05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Comprehensive Discourse Reform

Never in my life have I been as proud to be an American as I am right now, and yet at the same time I have never been more scared for my country. I'll leave it to those far more eloquent than I to revel in the passage of health care reform, which is a phenomenal achievement in the history of our nation and one that will save untold lives. I am firm in my belief that this bill will ultimately be celebrated by all Americans, even if only half of all Americans are celebrating today. Once the dust settles, and the massive barrage of lies flung gracelessly at health care reform by the insurance industry and Republican legislators are revealed to be baseless, we will look back on this moment with the sort of deep national pride usually reserved for Moon landings and Miracles on Ice. Until that day comes, however, there will be a great deal of noise. Though the ink has yet to dry on health care reform, it is not too early to ask, in the words of the greatest president of the modern age, "what's next?"

Next, this country needs to take a long look at the state of its public discourse. What the health care reform "debate" (such as it was) revealed, first and foremost, was the stunning lack of perspective and civility among those who opposed it. Here's how David Frum, one of the preeminent conservative thinkers and a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, described the bill passed by Congress on Sunday night:

But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

So how did Republican leaders describe a health care overhaul that many of them surely would have championed not so long ago? You know the story. "You're going to die sooner," declared Senator Tom Coburn, a doctor, on the floor of the Senate. On Glenn Beck's television show, Representative Steve King agreed with the host that the legislation was "an affront to God." The always entertaining Representative Michele Bachmann described it as "the crown jewel of socialism" on Sean Hannity's show. Representative Devin Nunes took to the floor on the night of the vote to accuse Democrats of bringing "the ghosts of communist dictators" into the House chamber, "continu[ing] the Soviet's failed Soviet socialist experiment," and "lay[ing] the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people." In a typical display of level-headedness and reasonability, House Minority Leader John Boehner equated health care reform to "Armageddon," a charge that Michael Steele wackily defended (as only Michael Steele can) to an incredulous Shepard Smith on Fox News on Monday afternoon.

Prominent Republicans who no longer have to run in popular elections paint a starkly different picture of the GOP's motivations. "Sometimes people fight you just to fight you," Bob Dole said of monolithic Republican opposition to reform, "They don't want Reagan to get it, they don't want Obama to get it, so we've got to kill it." To his credit, Dole encouraged his party to negotiate with Democrats on health care reform throughout the process. Another former Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, offered a measured response to the bill's passage, urging the country to "immediately unite" in an effort to make reform more effective. Candor comes easily when you're an ex-politician, of course, but the utterly reasonable rhetoric coming from hardcore conservative thinkers like Dole, Frist, and Frum is telling in light of the unending chorus of eschatological howls levied by their congressional brethren.

How does a party come back from Armageddon? I have no doubt that if John Boehner was presently retired from public office his commentary on health care reform would resemble the far more reasonable assessments offered by Dole and Frist. He doesn't really believe that making health care more affordable for Americans is Armageddon. He can't think that. The reason I know he can't think that is because Armageddon is where fire rains down from the sky and Jesus does battle with Satan as a prelude to the end of the Earth, which is at best a gross exaggeration of the provisions outlined in the new health care bill. Michele Bachmann might actually think that, but otherwise the Republican strategy of turning the gas all the way up on all of the burners is just that: a strategy. The GOP reasoned (correctly, I might add) that the credit for any health care reform package -- even one they participated in willingly -- would go to President Obama and the Democrats, and instead of taking a political hit in the interest of making medical care better in America they decided to put on a circus. The Democrats could have offered a health care plan comprised almost entirely of past Republican proposals, forgoing every truly progressive idea on the table, and it would have been fire and brimstone, Hitler and Stalin, death and your grandmother regardless. The reason I know they would've done that is because that's exactly what this bill was.

It will be interesting to see whether Leader Boehner and company opt to tamp down or ramp up the dangerously frenetic level of discourse in the weeks and months ahead. The optimist in me wants to believe that they'll regroup and take the rational route, splash a little cold water on their overheated zealot wing and realize that, ultimately, Americans stop buying the end-of-the-world shtick when the sun comes up the next day. That would be the smart move politically. Regrettably, my feeling is that listening to the Republicans' rhetoric between now and November will be like watching someone continue to blow up an already too-inflated balloon as the rest of us cringe and wait for it to pop. As I've written on this site before, I fear that the pop may be a horrible act of violence perpetrated by a revved up Tea Partier. I hope not. The pop may be a rejection of obstructionism come November. The only thing I know for sure is that to keep a balloon from popping, all you need to do is stop blowing, and let out some of the hot air.