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Playing Nice

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, February 26, 2010

A funny thing didn't happen today. People were not plugged in to their televisions, computers or radios. Someone did stop me at lunch to ask what I was having (the chicken salad), but no one solicited the latest on what was going on in Washington. There was no buzz. Can we be frank? Nobody is watching.

The president said he found it productive, but maybe you just had to be there. Exciting television it isn't. Boring.

"It" is the much-touted summit on health care, the opportunity for the president and congressional Republicans to actually read their talking points directly to each other. Which they've been doing with great vigor.

The Democrats want to get the job done, or so they tell me in periodic updates from the summit. The Republicans, they claim, only want gridlock. Of course, this is not what the Republicans say. The Republican missives, like the speeches inside the room, are all about how the country doesn't want the Democratic plan, whatever it is, and how Republicans want to start again. Actually, they want to start again and not go very far; whereas, Democrats don't want to start again at all. As best as I can tell, all that's been agreed on today is to face the cameras when you speak.

The health care debate could be many things in this country, but boring is one of the few things it should never be. That today's summit is nothing if not boring is a reflection not on the inherent interestingness of the health care issue, but on the empty state of most politics. What do politicians do when they come together? Give boring speeches. Read talking points aloud. Ignore what the last person said and just read your own speech. It almost makes sense of the Democrats' backroom style.

Sadly, it is too late for anyone -- even the people in the room, much less those of us not watching -- to pretend that there is any real dialogue going on. We're not listening to each other. We're not acting in good faith. Democrats only want Republicans if they're willing to sign on to the bill (that they aren't willing to sign on to). Republicans only want Democrats if they're willing to give up on the bill (that they aren't willing to give up on). The public, wisely assessing the situation, isn't bothering to listen to either side. Why should they?

The Republicans don't want to hand Obama a victory -- especially a more modest one that they would have no choice but to support. How do you run against an administration and Congress that are, by your lights, actually doing the right thing? Talk about giving up your best issue.

The Democrats don't want to hand the Republicans in Congress a victory, either -- not as a party, anyway. Do they want to pass a Republican health care bill after all they've been through to try to get a Democratic one? I don't think so.

So if Democrats don't really want to pass a health care bill that more than one or two (if that) Republicans could support, and if Republicans don't really want to pass a health care bill that looks anything like the "Democratic version," why have a summit?

Why, indeed. The answer is simply that both parties want to look reasonable and forthcoming, when in truth, neither is. So they stretch out the olive branch -- and then cut it off in the same speech.

Maybe you just have to be there, as the president suggests. But I think I speak for most Americans when I say I'm just as glad I'm not.

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