The Blair House Test

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Blair House Test

Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Obama's summit sets a precedent.

The summit at Blair House didn't get stellar reviews: bloggers found it boring, and the participants left with mostly the same views they held on arrival. Democrats intended the meeting to be a final gesture of bipartisanship--a recognition that the public yearned to see politicians working together--before using their majority to ram home the health-care bill. Republicans saw it as a chance to spread their talking point that it's time to "start over" and go "step by step." Real deal-cutting will continue to take place, as always, behind closed doors.

But a funny thing happened on the way back to the usual bickering. The wonky cable conclave became one of the most important events of the year old Obama presidency--and for reasons beyond its potential to advance landmark legislation. The leaders didn't actually accomplish anything, but they inadvertently created a new democratic institution. The face-off set a teleprompter-free precedent that will be tough for future presidents or members of Congress to break. Now the skills required to chair a bipartisan gathering, master complex policy details, and adeptly summarize relevant arguments will be added to those of anyone seeking the presidency. Being quick and cogent in response will be part of any calculation of who should be House speaker or majority or minority leader. Having experienced one of these summits, the press and public will demand more. So savor the good news for the future: smarter presidents, smarter leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Too Pollyannaish? Not if you take the long view. We imagine that traditions of democracy are permanent; they aren't. In the early republic, congressmen did most politicking in the Washington boardinghouses where they lived without their families. In the century between Jefferson and Wilson, presidents delivered State of the Union Messages in writing, not in person. Until FDR, most presidents insisted press questions be submitted beforehand, not asked orally.

Some Washington institutions change for the worse. Evan Bayh's retirement led forelock-tuggers to nod sagely that the Senate is broken. And it's true that many capital rituals have become little more than fodder for the latest hypocrisy. Some of the same Republicans who pushed through President Bush's trillion-dollar tax cuts in 2001 via reconciliation (51 votes) now scream about Democrats using the procedure for health care.

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