The battle on health care reform turned considerably testier last week. Obama's public approval rating on the issue fell, polls showed Americans growing leery of changes in their health care, and Republicans and their corporate allies (or am I being redundant?) mobilized their followers to show up and disrupt public town hall meetings of a number of Congressional Democrats. In Maryland's 1st District, protestors went so far as to hang first-term Rep. Frank Kratovil in effigy.
What the hell is going on?
It's easy enough to point to those spreading outright lies on the issue (such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and most of the Republican leadership in Congress), or those nominally-public groups organizing the disruptions (like former Republican Congressman Dick Army's corporate-funded Freedom Works), as the source of the problem. But that's just stating the obvious - and skimming the surface.
Because after pondering the deer-in-the-headlights reaction of many of our "public leaders" at these meetings (I'm not confident they could lead the public out of a paper bag, if necessary), what struck me was: where are all the people who actually want our health care system changed? All the folks who are sick and tired of being screwed by insurance companies, of being denied coverage even when they have insurance, or of paying sky-high prices for drugs while pharmaceutical companies make out like bandits? Where are they?
I'm not even talking about organized liberal or progressive groups, although as many have noted it would surely be helpful if they attended the meetings as well. I'm just talking about the general public. I've been at public meetings before with unruly individuals, and I can assure you if the majority really want to hear the presentation, if they are truly engaged, they will find a way to shut up the disrupters themselves.
Therein, I believe, lies the problem: the vast majority of Americans who care about this issue are simply not engaged.
And can you blame them? How many people reading this column, for instance, could describe what's being debated in Congress in any greater depth than vague concepts such as "public option?" Who can name the basic operating principles behind any competing plans, or how insurance companies will be reigned in, or how drug costs will be controlled? Who has any real idea what the final deal will cost, or who will get the bill?
Hell, the Congressional Democrats I've seen interviewed recently can't even explain it. Yet we are being urged by them and President Obama to support "reform" - without having any real idea what that means. How excited can anyone get about that?
Worse still, for anyone trying to pay attention, you can't help getting the sinking feeling this particular "debate" is rigged and, not unlike the Wall St. bailout, when it's all said and done those who are causing the problem will remain firmly in charge.
Surely most Americans realize the elected officials making this momentous decision in Congress are simultaneously taking large sums of money from the insurance and drug companies. Do you need to be a health care specialist to understand that when the U.S. Senator who has the greatest power over any negotiated agreement, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana), received more than $3.9 million in campaign contributions from the insurance and drug industries in the last six years, something is terribly, terribly wrong? (Figures courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics.)
Now it seems that President Obama is in on the game too, as it was recently revealed by the New York Times that his White House has been having secret meetings, and possibly cutting some sort of deal, with former Democrat Congressman - turned- Republican-turned-corporate exec Billy Tauzin, the head honcho at Pharma. (The same guy who negotiated his multi-million dollar salary while he was in Congress crafting the Medicare prescription drug plan - which worked out quite well for the drug companies, thank you very much.)
Such meetings are a 180 degree reversal of Mr. Obama's campaign promises, which included not only going after the pharmaceutical industry (as opposed to cozying up to them), but also holding any health care negotiations "on C-Span" so people could see who was advocating for them and who was advocating for corporate profit.
Adding significant insult to injury, the Obama Administration has now resorted to the Bush-Cheney ruse of refusing to make public the White House visitor log - just like when his predecessors wouldn't tell us which oil company execs were "advising" their energy policy.
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So politics, it appears, continues as usual. Can you blame people for losing hope - or at the very least interest?
The sad truth is that Democrats have mostly themselves to blame for this current morass. If they had been willing to regularly articulate and forcefully defend the huge success of Medicare for the past 40 years, they wouldn't have to be dealing with so many frightened - and frightfully uninformed - people right now, such as the gentleman at a recent town hall meeting who demanded his representative "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" (Medicare is, of course, the 100% government run health care program for the elderly.)
And if Democrats were willing to discuss, let alone advocate, the obvious and logical extension of Medicare, a single payer health care plan for all Americans, there would at least be a coherent, understandable progressive vision for health care that ordinary Americans (not the folks who listen to Glenn Beck, but the rest of us) could unite around at these town hall meetings. But despite its support by large majorities of the American people, President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership have ruled single-payer "off the table" from the get-go.
And if the Democrats had ever done anything real on campaign finance reform, they wouldn't be looking at leading members of their own party being just as bought off by the health industry as the average Republican.
But none of this has happened, so instead we have the spectacle of Obama and the Democrats in Congress - who control Congress, lest we forget - compromising right and left (but mostly right) on health care since the debate began. And they continue to seek "bi-partisan" agreement and "industry buy-in" even as the Republicans are telling them to shove it, and the health care industry mounts campaigns against reform.
And what's their response to this latest round of town hall bullying by the minority party? Incredibly enough, many Democrats appear to be backing away from the public option altogether - the only policy shard that makes any health care reform package even marginally worthwhile.
The late, great Senator Paul Wellstone (D- Minnesota) once said "If you don't fight hard enough for the things you believe in, at some point you have to realize you don't really believe in them."
Can you name anything - anything - in this health care battle that Democrats have been willing to fight for? Like really go to the mat for?
Given their unwillingness to fight for anything, is it not possible that they are actually more or less okay with the health care system the way it is, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding? A deal which for them includes not only their own generous government-funded health care coverage, but millions in contributions from the very health insurance and drug corporations they will leave in charge. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
Of course Wellstone's quote applies to the rest of us as well, and the only thing that might put some fight back in the Democrats is if we constantly harangue them. Some right-minded members of Congress have managed to force a vote on single payer in the House in September. Make it your mission this August to contact your Representative regularly and demand that they vote for single payer health care. Tell your Senators too. Go to their town hall meetings, and to their offices as well, now that they are on break.
And when you talk to them or their staff, don't worry about their political calculations, or them you're okay with a weak public option. Just demand single payer.
Believe me, they will figure out how to find a compromise all on their own.
Gordon Clark is the former national Executive Director of Peace Action, the nation's largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization. He has also served as Field Director for Public Citizen's Congress Watch, and ran for U.S. Congress in 2008 in Maryland's 8th District.