Things could surely change this afternoon, but so far it is hard to see how the Democrats are doing themselves anything but harm with the health-care summit.
Beyond particular observations about individual exchanges or moments I would say the morning’s session suggests three broad points. First, the Democrats appear to have no particular purpose in mind for this event. They’re not driving anywhere, or making a clear individual case, while Republicans clearly want to get across the point that we should scrap the current bills and start over in pursuit of a few incremental steps. The Democrats may have thought that simply putting the spotlight on Republicans when the subject is health care would make the GOP look bad. But Republicans so far seem prepared enough and focused enough to avoid that, and to make the Democrats look rather aimless by comparison.
Second, the Democrats are going to great lengths to argue that their bill incorporates some Republican ideas—by which they mean that it includes insurance exchanges and the like—suggesting that this means they are moving in the direction of Republicans and toward some middle ground. They fail to see (or to acknowledge) that while some similar mechanisms may be proposed by wonks on both sides, Republicans and Democrats in fact want to move in nearly opposite directions from our current health-care arrangements: Republicans toward a genuine individual market and Democrats toward a greater socialization of costs. That makes a great deal of what Obama and the Democrats said this morning basically meaningless. (This is a point I tried to argue more fully in this space a while back.)
Third, an important part of the Democrats’ problem is that Obama himself is their only star, and this format is not working for him. He certainly seems engaged and well informed (even given a few misstatements of fact, at least one of which John Kyl made very clear.) But he doesn’t seem like the President of the United States—more like a slightly cranky committee chairman or a patronizing professor who thinks that saying something is “a legitimate argument” is a way to avoid having an argument. He is diminished by the circumstances, he’s cranky and prickly when challenged, and he’s got no one to help him. The other Democrats around the table have been worse than unimpressive. The Republicans seem genuinely well-prepared, seem to have thought through the question of who should speak about what rather carefully, and several of them have done quite a good job making their case against the Democrats’ approach. If we were to judge by debating points, Republicans certainly won the morning handily.
It’s easy to dismiss all this by saying no one is watching anyway, but that’s not quite true. The purpose of this spectacle is not so much to move the public as to move Democratic members of Congress—to create some momentum that might last long enough to help wavering Democrats cast a very painful vote. That audience very likely is watching, and they are seeing their leadership fail to make a straightforward case for the Democratic approach to health care, or to respond to the most basic Republican objections about high costs, excessive spending, overregulation, and the effect of this plan on American families. They are managing to lose an argument about health care to Republican members of Congress—no mean feat.