What the GOP Should Say at the Health Summit

It is risky to correct a president to his face, but it must be done.

The congressional Republicans at today's televised health-care "summit" at the White House naturally want to prevent the president from turning it into a PR stunt. This is no easy task. They'll not only have to point out problems with his plan and offer their own ideas, but correct the president when he makes statements that are not true.

The GOP participants appear ready for the first two tasks. In an unusual approach, House and Senate members prepped together the way a candidate preps for a presidential debates—by pulling together debate books and conducting mock sessions. But the third task is the most critical and the most difficult.

President Obama has a habit of making false statements, and getting away with them. At a Republican conference in Baltimore last month, for example, he denied that his budget nearly triples the national debt over 10 years. He got away with it because he didn't face follow-up questions or objections. It's not easy to criticize a president face to face. During my White House years, congressmen and senators would sit in my office, pound the table, and vow to tell the president he mishandled an issue. Then we'd walk the 15 steps to the Oval Office, and they would instantly turn soft. The presidency commands respect. Americans expect the president to be treated with dignity and deference, making criticizing him to his face politically risky.

But it's necessary, because Mr. Obama is basing his health-care pitch on the false premise that he can drive down health-care prices by creating a pricey new entitlement. He also maintains that he can do this without creating a mountain of federal debt or a bureaucracy that will determine when Americans can receive care.

Americans intuitively know these things cannot be true, and they have therefore responded to the promise of ObamaCare with tea parties and by voting for Republican candidates in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts. Now voters are likely to support congressional Republicans if they can take Mr. Obama head on in a calm, respectful and factual way.

If the president says his health-care plan "would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses," as he did in his State of the Union, Republicans must point out that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says premiums under ObamaCare would be higher than if nothing were done.

If Mr. Obama repeats his frequent claim that his proposal "won't add a penny to the deficit," Republicans can point out that to do so means 10 years of Medicare cuts and tax increases to pay for just four full years of the expensive insurance subsidies at the heart of his plan. This gimmick foreshadows a huge flood of red ink in the coming decades.

Mr. Obama will probably say that his proposal would give 30 million additional Americans health coverage. Republicans can counter that claim by noting his plan dumps about half of those people into Medicaid, a program even Mr. Obama admits is driving state budgets into the red.

Mr. Obama might say that only wealthy individuals, or insurance, drug and medical-device companies will pay higher taxes under his plan. Republicans can point out that tens of billions in new taxes will be passed on to families paying insurance premiums and patients in need of those drugs and medical devices.

Today's event should be treated as a debate. Facts, humor, and using the president's own words to refute his assertions could carry the day. Republicans need to be mindful of winning over those who are watching.

Mr. Obama last met with Republicans specifically on health care nearly a year ago—March 5, 2009—so it's easy to understand GOP concerns about attending today's event. After all, the White House seems intent on painting the GOP as obstructionist or stiffening Democratic spines by showcasing a tough-minded president.

But that doesn't change the fact that the president is somewhat on the defensive. His health reform is stuck because he can't get a bill that's already passed the Democratic Senate through the House, notwithstanding a 255 to 178 Democratic majority there. By respectfully refuting the president, Republicans can help establish themselves as reasonable advocates of common-sense politics and even restore a healthier give-and-take between the executive and legislative branches.

A year ago, Mr. Obama stood astride the political world. Today, he is a weaker and smaller leader because his signature domestic issue is unpopular, he misread his own election victory, and he overreached.

Having won the battle for public opinion on this issue, Republicans are on the rise. They should act like it. Mr. Obama may have a home court advantage, but Republicans have facts, ideas, and most of the American people on their side.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com  on Wednesday, February 24, 2010.