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PLAN A: HECKLE; PLAN B: DITHER

Let me go out on a limb and say that it is not a good plan to heckle the president of the United States when he's making a speech about replacing acrimony with civility.

Most of the Republicans listening to Barack Obama's health care address Wednesday night followed the normal rule about sitting in stony silence while the president's party leaps up and down in rapturous applause. But there were a few exceptions, and honestly, guys, I think you can do better.

Let me go even further and say that the president's speech was a good thing, despite widespread concern about brainwashing.

Sure, there was a danger that Obama might let loose and yell "Marxism is good!" causing the commerce committee to race off and vote to give workers control over the means of production.

But it was worth the risk given the crying need for more clarity about health care and more good role models for elected officials. Obama's been there! He was in Congress, too, and sometimes he would get in trouble, goof off, fail to read the bills. True, he never made a scene while George W. Bush was trying to sell his plans to a joint session. But still.

Maybe Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, was thinking about the presidential message Wednesday night, although it is equally possible that he was just daydreaming about his recipe for huckleberry pie or that time he walked all the way across Montana, just because it was there and he was running for re-election.

Baucus has become central to health care reform through the classic dithering technique. He wants a bipartisan bill that meets the cost-control demands of his favorite Republican colleagues. You do not get all that without a lot of delay and hand-wringing.

While Obama talked the fiscally responsible talk, he cannot hold a candle to Baucus and Chuck Grassley, the committee's lead Republican. These guys are really, really, really concerned about balancing the budget. And that seems only fair since they were basically the ones who unbalanced it in the first place when they worked in bipartisan concert in 2001 to pass Bush's first $1.6 trillion in tax cuts.

We do not know exactly what Grassley was thinking while the president was talking. Perhaps he was mentally composing a Twitter about the speech. The senator has been tweetless since last weekend when he recorded the memorable: "Saw Ia U beat my school 17/16. UNI played best I proud of my team Pres Mason came up 22pts short of her prediction 4 victory. She good Prez."

All summer we have heard reports that a special bipartisan group of six senators, handpicked by Baucus, was working on a deal. Having a conversation. Talking on the phone. Posting on each other's Facebook wall. Still, no bill and the definition of "bipartisan" shrank from 70 votes in the Senate to "Olympia Snowe seems to like it."

We do not know exactly what Sen. Snowe was thinking during the president's speech. Probably about the president's speech. She is really, really diligent.

It's always possible that the Republicans will come around a bit and at least be obstructionist in a more cheerful way. Although Wednesday night, when the TV cameras caught the House minority leader, John Boehner, he looked like he had just swallowed a cough drop.

Boehner got the day off to a fine start by telling reporters that he expected the president would "try to put lipstick on this pig and call it something else." It was a stunning development, suggesting that a new page in American politics was turning, one in which members of both parties could once again come together and toss around that lipstick-pig metaphor without being accused of a sexist attack on Sarah Palin.

The speech sounded fine to me, although I have to admit I'm still disappointed that Obama's people have not done enough to start interesting rumors on their side of the debate. "Safety and stability" is not quite as exciting as stories about old people being executed or registered Republicans being stripped of their Medicare.

So, I was hoping that the reform side would do some groundwork before the big address and start floating stories about how universal health care would save the car industry or combat hair loss.

I envisioned Robert Gibbs getting up at the next news conference and saying: "Look, I know it's all over the Web that under health care reform every family will get a new wide-screen plasma TV. It's just not so. That provision was merely proposed by the House Commerce Committee.

"However, I can confirm that the public option has been renamed the Captain Sully Sullenberger Julia Child Oprah option."

©New York Times News Service

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