The healthcare reform fracas has gotten so bad, it has forced some in the media to actually do their jobs. This statement will come as a shock to anyone who has become accustomed to the way these soi-disant "journalists" present just about any issue these days -- by having a center-left politician and a hard-right politician on to "debate," and then fanning the flames by refusing to referee and provide actual facts to the discussion. But I think now (maybe) the "journalists" have finally gotten to the point of embarrassment, leading them to actually report on what is true and what is not in the entire debate. In other words, as I said, to do their actual jobs.
A little over a week ago, I wrote about the growing "town hall" phenomenon, speculating on "The Effectiveness Of Yelling." Part of what I wrote back then:
Of course, since the ones doing the yelling are interested not in doing anything constructive, but rather obstructing legislation they don't approve of (healthcare reform), yelling may be more effective than one would normally assume. But the real question is how they will be portrayed in the mainstream media -- as forehead-vein-throbbing lunatics, or as passionate fighters for their cause. Because not a whole lot of people actually show up to town hall meetings with politicians, and most Americans only become aware of such events if the media covers them (such coverage is usually relegated to local media, and is usually pretty boring). But people screaming at politicians may rise to the level of the national media, which means the way the media portray the screamers will be key. And the mainstream media, of late, has not exactly been doing a shining job of separating lunacy from political discourse (see: "birthers"). So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
I imagine the thought processes of the mainstream media changed over the past week or so in the following manner. They started with: "People are shouting at town hall meetings -- this is GREAT video, we've got to lead with it!" That worked for a few days. Then, as they got better and better shots of unhinged protesters waving signs, they started to notice what the signs actually said. At this point, the media collectively wondered: "But that's crazy -- how can they believe that?" This may have led to some introspection: "Maybe they believe that because we in the news industry have not come out and said 'this is false' to any of these bizarre claims." More navel-gazing must have followed: "Wait a minute, it's supposed to be our job to tell people what is true and what is not true -- or at least it used to be." This is where the embarrassment comes in: "We've been putting a national spotlight on some absolute loons for a whole week, do you think maybe we're part of the problem?" This, finally, has led to some begrudging admissions from some very mainstream news organizations that enough is enough, and perhaps they should now start doing a little fact-checking for their viewers, to put some of the nonsense in perspective.
Now, this hasn't happened overnight, and it certainly hasn't happened everywhere. But I have noticed, in the past few days, a lot more "here are the facts about healthcare reform" articles and television presentations. These state unequivocally: "This is true, this is false, this is open to interpretation." Which is shocking, because that's what the news media used to do all the time (but, sadly, so rarely does these days).
I truly believe that some of the overpaid well-coiffed talking heads on television finally woke up and became embarrassed that they were lending so much legitimacy to people who normally would be referred to as the "tin-foil hat brigade" (see, for example: followers of Lyndon LaRouche) There's an unspoken rule in the mainstream media that once a consensus is reached that any one person or group is from "the fringe," then all they deserve from that point on is ridicule. Look at how they treated Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul in last year's campaign, for instance.
But the media found themselves in a quandary last week. They loved the "angry person screaming at member of Congress" video so much (and ran it so many times) that they knew they were culpable when the fringier of them "crossed a line." It's like the soul-searching the media routinely goes through when some spectacular mass murder happens. They know that sensationalizing the perpetrator and plastering his face all over the screen will actually encourage the next nutjob out there ("I may die, but I'll get my face on teevee" they think, correctly in most cases) to do the same thing.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not calling any of the town hall folks a mass murderer. I am indicting the news media here instead, for sensationalizing some person and then later wringing their hands and saying "why did we help make this person famous?" Always after the fact, of course. The town hall protesters are not in any way equivalent to mass murderers, but the news media's behavior is the same. And I should further state here that there are quite a few actual concerned citizens who are showing up at town halls with valid questions that they honestly want to hear answered by their elected representative in government about what the Democrats are trying to do with healthcare reform. I am not talking about them here at all, just to clarify. I am talking here only about the people who are more interested in shouting than discussion, and more interested in disruption than a reasoned discourse. And, of course, the people standing outside with signs bearing swastikas (or worse). Because their only purpose is to provide catnip to the media -- which, I should point out, the media snorted up and then rolled around in like a stoned cat for a solid week.
In other words, even though there are promising signs of a change in behavior, on the subject of healthcare reform, the media still has a ways to go. The Democrats have been pushing back on the media recently, saying the media is focusing on a few very loud people and not on the other town halls where things get discussed in an adult fashion. There's a reason why the media ignores this -- it makes for boring videos. It's much more entertaining (and that's what the "news" is all about these days, sadly) to show a clip of someone screaming, over and over again. But the media is actually somewhat responsive to this type of pressure. If, in the next few days, you start to see a few stories about "there are some town halls where people are not screaming at each other," then this effort by the Democrats to (in essence) lobby the media will have paid off.
