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Book of Matthew: Overheard down at the local burger joint

Published: October 9, 2009
Section: Opinions


Burger joint: President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Harry Reed sit down for an imaginary burger inside Bret Matthew’s head.<br /><i>PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Burger joint: President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Harry Reid sit down for an imaginary burger inside Bret Matthew’s head.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Max Shay/The Hoot

How are major policy decisions made? In Congress? In the Oval Office? In closed meetings of powerful elected and appointed officials?

Well, yes. But that can be boring. And sometimes, I wonder if our leaders realize this. Maybe when the C-Span cameras turn off, the real decisions are made in less formal settings.

This sort of thinking often gets my imagination going.

In a small burger joint in Arlington, Virginia…

“Do you think these fries have too much salt?”

“You’ll be fine, Harry.”

“Are you sure? They look…”

“Harry. Eat.”

Wearing a look of extreme caution, Senator Harry Reid raised a seasoned French fry to his mouth and took a quick, nervous bite.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave him an exasperated look. “Let me know what year you finish,” she muttered. “Senators…”

The two lawmakers sat at a small table stuffed in the corner, awaiting a lunch of greasy food and minimal press interruption. Such opportunities were rare in the world of D.C. politics.

Joining them at the head of the table, with a menu in hand and a pensive look on his face, was President Barack Obama.

“What do you think, Harry?” he asked without looking up. “The double mushroom Swiss? Or the pepper jack with bacon?”

“I don’t know, Mr. President,” Reid replied. “They both sound equally unhealthy.”

“The double mushroom Swiss, then. With mustard.”

Obama set his menu down just in time to see White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senator Olympia Snowe walk through the door. Emanuel was speaking to her quite rapidly, and he seemed to be trying to put his arm around her, a move that Snowe shook off every time he tried it. Obama nodded to them as they approached the table. “Good to see you both could make it.”

Emanuel returned the nod, but quickly turned his attention back to Snowe. “Please Senator, have a seat. Here—” he nudged over a protesting Reid to make room for the chair he had pulled up to the table. “Would you like anything to drink? Eat?” He waved a menu in her face. “I hear the root beer floats are good. And the burgers—these burgers are supposed to be out of this @#%!* world! Want a burger? On me?”

“A float sounds fine,” Snowe said as she gently brushed away Emanuel’s maniacally waving arm. “But I’m not much of a burger fan, not really.”

“Not a problem,” Emanuel said. “I’m sure we can find something. A lobster roll! You must like a good lobster roll, right?”

“Well, yes, but I don’t think a little place like this would have…”

“Waiter!”

Immediately a waiter approached the table. “Yes sir? What can I get you today?”

“You can start by bringing the Senator a root beer float and a lobster roll,” Emanuel said as he tossed his menu aside.

“Oh, sorry sir,” the waiter said. “We don’t have lobster here. But we do have many excellent burgers…”

He stopped speaking when he saw Emanuel’s face. Emanuel stared at him, his right eye twitching slightly.

“I believe I ordered a lobster roll.”

“Well, yes, but…”

“I didn’t say anything about your @#$%!* burgers. We don’t want your @#$%!* burgers. The Senator came in here with a specific order in mind, and you are going to bring her the @#$%!* food. If you can’t do that, if you can’t seem to find the food we requested, then maybe we ought to take a little walk to the @#$%!* ocean. What do you think?”

The waiter’s eyes darted between Emanuel’s icy stare and the other occupants of the table, who didn’t seem to be paying attention. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t seem to find the words to say. His lips moved aimlessly, stuttering without making a sound.

“Actually, I was thinking I would just get a salad…”

“Shut up Harry,” Emanuel said without shifting his gaze.

After a moment, the waiter finally managed to speak. “Umm… yeah, okay… lobster roll… float… umm… anything else?”

“I’m not very hungry. I’ll just have a Coke,” Emanuel said. “With a slice of lemon. And none of that diet $%!& either, it better be the real thing. Now go take everyone else’s order.”

The waiter nodded and quickly went to the other side of the table without another word.

“You didn’t need to do that, you know,” Snowe said to Emanuel. “I could have gotten something else.”

“I told you, it’s not a problem,” he replied. “This is what I do. You have to be firm with people to get stuff done.” He reached over and took a drink out of Reid’s water glass, which Reid tried and failed to grab back. “Speaking of getting stuff done,” Emanuel said, ignoring Reid’s faint protests, “now that we’re here together, let’s get down to business.”

“You’re talking about the health care bill, aren’t you,” Snowe said, a look of interest crossing her face.

“Yep,” Emanuel replied. “I’ll make a long story short, since I know we’re all very busy people—even our two Congressional leaders here.” Reid and Pelosi both shot him dirty looks. “We need to make a deal with you, Senator. Without your help, there’s no way we can pass a good bill.”

“How so?” Snowe asked. “You Democrats control the White House, you control the House of Representatives, you even control the Senate with 60 members. I’m surprised you haven’t rallied around a bill and passed it already. What more do you need?”

Emanuel laughed. “Senator, you and I both know that Democrats haven’t rallied around anything for about four decades. But that’s not the issue, we’re used to that. Our problem is that there are some Democrats who aren’t putting the best interests of the party first.”

“And who might that be?” Snowe asked.

“The progressive wing,” Emanuel replied. “Or whatever they call themselves these days. The people who managed to ride into office on the backs of a bunch of bloggers who have nothing better to do than sit at their computers and make $20 campaign donations. And here they are, fighting for the @#$%!* public option! It’s really starting to get in the way.”

