WASHINGTON -- Lyndon Johnson must have been turning in his grave when President Obama held a meeting with key lawmakers to break the stalemate on his health care reform bill on national TV.
No one was a better practitioner of the art of arm-twisting, deal-cutting and horse-trading behind closed doors than LBJ. The former president and legendary Senate majority leader, who enacted Medicare and a slew of Great Society anti-poverty legislation (that failed to alleviate poverty), would have had some salty, expletive-filled things to say about Obama's TV summit being a waste of time. And that's what it turned out to be.
Effective, hands-on deal making is something Obama has never done, even during his brief time in the Senate when he showed little aptitude for legislative leadership.
Did he really think that throwing political jabs at Republican leaders on TV would win support for his massive, $1 trillion health care overhaul? "I don't need a poll to know that most of Republican voters are opposed to this bill," he said at one point in the discussion. But polls show his health care plan is at death's door because it is opposed by independents, too. Is he aware of this?
Of course, Democratic leaders never expected anything to come from the summit. They were already scheming to use the Senate's arcane reconciliation rules to ram their bill through Congress, despite polls showing as many as 60 percent of Americans are opposed to its enactment.
Shortly before the summit, Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, one of the architects of the original Senate bill, said at a rally, "We'll have that meeting ... but far more important, after that meeting, you can either join us or get out of the way." So much for bipartisan compromise.
The nightly network news shows, in their shallow, short-hand way, have reduced the reconciliation process to a simple, up or down majority vote in the Senate, instead of the 60-vote supermajority needed to break a Republican filibuster.
But the process is far more complicated, time-consuming and disjointed than that, and fraught with political peril for many vulnerable Democratic incumbents who face strong Republican challengers in November.
The reconciliation rules, which are primarily used to deal with budget and deficit-cutting proposals, were not meant for complicated policy-making that can wreak havoc on America's private health care system.