has even had a chance to sip her tea. She ends up with an empty mug and a saucer of spilled milk. Republicans may similarly agree, in principle and in a non-binding fashion, to certain of Obama's proposals at the summit itself. But, as soon as the meeting adjourns, it's a pretty safe bet that Senator McConnell and Minority Leader Boehner will stop before the cameras and call on the President to start from scratch, whether or not they believe it's the right thing to do. Because at this point, they're no longer calling the shots. The Tea Party is, and they have sworn to defeat any Republican who does not yield to their demands. Tea Partiers will tell you themselves, at rallies and on the campaign trail, how angry they are -- at Obama, at the government, at Wall Street, at liberals. Angry, maybe. Definitely mad.