Leader Blues

Friday, August 07, 2009

EDITORIAL >> How about a dialogue?

U. S. Representatives Vic Snyder of Little Rock and Mike Ross of Prescott, who represent the polar wings of the Democratic Party in Congress, collided at a town-hall meeting on Wednesday at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, which hoped to hold a community forum on the burning health-reform issues that they will have to address when they go back to Washington next month. But it was not a collision of their ideas about how to extend insurance to 47 million Americans who don’t have it, and preserve it for others who find it less and less affordable.

It was, instead, a clash with intolerance and ignorance, and Snyder and Ross found themselves in rare defensive alliance. They were booed and shouted down when they tried to explain the various proposals for overhauling the health-insurance system.

It is happening all across the country as members of Congress take a month-long vacation home to talk to their constituents about the historic issues confronting the lawmakers: health insurance, climate change and economic malaise. A highly organized national campaign turns the town-hall meetings into screaming protests of Democrats and the president. The object is to portray the country as outraged and send the lawmakers back to Washington in a panic to defeat health reform.

The foot soldiers for the campaign to stop health insurance reform seem to have come from the Republican-engineered “Tea Party” protests back in April. The playbook that went out last month said people should spread out in the town hall meetings to make their numbers seem larger, to shout down the congressmen, senators and audience members who seem sympathetic and to cheer each other’s speeches. The Little Rock group followed it to the letter. You can catch the ugly scene on several Internet sites. One national network carried much of it.

One woman gave an Academy Award performance, sobbing as she wailed that she could not believe what had happened to her country. Imagine, a country that would try to find a way to make medical care available and affordable for the working poor as well as the rich, a goal first raised by Teddy Roosevelt a hundred years ago. The United States, by the way, is the last advanced nation in the world to do so, and it may not yet.

What is frightening is that many of the angry people who wave and shout at the meetings and who write raging letters to newspapers and Internet blogs may actually believe the horrors planted by the industry opponents of insurance reform — that buried deep in legislation somewhere are plans to euthanize the elderly, ration medical care and force everyone into a government health system where bureaucrats named by the black president will decide the medical care that everyone gets.

Elderly protesters are sure that the government is going to take away part of their beloved Medicare (a government-run health program, incidentally).

One woman at the Children’s Hospital riot shouted that President Obama was going to trample on the Constitution and install a medical dictatorship even if Congress didn’t approve health legislation and that no one would do anything about it. The protesters said Obama was intent on installing a single-payer insurance system. When Snyder tried to say it was not so, that a single-payer system (which he has always opposed) was nowhere in the works, the crowd drowned him out with jeers.

The conservative Ross, who apparently had never experienced anything like it in his south Arkansas district, put his head in his hands on the table. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who had never before been heard to utter a dispirited word about anyone or anything, said the nasty displays were “un-American.” She apologized later for her words. She believes in free speech for everyone.

The mob scenes are the opposite of free speech. They are an attempt to stifle public debate. Affordable and efficient universal health insurance and how to achieve it need a bold and searching discussion in every congressional district in the land. It is immensely complex and difficult, affects every one of us and posterity, and if the dialogue is not thoughtful and civil, we are lost.