Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Am I Going to Watch the Health Care Summit?

In short: No.

And why not? I won't watch, because my sense is that the incentives for cooperating or not cooperating in discussion are more or less transparent for both the President and Congressional Republicans, such that watching would yield no new, relevant, or interesting information to me about the process of health reform. To illustrate, what follows is an account of how I think things will go down.

How I Think Things Will Go Down

There are several of moving parts to this reasoning, so I'll try to handle things in a stepwise fashion. To begin, let's lay out some terminology. Call Republican grandstanding and parroting their current talking points "Heckling" and call Republicans who do this "Hecklers." Call the President calling out the Hecklers' Heckling "Silencing the Hecklers" or some derivation thereof.

Step 1
I don't think that the Republicans will be able to have something that does not look like a productive discussion, since the threat of being Silenced by the President on national television ought to deter most Hecklers, and since the President will quite simply Silence any Heckler undeterred by the threat.

Step 2
Then, the President will tout which Republican ideas are already in the bill and lay out some new (though probably unexpected ones) that he's willing to compromise on.

Step 3
Then, one of three things will happen: (A) Republicans won't know how to respond to the President's charity in Step 2, and will look like morons in their attempt; (B) The Republicans will just keep Heckling, in which case, see Step 1; or (C) the Republicans respond amiably and the conversation is productive. One notes that, for (A), (B), or (C) the President comes off looking like the hero. And even if the Republicans refuse to converse cooperatively, the President looks great too, because, hey, at least he tried, right? So, either way, the Republicans look bad on this, and the President looks good.

Step 4
But just because the President looks good at the discussion does not mean that he'll win the spin game afterward. One can imagine a scenario (i), in which he does win the spin game, since he'll have so many positive clips from the discussion. But scenario (ii) is possible, as well, and in this one, the Republicans are able to manipulate the spin such that the President gains no significant advantage from having triumphed in the discussion.

The Analysis

Notice, though, that none of these steps ought to provide sufficient motivation to watch the discussion. Consider the following

For Step 1, I don't know about you, but I've already had my fill of watching the President Silence his Hecklers, so the possibility of witnessing the undeterred Heckler being Silenced by the President doesn't have a lot of pull.
For Step 2, I can read a more comprehensive discussion of the President's additional compromises in Friday's New York Times, or wherever, than whatever the President will give on Thursday, so hearing a rough version Thursday when I can read a better version Friday is hardly motivation to tune in Thursday
For Step 3, the motivation provided by (A) and (B) are the same as for Step 1; hence, no motivation to watch. (C), I'll admit, could turn out to be motivating.

For Step 4, while interesting, this is entirely about the post-game spin, much of which will take place on Friday, since the discussion happens in the evening on Thursday. Thus, since only the post-game spin is (mildly) interesting, I have no real motivation to watch the game itself.
All of that said, this analysis comes up short on one key concern that I have. Briefly, it's that some Republican strategists surely know better about these things than I know. So, just as surely, they've anticipated something like the predictions I provided--the conclusion of each scenario being: Republicans lose. But one would expect that their knowledge that they will lose under any analysis like the one I've given would have provided sufficient motivation for Republicans not to enter into the debate. It would have, anyway, if the Republicans who knew better didn't have some trick up their sleeve that they thought could derail the likely outcome of the discussion. Call this possibility Step 3 (D), in which Republicans throw some unexpected curve ball at the President and end up running away with the coverage.

The possibility of (D) speaks in favor, I think, of watching the discussion. So does (C). But for the latter, given the intransigence of Republicans throughout the entire health care reform debate, I don't see how this discussion would motivate them in any greater degree to cooperate than had any other previous discussion. This seems especially reasonable, given that their incentive to participate in this discussion was surely lower than the incentive not to participate, if the likely consequence of participating was cooperation and the eventual passage of health care reform, and the likely consequence of not participating was a week or so of bad coverage of Republican unwillingness to cooperate.

Now, those incentives shift significantly if Republicans are highly confident that their wild card in (D) will overcome the President's intellect and rhetorical skill. And they must be, for why else would they concede to having the discussion in the first place, if they weren't confident that they could beat the President? I don't think that they would.

But even with Republican confidence in their wild card, is the likelihood of (D) so great that I should spend my time watching the discussion, waiting for (D) rather than doing whatever else I was going to do? I think not. Here's why. The likelihood of (D) isn't dependent uniquely on the Republicans confidence in (D); in fact, it's not dependent on their confidence at all. The likelihood of (D) is dependent on the President's inability to overcome (D)'s wild card, and that inability is, itself, dependent both upon all of the President's men not having anticipated (D)'s wild card in advance, and upon the President not being able to skillfully handle the wild card when it arises. In short, the likelihood of (D) depends upon the President being less intelligent and talented than Congressional Republicans. And since I think that this is very unlikely, I have little confidence in the likelihood of (D), and thus have little motivation to watch the discussion.



  1. Now, why would anyone watch boring old politics when the Olympics are on?

  2. "Olympic" is a much less impressive sounding word if you imagine that it's of Norwegian origin.

    But as for health care reform, it turns out that my very first assumption was false: apparently, congressional Republicans can heckle to high heaven, because no matter the President's response, the heckling will be treated by the media as a reasonable response to the President's willingness to compromise--an outcome that is, in a word, nauseating.

    Assuming that the President and his peeps (er...) are smarter than anyone else in the game, I'm inclined to conclude that his new conciliatory attitude is more of a facade than he'd have us (and the media) believe. That is, if the President is smarter than others playing the game, then he already knows either that Republicans will not compromise regardless of the Democratic appeasement or that that enough appeasement will, finally, bring Republicans to the table in earnest. If he thinks that the Republicans won't compromise, and they don't, then each of his appeasement measures is nothing more than a (sort of) subtle push to move the American people in the direction of anger toward Republican intransigence. If he thinks that they will compromise, and they do, then he looks like the great mediator, and anger at Democratic incompetence decreases (slightly).

    Of course, the first option is preferable to Republicans, as its positive outcome for Democrats is far less likely than that in the second. That is, just because the President is pushing the American people toward anger at Republican intransigence doesn't mean that the American people will be pushed there--especially with the democratizing power of the media; that is, the media's ability to treat all political opinions as being created equal, thus politically legitimizing what is ultimately Conservative insanity.

    I'm sick of posting about this, because it's so infuriating, but a cooler--and less involved--head than mine might do well to offer his (or her) own thoughts on the topic.

    Or else.