President Obama and the Republicans have a chance to put America on a new path with a new tone and a new determination to solve problems. That opportunity will come at the proposed health summit on Feb. 25. Both the President and congressional Republicans should adopt as their attitude for this summit Pope John Paul II's admonition in his initial homily in 1978: "Be not afraid."
Obama should not be afraid to drop the 4,500 pages of Democratic health legislation. He should commit to work in an open, bipartisan manner on new legislation that would earn public support both for its substance and through the transparent process by which it is crafted.
The Republicans should not be afraid to walk in with a series of positive ideas and to work with Democrats on legislation in a genuinely bipartisan fashion. Some GOP partisans so deeply distrust Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid that they assume even meeting with them is an act of betrayal. But Republicans should have confidence that they can always say no to bad ideas. Indeed, they should be open to the possibility of finding supportable measures that would be good for the country and totally compatible with their values.
Setting aside fear to enter into negotiations does not mean entering a period of harmonious and easy-to-achieve bipartisan partnership. Under President Reagan, we never had a majority in the House, so every bill had to include a lot of Democrats. The negotiating was difficult, and the debates were tough, but in the end we got a lot done.
Similarly, when I was Speaker, President Clinton and I had a series of very tough negotiations, but in the end we accomplished welfare reform, Medicare reform, the first tax cuts in 16 years and the first four consecutive balanced budgets (reducing the public debt by $450 billion) since the 1920s. The public fights were often intense, but the willingness to keep talking and working together led to a number of historic achievements that both Clinton and the congressional Republicans could claim credit for.
Reagan's phrase "Trust but verify" is the best way to think of genuine bipartisan negotiations. Republicans will still be conservative. Obama and his team will still be liberal. The question is whether the two sides can find enough common ground to hammer out agreements that will be good for the American people.
The challenge for Obama is that in almost every case, the American people now want solutions different from his ideology and the passionate desires of his strongest partisans. A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that by a 56% to 34% majority, the American people prefer "a smaller government providing fewer services" to "a bigger government providing more services." An even larger majority, 59%, say the government is doing too much, while only 35% say it should be doing more. Furthermore, by a 58% to 31% margin, Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the deficit.
In this increasingly antidebt and anti–Big Government environment, the American people are turning against a Big Government health solution. A Rasmussen survey showed that 61% of Americans prefer scrapping the current, 4,500-page bill and starting over.
These numbers represent a real danger for Obama. It will be enormously difficult for the President to step away from his allies on the left. And if he and his team use this summit as a cynical maneuver to try to force the Republicans into supporting the existing legislation, they will look dishonest. Instead, the summit is an opportunity for Obama to reunite with the American people by dropping the Big Government bill and opening up to a genuine bipartisan solution.
Republicans have much less to lose than the President does. If they offer good solutions and work with Democrats to find areas of agreement, they will have met the country's test for bipartisanship. If they refuse to support Big Government, big-spending legislation, they will have a vast majority of the country on their side.
Let's hope, for the sake of America's health care system and our country's ability to solve public challenges, that both Obama and congressional Republicans take advantage of this opportunity.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.