THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

The GOP’s political theater

For Republicans, it’s the symbols over the substance

By Joan Vennochi
January 20, 2011

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TAKING CUES from Broadway, the show in Washington always goes on.

House Republicans went through last night with their largely symbolic vote to repeal health care reform. The Senate won’t go along, and even if it did, President Obama would veto repeal.

It’s pure theater, an elaborate tap dance for the folks back home who have already been conned into believing health care reform is a granny-killer, not to mention a job-killer. No, better call it a granny-and-job-crusher, a name change that, post-Tucson, is more about style than substance.

After the shooting rampage in Tucson, the tone in Washington is a bit softer and slightly less confrontational. Republicans and Democrats might even commingle during President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Since symbols are an important part of politics, those outcomes are not terrible and can be seen as positive. But if that’s as far as change in Washington goes, nothing much has really changed.

The country was briefly immersed in a passionate discussion about the planned assassination of a congresswoman and the collateral damage inflicted by a young man with apparent mental health problems. Serious issues were raised, from poisonous political rhetoric to gun control to how to identify and treat the mentally ill. But after the dead are eulogized and the survivors interviewed, the media-designated “tragedy of Tucson’’ recedes, to be replaced by the tragedy of bad cleavage at the Golden Globes.

The public’s shift in focus makes it easy for Washington to go long on symbols and short on substance. If, post-Tucson, slightly kinder and gentler sound bites are all it takes to satisfy the people, the theater of the absurd will have its usual uninterrupted run in the nation’s capital.

On health care reform, here’s how it’s likely to play out: Republicans in the House vote for repeal. It doesn’t happen. Republicans then continue to use the issue as a cynical weapon against Democrats.

The Republican vote to repeal is the first step in the GOP’s self-proclaimed mission to undermine the law, piece by piece.

That’s the mindset that motivates freshman Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota when she stands with a band of House Tea Party members in front of the Capitol and vows to unravel and defund the health reform law. “We’re staying full square behind the repeal of ObamaCare,’’ she said on Tuesday, citing the “arrogance’’ and “close-mindedness’’ of the president and his fellow Democrats.

For more adult conversation, listen for a Republican voice no longer in Congress. Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee told his fellow Republicans they should forget about repealing health care reform and move on to make bipartisan tweaks.

“The Affordable Care Act, not just for me but for most of the American people, is not the bill they would’ve written. It’s not the bill I would’ve drafted but it is the law of the land and it is the fundamental platform upon which all future efforts to make this system better . . . will be based,’’ said Frist, who is working with Democrat Tom Daschle, another former Senate majority leader, on a bipartisan compromise plan. “It has many strong elements, and those elements, whatever happens, need to be preserved, need to be cuddled, need to be snuggled, and need to be implemented.’’

If Mitt Romney— who, as governor, helped draft the Massachusetts health care reform law that is the blueprint for the national model — said anything close to that, he might actually have a chance to win the White House. But as long as he lets the ObamaCare haters define the debate, Romney misses the chance to demonstrate conviction, a quality he sorely lacks, as well as the chance to showcase himself as a voice of reason.

Especially after Tucson, voices of reason are welcome on every issue, in either party. They are more important than superficial gestures and manipulative theater.

But, in Shakespeare and in Washington, “The play’s the thing.’’ For the country, the tragedy is not pretend.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.