Barack Obama did what he does best. Billy Graham once said Bill Clinton could make a great evangelist, but Bubba’s not a patch on this president. Mr. Obama early on mastered the cadence of the black church - dropping his voice on the last word of the sentence to make the listener pay attention - and he understands the power of language. He speaks great prose. He understands that a televangelist concentrates on sales, not substance.
The president was on his game Wednesday night, soaring with a promise of partisan geniality and finishing with the resurrection of a corpse. No one in the House chamber would have been surprised if Teddy Kennedy had walked in from Arlington National Cemetery to lead the applause.
“The time for bickering is over,” he said. “Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do.”
The faux humility - the appeal to his Republican “friends” - was intended to seduce the independents who have been deserting his game for weeks. The Republicans contributed to the emotionalism of the evening with an outburst of frustration and bad manners - “You lie!” - that was unexpected manna from Democratic heaven. The ferocity of the media exploitation of the incident reveals the desperation of the Democrats to find something, anything, to stop the bleeding. (Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, calls Rep. Joe Wilson’s shout-out unique in American history, demonstrating once more how little this administration knows of the history of America and the 57 states beyond the Chicago city limits.
But neither the resurrection of Teddy Kennedy nor the exploitation of bad manners is likely to change things. Everyone expected the president to offer something to change the debate but what he delivered was warmed-up leftovers.
If the president and his party were serious about “showing the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do,” he would trash Obamacare, whatever it is, and start over. He could start by applying some of his concern with Wall Street greed to the greed of the tort lawyers who have turned the courts into a casino with payouts that lottery winners envy. Fat chance.
Mr. Obama offered “demonstration projects” in a few states to test ideas for “reforming” the medical malpractice abuses that are driving up the price of medicines and persuading doctors to move their shingles from one state to another, seeking relief. This is the “reform” that tort lawyers, on whom Democratic candidates feed like maggots on roadkill, could cheerfully abide. They know that nothing would come of it because the right honorable senators would kill a serious threat to the casino.
The few details of health care reform laid out Wednesday night differ only superficially from the details that trickled out over the summer, the gasoline on a grass-roots fire. The little that was new Wednesday night seemed taken from the scheme proposed earlier in the week by Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of one of the committees writing reform legislation. Mr. Baucus proposes penalties ranging to $3,800 on families without mandatory health care insurance. If the Baucus scheme works, it could be applied to other public policy dilemmas. We could cure homelessness, for example, by imposing stiff fines on the homeless who refuse to buy houses. (That would spur the housing market, too.)
The temper and tone of Mr. Obama’s remarks was scolding for everyone who disagrees with him, offering to resolve angry argument by requiring those who disagree with him to change their naughty minds. He attempted to hoodwink his own flanks with a little televangelistic magic, too. He appeared to defend the so-called “public option,” which for the unregenerate left is nonnegotiable. He knows this is an empty promise, too. Democratic votes will doom that. Soon we’ll see who hits the sawdust when the president makes his altar call. That’s the test of every evangelist.
Barack Obama studied law at Harvard, not Yale, as I wrote earlier this week. Apologies to both Harvard and Yale. I was distracted by the boola-boola from the White House.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.