How Republicans Should Handle Obama's Health Reform Summit

They should engage because they can win on the merits.

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It could be the title of a Robert Ludlum novel, like The Ambler Warning or The Bourne Sanction: It's the Palin Fallacy. We saw it at the Tea Party Convention; before that, in the pages of Going Rogue. It's the error of knowing that you face a high-stakes opportunity to show yourself in the best light and instead of preparing and polishing, you decide to wing it. You publish the book, step out onto the stage, or look into the cameras, unprepared but unconcerned, believing for any number of reasons that no one will notice. But people do.

Over Super Bowl weekend, President Obama invited congressional Republicans to join him in a half-day televised summit on healthcare reform later this month. Despite the warnings of some on the right, it's not a mistake to say yes to this invitation. But it would be a mistake to commit the Palin fallacy and show up unprepared. With this healthcare summit, Republicans have a golden opportunity to show their ideas in the best light, and the last thing they should do is wing it. They need more than just a few notes written on their hands.

House GOP leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch ­McConnell tentatively agreed, provided that Obama shelves the House and Senate bills and starts over, rather than trying to get Republicans to support an amendment or two slapped on top of the nearly trillion-dollar measures that passed with little or no Republican support. Polls show that big majorities of Americans oppose the Demo­crats' bills, so you'd think Democrats would want to restart, too. But Republicans shouldn't make that a condition for sitting at the table in the first place; they should say yes to negotiations and then work to scrap the bills once they get in the room. The cameras will be on, and they've got the American people on their side.

Legendary columnist Joe Alsop wrote about taking a "salami-slicing approach" to politics (he was writing about the "gradual" release of the Pentagon Papers). Republicans understand that voters don't want the whole salami of big government healthcare reform; instead, they should take out the knife and start slicing the salami until only the most cost-effective, deficit-reducing ideas remain—ones which, by the way, the president says he supports. Fiscally responsible, scaled-back reforms could win the GOP some independent voters who opposed Obamacare but aren't ready to walk away from reining in an out-of-control system. An early February Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that by 2-to-1 margins, voters think the Democrats' bills are "too complicated" and "too expensive"; they also want lawmakers to "keep trying." And a Rasmussen poll released last week showed that 61 percent of voters want Congress to scrap the current legislation and start over. The GOP should use those sentiments to its advantage.

Republicans need to prove that they're more than an opposition party—as good a job as they've done with that—and show that they are the party of those alternative ideas. Some GOP proposals have already made it into the Senate bill. Insurance exchanges allow small businesses to "pool" coverage, for example, and the "waiver for state innovation" allows states to junk the federal plan if they can enact similar reforms that are better and cheaper, as the GOP's "Solutions for America" healthcare reform principles urge. And don't forget that the public option is gone from the Senate bill, and its removal was a Republican priority.

There are other common-sense, free-market Republican ideas for healthcare reform that Americans support. A January Rasmussen poll shows that 6 in 10 Americans favor limited jury awards in medical malpractice suits to lower costs, which Republicans have long supported. Done right, incremental healthcare reform can lower the deficit, cut costs, and maybe even take some of the burden off small-business owners.

Even though most of us agree that America has the best healthcare system in the world in terms of quality, Republicans cannot defend the status quo when it comes to skyrocketing costs to families and the long-term cost to our economy. And if a modest form of healthcare reform does pass, they'd do well to make sure that some GOP cost-cutting initiatives are included to give them the political advantage of taking credit for their success later.