I had intended to write a series of blog entries on health care reform this summer focusing not only on already well-documented problems within the system and challenging illogical, boogeyman arguments against a public option, but also on issues that haven’t received enough—or any—mainstream media attention, like the underinsured and the role doctors play in the rising costs of health care. Though perhaps inevitable, but no less unfortunate, the spate of attacks on reform that erupted during Congress’s August recess required those in favor of it to go on the defensive instead, spending time combating misinformation and distortions about public opinion when they should have been touting the progress Congress has made in making reform a real possibility for the first time in decades.
I found myself unwilling, if not unable, to comment on the distractions, partly because it was so downright depressing to me—a reminder of the brief period just after Sarah Palin was announced as the vice presidential candidate for the Republican ticket last fall and before she revealed herself to be a perpetual political punchline. At a Labor Day barbeque, a friend and staunch Barack Obama supporter glibly called me “un-American and un-democratic” for suggesting that hecklers shouting down a congressperson until his or her public forum grinded to a halt is not democracy but the ugly face of corporate-sponsored astroturfing. It’s a tactic used to stifle progress and send a message. That message, of course, is “Kill the bill!,” a slogan brought to you by the same masterminds who crafted last year’s “Drill, baby, drill!” and which was chanted ad nauseam at town halls across the nation during the final week of summer.
The Republican talking point has been to insist that those who showed up at town halls across the country last month were ordinary citizens who are unhappy with the changes they see taking place since Obama took office in January, who don’t want him interfering in their presumably cozy relationships with their health insurance providers. They just want to express their concerns, Republican officials will tell you. You know, like Heather Blish, former vice-chairman of the Kewaunee County GOP, who showed up at her former boss’s opponent’s town hall claiming to be “just a mom with no political affiliation” to protest health care reform.
Many of these people, however, are undoubtedly real, law-abiding citizens, but the groups mobilizing this so-called “grassroots” scare campaign are anything but grassroots. And it wasn’t just right-wing commentators or the fringe activists who listen to them who disseminated and continue to disseminate misinformation. “Death panel”—a term so repugnant and dripping with mischaracterization used to describe a part of the proposed reform bill that would reimburse Americans who choose to seek medical advice regarding end-of-life care—was hatched in the sickened brain of right-wing think tank fellow and Cantel Medical Corp. board member Betsy McCaughey and was propagated via Facebook by Palin like a 15-year-old mean girl spreading rumors about the popular new kid in class.
So it came as no surprise when, during Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, Republicans behaved exactly like the angry mobs of town hall protesters they encouraged, pandered to, and used like political pawns throughout the recess. By the time I post this, Rep. Joe Wilson will likely have already started making the cable-TV rounds, ratcheting up his public profile in the wake of his outburst of “You lie!” when Obama attempted to debunk the rumor that his health care plan would insure illegal immigrants. It was a moment so profoundly revealing, in terms of both Wilson’s willful ignorance and his party’s cynicism, that it left no doubt about what the Republican strategy (to kill the bill) and the purpose of that strategy (to score political points against the president) has been. Wilson wasn’t the only elected official heckling the president—just the loudest and most red-faced. Whether it’s Sen. Jim DeMint expressing his desire to “break” Obama by stopping health care reform, or Sen. Chuck Grassley engaging in negotiations with Democrats under the guise of a bipartisan solution and then perpetuating myths about “killing Grandma” at town hall meetings and vowing not to vote for the very bill he’s been tasked with helping to form, the Republican Party’s objective has been to stifle any forward momentum.
I often hear the argument by those on the right that calling out this kind of behavior is frivolous because there is bad behavior on both sides of the aisle. And while that might be true, there is simply no parity on the left today. The left hated George W. Bush because he was perceived to be a corrupt warmonger; the right is painting toothbrush ’staches on portraits of Obama because he wants to reform health care. Symbolically dissing the commander in chief by denying him an applause line or twittering away while he speaks in the chamber is nothing new, but there was a palpable outward contempt for Obama last night that’s unprecedented in modern political history. And one that, exemplified by right-wing parents yanking their children from school so as to shield them from the president’s address to K-though-sixth-graders on Tuesday, reeks of something far more dangerous than old-fashioned partisanship.
The party’s opposition to the president (reform in any shape) notwithstanding, Republicans were going to reject any idea that was presented to them simply because it’s the nature of our two-party system. One should always ask for more than what they want or are willing to settle for when sitting down at the negotiating table, and the biggest problem with Obama’s plan has always been that he conceded too much too soon, pitching the compromise (a public option) instead of a single-payer or Medicare-for-all system that would truly represent the kind of universal coverage that has become a pillar of the Democratic platform. A proposal to further dilute the immediate impact of reform by putting a “trigger” on the public option, meaning that that particular part of the bill would only go into effect if and when the insurance industry failed to meet certain coverage criteria laid out by Congress, was even rejected by Republican Governor and likely 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty because, he told CNN’s John King, it “simply kicks the can down the road,” which, like the conflicting GOP talking points that a public option would both provide inferior coverage and simultaneously be too good for private companies to compete against, is essentially an admission that he knows insurance companies—and Republicans—will never step up to the plate.
Obama ended his speech by evoking Ted Kennedy, reading part of a letter the late senator had written following his cancer diagnosis last year and which he asked to be delivered to the president upon his death. Kennedy’s words—“What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country”—are the best and clearest articulation of both broad liberal ideology and the necessity of universal health care I’ve heard to date. Obama’s assessment of those words took Kennedy’s legacy of proud 20th-century liberalism into a new era: “[Our predecessors] understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter—that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”