Foes Grasp Any Straw In Health Debate

August 11, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

If you're wondering what the ugly, pinched face of America looks like, just turn on the television, open a newspaper or fire up your laptop.

Public mayhem, scare-mongering, and even a warning from the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee about a fictitious "death panel" are, apparently, what constitutes thoughtful discourse about health care coming from the darker corners of American conservatism.

And naturally, any serious national conversation on a major policy issue must begin with a thorough discussion ... of the president's birth certificate.

Yes, that's right: Despite concrete evidence to the contrary, the "birther" movement continues to insist that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or at least not in Hawaii, where his certificate of live birth, the document that state government issues to certify births, plus two contemporaneous newspaper announcements the government filed with local newspapers, are somehow insufficient to convince these nutjobs that Mr. Obama is an American citizen.

Think only a splintered few subscribe to such wackiness? Well, think again: A poll conducted late last month by Research 2000 shows that 11 percent of Americans, and 28 percent of Republicans, believe Mr. Obama is not native-born.

Their dreams of deporting Mr. Obama dashed, kooky conservatives have turned to Plan B: Shouting that the president's health care proposal amounts to socialism. No, wait, make that fascism: At health care town halls and other public events, we've seen posters of Mr. Obama with a Hilter mustache and of a child in a stroller holding a sign warning of impending fascism.

Socialism, fascism - whatever, same diff. It speaks to the incoherence of these protesters that they can't distinguish the two. Yet, so long as the comparison makes the president sound evil, dastardly and un-American, such complications hardly seem to trouble them.

Words are one thing, but physical confrontation and threats are another, and matters are spiraling out of control at town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress.

Angry protesters at a forum in Tampa started a fistfight. A New York congressman needed a police escort to safely leave another town hall. Six people were arrested at a St. Louis forum. And a woman called the national headquarters of the Service Employees International Union threatening that SEIU employees who attend health care forums will confront the business end of the Second Amendment.

Some of this activity is organic, but some of it is coordinated and funded by groups bent on diverting the country from having a substantive debate about American health care.

Americans for Prosperity, a group with a clever name and oil industry backing, has organized "Patients First" bus tours to rally health care reform opponents. On one such tour in Colorado, the Obama administration's plan was compared to the Holocaust.

CNN talk show host Glenn Beck has emerged as a key leader of the conservative resistance, promoting his "9-12 project" which - I'm not making this up - aims to bring the country back to September 12, 2001, when "we were united as Americans." Apparently the way to achieve unity is to harass members of Congress, threaten union leaders and compare everyone to Nazis. Mr. Beck recently set the tone for national unity when, in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates Jr.-Joseph Crowley episode, he called America's first black president a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or white culture." Nice.

The slow-footed Obama political machine is finally getting cranked up in response to all this lunacy. Organizing for America, the policy and outreach operation built from the remnants of last year's Obama presidential campaign, is calling upon the millions of people on its e-mail list to push back.

"The same angry groups and right wing extremists we saw at rallies during last year's election are at it again," OFA director Mitch Stewart says in a video e-mailed to Obama supporters. "They are trying to drown out public discourse and legitimate conversation on this issue in communities all across America."

The Obama administration has not done a good job explaining and promoting its health care plan. But if the hate-filled politics continues to simmer, the White House could benefit from a backlash against the fringe conservatives who offer little more in response beyond likening everything to socialism.

Or fascism. Whatever.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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