Barack Obama tried to introduce a new dynamic into the year-old, stalled health care debate today with a bipartisan health care summit. The proposals, from either side, weren't novel. Neither were the basic talking points, the Congressional Budget Office stats cited or the tear-jerk constituent stories retold.
But this much was: All seven hours of the discussion were broadcast on TV and — of more importance to the thousands of people unlikely to ever tune to C-SPAN — streamed live on just about every corner of the Internet.
Ostensibly, the summit was an experiment in whether a live TV camera could do what months of Capitol Hill hearings and markups had failed to — force Democrats and Republicans to work together on the contentious problem in good faith.
Of course, as no one will be surprised, that didn't exactly happen. There's no new breakthrough compromise tonight, as it was clear shortly after 10 a.m. from Lamar Alexander's opening statement there would not be. The live audience encouraged only more political theater, a grander stage for both camps to make their last appeal not to each other, but to viewers (and in some cases, mid-term voters) outside the Blair House.
One dynamic, though, did change in a big way Thursday. Social-media savvy netizens watching live streams of the event interacted with the previously impenetrable process of Washington sausage-making in a way technology has never allowed before.
The most bare-bones multimedia presentations of the video all came with live twitter feeds on #hcrsummit. The White House Facebook page ran the footage alongside citizen comments arriving faster than the site could post them. Politifact fact-checked the event in real time. The New York Times created an elaborate public conversation page corralling thousands of comments into topical discussions like "women and health care" and "moral and spiritual considerations."
The Sunlight Foundation streamed the video alongside a public twitter feed, an updating roll call of campaign contributions for each of the politicians speaking, and a live blog hyperlinking readers to speeches and studies as they were referenced (sometimes inaccurately) during the summit.
Citizens, in short, have never had so much context to such a complicated policy debate, in real time. And, perhaps surprisingly, their engagement was a lot more sophisticated than "THE PUBLIC OPTION RULZ" or "Barack Obama doesn't!!"
Many people not only want to follow this stuff — if technology will just let them — but they get it, in much of its wonky detail. And they have a couple of really good questions, like why wasn't anyone from the CBO invited to the summit to referee?
In perhaps the best example of this, Twitter erupted early in the day with a deluge of comments urging CNN to muzzle its anchors so viewers could actually listen to their elected officials without professional interpretation.
So much public interaction created an ironic overlay to a discussion largely spent arguing over which party — and which polls — more accurately represent what the American people want. Americans, Republicans contended Thursday, overwhelmingly want Congress to scrap the current Senate and House bills and start from scratch.
Americans, countered Democrats, overwhelmingly want reform this year and support many of the specific provisions in the bills even if they've soured on watching Washington try to write them.
(And then there was Joe Biden, who is "always reluctant after being here 37 years to tell people what the American people think," even though, in saying so — as one tweet pointed out — he was professing to speak for the American people.)
Here is an alternative suggestion, via Random Reader Robin Randall on the White House Facebook commenting feed:
"They should be reading our comments as we post. They are in a bubble."
Maybe that's the next step in a multimedia policy revolution where citizens with new tools to interact expect to do more than just elect officials and leave the debating to them.
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