President Obama hopes his bipartisan health care summit on Feb. 25 won't degenerate into "political theater." Too late: the partisan jockeying over health care reform already has turned into a farce worthy of Moliere.
It's bad enough that Democrats, despite holding the White House and commanding majorities in Congress, can't pass their top domestic priority. They look as feckless as Moliere's cuckolded husbands.
But now Republicans are trying to dictate health care policy, despite having been soundly whipped in the last two national elections. As piously as one of Moliere's hypocrites, they profess their devotion to covering the uninsured and restraining health care costs in a market-friendly way, though somehow they never got around to pushing a serious proposal when they held power.
Republican leaders have warily agreed to attend the summit, for fear that a no-show would cement their image as the party of "no." But they are telling reporters it will be a waste of time unless Obama agrees to jettison reform bills that have passed both Houses of Congress and start over from scratch.
"Why would they want to keep pushing something that the public is overwhelmingly against?" GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell asked rhetorically after meeting with Obama this week. "Really, right now, it's up to the President and Speaker Pelosi to start listening to the American people," chimed in Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican. "If they don't, there's not much to talk about."
They may be the minority party, but Republicans are effectively claiming a new mandate on health reform - from opinion polls.
True, public opinion has turned against the health reform blueprints that emerged after many months of haggling and horse-trading on Capitol Hill. Obama says Americans were turned off by the "process," but then, he was the one who decided to offer only the most general reform guidelines and let lawmakers fill in the blanks.
But public opinion is mutable, even fickle. Most Americans were strongly for health reform before they were against it. And it's highly unlikely they oppose it because they're intimately familiar with the complex provisions of the House and Senate bills. The way they were put together - basically, by paying off powerful interests and hold-out lawmakers - no doubt was a factor, but polls indicate that worries about the economy and jobs were a bigger one.
Public opinion may yet be turned around by a decisive show of political leadership. That's why Obama is right to keep pressing for reform, even if in the end he has to settle for less than he wants or the country needs. And the coming summit is shrewdly conceived to give Republicans a chance either to win some substantive points - Obama is already talking about adding tort reform to the mix - or to show their overriding motive is to defeat a Democratic president, not fix health care.
In any case, shifting polls, tea parties and a single U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts don't give Republicans the right to speak for the country, much less shape the nation's health care agenda. That would turn a farce into a tragedy.
This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.