But the media is not completely responsible for the state of the debate over healthcare reform. The Democrats have done such a poor job of presenting their case that they bear the lion's share of blame for the state of the debate right now. Which we'll talk about in the second half of today's column.
But first, a program note. Because I have been on vacation (I even posted a few photos yesterday, for those interested), I have to disqualify myself from handing out the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award and the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week. I simply haven't been paying close enough attention to the news this week to make a fair judgment, and picking people on the basis of the last two days' worth of news wouldn't be fair to them -- or to you, dear reader. So please feel free to nominate your own award recipients for the MIDOTW and MDDOTW awards this week in the comments. Next week we will return to normal here and the awards section of our program will reappear in its usual place. But this week, we're going to jump directly to the talking points.
Volume 89 (8/14/09)
Since, as I just mentioned, I haven't been following politics as closely as normal this week, instead of the usual soundbites offered up to Democrats, we're going to take a look at how the Democrats have (so far) screwed things up.
There are two debates raging on healthcare reform in the country today. One is taking place in the halls of Congress. The other is the public debate. Democrats, although you wouldn't know it from listening to the news, are actually chalking up small victories in the first debate, except (of course) for Max Baucus' committee in the Senate. But Democrats are in danger of completely losing the second debate -- winning the hearts and minds of the American people.
I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there it is -- the Democrats are acting like... well... Democrats. One has to wonder if the word itself will become some sort of denigration in future American vernacular: "Dude, stop acting like such a Democrat," or "Stand up and fight, you big Democrat!" or perhaps "Can I count on you, or are you going to Democrat-out on me?"
Sigh. Sorry, it's no fun for me to write these, just as I imagine it's no fun for you to read, either. But, seriously, why do Democrats always wind up bringing beanbags to a knife fight? Especially when they know it's going to be a knife fight in the first place. For this one, every Democrat got an engraved invitation in the mail about three months ago, which said: "Try to reform healthcare, and we will wage the biggest knife fight against you that you have ever seen. You will be slashed bloody in this fight, we guarantee it. Signed -- the Republican Party."
Which, of course, Democrats ignored. Which is why they now are doing a dandy imitation of a deer in the headlights.
So today, we're going to conduct what I'd like to call a "pre-post-mortem" on the Democrats' healthcare reform effort in general. Now, in the military and in the business world, a "post-mortem" meeting is where everyone gets together after a big project and points out what went right, and what went wrong. But since healthcare reform legislation is currently in limbo -- neither successful nor defeated -- we have to conduct a "pre-"post-mortem instead.
So here are my observations about what has gone wrong so far. What has gone right I already wrote on a postcard and mailed to the White House during my vacation. But then I had lots (and lots) of room left over, so I wrote a brief ten or twelve paragraphs on my vacation as well. Then I had to sign it really big, to use up all the room I still had left.
Where was I? Oh, right, what has gone wrong (so far). Well, let's get to it, I guess....
Where is Obama-the-candidate?
Barack Obama, candidate for president, was universally admired for his ability to give a good speech. Even his opponents admitted this, and then tried to tear him down by using it as some sort of negative. But anyone who heard Obama speak on the campaign trail, or at the Democratic convention, came away with a sense that here was a politician who knew how to use the English language to convey his meaning, his goals, his plans, and his heart.
Where is any of that today?
Compare any of Obama's recent speeches to pretty much any speech he gave on the campaign trail. It's easy to see something is different. Something is missing. Something has changed.
Now, to be fair, he has gotten a lot better over the past week or so. But this is pretty late in the game to just be hitting your stride. And Obama has still yet to recapture the passion he showed as a candidate. So, as cheerleader-in-chief for what may ultimately be seen as the biggest issue he tackles as president, Obama so far has been pretty disappointing.
Obama paying the "vagueness" price
There's a reason for this. President Obama has one of the same failings that Candidate Obama had -- a propensity to vagueness. It took awhile for Obama to get specific about his healthcare reform plan during the Democratic primary campaign. John Edwards was actually out front on the issue, and Hillary Clinton had a plan out as well. Obama kind of dragged his heels towards providing specifics, but eventually did.
But Obama may have over-learned the lesson of Hillary and Bill Clinton's healthcare reform failure. The consensus was, after the dust settled, that the Clintons presented a fait accompli to Congress in the form of a giant bill they had written in secret meetings, with the ultimatum: "pass this, or else." Obama was determined not to make this same mistake. But, as James Thurber once wrote, "You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward."
