Health Care Summit - Do or Die

Lots of people are saying the televised health care summit on Thursday will be all show and no substance. While the meeting itself may produce little, the nation is at a critical inflection point. There’s a way out of the current gridlock and acrimony, but it will take real courage and humility by President Obama and congressional leaders to make progress. Here’s how to start.

It’s safe to say that public discourse on health care has reached an impasse. No one is budging. That shouldn’t be a surprise given that the nation itself is at a classic impasse stage. People of all political persuasions said in the last election, “Enough is enough!” in terms of the nation’s silly and vacuous politics; but all agreement ends there. It’s a mistake to confuse people’s desire to change politics and public life with common ground on how to move forward on major issues. In this situation, the more one pushes, the more people dig in.

At issue is how best to move ahead. One critical piece of the answer is how we choose to think about the health care debate. If this is only about “fixing” health care – however one chooses to define that – we all lose. Under that scenario, the President and Democrats will keep pushing for comprehensive reform, and the Republicans will keep calling to scrap everything and start all over. The Democrats may win through some back-door reconciliation process, but that will cause even more damage to our public affairs.

We have a choice to put the nation on a different trajectory, and not just on health care, but overall, where real public discourse and problem-solving can occur. But here’s what it will take:

1. We must recognize that the health care debate is as much about re-setting the conditions of politics and public life as it is about health care itself. Efforts to build confidence and trust are pivotal for near- and long-term change.

2. At an impasse stage, what people want most is to know that we’re moving in the right direction, and that they can trust whatever action has been taken. Thus, what’s most important is that the President and congressional leaders agree on a package that is doable and real. Most people will neither support nor trust large-scale change.3. It’s imperative to reach across the aisle. For those who say that’s impossible, I merely point to yesterday for evidence, when five Senate Republicans joined with Democrats on a new jobs bill. But be clear: let’s not do bipartisanship window dressing; the actions need to be tough-minded and real.4. Upon agreement, the President and congress should immediately announce the next important issue they will address. They should choose an issue where progress is possible. Remember, setting a new trajectory is essential here.

So, much of this discussion comes down to how one thinks change comes about on an issue, our willingness to see and hear all people, and the urgent need to put the nation on a different course.

To make progress, we will need to summon the humility to understand that we are working in a greater arc of history and that we must shape our actions to the moment. We must not over-reach and over-promise, and thus end up with nothing. That said, we must also have the courage to answer the call to alter the very trajectory of politics and public life – to step forward and put us on a different path, one that is truly more authentic and hopeful.

The health care debate provides this opportunity. We should seize the moment.