The Bigger Picture
Published on March 4th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Last month I wrote a column about President Obama’s solo trip to the “Lion’s Den” of his Republican opponents to engage them in an unscripted political debate the likes of which I have never seen before on national television. Well last week I got a chance to witness a similar nationally televised political debate involving President Obama and his Republican opponents just before I boarded my 5:20 pm flight back to Dublin via London’s Heathrow airport.
The occasion this time was a “healthcare summit” but this meeting was held on the President’s own White House turf instead of hotel conference room rented for the occasion by Congressional Republicans. As such the Republican lawmakers in attendance this time were the President’s invited “guests” and were forced to share some of their televised speaking time with a number of Congressional Democrats who the President had also invited to this meeting.
But unlike President Obama’s one man show last month, the healthcare summit meeting I witnessed was also much more formal and scripted political debate. As a consequence, many of the questions posed to the President by both Republicans and Democrats were actually just elaborate talking points carefully crafted by lawmakers to support their respective positions in the healthcare debate rather than real questions that attempted to find common ground with their political opponents. No wonder this meeting also ended up running an hour longer than expected.
I was disappointed by all of their political posturing, but I really can’t say I was surprised by it given the fact that the members of Congress in attendance had also known for two weeks that they would be posing their questions on national television. While a few Republicans and Democrats did offer some eloquent words in support of the President’s position that they had a responsibility to the American voters to work together to fix our nation’s troubled healthcare system, the reality was that most law makers showed little or no inclination to compromise.
There were also a few spontaneous outbursts as well as some rather heated exchanges between the President and some of his Republican adversaries that highlighted just how divided and partisan the US Congress has become over the past year. But as the moderator of this exchange of views and questions between Republicans and Democrats, President Obama repeatedly scolded members of both parties when they lapsed into election campaign speeches. In fact several times it appeared that the President was the only real “adult” in the room.
John McCain was a case in point when he rose to speak and immediately began needling the President for not keeping his campaign promise to allow all of the healthcare bill negotiations to be televised by C-Span. But when McCain continued along this track by then excoriating the President for allowing the Democrats to engage in “unsavory back room deals” to get their healthcare bill passed in the US Senate, the President decided enough was enough. Obama cut McCain off in mid-sentence telling him “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
Although I am an unabashed Obama supporter, I am also an American Republican who yearns for a return to the more civil and less partisan Congressional politics that characterized the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations in the last 20 years of the 20th century. I also know I am not alone in wishing for some semblance of political compromise on the important issues facing our nation because poll after poll shows that a large majority of American voters are also thoroughly disgusted with the kind of partisan politics they see on display in the US Congress.
Unfortunately many of those same Americans also blame the problems in Washington on members of Congress from other states. As for their own Senate and House members, most of these disgruntled voters believe they are doing a good job instead of being part of the problem. Therein lays the rub. How do you encourage lawmakers to cross party lines and work together on bi-partisan solutions if you reward those who don’t or won’t compromise by re-electing them?
I’m sorry but if disenchanted American voters ever want to see compromises forged that will address our nations many problems they are going to have to start the ball rolling and punish lawmakers from both parties who refuse to compromise by voting them out of office. They will also have to elect or re-elect those legislators who promise or have demonstrated a willingness to anger other members of the party by working on bi-partisan legislation.
President Obama may be the political leader of the world’s most powerful country but the truth is his own power as the US President to address the problems facing America are limited by what Congress agrees to do as regards his proposals. The issues the President is trying to address are complicated so much of his time was spent explaining to the viewing audience what his healthcare proposals actually were as opposed to what his opponents were saying they meant. He chided the Republicans in particular by sarcastically remarking that they were using “good poll-tested language” to describe his healthcare proposals as “government-run health care.”
But cognizant of his role as the moderator rather than the Democratic opponent of Congressional Republicans, Obama also repeatedly pointed to the specific areas of his healthcare proposals that many Republicans agreed with. Obama made a point of complimenting Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma for many of his healthcare suggestions and noted that although his healthcare proposal also included some of these he was open to including more.
Still at the end of the day the Republicans as a whole appeared to be no more willing to compromise after the seven hour session than they were beforehand. After a year of debate they came in demanding to start over from scratch and left demanding the same. So Obama closed the meeting by warning Republicans that he would move forward without them if they continued to refuse to compromise.