Snowe raised an eyebrow. “I thought Democrats campaigned on the public option during the election.”

“Of course we did,” Emanuel said, eyes rolling. “That was during the campaign. It sounded great in speeches, you know? But have you seen the kind of political climate we’re dealing with here? It’s crazy! There are people protesting big government spending all across America. I got teabags thrown at me a few weeks ago! We can’t ignore that.”

He took another drink from Reid’s water glass. “It’s clear to me that people don’t want a liberal solution to their problems. They want the government to rule from the center, without doing anything too drastic that will scare them. Basically, they want a bipartisan solution, which is really the main thing we promised during the campaign anyway.”

“Well, you know I’m not a fan of too much government spending,” Snowe said. “So what can I do to help?”

Before Emanuel could open his mouth to answer, the door burst open and a windswept Vice-President Joe Biden walked into the room. He was breathing heavily, and looked like he had just run full-tilt down the street.

“Sorry I’m late guys,” Biden said. “Train got delayed.”

He turned to Emanuel with a smile on his face. “Hey, Rahmbo—”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Sorry.” The smile didn’t falter. “But did you see the protesters outside on your way in here?”

“What?!” Emanuel’s eyes widened. He looked around wildly, gripping the edges of the table as if he were about to duck under it. “Who the @#$!* are they? More teabaggers? Birthers? How do they always find us?”

“I don’t think it’s that hard for them. We’re pretty visible people,” Biden replied as he pushed Reid over to make room for his chair, knocking the majority leader face-first into the remnants of his plate of fries. “But anyway, those aren’t conservatives out there. They say they’re liberals. One guy even told me that I should take his water bottle, in case I ‘needed help watering down the health care bill.’ Weird, huh?” He pulled a water bottle out of his pocket and opened it. “Actually, now that I think about it, I am kinda thirsty.”

Emanuel immediately relaxed. “Oh… just liberals? Okay then.” He started chuckling. “That’s nothing to worry about.”

He turned back to Snowe, who had just received an expertly prepared lobster roll—topped with what appeared to be every spice in the kitchen—and an enormous root beer float. The waiter was nowhere in sight.

“Like I was saying, Senator, we need your help. A lot of people want to see healthcare reform. I want to see it too. But some liberals, like those guys outside, want us to think that the only way to fix the system is through a government-system. To me, that sounds like an electoral disaster, you know what I mean? If we let the liberals run our party, we’ll lose all the moderates that fill out the ranks.”

Snowe nodded, unable to speak with her mouth stuffed with lobster. Taking that as a good sign, Emanuel continued.

“This is where you come in. I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking a lot about a public option trigger. I like this idea. It’s a @#$%!* good idea. We set up a plan for a public option to shut the liberals up, but we don’t actually use it. Instead we just threaten the insurance companies with a bunch of benchmarks so they get their act together. And then, when the market improves, we can tell the moderates and the conservatives, ‘Hey look, no government takeover!’  It’s perfect!”

“Mmrph.”

“That’s okay, don’t choke on your roll.  I knew you’d be with us on this one.  Now you can tell your Republican friends that you’re going to stop a government takeover, and we can say we have a bipartisan bill.  Win-win.”

Emanuel turned to Pelosi and Reid.  “Hey, you guys run those madhouses in the capital.  What do you think?”

“Is it politically feasible?” Reid asked

“Very.”

“Then I’m for it.  What about you, Nancy?”

Pelosi stared at her plate for a moment, biting her lip.  “I don’t know Rahm.  There’s a big block of progressives in the House.  They’re going to want more than this.  I’m not sure if I can convince them.  Plus, they’ve got a lot of those people backing them up.”  She pointed at the protestors, who were now pressed against the windows chanting.

“Yeah, yeah, of course they want more,” Emanuel answered sharply.  “They always want more and @#$%!* more.  But they’re gonna have to learn to take one for the team.  We can either create perfect, Democratic policy, or we can win elections.  I don’t see how we can do both.”  He shrugged.  “You know, they shouldn’t have that much to worry about anyway.  Triggers will be a good enough fix.  I mean, it’s not like the healthcare system can get that much worse.”

The whole table broke out into relieved laughter.

“I suppose,” Pelosi said.

“Besides,” Emanuel added, “these are liberal Democrats we’re talking about.  They might be a bit annoyed if they don’t get their way, but who else are they going to vote for?  It’s the moderates we have to watch out for, Nancy.  You know that.”

“Okay, true,” Pelosi said.  “But what about you, Mr. President?  What do you think?”

All eyes turned to Obama, who up until this point had been thoughtfully chewing on his burger.

“Well,” he said.  “It’s a tough decision.  And believe me, I know there are disagreements on both sides.  That’s why I’m glad Olympia was able to join us today.”

Obama fiddled with his napkin for a moment before continuing.  He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully.

“But you know, I’ve often said that America is at its best when we are working together.  And that means working with everybody, even those with whom we disagree.  I think Americans know this.  So Rahm is right.  The people will accept nothing less than a compromise.  And that’s what we have to give them.”

“Excellent!” Emanuel said, beaming.  “Who wants dessert?  On me!”

“Dessert?!”  Reid said nervously.  “But…”

“Oh, they have cake!”  Biden said, holding up the menu.  “Come on guys, let’s have some cake!”