Obama, as he did during the stimulus package passed earlier this year, left the details to Congress. This, it should be noted, is supposed to be Congress' job anyway -- to write legislation -- but presidents are also supposed to play a role in this activity. To steer legislation their way, the White House is supposed to let it be known what they favor and what they oppose. The most extreme example of this is the veto threat, or "line in the sand," when presidents say publicly "I cannot sign legislation which has (or does not have) X in it." Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has not been doing a very good job of this, at least not from what the public sees, and Obama himself has done virtually none of this. Obama keeps repeating how he wants a bipartisan bill, that everything is "on the table" and that he's open to any good idea. But by backing none of them, while at the same time refusing to take a stand against any of them, Obama is paying the price for his own lack of leadership on the issue. And the more this goes on, the weaker he is going to look (and be, politically) as a result. If you're for everything, you're for nothing, Mr. President.
The false god of bipartisanship
Speaking of the gigantic red herring stinking up the room, let's talk about Obama's professed goal of "bipartisanship" for a moment.
It should be obvious to just about anybody with half a brain by now that Obama is going to get (at most) one or two Republican votes in the Senate, and perhaps (perhaps, mind you) one in the House. That's it -- that's the absolute highest bar to shoot for in a "bipartisan" healthcare reform bill. Are these votes worth the price?
Now, Obama is trapped here by his own campaign rhetoric. He famously said he wanted to be president of "not just the red states, not just the blue states, but the United States of America." He probably really believes it, too.
But at some point, children grow up and realize that there is a difference between fantasy and reality. And fantasy, while fun to visit, is simply not the real world that we all live in.
Republicans have a fantasy. Their fantasy consists of successfully blocking everything Obama tries to do, and winning huge majorities in Congress next year as a result. Obama has a fantasy, too. His fantasy consists of this Republican fantasy not existing in the minds of the Republican Party.
The only difference I can see is that the Republican fantasy actually has a shred of a chance of coming true (see: 1994 midterms). Obama's, quite simply, does not.
Obama, at this point, has two choices. He can follow the false idol of bipartisanship, and wind up with a bill to sign that doesn't fix anything -- or no bill at all. Or, he can say to America: "I tried my hardest to get some Republicans on board with us, but the time for sheer obstructionism is over -- we are going to pass a bill without their help, and they can vote for it or explain their vote to their constituents next year at the ballot box."
Those, as I see it, are his only real choices at this point. Mr. President, Senator Grassley is just not going to vote for anything that changes anything. Please realize this, and act appropriately.
Who's got Obama's back?
This is a sad point to make, because as everyone knows, the answer to this question was supposed to be "Senator Teddy Kennedy." If Kennedy were well, the question wouldn't even arise, since he would be out front on it as the primary Democratic spokesman in Congress.
But Kennedy has been sidelined by illness. So who has stepped into his place?
[lone cricket chirping]
I certainly can't answer that question. Can you? Has any Democrat -- or even any group of Democrats -- stepped up to the plate and said "I've got your back, Mr. President" to date? Where is the squad of congressional cheerleaders in tight formation behind the head cheerleader, yelling in unison?
Here and there Democrats rise to the surface of the debate momentarily, but they seem to be in competition with each other, rather than coordinated in any way. The news media shows this Democrat or that defending healthcare reform in a mealy-mouthed way, but either they are simply not allowing anyone on the airwaves who can coherently and strongly defend the Democrats' core positions on healthcare reform, or else such Democrats simply don't exist. And at this point, I wouldn't take that bet either way.
President Obama simply cannot do this alone. But, from what I see, not many people have his back in this fight, at least not in any overly effective way. Part of this problem, it has to be admitted, is the vague leadership from Obama I already discussed. There's nothing, really, to rally around at this point, since there are still three bills in competition, and one committee which hasn't even gotten that far. And Obama's for them all, and against none of them -- which is a big factor in why congressional Democrats are so disorganized.
Emotion beats facts, every time
How many people have to point this out, until Democrats actually get the message? There are two ways to say things. This is called "framing," or (even better) "telling a story." Democrats appear completely unable to master even the basics of this bedrock political fact. It's a wonder sometimes that so many of them get elected, while showing this absolute inability in their speaking styles.
You see those people screaming at town hall meetings? They are emotional. They may, in fact, be too emotional to be effective, but the jury's still out on that as far as I'm concerned.
What do Democrats do in the face of this raw emotion? They calmly discuss facts, with no emotional context whatsoever. Democrats, deep down, have a core belief that since their side is so obviously and logically right, then all they have to do is explain it fully to the other side, and they'll come around to this "correct" way of thinking.
