Washington Matters


Some Perspective on Health Care Debate


A few observations on the ugly anger emerging in the health care reform debate:

It's both orchestrated and spontaneous.

It's about a lot more than health policy.

It has many precedents in American history.

Both sides are making unsubstantiated claims.

The acrimony will make it much harder for people of goodwill to work out a compromise.

It will spill over into future debates on other big issues, exacting a high price for a long time to come.

Sure, some of the protests are being organized by President Obama's conservative foes, who have been lying low through the fraying honeymoon of the last seven months, waiting for an issue to pounce on. But there is also legitimate, widespread concern -- even among many who voted for the president -- that his preferred health plan is overly ambitious at a fragile time for the U.S. economy.

This fear dovetails with broad concerns about expanding federal authority over the private economy. The soaring cost of Washington's rescue of financial markets, auto industry and housing market is pushing budget deficits to levels not seen in the past half century, with scary implications for future inflation, interest rates and the value of the dollar.

So quite a few Americans are signaling that they won't be pushed into a major health care overhaul that they don't understand and that may have serious unintended consequences.

Neither side has a monopoly on misleading claims and clever spin in the health care debate. Scare talk about pulling the plug on Grandma and disabled children is baseless and shameless. But sensible people also find implausible the administration's claims that a major expansion of health coverage will not cause a significant rise in the federal deficit over the next few years. Over the long run, a new focus on preventive medicine and shared knowledge of best practices could indeed lower America's total medical bill, but the federal role will clearly expand.

As for precedent, is this the worst bitterness we've seen in a policy debate? No, far from it. The hostility being heard in recent town meetings and on conservative talk shows has, regrettably, many precedents in American history, coming from both the left and the right.

Remember the violent stifling of free speech by New Left radicals and Black Power activists in the 1960s? I do. Civil discourse about the war in Vietnam and race relations was well-nigh-impossible on many college campuses, where opposing points of view were shouted down and meetings disrupted. 

Conservative anger against Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal ran deep and strong. Charles Coughlin, a populist, anti-Semitic and fascist Catholic priest, had an adoring radio audience estimated at 40 million Americans. He first championed FDR's programs, then turned against the president with commentaries more biting than anything from Rush Limbaugh.

Looking further back for bitter debate? How about the anger between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in the decades before the Civil War? Legislators literally came to blows during debate on the House and Senate floors.

For personal vilification in recent years, recent attacks on Obama will have to get a lot worse -- and I passionately hope they don't -- before they approach the invective heaped on George W. Bush by his liberal detractors, especially near the end of his second administration. Bush haters apparently thought there was nothing wrong with characterizing their president as stupid and evil, but now they're shocked by harsh criticism of Obama.

As a champion of civility, free speech and respect for opposing views, I am appalled by all of this. People are entitled to their anger, but shouting down one's opponents is downright un-American.  The heated rhetoric drowns out the serious debate, questioning, probing and analysis that are essential to making legislation on complex subjects.

People of goodwill can differ on whether a major overhaul of health care is needed, or whether some minor tinkering will suffice. Congress can and probably will come up with a plan that improves the present system.

But the vitriol of this debate sets a terrible model for upcoming deliberations on such issues as climate change, reform of Social Security and Medicare and a possible overhaul of the tax system.

It's time for citizens to communicate their genuine concerns to Congress and the White House with specificity and candor.

It's also time for everyone to turn down the volume -- and try to listen and learn.



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