Who Won at the Summit?

February 26th, 2010

By Tom Carter

“Who won at the summit?” seems like a silly question.  This was supposed to be a sit-down (remember The Sopranos?) where apparently irreconcilable opponents could work out their differences for the common good.  The problem is, no one who understands what’s going on in Washington expected that to happen.  And, inevitably, politicians and pundits alike are focused on “who won.”

When you filter out the ideological biases and work out a mental average of all the things being said, the best response to the question seems to be that it was a tie.  In that case, Democrats are the losers because they came away with nothing more than they already had.  Republicans, who weren’t really the winners, at least didn’t make themselves look foolish and totally negative — they had valid ideas, and they managed to present them in the smaller amount of time given to them.

All that being said, a case can be made that the President — and, in a larger sense, the Executive Branch — was the winner.  Despite their knowing ahead of time that it was going to happen, he managed to treat all members of Congress at the summit like squabbling school children under the firm tutelage of a much wiser teacher.  He let his pets, the Democrats speak their minds, and he was quick to correct (even to put down) trouble-making Republicans when they expressed opinions different from his.

Dana Milbank, in his column in The Washington Post today, perhaps said it best:

An equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers assembled around a table at Blair House, and each had a chance to speak during the seven-hour televised talkathon. But members of the opposition party may not have fully understood that they were stepping into Prof. Obama’s classroom, and that they were to be treated like his undisciplined pupils.

Obama controlled the microphone and the clock, and he used both skillfully to limit the Republicans’ time, to rebut their arguments and to always have the last word. …

It’s a safe bet that no minds were changed in that room Thursday, and it’s not entirely clear that Obama was even trying to forge a compromise. Though advertised as a consensus-building opportunity, the summit served more as a moment for the president to tell Republicans, with the cameras rolling, why they’re wrong and he’s right.

The forum matched his lawyerly skills — and, less flatteringly, his tendency to act like the smartest guy in the room. Prof. Obama ventured deep into the weeds of health-care policy to contest Republican claims, and, for one day at least, he regained control of the fractious student body that is the Congress.

The 40 lawmakers and administration officials, seated in squeaky chairs around the square, were to speak only when called on. After each talked, Obama would determine whether the speaker’s point was a “legitimate argument.”

While each of them had to call him “Mr. President,” Obama, often waving an index finger, made sure to refer to each of them by their first name….  If somebody went on too long, Obama cautioned the lawmaker to be “more disciplined.”

So where are we now?  Right where we were before the health care summit, that’s where.  Democrats still disagree among themselves on key points in the three versions of their approach to health care reform, and they’re still threatening to use “reconciliation” to push it through the Senate.  Republicans still oppose all three versions of health care reform proposed by the Democrats, and they’re still pretty much locked out of the process.  It’s also unlikely that the public changed its mind after this dog-and-pony show — most oppose the Democrats’ plans.

In my mind, this was worse than just a ridiculous waste of time.  It represented an assault on the constitutional separation of powers — the President got away with treating Congress as a subordinate branch.  Neither Republicans nor Democrats should ever let that happen again.

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5 Responses to “Who Won at the Summit?”

  1. larry |


    The president had his much touted media event. How many people watched? I’ve not seen any figures but my feeling is that the audience was small. Nobody trust either side anymore. I watched because I’m disabled and had nothing better to occupy my time.

    I do not trust this administration or this president. I tend to believe that Obama is pushing for a new political ideology. The so-called Summit did underscore the fact that the president intends to have healthcare reform either by Constitutional methods or chicanery. It doesn’t matter how, just as long as he gets what he wants. Just one more burden for the taxpayers to deal with.

  2. Lisa |

    I viewed it as another example of poor leadership. Perhaps Professor Obama would be better off in the classroom as long as he is not in charge of the debate program.

  3. Brianna |

    Tom, you say that Obama won, but after reading Milbank’s column, I’d say that Obama lost, and badly. The American people respect intelligence, but they do not appreciate arrogance or condescension. Additionally, even the Republicans’ worst detractors were not able to deny that the Republicans had legitimate points.

    Everybody knew from the start that this was going to be nothing more than Obama collecting the necessary ammunition to say, “Well, I tried to talk to you and you didn’t listen, which makes our inability to compromise all your fault.” No amount of petty one-up lines on Obama’s part will be able to alter that.

  4. Tom |

    Brianna, I said that “a case can be made” that the President and the Executive Branch were the winners because he pretty much made the congressional leadership (both parties, really) look like subordinates. That’s not a positive win (if it’s a win at all) in my mind. I think we saw the constitutional concept of separation powers seriously stretched.

    Not that I blame the President, of course. If I’m in charge of something, I want to expand my power and influence if I can because it makes me capable of doing more without being second-guessed. That’s what the President did, among other things. The fault lies with Congress, again both parties, which richly deserves the disdain in which the country holds it.

  5. Tom |

    Politico has an excellent article reviewing where things stand in the aftermath of the health care summit, with an informative discussion of how complex and difficult it would be to try to pass a bill using reconciliation. It’s well worth reading. Here are a few excerpts:

    …a party [Democrats] looking to emerge from the summit with a clear sense of the path forward instead finds itself in the same old place — fighting the clock to finish health care, with an uncertain timeline, a complex legislative path and no idea whether its leaders can muster the votes. …

    …the truth is, the Democrats are no more certain of getting health care reform done after the summit than they were before. The seven-hour session did little to change the underlying dynamics of the debate. …

    Enter Obama, who talked in an emotional closing statement of giving Republicans a few weeks, a month, even six weeks to work with Democrats on a compromise. Democrats insisted he wasn’t being literal — but even if not, his comments threaten to push off a schedule that’s already going to be difficult to meet.

    Within minutes of Obama’s remarks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made clear that he didn’t envision extended negotiations with the Republicans. “That’s the president’s timeline, not mine,” Reid told POLITICO. …

    …For all of the talk of reconciliation as the solution, the process is far more complicated than anything the Democrats have attempted thus far to pass health care reform. And there are still divisions within the party about how lawmakers will make it work procedurally.

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