Unhealthy Body Politic

Posted March 25, 2010, at 9:21 p.m.

The collective blood pressure level of those who opposed the Democratic health care reform bill may be reaching stroke levels, if the plethora of death threats, vandalism and hyperbolic rhetoric of recent days is any indication. The invasion of Iraq, widely panned by the left, produced nothing like this — and that policy cost more than 4,000 American lives, at least 150,000 Iraqi lives and $714 billion to date. To say the anger is out of balance with the nature of the bill is an understatement.

Republican leaders must condemn — and work to stop — the vandalism and threatened violence. Since every Republican member of the House of Representatives voted against the bill, the angry masses will — or may — take their cue from party leaders like Mitchell McConnell, John McCain and John Boehner. A more acceptable response, which party leaders should model, is to identify specific parts of the bill they oppose, and pledge to repeal or repair them if the GOP regains control of Congress later this year.

The reasons for the off-the-chart anger are less clear. Some of the blame must lie with conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, whose millions of listeners and viewers believe they are getting accurate and objective explanations of the bill. In fact, both pundits make their living by casting the policy in apocalyptic terms, suggesting further government regulation of health care is akin to socialism, shredding the Constitution and the end of democratic government.

Another portion of blame lies with the nature of the bill. It came together in a less-than-transparent way, as compromises, deals and tweaks were made. It is also incredibly complex, effecting changes to existing government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, while also changing the way private business pays for health insurance for employees. As objective, responsible news media report the facts of the law, support grows. Two Gallup polls have already shown support growing for the law, from 45 percent in favor before passage to 50 percent supporting the bill a day after passage.

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President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats also must share some blame. The president focused on the compassionate nature of his goal of insuring nearly all Americans. For those who have health insurance, this was not convincing. He would have done better to emphasize that when everyone can get to a doctor early, the cost of healing decreases. When chronic illness and acute medical conditions are headed off early, we all pay less. He also should have stressed that the status quo, in which insurance costs climb steeply, hurts businesses of all sizes. The complaint that the bill regulates one-sixth of the U.S. economy misses the point; health care should not be one-sixth of the economy. The bill aims to whittle costs so health care is one-seventh or one-eighth of the economy.

It was also about extending insurance to those who don’t have it, not enriching friends and business associates, as were the Bush-era tax cuts and energy policy — which weren’t accompanied by death threats to Republicans.

The health care bill is public policy — no more, no less. It charts a new direction, to be sure, but hardly new territory. Most of the world’s economically advanced countries embraced a more sweeping health care change — single payer — decades ago. Those systems, by and large, work. Most Americans would not accept this “Medicare for All” version, though it is simpler, leaner and easier to understand, so the bill that passed is actually a compromise.

The Tea Party, which has served as a lightning rod for anti-Obama anger, might consider changing its name. The Boston Tea Party, its Colonial inspiration, rallied around the slogan “No taxation without representation.” President Obama was duly elected, as were the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who voted for them knew they promised these changes to health care. If voters believe this health care bill is wrong, they should elect candidates who pledge to reverse it. They should not predict the end of democracy, the start of socialism and other absurd exaggerations.

And, certainly, they should not throw bricks through windows at Democratic offices or threaten to kill Democratic lawmakers — at least 10 such threats have been documented. Republican leaders should intervene to stop exhortations to “reload” and the shouting of racial epithets at black House members. Their silence or meek condemnations do nothing to keep the anger, which is understandable, from turning into violence, which is reprehensible.

America, for a variety of reasons, is in a difficult period. Many people are rightly fearful about their employment, their debt and, yes, their health care. Easing that fear will take cooperation and compassion, qualities that have been lost in the current shout-fest.

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