We have entered uncharted territory in the fight over national health care. There’s a new tone in the debate, and it’s ugly. At the moment the Democrats are looking like something they haven’t looked like in years, and that is: desperate.
They must know at this point they should not have pushed a national health-care plan. A Democratic operative the other day called it “Hillary’s revenge.” When Mrs. Clinton started losing to Barack Obama in the primaries 18 months ago, she began to give new and sharper emphasis to her health-care plan. Mr. Obama responded by talking about his health-care vision. He won. Now he would push what he had been forced to highlight: Health care would be a priority initiative. The net result is falling support for his leadership on the issue, falling personal polls, and the angry town-hall meetings that have electrified YouTube.
In his first five months in office, Mr. Obama had racked up big wins—the stimulus, children’s health insurance, House approval of cap-and-trade. But he stayed too long at the hot table. All the Democrats in Washington did. They overinterpreted the meaning of the 2008 election, and didn’t fully take into account how the great recession changed the national mood and atmosphere.
And so the shock on the faces of Congressmen who’ve faced the grillings back home. And really, their shock is the first thing you see in the videos. They had no idea how people were feeling. Their 2008 win left them thinking an election that had been shaped by anti-Bush, anti-Republican, and pro-change feeling was really a mandate without context; they thought that in the middle of a historic recession featuring horrific deficits, they could assume support for the invention of a huge new entitlement carrying huge new costs.
The passions of the protesters, on the other hand, are not a surprise. They hired a man to represent them in Washington. They give him a big office, a huge staff and the power to tell people what to do. They give him a car and a driver, sometimes a security detail, and a special pin showing he’s a congressman. And all they ask in return is that he see to their interests and not terrify them too much. Really, that’s all people ask. Expectations are very low. What the protesters are saying is, “You are terrifying us.”
What has been most unsettling is not the congressmen’s surprise but a hard new tone that emerged this week. The leftosphere and the liberal commentariat charged that the town hall meetings weren’t authentic, the crowds were ginned up by insurance companies, lobbyists and the Republican National Committee. But you can’t get people to leave their homes and go to a meeting with a congressman (of all people) unless they are engaged to the point of passion. And what tends to agitate people most is the idea of loss—loss of money hard earned, loss of autonomy, loss of the few things that work in a great sweeping away of those that don’t.
People are not automatons. They show up only if they care.
What the town-hall meetings represent is a feeling of rebellion, an uprising against change they do not believe in. And the Democratic response has been stunningly crude and aggressive. It has been to attack. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, accused the people at the meetings of “carrying swastikas and symbols like that.” (Apparently one protester held a hand-lettered sign with a “no” slash over a swastika.) But they are not Nazis, they’re Americans. Some of them looked like they’d actually spent some time fighting Nazis.
Then came the Democratic Party charge that the people at the meetings were suspiciously well-dressed, in jackets and ties from Brooks Brothers. They must be Republican rent-a-mobs. Sen. Barbara Boxer said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that people are “storming these town hall meetings,” that they were “well dressed”, that “this is all organized,” “all planned,” to “hurt our president.” Here she was projecting. For normal people, it’s not all about Barack Obama.
The Democratic National Committee chimed in with an incendiary Web video whose script reads, “The right wing extremist Republican base is back.” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse issued a statement that said the Republicans “are inciting angry mobs of . . . right wing extremists” who are “not reflective of where the American people are.”
But most damagingly to political civility, and even our political tradition, was the new White House email address to which citizens are asked to report instances of “disinformation” in the health-care debate: If you receive an email or see something on the Web about health-care reform that seems “fishy,” you can send it to email@example.com. The White House said it was merely trying to fight “intentionally misleading” information.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on Wednesday wrote to the president saying he feared that citizens’ engagement could be “chilled” by the effort. He’s right, it could. He also accused the White House of compiling an “enemies list.” If so, they’re being awfully public about it, but as Byron York at the Washington Examiner pointed, the emails collected could become a “dissident database.”
All of this is unnecessarily and unhelpfully divisive and provocative. They are mocking and menacing concerned citizens. This only makes a hot situation hotter. Is this what the president wants? It couldn’t be. But then in an odd way he sometimes seems not to have fully absorbed the awesome stature of his office. You really, if you’re president, can’t call an individual American stupid, if for no other reason than that you’re too big. You cannot allow your allies to call people protesting a health-care plan “extremists” and “right wing,” or bought, or Nazi-like, either. They’re citizens. They’re concerned. They deserve respect.
The Democrats should not be attacking, they should be attempting to persuade, to argue for their case. After all, they have the big mic. Which is what the presidency is, the big mic.
And frankly they ought to think about backing off. The president should call in his troops and his Congress and announce a rethinking. There are too many different bills, they’re all a thousand pages long, no one has time to read them, no one knows what’s going to be in the final one, the public is agitated, the nation’s in crisis, the timing is wrong, we’ll turn to it again—but not now. We’ll take a little longer, ponder every aspect, and make clear every complication.
You know what would happen if he did this? His numbers would go up. Even Congress’s would. Because they’d look responsive, deliberative and even wise. Discretion is the better part of valor.
Absent that, and let’s assume that won’t happen, the health-care protesters have to make sure they don’t get too hot, or get out of hand. They haven’t so far, they’ve been burly and full of debate, with plenty of booing. This is democracy’s great barbaric yawp. But every day the meetings seem just a little angrier, and people who are afraid—who have been made afraid, and left to be afraid—can get swept up. As this column is written, there comes word that John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO has announced he’ll be sending in union members to the meetings to counter health care’s critics.
Somehow that doesn’t sound like a peace initiative.
It’s going to be a long August, isn’t it? Let’s hope the uncharted territory we’re in doesn’t turn dark.