For Republicans, No Means No

If nothing else, Barack Obama is a glutton for punishment. Apparently confident in his ability to manhandle the Republican leadership in the wake of his televised beat-down of the House GOP caucus two weeks ago, Obama has invited McConnell, Boehner and company to the White House for a health care summit. But instead of applying a full-court press on recalcitrant members of his own party to finally pass a Democratic bill the country so badly needs, Obama will waste yet more time in his futile quest for bipartisanship.

After a year of unprecedented obstructionism by the Republican Party, it begs the question:

Mr. President, what part of "no" don't you understand?

Within days of Obama taking the oath of office, Clinton health care assassin Bill Kristol counseled his Republican colleagues to repeat their obstructionism at all costs. (Not, of course, because Democratic health reform plans might fail, as Orrin Hatch later admitted, but precisely because they might succeed.) Despite facing almost total GOP opposition to his economic stimulus plan, on health care President Obama reached out to mythical moderates like Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME). All voted against the Senate bill, including Snowe (who supported it in the Finance Committee) and Grassley (who was among those regurgitating the "pull the plug on grandma" fraud).

And the 220-215 margin in the House and the complete 60-39 Republican rejection in the Senate came despite, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported, "The six Republican ideas already in the health-care reform bill":

At this point, I don't think it's well understood how many of the GOP's central health-care policy ideas have already been included as compromises in the health-care bill. But one good way is to look at the GOP's "Solutions for America" homepage, which lays out its health-care plan in some detail. It has four planks. All of them -- yes, you read that right -- are in the Senate health-care bill.

On July 20, 2009, weeks before the August town hall disruptions and a full seven months before President Obama's proposed bipartisan health care conclave is to meet, Bill Kristol penned a memo telling Republicans to "Kill It, and Start Over." And for months, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, John Kyl, John Cornyn, John Boehner, Eric Cantor and myriad other Republican leaders have faithfully coughed up that same talking point. As Boehner reproduced it in September:

"It's really about the president pushing the reset button. There's a way to start this process over, and I think that's really what the American people want. Let's start over."

And as Eric Cantor and John Boehner made clear today in the responses to the President's invitation, that rejectionist position is still operative.

In a letter to Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Minority Leader Boehner wrote, "If the starting point for this meeting is the job-killing bills the American people have already soundly rejected, Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate." For Cantor, nothing short of unconditional surrender is acceptable:

After going it alone on health care reform for nearly a year, President Obama has decided he wants to bring Republicans into the conversation. Here's the problem: unless the President and Speaker Pelosi are willing to scrap their government take over and hit the reset button, there's not much to talk about.

Republicans believe the status quo is unacceptable, but so is any health reform package that spends money we don't have or raises taxes on small businesses and working families in a recession. To that point, House Republicans have offered the only plan, that will lower health care costs, which is what the President said was the goal at the start of this debate.

There are some who remain optimistic about the prospects for the February 25th gathering. Recalling Obama's on-air skewering of the House GOP on January 29th (one which Republicans called a "mistake" and a repeat of which NSRC chairman John Cornyn want to avoid at all costs), some of the President allies are confident of a repeat. The Washington Monthly's shrewd Steve Benen believes that the President will use the session to "give Democrats cover and put Republican intransigence on full display":

If the summit is really about striking a new compromise, this would seemingly be pointless. But if the summit is about delving into these plans, exploring what is and isn't in the proposal, and making it clear for all to see that Republican ideas have been considered -- and in several instances, embraced -- the gathering has the potential to change public attitudes and score a key public-relations victory.

Hopefully, Steve's right. But for President Obama to succeed in that task will take a combination of crystal clear messaging and a firm commitment on his part to policy specifics. Tragically, Obama has failed on both counts since the health care reform debate began.

Over a year ago in January 2009, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman warned President Obama about all-out Republican opposition to his economic recovery program. "Look, Republicans are not going to come on board," Krugman said, adding, "Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%." Which is exactly what transpired. And Obama, like Clinton before him, got zero GOP votes in the House.

Absolutely nothing's changed, except that the ranks of the 50 million uninsured, 25 million underinsured and those bankrupted by medical expenses continue to swell.

Mr. President, for Republicans, no means no. It's long past time you just said no, too.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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