The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March of the Mob

Republicans Weren’t Wrong to Lead Opposition to Healthcare Reform; It Is How They Led

The terms “nigger,” “faggot,” and “baby killer” deserve characterization as hate speech. They are ugly words, whose only purpose in utterance is inflaming the passions of both the speaker and their targets beyond reason. When some healthcare reform critics hurled them at various Democratic legislators last weekend, it is easy for proponents to label all opponents as ignorant and prejudiced. It is easy but also wrong.

For their part, conservatives insist such barbs are the products of a few extremist bad apples, utterly unrelated to their movement as a whole. This is wrong as well.

In addition to being ugly and despicable, the epithets in question are also hyperbolic and this says a great deal about those who resist healthcare reform and those who lead them. To be sure, some use racist, homophobic, and other accusatory words out of genuine stupidity and hatred. However, ordinary people, who would normally never contemplate using such words, may also voice them in moments of extreme distress. Unable to make their views prevail in Congress, feeling their voices were unheard, they struck out in a manner as cathartic to them as it was offensive to others.

These are words spoken in anger but anger generated not by racism or hatred but rather fear and despair.

As Richard Cohen wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, “This battle was never entirely about healthcare . . . There is something cleaving this country, something represented by the election of Barack Obama –the change he either promised or threatened, take your pick – and the hyper-exaggeration of the ideological threat the man represented . . . What was once a white Protestant nation is changing hue and religion . . . The protesters were protesting healthcare legislation. But they feared they were losing their country.”

While Democrats are elated after winning a long fight they seemed doomed to lose as little as a month ago, they deserve a significant share of the blame for helping create the acrimony that marked this contest.

Writing in the Atlantic, Clive Crook records two fundamental Democratic mistakes. First, “It is right to provide guaranteed health insurance but wrong to claim this great prize could be had, in effect, for nothing.”

Second, and perhaps most significantly, “Albeit in a worthy cause, Obama has broken faith with American voters. He promised post-partisan leadership . . . Then, on this epic issue, he allied himself with – in fact, subordinated himself to – liberal Democrats in Congress.”

Vowing to avoid all the missteps of Hillarycare, Obamacare began by following in its footsteps and writing legislation in a partisan vacuum. This not only produced an initial version of healthcare reform that looked like a liberal candy store, it provided Republicans with a credible excuse to oppose bills at every turn.

Although stunned and abased by healthcare reform’s passage in the House last Sunday, Republicans continue a subdued but persistent jubilation. They have lost the battle by the narrowest margin, they insist, only to have conclusively won the war. The new law is so toxically unpopular with the American people as to ensure a slaughter for Congressional Democrats in 2010 and doom President Obama to one term.

They may be right about this. Democrats, flush with victory, are kidding themselves if they think Americans will have forgotten all about their suspicions and concerns over healthcare reform by November. Republicans will keep the issue alive, first in a Senate battle over reconciliation and then in the courts. Red and purple State Attorney Generals have already filed suit, claiming the bill’s mandates are Unconstitutional.

However, Republicans could suffer their own backlash, particularly if they continue doing the very thing that prevented them from burying this bill last fall – their tendency to hyperbolize and demonize.

Infuriating although their rhetoric may have been, there is no question that Republican objections to the Democratic bills produced more politically palatable healthcare reform legislation. It never could have passed either the House or Senate for Obama to sign into law without this GOP “assistance.”

Conservatives were spot on in their push to contain deficits. They argued plausibly that Democrats were underestimating costs and overestimating savings. They validly pointed out the bill was so large and complex that nobody fully understood everything it contained, including the legislators voting for it.

Yet they were not content to let the bills sink on their own faults. Instead, they began jacking up and greasing slippery slopes with fervor. From rationed care, to death panels for the elderly, to government clinics providing torrents of free abortions, their wild and erratic claims were often sufficiently loud to dominate debate for periods but ultimately disproved by facts. Such tactics too often left them, rather than Democrats, appearing the Party guiltiest of exaggerated claims, the Party most unaware of what the bills really contained.

Given Democratic leaders intent on shutting them out, Republicans faced a choice. They could attempt to regain Congressional seats in 2010 by offering reasonable/superior healthcare alternatives or using Party talking points, rumors, and bombast to stoke the fears of an already nervous public. They chose the former and failed. While a victory on healthcare may earn the Democrats little to nothing for the midterm elections, their defeat has cost Republicans more than they may realize or care to admit.

“Someone at Harvard or in San Francisco might think that but not the rest of the country,” sniffed Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee.

How about a “someone” such as former G.W. Bush speechwriter and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, David Frum?

“We followed the most radical voices in the Party and the movement and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat. Conservative talkers on FOX and talk radio whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible,” Frum wrote in his blog. “What’s more important – to win extra seats or to shape the most important piece of social legislation since the 1960s? It was a go-for-all-the-marbles approach. Unless they produced an absolute failure for Obama, there wasn’t going to be any political benefit.”

“When our core group discovers that [healthcare reform] is not as catastrophic as advertised, they are going to be less energized than they are right now,” Frum added.

Also potentially discouraging for Republicans, Stanley Greenberg reports a recent Democracy Corps poll finds the GOP losing ground with all-important Independents over their scorched earth policy of resistance. Favorability ratings for Republican members of Congress by Independents dropped eleven points last month to just forty-two percent. Likewise, preference for Republicans on a generic Congressional ballot dropped twelve points.

Finally, a USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted on Monday, asked, whether the healthcare bill passed the day before by Congress was a good thing or a bad thing overall. Respondents expressing an opinion called it a good thing by forty-nine percent to forty percent.

Most polls showed the Democratic bills as unpopular by ten to fifteen percent margins. This is a significant deficit but it is also a long way from being “wildly unpopular” or “universally detested.”

Democrats had the Congressional majority on this subject from the start. The fact it took a last minute set of procedural and legislative maneuvers to pass healthcare reform is a blot on their decision-making and execution. However, Republicans gained and held public opinion for much of this debate. Their decisions and execution are also tainted.

Instead of attempting to lead by demonstrating what is best about conservatism, they opted instead to appeal to what is worse in people facing change in uncertain times. In spite of this, they helped make healthcare reform stronger than it might have been otherwise. They could continue to do even more going forward by sincerely engaging in bipartisan debate as well as pointing out when Democrats fail to do so.

Republican leaders hoped they were leading a march of large, diverse, grass roots political discontent with liberalism. Sometimes this was the case but all too often they have been leading the march of a mob whose members look surprisingly alike and yet whose only real unifying spirit is their distrust of all institutions. Unless it can produce something more than dissent this year, the Republican Party may find out in November that it is just as much one of the distrusted institutions as its Democratic counterpart.

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