White House strategy backfires as GOP rules the summit

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama attended a GOP retreat in Baltimore and engaged several Republicans in conversation about several issues. While the GOP didn't come off looking half as bad as the media reported, there is little doubt that the president was better prepared, more at ease, and gave the impression that he was in total control of the event.

By contrast, Republicans looked less prepared, more petulant, and less knowledgeable of the issues.

It is almost a certainty that the White House was going for a repeat performance at the health care summit yesterday. But the Republicans had learned their lessons. They came very prepared to argue with the Democrats on the substantive differences between them, and Leaders McConnell and Boehner did a great job in choosing an excellent team (for the most part) who ran rhetorical rings around the Democrats.

In contrast, it was the president's turn to look ill at ease - sometimes even contemptuous of his foes. And while the president once again had facts and figures at his fingertips, his team members were a disgrace. They substituted emotionalism for logic and reason by relating health insurance horror stories designed to make the GOP look like heartless monsters. That sort of thing might work in a campaign commercial, but when placed against the devastating comebacks offered by the Republicans, it sounded silly.

As we have seen at his now rare press conferences, the president appears to get angry when someone challenges him or corrects him on the facts. His dismissal of John McCain's reminders of his campaign pledge for openness and transparency, was typical. "The campaign is over," he sneered. McCain tried to lighten the barb by responding "I'm reminded of that every day." Obama gave McCain a baleful stare and arrogantly reproached him for his reliance on "talking points."

Indeed, the president could have criticized his own team for relying on fluff instead of substance. Rep. Paul Ryan absolutely took the president to school on how idiotic his statements about health insurance reform cutting the cost of health care truly are. Ryan's 6 minute dissertation on the budget and deficits might be a little too wonky for most, but there is little doubt that this fellow knows his stuff backwards and forwards.

In contrast, the Democrats threw out nonsensical figures like trying to pawn off as incontrovertible fact a Harvard study that shows 45,000 Americans a year die because they have no health care. They also threw around completely bogus numbers as far as how much the bill would cost. Nancy Pelosi even claimed that if passed, the bill would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. This despite the fact that most of the bill's provisions don't even kick in for 4 years.

The Washington Post's Michael Gerson comments on the "stature gap:"

There was a stature gap in the room, but not between Obama and the Republicans (as at the House Republican retreat). The stature gap was between Obama and his fellow Democrats. I would bet against any legislative team that includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who turned in a nasty, embarrassing performance.

Republicans accomplished two purposes. They made sophisticated arguments respectfully, in contrast to the tone of a radio rant or a tweet by Sarah Palin. And Republicans made clear that they have alternative health-reform ideas, undermining the accusation that they are merely the "party of no." They knew they were entering a trap and seemed prepared.

David Gergen , not always kind to the GOP, had glowing words for the Republican effort, calling it the GOP's "Best day in Years"

The folks in the White House just must be kicking themselves right now. They thought that coming out of Baltimore when the President went in and was mesmerizing and commanding in front of the House Republicans that he could do that again here today. That 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)

Other media reaction was also surprisingly positive for Republicans:

CNN's WOLF BLITZER: "It looks like the Republicans certainly showed up ready to play." (CNN's "Live," 2/25/10)

CNN's GLORIA BORGER: "The Republicans have been very effective today. They really did come to play. They were very smart." (CNN's "Live," 2/25/10)

• BORGER: "They took on the substance of a very complex issue. ... But they really stuck to the substance of this issue and tried to get to the heart of it and I think did a very good job." (CNN's "Live," 2/25/10)

• BORGER: "They came in with a plan. They mapped it out." (CNN's "Live," 2/25/10)

THE HILL'S A.B. STODDARD: "I think we need to start out by acknowledging 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. I thought in the lecture from Senator John McCain and on the issue of transparency, I thought today the Democrats were pretty much on their knees." (Fox News' "Live," 2/25/10)

THE WEEKLY STANDARD'S STEVE HAYES: "I think to me the most important thing to come out of the morning so far is that Republicans have spent a great deal of time talking with great passion, and I think eagerness about their plans, detailing the plans that until this morning them democrats had been saying didn't exist. Well, you now see, I think, in great detail that Republicans do have plans, that they care about the same issues and that they feel passionately about it." (Fox News' "Live," 2/25/10)

There is no doubt now -as if there were any before the summit - that the Democrats are going to try for reconciliation in the senate. The GOP will do everything in their power to stop it. There may even be some sympathy from a few senate Democrats like Byrd, Rockefeller, Feingold and a few others who have expressed the fear that the parliamentary maneuver could backfire if the GOP ever took control of the senate again. But when push comes to shove, they will probably side with Reid and vote for reform.

How many Democrats want to walk the plank and vote for this bill? Perhaps enough to defeat it even with reconciliation.