I know people have said the health care summit came and went with scant notice – that it was either a naïve or cynical political move. But we should look again. There’s genuine potential in holding a series of summits that the Obama Administration should seize. It would be good politics; even more, a real contribution for the country. Before you dismiss me out of hand, please read on.
At the moment, our politics are a mess. Battles between Democrats and Republicans are at fever pitch. There seem to be new scandals revealed each day. The name of the game is to corner your opponent and do as much damage as possible. The dominant frame of reference is now the mid-term congressional elections – not taking substantive action on major issues.
Ordinarily, I have pooh-poohed efforts like one-day summits. What in God’s name could ever be accomplished? But these are no ordinary times. The demonization of opponents without any accountability for what one says leaves the political process left hostage to those who are willing to impose the most damage. We are seeing those at the fringes of politics – here in Washington, D.C and throughout the land – grab the microphone and dominate public discourse.
I watched almost all the health care summit. A few of things stood out for me. First, there actually was something resembling a conversation at times. Second, the conversation often focused on real issues and underlying values. Third, there were healthy differences, but also important places of agreement for moving ahead.
And yet, when the summit ended, and I watched CNN and other news outlets, it was amazing to see that they framed nearly all their coverage in terms of the differences and tantalizing sound bites. Their coverage followed true to form, and did little to reflect what I had just witnessed.
But the lack of political progress and the lousy media coverage shouldn’t dictate our next steps; in fact, they should embolden us to move ahead. The fact that Democrats and Republicans at the summit demonstrated they could engage should give us some modicum of hope. For much of the summit, most these leaders were able to lift themselves out of their normal tit-for-tat. Among Republicans, I was particularly impressed by Senators Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, and Tom Coburn and Representative Paul Ryan. There are reasonable people on the other side of the aisle The White House can work with.
Which leads me to this proposal: the president should convene summits on a host of key issues. The metric here is not whether we see new legislation produced; of course, that would be good. But first think of these summits as a crowbar, or lever, used to pry open space for reasonable public discourse we sorely need. Think of them as a disruption to shake up the status quo to get us out of our negative default mode. Think of them as a way to defuse the tension in the political system and to force leaders to sit at the same table rubbing elbows. Think of them as a way to show that having real differences – on priorities, values, and ideas – is not something to avoid but to see as just part of reality.
We desperately need to change up the rules of the game. That’s one of the main themes President Obama ran on. Politicians will engage differently when they realize that’s the only way to get a seat at the table. The message needs to be clear: you can stand on the sidelines and be acrimonious and divisiveness all you want, but it won’t get you in the room.
Finally, this process must be public so that people across the country can see their leaders and how they engage. When some of the leaders at the health care summit wouldn’t move off the political talking points, they looked silly. Let’s shine a bright line on them for all to see.
Of course, the health care summit came too late in the larger political process to allow for any changes in health care reform. OK, that was a mistake. But we shouldn’t make the lesson we learn that the summit held no value. Or that it holds little potential for the future.