Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A National Failure - Our Health Care Conversation

    Nothing should exasperate those who worked so feverishly to elect President Obama, as well as to hand the Democrats the most substantial majority since the Congress of 1977, so much as the inexcusable, sickeningly weak lack of conviction and force the leadership has shown in passing significant health care reform. It is possible, of course, that President's most recent Joint Congressional Address could light enough of a fire under the Democratic caucus to pass comprehensive reform, but other factors have doomed the process as a failure. Even if an acceptable bill is to pass both the House and the Senate, our national consciousness has been debased, not raised. What's worse, the President's momentum and approval ratings have been damaged, making it harder to affect the urgent change that is needed in the areas of financial regulation and climate change. The Republicans, as always, bear a huge portion of my outrage, but when you have the kind of numbers the Democrats currently have in Congress, you can't blame it all on them.

    After the election, I started every morning energized and delighted to participate in the conversation; nothing could pry me, for better or worse, from my routine of coffee and pundits in the morning (I hope you won't find me unserious if I say), until now.
    Any unrepentant news-junkie could sense the direction of the national debate change this August. Republicans in small corner boxes uttered platitudinous talking points with increasing, if characteristic, smugness. They smelled blood.
    Surely, they had run this exercise before, the difference being, in this case, the level of chilled cynicism with which these elected officials were willing to see their own constituents. In fact, Republicans have calculated and relied upon the farcical credulity of their base in shaping this debate; a strategy that, dishearteningly, has worked not only on the inane Republican fellowship, but on a broader herd of Americans than they could have wished for. All the while, the Democrats and the administration let them, if not helped them, mislead and confuse the American public.
    President Obama and his party have been profoundly careless in failing to anticipate the level of opposition that reform would face, and have allowed the other side to frame the issue in surprisingly effective, even if strange and untruthful, ways. There is an argument to be made in excuse of this carelessness: that the level of temerity with which the opposition has been willing to lie and stoke fear in the population was unforeseeable. I am not persuaded. Since American journalism is now dominated by conflict and seconds-long catch phrases, the Democrats should have had their messages and talking points prepared long before the national debate turned to health care.
    What we had in this great country was the perfectly auspicious moment for health care reform. What we'll likely get is a diluted joke of a bill. Even though the President reaffirmed his desire for a public option before Congress, it would be shocking if it were included in the final bill. I hope to be proven wrong.
(Most serious supporters of reform regard the inclusion of the "public option" as the indicator of a truly effective bill. It is the only effective way to control costs that are spiraling upwards, and tame an insurance industry all too happy to hold the reigns while they steer themselves to delicious profits. The public option would be the honest competitor, the civilizing influence, on an industry where free-market competition has done nothing to keep costs low for the consumer. The CBO (Congressional Budget Office) estimates that the public option would save $150 billion over the next ten years. The health insurance industry is stomping its feet and throwing a tantrum at the mere mention of the public option, because they are fully aware of its potential to bring down costs, and thus shrink their vast profit margin. And lawmakers are running scared. The amount of money these corporations have poured into the coffers of the blue-dog, centrist Democrats who are integral to passing a bill, has clearly been well worth the investment.)
I digress...
    I have always been wary of, and irritated by, those who say "worse it is now, than ever before." How "back in the day," debate was more respectful, and substantive. Romanticizing the past is such a fallacious human habit; though it seems right, in this case, to invoke the meme.
    There are people, many people, who believe that the secretly-Kenyan President Obama would kill your grandparents, and euthanize Sarah Palin's down-syndromed-son (a "death-panel" having adjudicated the matter). These shining examples of an uniquely American credulity believe that health care reform would mandate sex-changes, and encourage people to sweet, cost-saving suicide. There are people who believe that Democrats are modeling reform after Nazi eugenics, while the governor of Texas tries to win re-election by threatening secession from the union, threatening a war with these great United States, not because he believes it possible, but because that sort of thing really makes his hyper-conservative constituents horny. Then there are those great many who received a mailing from the RNC, not exactly a fringe organization, suggesting that health care, once passed, would be provided to Democrats but withheld from Republicans on a partisan basis.
This has to be rock bottom. (Doesn't it?)
    Mainstream-right-wingnuts have won the contest to scream the loudest. Their mission to spread verminous lies and distortions over the airwaves (so kindly provided by the very science they despise), is a resounding success. For our country, however, it is an unspeakable failure.
    Notice that this failure is independent of actual policy differences - the national debate has focused light on policy and heavy on the ridiculous allegations with which the saboteurs saturate our media. President Obama certainly tried to stem the spread of insidious idiocy tonight, and he didn't do a bad job of it.  However, in my opinion, he didn't go far enough to address the other factors that control the national conversation.
    He would have done well to call out those who could be revealed, objectively, as canting hypocrites and partisan assassins. It may be harsh, and it may indeed be unprecedented (I am not enough of an historical expert to say), but if the right-wing-mainstream can behave so dishonestly, so cynically, so blatantly motivated by the destruction of an individual at the expense of a nation's best-interest, then, by all means, set some precedent, Mr. President.
    Try something like: "Minority Leader Boehner, you deride government involvement in health care so vehemently... would you please stand and tell the chamber how much you think it would cost you, as a 59 year-old smoker, to purchase health insurance for yourself, if you were suddenly unable to rely upon Congress' government-run health plan?" I can imagine him turning an even redder hue.  Of course, individually, he would likely be charged an incredible rate, unaffordable for the majority of Americans.
    Every elected Republican that we hear berating government's involvement in health care is, of course, ON a government plan. The president could have asked Republicans why they don't choose to buy private insurance in their own states, to avoid the "rationing" or the "death-panels" or bureaucratic interference with their doctor-patient decisions, which they claim are inevitable under the current plan(s). He should have asked why, if government run health insurance is so terrible, do we offer a single-payer system to our veterans, and Medicare to our seniors. He should have shamed them publicly and forced them to answer for their behavior.
    The complicity of the media in this embarrassing debacle is also inexcusable. The news-show formula, juxtaposing one talking head with another from the opposing side, gives the appearance of equal footing to both arguments. You can put a sane person on one side and a "birther" on the other, a scientist on one side and a global-warming denier on the other, but these are not sound equivalencies. The weeks of attention that cable news spent discussing death-panels, and birthers, and tea-parties, should go down in our history as one of the low points of American journalism. The civic duty of every journalist is to disseminate facts to the American people, not to give equal opportunity to every ideologue seeking a platform. We see too much of the latter these days (from our increasingly servile media), and the special interest groups are masterfully taking advantage of it. What we end up with is a spectacle which might be good for ratings, but squeezes any chance of substantive debate out of the public gaze.
    And so, down goes intelligent debate, a victim of death-panels, and corruption, and a uniquely American brand of ignorance. This negligence on the part of the media, and a continuing reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to fight back, has allowed Republicans to incite their shockingly credulous base to flood the country with fallacious, dishonest beliefs.
    Our president would do better if he were vastly more aggressive than we have seen him be thus far. Both the Republicans, and the media, perceive this administration's reluctance to get down and fight as a major weakness... they are right. It is not morally superior to abstain from the partisan fight if the result is that millions of Americans remain uninsured and our country goes broke from spiraling health care costs. During the Clinton years, approximately 95% of insurance-industry money was used to pay out claims (ex-industry exec. Wendell Potter says), that is now down to 70-80%. Nobody needs to point out the sustainability disaster waiting for us around the corner, we are all anticipating its danger.
    Mr. President, your speech was good, but not good enough. We need more of a fight out of you and the Democrats in Congress. This must be make, not break.

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...

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