Martin Schram: The President Barack Obama we saw at the numerically bipartisan health-care reform summit last week was our familiar Professor-in-Chief: Always sounding smart. Always looking smooth. Seemingly unaware that he can't just glide out of gridlock. And that he still isn't the president he'd promised us he'd be.
As the Republicans filed into Blair House to begin President Barack Obama's numerically bipartisan health-care reform summit last week, this was their secret worst nightmare:
Obama and his advisers would have realized there was something the president could say at the summit's start that would knock Republican leaders off their game plan and put them instantly on the defensive. A bold way to shake everything up, based on telling the truth -- not about the other side, but his own side. A grand stroke that would show Americans he finally was ready to be the president of "change" he'd promised us.
Frankly, before the summit, I didn't know anything about what the Republicans were thinking, let alone fearing. But I did know what Obama needed to do if he had a chance of breaking the gridlock-as-usual on health-care reform. I'd even roughed out some talking points of what Obama should have said:
"We won't succeed if we continue to talk about how the other side has failed. But we just might have a chance if we talk instead about how our own side has failed -- and have the courage to propose solutions to finally fix our own failings.
"I'll go first. I promised to be a president who would give Americans 'change you can believe in' -- but frankly I failed at that in health-care reform. I permitted the same-old, same-old Washington process to continue -- and it produced deals and favors to gain votes. Truth is, we've all continued to cater to special interests that contribute huge amounts of money to our campaigns. So today I'm proposing that each side just say no -- for once -- to its own special-interest bankrollers.
"We Democrats get millions of dollars from the trial lawyers, who oppose Republican tort reforms aimed at reducing medical malpractice suits and costly awards that keep malpractice insurance premiums high. Those costs are initially paid by doctors and hospitals, but ultimately they are passed along to all of us. Most importantly, they cause doctors and hospitals to practice defensively by ordering costly tests they know are medically unnecessary -- just to cover their backsides.
"Today, I am proposing to create a new system of medical malpractice adjudication --a special court in which panels of lawyers, doctors and hospital officials will initially review all medical malpractice cases. The panels will quickly weed out the numerous frivolous cases, and issue non-binding arbitration decisions on the others. Patients have the right to accept the verdict or they can file a lawsuit in our regular court system. This will significantly reduce malpractice insurance premiums and defensive-medicine lab tests.
"Now I will invite Republican leaders to follow my lead: Identify a special interest that bankrolls your party -- and just say 'no' on behalf of the people's overriding interest. Hopefully, a plan to prevent insurance companies from dropping coverage of people due to pre-existing conditions or because they lost their jobs. Who'd like to go next?"
Unfortunately, none of the above happened. Instead, the summit treated America to the same-old partisan droning, performed politely, but still producing nothing.
Hours later, I shared my notion of what Obama should have said with a source close to Republican leaders. He paused, then surprised me: "That's exactly what the Republicans were afraid he'd do." For days, this source had helped Republicans devise a summit strategy -- and they had been worried Obama would seek to jumpstart the stalled health-care reform, and his own image -- with the bold idea of openly opposing trial lawyers on tort reform and then asking the GOP to do something equally bold. Republicans had no politically surefire response.
They never needed one. To their great relief, the Republican leaders discovered they were not facing a newly formidable Born-Again Populist or a Change-You-Can-Believe-In President.
Their Blair House host was once again our now familiar Professor-in-Chief. Always sounding smart. Always looking smooth. Seemingly unaware that he can't just glide out of gridlock. And that he still isn't the president he'd promised us he'd be.