Self-Sabotage in the Senate on the Health Care Debate

How Democrats are Foiling Their Own Plans Trying to be Bipartisan


Published: August 27, 2009

It’s not often that I point fingers at my own party. If the Bush administration’s wreckage taught me anything, it was that if any hope was left for this country, it was with the Democrats. They said they wanted the war over, abortions legal and races equal. They said they wanted gays married and health care universal. I believed them, and so did many of the 52.92 percent of Americans—and probably 97 percent of FCLC students—who voted President Obama into office last November.

So a lot of people were counting on the new administration to usher in a new and better health care system, one that would include everybody in the U.S. at a price that everybody could afford. The forward-facing liberal proposal was a “public option”—a government-run health care provider that would compete with private insurers to keep their prices down. As it turns out, to my bleeding heart’s dismay, some of those aspirations—so easily claimed without the breath of insurance companies and lobbyists panting down blue Congress’s neck—have faded to mere Bush-era fantasies, the rebellious ideologies of the Dems’ oppressed times past. Some are quick to blame the diminishing hopes for real health care reform on the G.O.P.’s ties to the insurance industry and right-wing nutjobs’ propaganda, but I have to throw my party under the bus on this issue. If Obama’s health care initiative fails to get past Congress, there will be no one to one to blame but the Democrats.

Their first mistake was to shoot for bipartisan support. If Democrats stuck together as well as the Republicans have throughout this debate, perhaps we’d already be looking at a new-and-improved health care system, public option included. At first, “bridging the gap” may seem like a rational and fair idea. However, in the case of health care, a compromise could only bring about half-hearted reform. Because the G.O.P. has been operating with impressive coherency and immovable ultimatums, the only way to make headway with the Republicans is to throw the public option to the wayside. This compromise might allow those who already have insurance to see lower premiums and more security, but most of those who need reform most desperately—the ones without insurance—will be tossed aside along with the public option. This is a frightening prospect not just for the destitute and uneducated, as some Republicans would have people believe, but also for all of us who will soon be graduating, scrambling to find a job with health benefits and no longer eligible for our parents’ coverage.

Though it is true that partisanship is the little devil sitting on Capitol Hill’s shoulder, I can’t complain too much if the party with the majority is banding together to do what’s right. So in light of the spineless and scattered manner in which the Democratic Party has managed the health care debate, I can’t help but throw bipartisanship to the wind, at least temporarily. Bridging the gap has become a supersized “bridge to nowhere”—one that, when it crumbles, will take the health of the average American citizen with it. If and when this happens, when the public option-less compromise plan fails to produce any real reform, it will be the Democrats who didn’t do their jobs, not the Republicans.

The Democrats’ second mistake was to assume that all Americans are well-informed and rational. Republicans make no such presumption; instead, they take their constituents’ ignorance for granted, perpetuating radical accusations and falsehoods about the nature of the proposed health care reform. Too many Democrats optimistically believe that Americans are above cheap scare tactics, so they justify their plans pedantically, free from irrelevant patriotism, insurance industry-orchestrated “grassroots” protests and “the president wants to kill old people” mud-slinging. They hold the public to a standard so far above these methods that they even fail to clearly address or deny these types of allegations, tacitly allowing many of the gullible and uninformed to believe that they are true.

A perfect example occurred on July 28, when a confused and misled woman called in to a town hall meeting in Washington D.C. to find out if President Obama’s health care plan would send government workers to the doors of the elderly, asking them how they would like to die. Those of us watching with any trace of common sense were praying that the president would answer no, no, unequivocally no—the terse, unquestionable type of response that may be the Democrats’ only shot at placating the lunatic fringe. We were unsurprised when he meandered his way through a wordy vindication of his plan, that so-necessary “no” muddled within a poorly delivered joke about the insufficient number of government personnel. When all was said and done, the woman—and too much of America—remained confoundedly terrified of the liberal plan for health care reform. Republicans know that these scare tactics are baseless, but they’ll never correct their constituents as long as their fear fuels anti-reform sentiment. At this rate, the Republicans can sit back and smile until September.

Sure, the G.O.P. plays dirty. And while the blue side righteously pats itself on the back for “not sinking to their level,” more and more Americans are buying into the far right’s tricks. If Republicans want to call public option proponents “grandma killers,” Democrats can call them out on being pawns of the insurance industry—an accusation that is not only biting, but warranted. They can tell America that the right-wing’s terrifying claims about the public option are just plain lies. A few bold Congressmen have (thanks, Arlen Specter), but not nearly enough.

Democrats in Congress, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. If you don’t catch up to the Republicans by the end of August, your naysayers will bring down America’s hopes for affordable health care, and they’ll bring Obama’s presidency down with them. Though we may have been keeping quieter than the lunatics, there are still a lot of us who believe in progress. But it has to happen soon.