Politico dutifully passes on the village CW:
Seven thick hours of substantive policy discussion, preening and low-grade political clashes had Hill staffers nodding at their desks, policy mavens buzzing — and participants declaring the marathon C-SPAN-broadcast session a draw.
But in this case, the tie goes to Republicans, according to operatives on both sides of the aisle — because the stakes were so much higher for Democrats trying to build their case for ramming reform through using a 51-vote reconciliation tactic.
“I think it was a draw, which was a Republican win,” said Democratic political consultant Dan Gerstein. “The Republican tone was just right: a respectful, substantive disagreement, very disciplined and consistent in their message.”
The White House and Hill Democrats had hoped congressional Republicans would prove themselves to be unruly, unreasonable and incapable of a serious policy discussion — “the face of gridlock,” as one Democrat put it hours before the summit.
That didn’t happen Thursday. In the 72 hours leading up to the encounter, Republicans drove a hard bargain with the White House over the seating arrangement — securing a massive square table that put them on a visual par with the president — to underscore their parity and seriousness. The move, ridiculed by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at the time, paid off.
Obama wasn’t able to dominate them like he did last month during an encounter with House Republicans in Baltimore, when he delivered zingers high above the GOP from a conference room podium.
All of this makes it tougher — though not impossible — for Democrats to make the case that they need to abandon talks with the GOP and immediately proceed with a plan to ram health reform through the Senate using a 50-vote reconciliation tactic.
That's a shame. Many of the Republicans were disingenuous and mendacious throughout the meeting, and even when they were being sincere they were espousing ridiculous policy fantasies. But as usual optics rule all.
Unfortunately, the Democrats failed to use the optics to their advantage by playing against type as the other side did. Republicans needed to appear to be cooperative technocrats yesterday in order to counter their image as the party of crazy and the party of no. The technocratic Democrats needed to connect as human beings and make an impassioned moral case (which some, including the president, did sporadically but without consistency.) In the end both parties ended up sounding like technocrats with some competing ideas of equal value. That's not good.
Democrats have been far too reliant on our president's intelligence and speaking skills to magically transform the political dynamic. His mastery of the details of the job is impressive and after our last goofball it's a relief. But Obama's best moments yesterday were when he challenged Republicans on their lofty assumptions about what people can afford --- he repeatedly asked these Representatives and senators to imagine what it's like to met these expenses if you make 40k a year. It was a nice populist moment for the president, speaking on behalf of the average folks and it put the Republicans off balance.
Certainly debating is part of the job, and he's good at it. But I suspect that what people need from the president and the Democrats right now is a sense that they understand the urgency of their problems, not the details of how they're going to fix them. I recall Clinton relating a story during his "laser beam" interview right after he was elected that I always thought was clever. He said he'd understood that he had to act quickly when he saw a man standing beside the road with a sign that said "For god's sake just do something." That's effective stuff.
I hope that this summit is soon forgotten and they move to the next phase quickly. And I also hope the Democrats let go of the idea that this is a good way to deal with the Republicans. They are a lot slicker than the White House gives them credit for and it's never a good idea to give them a forum in which to appear as if they are operating in good faith. They are not, and it does the country no good to help them pretend otherwise.