The political world watched the proceedings at Blair House looking for theatre: instead, a policy fight broke out. This time, both sides came armored, and there was no referee. It was a wash -- and the tie goes to the Republicans.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The key question on the table was not whether Democrats and Republicans could come up with ways to compromise; it was whether the White House could move public opinion in a way that helps Nancy Pelosi get the votes she needs to pass the Senate bill in the House. That's unlikely.
Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two, even made a point of hinting to reporters midway through that the Senate was ready to pass health care legislation under reconciliation rules, which avoids the 60-vote threshold.
Indeed, Republicans were successful when the focus of the debate was on process -- the details of the deals that Democrats and the White House struck with key states and the (seeming) lack of transparency. The Democrats have an answer to this: if you want to find a pure debate on a pure bill, you'll have to look to…another universe entirely, because this is how legislation gets done.
But the Democratic answer is callous, and Republicans know it: this debate is not about a weapons system, it's about a fifth of our economy, it's about life and death -- and deals that take health care goods from one state and transfer them to another just don't play.
Of course, Republicans have been just as callous: their bill doesn't really expand coverage and rests on questionable policy premises, something that the president -- probably really the smartest guy in the room -- was at ease to point out, repeatedly. (Dozens of good Republican ideas were adopted by the Senate and the President; the thrust of both bills -- a market-based insurance exchange -- is a conservative idea).
All the Democrats asked for, really, is more money to pay for people who can't afford insurance and a rebalancing of the rules on insurance companies. Once the bill became political poison (thanks to Republican demagoguery and Democratic errors), not a single Republican could resist the political temptation to kill it.
For a year, Democrats have been on the defensive about their health care proposals. Republicans have been generally dishonest about them -- the Congressional Budget Office, for example, predicts higher premiums for a small fraction of folks who will get better insurance plans. To the extent that the president kept returning the focus to substance, it was to defend, rather to press the fundamental case for health care reform.
He did a good job of it -- much better than the Majority Leader, Harry Reid, whose presence was mandatory but whose contribution, at least from the standpoint of Democrats, was minimal. (To a person, every Democrat I've e-mailed or talk to about the summit replied to my 'how'd it go' question with a variant of: "More Obama, Less Reid.")
What now? Democrats have a month to figure this out. ("Baby steps don't get you where you're going," the president said. He's not going to start over.) Now, at least, there is no illusion about where the President stands, and what he wants. There is no illusion about whether Republicans will support the bill. There is no illusion about the scope of the changes Democrats want to make.
Here's a way to think about the future: does the fact that it appeared, at times, as if the Democrats and Republicans DID agree -- or were closer to an agreement -- than they really are benefit the Democrats or Republicans? Does it give Democrats in the House enough cover?
More Coverage of the Health Care Summit:
Live Blog: Hotsheet Tracked the Whole Summit Point by Counterpoint
Marc Ambinder: The Summit was a Tie -- And That's Good News for GOP
Reaction and Analysis on Washington Unplugged
Fact Check: The Health Care Summit
Obama Urges Republicans to Do Some "Soul Searching"
Obama: Americans Aren't "Sultans" Who Can Afford Great Health Coverage
Few Women at Health Care Summit
Obama to McCain: "The Election's Over"
All Coverage of the Summit
The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.