1:30 PM The evening capping the first day of the NFIB summit was held at the National Portrait Gallery, and before sitting down for dinner in the enclosed courtyard, a handful of federation members and their spouses toured the wing of presidential portraits, pausing to linger before Gilbert Stuart's study of George Washington in full dress and the abstract expressionist painting of JFK by Elaine de Kooning.
The presidency was clearly on the organization's mind, and after serving fillet of beef in a cognac-mustard sauce (this was, after all, a red-meat crowd if ever there was one) and the sober analysis of Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, the NFIB served up Tucker Carlson. Carlson was a last-minute replacement for Tony Snow, who canceled his appearance because of illness, and he clearly understood his mission was to boost morale in the room. So while he began by admitting, to applause and cheers, that "I'm this close to moving to Idaho and stockpiling weapons and food," he reminded the audience of the Democrats' historic tendency to squander their advantages in the end and lose. "What I want to talk about in the next few minutes is how that might happen."
Here it is, in a nutshell: the Democrats had nominated the weaker candidate. For one thing, "Hillary Clinton is tougher. She's not just tougher -- she's the toughest person in the whole world," he sad. "Nobody has faced more grief in American politics than Hillary Clinton." He then gleefully recounted an incident during the Clinton presidency when a friend encountered the First Lady sitting in a black Suburban chatting on a cell phone -- she was in town to deliver speech at the friend's university. Because the friend was no fan of Clinton, he cast decorum aside and gave her the finger. "Hillary Clinton," Carlson said, relishing the climax, "put down her cell phone, flashed a smile, and gave it right back. That's the real Hillary Clinton." The crowd roared.
More to the point, Clinton won nine of the last 14 contests, often by huge margins, even though the Beltway media had already crowned Obama the winner. "It says something profound that people should behave that way." Why did people behave that way? Some observers have suggested it might have something to do with race, particularly in Appalachia, but Carlson steered clear of that. Instead he said, "Americans talk about change, but they don't really want change -- they want incremental improvements. If voters begin to perceive that a candidate really means it when he calls for change, they run away." With one exception, that is: "Your average Starbucks barista wants revolutionary change." In the end, he predicted, Obama's crusade "will either be a tidal wave, or it will crest too soon."
We'll see. Carlson traffics in stereotypes and facile analogies, and I suspect it's a bit more complicated than all that. The brief Q&A made this clear. The first Q came from a young woman who asked, "At what point do you abandon partisanship for the betterment of the nation? And what is your advice about that?" It was an extremely enigmatic question -- was she a Democrat ready to abandon her party because Obama was the nominee, or was she a Republican ready to jump ship because Obama was the nominee? -- and Carlson groped for an answer until he was saved by a ringing cell phone -- his own.
Then a middle-aged man stood up at one side of the courtyard to challenge Carlson, saying basically that he was an Obama supporter, and that his candidate was a shrewd enough politician to navigate the shoals that Carlson had identified. He appeared to have drunk a bit of wine as he stood there, gently swaying while he declaimed. I remarked to the person next to me that he seemed like a lonely man in this crowd. But he wasn't completely alone. Someone at a nearby table shouted as much out, and from a far corner of the courtyard came a truncated burst of clapping. Even my tablemate disagreed. "He's not alone," the young woman said quietly. "I'm a Democrat. But I was told not to talk politics."
1:20 AM The afternoon health care panel, which I was assured would make news, did no such thing. Instead it was an opportunity for NFIB allies to show off their NFIB-approved health care initiatives. Interestingly, two of those allies were Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. A former Democratic senator, Bob Kerrey, served as moderator. Rounding out the panel were Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Stuart Butler, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Also interestingly, Butler seemed to agree with the Democrats that with Boustany, a former cardiovascular surgeon whose health care "reforms" are GOP chestnuts: health savings accounts, interstate association health plans, competition -- that is individual consumers buying their own plans--to drive down costs.
The Democrats were touting separate bipartisan bills. Lincoln is a co-sponsor of Durbin-Snowe SHOP plan, which came up earlier in the day. The SHOP bill would create state health association pools that would respect local coverage mandates and eventually lead to a national pool. Wyden was plugging his own bill, the Healthy Americans Act, which would ultimately transition the health care economy from employer-sponsored group insurance to employer-funded (or, for the poor, government subsidized) individual insurance provided by the private market.
The wild card on the panel was its moderator. After each of the panelists explained their proposals, Bob Kerrey, former senator and current president of The New School in New York, was made to conduct an instant survey of the audience, who responded to the questions with wireless handheld devices. Kerrey got testier as the survey progressed. Cheesy lite-jazz served as background music during the voting intermissions, and at one point he asked, "Is there a stripper coming out?" For another question, he proposed a fourth potential response: "I'm getting tired of answering these questions." It was as if he felt he was too distinguished to conduct and audience poll.
By the end of the forum, Kerrey's anger bubbled over. It was during the Q&A, and an audience member offered his question in the form of a comment, which went like this: whatever you do, don't fix what's not broken, namely the American track record of innovation in medical technology and pharmaceuticals. In response Wyden pointed out that most Americans don't trust the government to organize a two-car parade. The room erupted in laughter, and then Kerrey broke in, saying, "I just want to take the moderator's prerogative to jump in here." He started talking about the increased spending in Medicare and Medicaid ($952 billion, up from $600 billion in 2000 with no increase in enrollment), and I lost the thread. But suddenly he was very angry. "I know you all applauded Senator Wyden when he said the government can't run anything," he said, his voice rising and his smile gone. "Bust most of you would be appalled if the federal government just said, we'll get out of the VA, we'll get out Medicare, we'll get out of Social Security. I don't think you're going to be satisfied with the easy answers." Or words to that effect. I confess it went by rather quickly.
A few minutes later, he offered these final thoughts. "I think that the question coming from NFIB should be, when are you going to mark a bill up. I don't think Congress can make it worse." In the audience there were some murmurs of disapproval. But Kerrey pressed the point. "The only way they can make it worse," he said, "is to do nothing."
And with that, he closed the forum.