Healthcare encore

Say what you will about President Obama, but the guy sure knows how to put on a show. He did it at the Jefferson/Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, in November of 2007 when he was more than 20 points behind Hillary Clinton, and the momentum of his performance that night rocketed him to a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. He did it again months later in a televised speech on the state of race in America, when his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was threatening his primary campaign against Clinton. Last month, just 10 days after Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won the seat to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) in an historic upset, the president startled the buoyant GOP and even the bewildered, apoplectic members of his party with a flawless performance at a retreat of House Republicans in Baltimore.

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Grand shows have helped Obama out of many a corner, and are likely to rescue him again. The display at Blair House on Thursday — a televised, bipartisan summit designed to revive the demolished debate on healthcare reform — may not be one of those times. But having lost a year of time, tremendous political capital, three elections, the energy of the party’s grass roots and the support of the American people, this show wasn’t an option for Obama; it was a necessity.

The summit won’t accomplish any legislative work. Even with the name cards and water glasses, it won’t come close to a hearing or a markup. Most importantly, beyond some conciliatory words, nothing bipartisan can happen whatsoever. The Democrats are scrambling behind closed doors to assemble a partisan bill they can jam through once and for all. Republicans are coming to the meeting with one unshakable goal in mind: Stop reform at all costs.

Since the summit was announced, Republicans have demanded nothing short of “starting over,” which sounds good but is obviously a non-starter. The provisions in the bills are all well-known, the disagreements on healthcare both between and within the parties are well-established, and with the public intently focused on the economy, the Democrats would probably be better off just handing House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) the Speaker’s gavel than wasting time beginning anew on healthcare reform. Republicans decided before the summit they would not accept any compromise bones Obama wanted to delight the television audience with by throwing their way. Purchasing insurance across state lines? Limits on medical malpractice awards? Softening the mandate? Health savings accounts? Republicans say there is no frosting that can make them eat this cake.

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Democrats, desperately divided and trying to hide it on television, are hoping a masterful exhibition of cooperation and compromise on Obama’s part, combined with a spectacle of grumpy GOP obstinacy, will give them the political cover so they can pass a partisan bill. Of course, they tried this last year and it didn’t work, or at least not in time to sign a reform bill into law before the Democratic sky fell with the loss of Kennedy’s seat. Between their divisions over abortion and the public’s rejection of the bill that plagues dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats running for reelection, it is hard to see how Democrats pass healthcare reform.

President Obama knows that failure will be devastating. He needs reform to pass. But if the pageantry at Blair House is the final curtain call for reform, Obama was smart to star in one last show, bringing both sides together on healthcare, if only in one room on one day. Then he won’t be on the premises when it goes back to Congress to die.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.