Monday, March 22, 2010

A Loss For Fearmongers

Last night's vote on the health care reform bill in the House was not only a win for Obama and Pelosi, but also a loss for hyperbole and fear.

For Republicans who said "let's scrap this thing and start all over," who had a chance to reform health care their way when they ran both the White House and Congress but did nothing, who used phrases like "death panels," "destroying freedom," and "a government takeover," their hyperbole was dealt a blow last night. Does it mean that hyperbole and fear-mongering are dead? No, because that's how American politics work in the 21st century.

Part of the fear story opponents of health care reform tried to sell was, "just wait and see how much your premiums go up." If nothing had been done, if no one had lifted a finger, do you think your premiums would have stayed the same and gone down, after a decade in which they increased 130% on average? This morning I talked with a small business owner who told me that her health insurance costs went up 25% last year, and she just got a notice from her carrier that the rates are up another 25% this year. That's before the reform. Does it mean that premiums will go down for everyone now? No. But if they don't go up as much as they did, isn't that a good thing? And in the long run, if the deficit gets cut (as the CBO says it will), isn't that a good thing?

I don't know that the legislation headed to President Obama's desk will make America healthier or save us a lot of money, but I do know that something needs to be done. When one party offers constructive suggestions and the other responds with destructive and vituperative remarks, the lines are clearly drawn.

Now the punditry is arguing how much of an affect the Democrats' victory will have on this year's elections. My guess is that it will be less about this bill than about the overall economy -- particularly for swing voters, who are too busy trying to stay employed, keeping their benefits, and hoping their kids don't get sick, rather than becoming ensnared in the viciousness of the health care debate sideshow.

Calling this a government takeover of health care is like arguing that public libraries are a government takeover of reading. It's ludicrous, yet it became the venomous catch phrase spit out by virtually every Republican politician and talking head over the last year. And some people believed it.

A listener named Mike called this morning, furious that the government was going to tell him which doctor to use, what kind of insurance he had to have, etc. I calmly asked Mike if he has health insurance right now. He said he does. I asked if he gets it from his employer. He said he does, but he has to contribute a few hundred a month (as do I and most other working Americans).

That's when I told Mike that the new legislation won't change any of that for him. There was a pause. He didn't know that. He'd bought into the lie that, in essence, Barack Obama was going to be his new insurance agent and make him stand in lines for days to see his doctor. Wrong.

He believed that because he listened to opponents spew misinformation on a daily basis, often combined with ugly attacks. That's what passes for legislative debate in this country -- it doesn't matter if everything you say is wrong, as long as you say it loud enough and frequently enough, combined with epithets shouted across the schoolyard in an abyss of reason. When you have no honest points to make, you lash out like a sixth grader: "oh yeah, well, you're ugly, too!" It's how you end up with Tea Party extremists yelling racist and homophobic epithets at Democratic congressmen.

It is not enough to say your opponent is wrong, you must classify him as evil, destroy his character, burn him in effigy, even spit on him. That's not how the system is supposed to work.

We elect our representatives to be part of a deliberative and collaborative body, to better the common good of the nation. What do they work for instead? Their own re-election, their political party's agenda, and the defeat of anyone who disagrees with them, even a little bit. When you go to Congress as an elected official and say from day one, "I'll never compromise, I'll never agree to anything you say," you may get cheers from the extremists in your base and a boost for your ego, but it's not leadership.

It's cheap opportunism.