For all the angst and anger, and after all the billable hours and airtime, President Obama's health care summit comes down to this: moving the polls just enough to make a difference.
That's what the White House hopes to gain, and what the Republican opposition fears. It's why the Blair House event is happening and why the GOP did not feel it could pull a boycott.
Right now, the consensus of polling finds the legislation mired at less than 40 percent approval. And as long as that number is "under water," it's too large a lift for nervous Democrats and too fat a target for triumphant Republicans.
So getting something done depends on making that something at least a little more popular than what Congress coughed up in 2009. Gaining even a handful of percentage points in the polls, say 5 to 10, is crucial to prospects for a bill this year.
And gaudy double-digit increases in private health insurance premiums, like the 39-percent boost announced by Anthem Blue Cross in California, give the overhaulers a fresh way to press their case.
How The Majority Lost Its Mojo
At a minimum, the president wants to get back some of his bipartisan cred, tagging the Republicans as the partner less willing to tango. The public tells pollsters it wants the parties to work together, and both are loath to disrespect that desire.
So that's a good place to start. Ergo the summit, and ergo the presence of all those Republicans checking their watches.
But grabbing the bipartisan ring is not the biggest motive here. The White House is worried about polling on the bill itself — or more precisely, the polling on people's notions of the bill.
With all the Democrats' difficulties — their own lack of discipline, their opposition's rigorous unity and the Senate's tendency to empower an organized minority — the biggest hurdle of all has been the troubled public image of the legislation itself. Every time the president gave a speech and got people thinking they wanted his big overhaul to happen, the next story people read made them wonder: Is this really good for me? What are these people in Washington up to?
The balance tipped perilously when the Democrats chose to isolate the balky Republicans with a 60-vote strategy. The idea was that 58 Democrats and two independents could stand together and take away the filibuster weapon. That strategy came to an end with the election of another Republican in Massachusetts, but "having 60 votes" had already proved to be a poisoned chalice.
In pursuit of the 60-vote mirage, Democratic Leader Harry Reid found himself over a barrel every time one of his supposed 60 went rogue. And that's what they did, one after another, cutting special deals for the benefit of their states, for their favored constituencies and for their own personal standing back home.
That not only robbed the majority of its mojo, it made an increasingly ugly spectacle of the process and left the bill looking like a pastiche of special deals.
No wonder, then, that even those people who tell pollsters they want to cover the uninsured, accept the individual mandate and even support the public option to private health insurance wind up opposing the bill that's supposed to do all the above.
Polls And The Will Of The People
Polls such as the latest by ABC News and The Washington Post have found solid majorities favoring the major elements of the legislation, yet still unenthused about the whole. The bill has become something other than the sum of its parts. It is the sum of its flaws, or in some cases, the sum of the slurs against it.
Such polls have been a tremendous boon to the Republicans, who oppose the component parts as well as the bill overall. The best argument they can muster has been the same since the Senate floor debate in December. In the oft-repeated phrase of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, "The American people have already rejected these bills."
If you are the minority in Congress, facing a majority that has nearly 60 percent of the seats in both chambers, it is enormously helpful to be able to invoke the will of the people and point to polls that back you up.
Conversely, for a Democratic president and Democratic leaders in Congress, economic policy is supposed to be about pushing solutions that benefit the broad base of society. If that base is not convinced the solution is in their interest, the accusations of elitism will stick and sting.
That is why no bill that the White House and Democratic leaders fashion will be able to count on even bare majorities in the House and Senate until it can at least break even in the polls.