This is laughable when someone is screaming at you, but Democrats haven't really caught on to this yet.
I'll give you an example. There are two Democrats at town hall meetings. A person stands up in each and says (or yells) the same exact thing: "Obama wants to kill my grandmother, and Democrats want all old people to be forced to choose euthanasia!"
Here is the first Democrat responding to this:
"I'm sorry, sir, but you've been misinformed, because none of that is true. There is a provision in our bill which allows people to consult with their doctor about end-of-life decisions, and for the doctor to be reimbursed for this consultation once every five years, or if the patient's status changes drastically. These sorts of consultations have been going on for a while now, and the only thing we're going to change is to allow the doctors to be paid for their services. Because if they aren't paid, then people will go to their lawyers and draw up living wills and do-not-resuscitate documents, without hearing the input from their doctors, and we think that's not the best way to do it. But these consultations will be completely voluntary, and nobody will be forced to make any sort of decision they don't want to. The idea is just wrong, and this is simply not about killing old people."
That sounds like it could come out of the mouth of pretty much any Democratic officeholder these days, right? OK, let's consider the second Democrat responding to the angry town hall attendee:
"That is a lie. That is just flat-out wrong. It is not true. What kind of monsters do you think we Democrats are? Do you really think that we got together in Washington and said during a meeting 'hey, let's kill everyone's granny, that'll save money on healthcare!'? Do you really think there is any politician in Washington evil enough to say or think that thought -- let alone write it into legislation? I am horrified that you would even consider that anyone could be for such a plan. If such a plan ever did exist, I assure you I would be fighting it just as strongly and loudly as you are today. That's why you elected me -- to stand up and denounce crazy ideas like that. That's what you pay me for. Here is the truth -- what the bill is actually trying to do is to help doctors get paid for meeting with people and discussing their options. That's it. Nothing more. No less than Newt Gingrich himself was for this idea a few years ago -- do you really think he would have supported some giant Democratic plot to do the same thing now? I just want to make this point clear as crystal here for everyone -- nobody's planning on killing Granny. The very idea is as abhorrent and disgusting as it is ridiculous. It is false. It is a lie and a smear by people who simply do not know what they're talking about. Next question."
Now, quick, name me a Democrat who has answered such a query in such a fashion in the past week. I fully admit I may have missed someone, so please, please, tell me someone has said something even remotely like this.
Call a tantrum a tantrum
If protesters are behaving like children, then point it out. If someone at a town hall meeting wants to ask a question, and get a response, no problem -- no matter what the question. That is the whole purpose of a town hall and the whole purpose of the First Amendment.
But if the only thing the person wants to do is throw a tantrum for the cameras, don't be afraid to point it out.
Most Americans -- no matter what their politics are -- were brought up knowing what adult behavior is supposed to be. Democrats need to point out when behavior is childish (or even infantile) when appropriate.
Imagine a Democrat being screamed at by a citizen, who simply will not shut up and listen to an answer. Now imagine this response:
"Sir, if you're going to just throw a tantrum and not allow me to answer you, then we'll all just sit here and wait until the security guards remove you. If you'd like an answer to your point, you need to allow me to speak. If you are just interested in shouting, then you're going to have to leave so we can continue an adult conversation. It's your choice."
You can't argue with crazy
Sorry to end on such a down note, but I have to admit here that the old saying "you can't argue with crazy" is sometimes true. Take a creationist preacher and a paleontologist (or any scientist) talking about evolution. Both come to the table with preconceived notions. Both are absolutely and firmly convinced they are right. Both feel they have plenty to back up their beliefs. And both, ultimately, think the other one is crazy. Nothing much will come out of such a discussion, other than exploring how "the crazy people" think in an intellectual way. Nobody's going to leave that table convinced of the other's belief system, in other words.
And that is also true in the healthcare fracas. Crazy is in the eye of the beholder, remember. You may think they're crazy, but rest assured that they also think we're crazy. And, for the seriously entrenched on both sides, nobody's going to be convinced.
I make this point to encourage Democrats to get back more on the offense (rather than just playing defense) to convince the people who are not entrenched on either side. Tell people why healthcare reform is such a great idea. Tell them why you feel morally obligated to pass this reform. Tell them stories you've heard about the horrors of the healthcare system in America. Tell them why what you're trying to do will change all of that. Tell them why you don't want everyone to fear bankruptcy for getting sick.
Stand up and make the case, in other words. If you allow yourselves to be dragged down into the crazy swampland of ignorance, you will miss the chance to hit the high road you truly deserve to be on at this point.
And, for the love of all that's holy, show some passion and emotion when doing so. This is a great moral cause you are championing. So act like it!
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground