On the John: If this isn’t bi-partisan, what is?

President Obama and Senator McCain

On the John

If this isn’t bi-partisan, what is?

Originally completed March 2, 2010

Nearly a week later, and I am still tickled by the best part of last Thursday’s health care summit.

It came after three hours of discussion, an hour lunch break, and an hour more. Talk had moved to Medicare Advantage, with President Obama arguing why his administration favors cutting Plan C to help fund a broader health care plan.

John McCain then asked to make a follow-up comment:

“Why in the world would we carve out 800,000 people in Florida that would not have their Medicare Advantage cut?” he said, referencing Senator Bill Nelson’s amendment to maintain Plan C for certain Florida seniors. “Everybody should be treated the same. Mr. President, why should we carve out 800,000 people because they live in Florida,” Obama seen nodding, “to keep the Medicare Advantage program and then want to do away with it?”

“I think you make a legitimate point,” Obama said.

McCain was not expecting that. A rebuttal, certainly, or a scoff from the president and a request to “move on to other business” perhaps. But not polite agreement. The old senator stammered for a moment, beginning what looked like his auto-counterargument: “Well…eh…maybe…”

Obama continued: “I think you do.

“Thank you very much,” McCain said, and he turned off his microphone.

This exchange prompted a free-spirited laugh enjoyed by every person in the room, and why not? We were all in the joke, even us regular folk back home watching on CSPAN or free on youtube. The punchline? They held their punches.

Naturally, this back-and-forth came three hours after the blood-loving public had been handed the juiciest of sound bites, an annoyed Obama telling an out-for-a-fight McCain that, “we’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.” McCain followed up with a nervously jovial, “I’m reminded of that everyday,” and boom! The folks who like it lazy had their lazy angle.

It was this exchange that caught on with bloggers, columnists, youtubers, and newscasters, but it was the courteous one a few hours later that, hopefully, marks the future of political discourse.

In his opening remarks, President Obama stated his hope that the summit would be more than “political theatre.” Was it “more than” political theatre? It was political, and there was an audience, and that by definition makes it political theatre. Because anything a politician does while running for office, (and politicians are always running for office), figures into the political scorecard.

Assuming for a moment that there exists in this world a public servant truly wishing to serve the public, how could he prove it to us, or to his colleagues? When a president conducts meetings “behind closed doors,” he is accused of unsavory deal-making. When he suggests a bi-partisan meeting of the minds broadcast live on both television and the internet to discuss one of the greatest problems facing his governing body, he is accused of political theatre.

Meanwhile, Republicans took heat for using Obama’s 2700 page bill as a “prop for the cameras.” But let’s flip that, and ask: how could they not? When I go to a meeting, I bring the materials that we are discussing. And if the materials were large enough to use comfortably as arm rests, and if my relationship with the other people at the meeting was naturally antagonistic, and if cameras were present, then yeah, I’d probably look like an asshole as well.

And then the cameras flick off and we start asking each other, “Who won the summit?” Did the Republicans win by holding firm in their demands? Did Obama win because he can now say, “I tried to be bi-partisan. You all saw it,” and point to the “failed” summit to justify using reconciliation to push his bill through Congress?

Even “the American people” – as we are so often coined – have taken to this debate over perceived winners and losers. And we need to back off. Everyone does.

13 months and counting, and to be honest, I’m still not sure if Barack is on the level. His language and action concerning Afghanistan seems entirely Bushian, his enthusiasm for “the right war” just as sickening as the last guy and all the guys before.

But can you imagine George W. having the sack or the nuance to discuss a subject as dense and vital as health care in front of a national audience for six and a half hours? And does someone who is “just a politician” expose himself to such a political “loss” especially when the “victory” (leaving the summit with an agreed-upon plan) is so unlikely?

I don’t care for everything Obama has done in office, nor will I care for everything the next man (or woman) puts forth. But hell, even if it weren’t the president saying so, why not strive for respect and trust just for the heck of it? Especially as citizens dealing with each other, we have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by sticking to our guns and maintaining our cynicism. And then you say, “I think you make a legitimate point.”

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein


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