The bizarre exchange between a cable television talk show host and a California congressman earlier this week said a lot about the sorry state of the national debate over President Obama’s proposed revamping of the nation’s ailing health care system.
The two were discussing the outbreak of rowdy public demonstrations across the republic against complicated, confusing and controversial health care reform legislation that the Democratically controlled Congress has put on hold until after its August recess.
The Democratic congressman was trying to make the point that protesters would likely have a whole lot more credibility with the public if they quit shouting down lawmakers trying to explain the bill to voters at so-called town hall meetings back home.
Trouble was, the show’s verbose host — apparently unaware of the irony of the situation — kept shouting down and cutting off the congressman, finally leaving him in the lurch without so much as bidding him a fond farewell. The poor sap never did get an opportunity to complete a sentence, which, I suppose, serves him right for agreeing to go on a show where the other guy controls the microphone.
As I watched that sorry performance — par for the course on the shout-show circuit — it seemed obvious that the health care debate is turning into a game of hardball between proponents and opponents, no quarter asked and none given.
To hear some doomsday scenario television pundits tell it, desperate villagers bearing torches and pitchforks can be expected to storm the ramparts at any moment. By the time some sort of health care reform gets signed into law, the odds that we’ll still be speaking to each other seemingly will be minuscule. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing in the company many of us keep, mind you.
Obama, backed by the Democratic leadership of Congress, had hoped to enact health care legislation before the August recess. The fear — probably legitimate — seemed to be that after lawmakers have endured a month’s worth of complaints from their constituents, up close and personal, they will return to Washington afraid of voting for the legislation.
But Blue Dog conservative Democrats and Republicans slowed the perceived rush to a government-operated single-payer health care system, and now the public relations battle to win the hearts and minds of voters has gone Code Red.
Democrats claim that the alleged anger in the sometimes roisterous protests that have disrupted Democratic lawmakers’ informational meetings around the country is bogus, orchestrated by conservative Republican Party activists and others opposed to the health care legislation.
In a newly released Internet video, the Democratic National Committee calls the disruptive protests “mob activity straight from the playbook of high-level Republican political operatives. They have no plan for moving our country forward, so they call out the mob.”
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele says that’s “a bunch of baloney. We are not inciting anyone to go out and destruct anything. We’re encouraging people to go and visit their congressman or senator.”
In a fundraising e-mail sent by Organizing for America, a Democratic political group, Obama asked his supporters to attend town hall events and not be shy about speaking out. Opponents “will stop at nothing to block reform,” he suggested. “They are filling the airwaves and the Internet with outrageous falsehoods to scare people into opposing change.”
Not surprisingly, both sides are using the Internet extensively to coach supporters in the finer points of debate. “Make sure that the most powerful voices in this debate are those calling for real reform, not angrily clamoring for the status quo,” instructed an Organizing for America e-mail asking reform proponents to attend a Maryland town hall forum on Thursday. Similar counsel reportedly has been offered to “the mob” by their e-mailing friends in high places.
And so it’s game on. It’s a given that the electorate will be mighty sick of the whole business by the time this thing is put to a vote in Congress. As to whether we — or many lawmakers voting on it — will be any better informed about the sea change about to take place in health care, who knows? I wouldn’t be quick to bet the farm on it.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.