When a Summit's Not a Summit

Posted: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 1:34pm

This wasn’t exactly Reykjavik.

You have to go back to 1986 to recall that summit, which brought together Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Now there was a summit. First of all, there were two truly powerful old Cold Warriors, traveling thousands of miles to meet face to face. Then there was the element of surprise. Gorbachev startled the world by proposing the elimination of all intercontinental ballistic missiles, going against type and astonishing NATO at the same time.

Nevermind that the talks collapsed; this was rare. Most summits have been the result of painstaking diplomatic work done well in advance of the actual meeting itself – and behind closed doors. By the time the world leaders got to the table, they were fully prepared to sign off on a pre-digested document.

That was never going to happen at the Blair House health care “summit” this week. Each side came with wrenching personal stories from constituents but also entrenched political positions that left little room for candid exchange, let alone surprise agreement.

I’ve been in Washington a long time, but not long enough to have ever seen a surprise agreement arise out of highly orchestrated meetings like the one President Obama and Congressional leaders engaged in. Yet, as much as we bemoan such political standoffs, they do serve a certain purpose, and both sides had more in common than they were ever going to let on.

Set aside the debates over the public option, Medicare and abortion. What is really at stake in Washington these days is sheer survival. Democrats, including the President, are teetering out on the limb of promises made and not kept. Although they hold the majority in both chambers, they can scarcely agree among themselves about how much they should try to do about health reform, or what such a measure should contain.

Republicans are in agreement with each other -- that almost anything the Democrats propose is a bad idea. But they, too, are wary about how dramatically unpopular they have become with Americans who are struggling with joblessness and underwater mortgages.

So there was little left to achieve at the health care “summit” than what the President unsurprisingly called “political theater.” Even Rep. Joe Barton was moved to confess,“ never have so many members of the House and Senate behaved so well for so long before so many television cameras.

Still, don’t discount the power of political optics. Republican lawmakers were caught off guard when the President used the illusion of transparency against them by suggesting cameras record their meeting in Baltimore a few weeks ago. They were suspicious of the Blair House invitation all along, probably with good reason.

Democrats, too, seemed ready to throw in the towel before they arrived. During the lunch break, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin remarked to reporters engaged in a thankless search for genuine news: "Working with these people for a long time, I could give some of their speeches and they could give mine.”

But who knows? Maybe the transparently political meeting across the street from the White House will resume behind closed doors on neutral ground somewhere, with anonymous players and at least nominally bipartisan compromise.

But as long as more people stand to benefit from disagreement than common ground, I am keeping my betting coins in my pocket.