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For decades now, the congressional debate over health care has been so distorted by politics and money that it has been worse than useless — it has been an active impediment to reform of a broken system that is too expensive, serves too few and rations care based on insurance company caprice.
If the conversation on Capitol Hill has been a national disgrace, what is going on in local meetings all over the country is more disturbing.
It is politics by thuggery, by intimidation, by propaganda, by lies. It is politics in which victory is measured not by overcoming another person’s argument, but by out-shouting it.
This, of course, is what powerful people and institutions prefer.
The conduct at some of the meetings — where people have been punched, mobs have pounded on windows and at least one congressman has been threatened with death — has been like something from a nation where democracy is so new that freedoms are foreign, where people still believe that physical or verbal violence is a reasonable way to express frustration.
Much has been made of the “Astroturf” in these grass roots, of agent provocateurs pretending to be people with organic reasons to favor or oppose health care. That’s nothing new, and it shouldn’t be surprising. There are anti-tax billionaires, labor unions, insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, hospital conglomerates with lots of money riding on one outcome or another.
Sadly, there are also politicians and their financiers backing the screamers. These political operatives pretend that their interest lies in the righteous republican democracy of the framers, but their inspiration seems more prosaic.
They foment a kind of political gamesmanship indistinguishable from team sport, engendering the same kind of blind devotion from fans who occasionally behave no better than hooligans.
It is shocking that it must be said, but the wrangling isn’t football, or hockey, or even whether to bail out our banks. The debate over health care is a moral dilemma with stakes far higher than any found in any arena.
The goals of any reform should be to lower costs and to extend coverage. But to have even the slimmest chance to satisfy such goals, we must first begin talking with each other about what that system might look like.
Instead, in recent days, we have: advocates of reform pretending that it wouldn’t cost much more; Medicare recipients railing against government insurance; members of Congress dodging constituents; a former vice presidential candidate musing that the government would kill her infant.
So Republicans are left to defend the current system, which they admit is teetering. Democrats, meantime, must support a reform so complicated and compromised that it will accomplish little more than spending the nation into bankruptcy.
Those are the choices that emerge from a debate as completely broken as the current one. If America ends up with the health care system it has, or with one no better and more expensive, the blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of those people too busy shouting to actually talk.
This Landmark News Service editorial first appeared in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper of Norfolk. It is abridged here due to space.