The President tried to apply his “beer summit” approach to health care and it very well may have backfired. The difference: This time, the participants were miked.
The beer summit was one of the most successful— indeed, one of the only successful — P.R. efforts of the Obama administration thus far. It was, maybe, too successful. Successes become a paradigm that we apply to situations that don’t match.
Remember the beer summit? Public outrage boiled for a week after Obama said on national TV that police in Cambridge, Mass., “acted stupidly” when they arrested a black professor, implying a racist motive. As details of the incident became clearer, the police were revealed to have acted a lot less stupidly than the Harvard professor in the incident had. So Obama sat down with the professor and his arresting officer, and the three of them drank beer together. The media was allowed to watch from a distance but not allowed to listen.
No real reconciliation happened. But the appearance of reconciliation was all that was needed to knock the negative story’s legs out from under it and spin it around into a positive.
The health care summit was supposed to work the same way.
“The point [of the summit] is to alter the political atmospherics,” a Democratic official told Politico.
The thinking was that it was too easy for Republicans to paint the Democrats and Obama as stubborn and unwilling to listen. So, they would listen to them, in public. Simply seeing the image of the meeting would have the Beer Summit Effect: The President would be transformed from out of touch to in touch, from ideologue to mediator, from aloof to engaged.
But then Democrats made the mistake of believing their own talking points. They have repeatedly painted Republicans as the “party of no” on health care, and figured, well, that’s what they must be. The summit (said that official to Politico) would “give a face to gridlock, in the form of House and Senate Republicans.”
The problem: The caricatured rich and uncaring Republican naysayers didn’t show up. Instead, concerned legislators who knew a lot about what they were talking about did.
Instead of cowering, the GOP is crowing about their success, releasing a list of media quotes:
Said Wolf Blitzer: “It looks like the Republicans certainly showed up ready to play.” (CNN’s “Live,” 2/25/10)
Said CNN’s Gloria Borger: “They came in with a plan. They mapped it out.” (CNN’s “Live,” 2/25/10)
Said David Gergen: “The folks in the White House just must be kicking themselves right now.” They thought [the summit] would revive health care and would change the public opinion about their health care bill and they can go on to victory. Just the opposite has happened.” (CNN’s “Live,” 2/25/10)
The Hill’s A.B. Stoddard: “Republicans brought their ‘A Team.’ They had doctors knowledgeable about the system, they brought substance to the table, and they, I thought, expressed interest in the reform”.” (Fox News’ “Live,” 2/25/10)
If the summit ultimately fails where the beer summit succeeded, Obama might want to blame Catholics: We taught him that image speaks louder than words, and we helped him forget that actions speak loudest of all.
Notre Dame was Obama’s original beer summit. The image of Obama at Notre Dame was a picture of the reasonable leader in the heart of Catholic America, and Catholics loved it. They responded to him at the university with adulation and to pollsters with approval.
Obama promised to reduce abortion and uphold the conscience clause for Catholic doctors who don’t support abortion, and Catholics applauded.
But Obama has spent the last several months energetically ripping both those promises into shreds and spit-balling them in Catholics’ faces, attempting to codify government-funded abortion mandates and end conscience rights not just for our time, but for generations to come. And the Catholic Church has responded by shutting down support for his version of health care reform, which it started out by promoting.
The irony is: If Obama had kept his promise to Catholics, his health care bill would probably have been passed by now. Another irony: If Obama had held a real health care summit a year ago, listened to what his opponents really said, and been willing to give ground as well as hold firm on some priorities, his approval numbers—and the bill’s—would probably be soaring right now instead of souring.
As Visa might say: An image may be worth a thousand words, but actions are priceless. Political gimmicks don’t work when everyone is watching, and keeping score.
Will it work this time, though? Will the Health Care Summit have a Beer Summit Effect? We’ll see. After all is said and done, a key lesson remains: Never underestimate Obama.