David Usborne: Policy is the victim in Washington's bloodsport

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The Independent Online

For anyone who watches American politics as if it were a competitive sport, the healthcare summit at Blair House was the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl rolled into one. It was live on TV, there was a half-time break (though no Janet Jackson or The Who to keep us amused), and more than a few collisions and crashes.

As with American football, there were periods where nothing much happened. Even the referee, a certain Barack Obama, looked a bit bored. But when two teams are this fiercely committed to crushing one another, viewers can be assured some decent pushing, shoving and kicking up of mud.

The antagonism was on display even before it started. As Obama and Joe Biden took the short walk over to Blair from the White House, demonstrators were clashing at full volume. "Kill the Bill" shouted one sign slashing through the chilly Washington air. "Healthcare NOW", countered another.

Blair House is a posh setting, often used for visiting leaders and diplomats. Some decorum was expected. It was within these walls, after all, that Harry Truman persuaded Congress after the Second World War to support the Marshall Plan. But the competitive instincts of the players quickly surfaced. Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority leader, was soon grumbling that Democrats were getting far more microphone possession than Republicans. Obama countered with humour. "You're right," he said. "There was an imbalance on the opening statements, because I'm the President."

Then came John McCain, who got semi-retired by the voters in 2008 and can't help sounding bitter about it. He ranted about how he and Obama had promised open government and change if they got elected and then complained that the 2,000-page reform plan from the White House emerged from closed-door "unsavoury deal-making".

Obama saw an opening. "We are not campaigning any more, the election is over," he told his old foe. "We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we are actually going to help the American people." That's a field goal, at least.

The trouble with this sporting event, though, is that there was nothing on the scoreboard when it was over. Viewers went to bed worried that the sport that is politics in Washington is all about the battle and never about results.