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Health Care and the New Civility

Posted on Jan 17, 2011

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

President Obama’s call for “a more civil and honest public discourse” will get its first test much sooner than we expected.

Having properly postponed all legislative action last week out of respect for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson shootings, the House Republican leadership decided it could abide no further delay in a vote on its “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” And so, as a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor explained, “thoughtful consideration of the health care bill” is slated for this week.

It’s disappointing that the House did not wait a bit longer before bringing up an issue that has aroused so much division, acrimony and disinformation. After all, their repeal bill has no chance of becoming law. The president would certainly veto it, and the Democratic-led Senate is unlikely to pass it.

Moreover, it was the acidic tone of the original health care debate that led Giffords, in her widely discussed interview last March, to suggest that we “stand back when things get too fired up and say, ‘Whoa, let’s take a step back here.’”

Putting off this largely symbolic vote a few more weeks would have been a nice gesture.


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But it’s entirely true that the Republicans hold the majority in the House and thus have every right to pursue the agenda they believe they were elected on. And let us assume that they truly want to show that we can debate an up-to-now neuralgic issue in a way that lives up to Obama’s bracing call on us to “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

How might those words apply to this week’s debate?

May I suggest in the warmest way possible that it would be an excellent start to a new era if opponents of the law would acknowledge that at no point did any version of the proposed reform include “death panels”? 

The sensible idea on which this incendiary phrase was falsely based once had Republican as well as Democratic support and sought only to make it possible for those with life-threatening illnesses to get good information from their doctors—if patients wanted it—on the various treatment paths open to them. Really, nothing in the health care debate was more destructive to honest discussion than the “death panels” charge. Can we at least put that behind us?

As The Washington Post reported, the Republicans plan to argue “that Obama’s health-care promises—including that the legislation would lower insurance costs and help spur job creation—have not materialized.” Could they at least acknowledge that the law isn’t even fully in effect yet?

And perhaps they should explain why it’s fair to hold the 10-month-old health care law to this standard while they insist at the same time on continuing the Bush tax cuts, which, after a decade, still haven’t produced the jobs they were supposed to create. Please note that I could have described the impact of the Bush tax cuts less charitably.

It would also be hugely helpful if the Republicans began to detail what they would put in place of the existing law, and how their ideas would expand coverage, hold down costs and contain the long-term deficit. Constructive alternatives are essential to productive debate.

The president declared that we can all use “a good dose of humility.” Absolutely. In that spirit, the Republican leadership could graciously change its mind on the rules governing consideration of this bill and allow some amendments to be voted on.

For their part, those who believe the new law is a large step in the right direction and that repealing it would be a terrible mistake should freely acknowledge that of course it’s not perfect and could use improvement. They should welcome bipartisan efforts to make it better.

Many supporters of the law already think it should cover more people, could usefully include a public option, and do more to control future health care costs. The truth is that nobody has a monopoly on health care wisdom and so, as the prophet Isaiah said, “Come, let us reason together.”

Give the Republican leadership this: They have set up what may be the most challenging test possible of our determination “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy.” May this week’s health care debate do all those things.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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sand11's avatar

By sand11, January 18, 2011 at 8:52 am Link to this comment

Killing the Health Care Reform Bill has only one purpose…defeat the government and Obama. That the American people are collateral damage is of no concern to the Republicans.

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By rjg1971, January 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Passing a law that forces people to buy something
most of them can’t afford, namely, health
insurance. Now that’s what I call “civility”. This
was originally a Republican idea that, like NAFTA
and Welfare Reform, needed a smooth talking
Democrat in the White House to finally get past any
Democratic opposition. And what an awful concept.
Health care will remain a commodity to be bought
and sold, not a human right that any truly
civilized society would guarantee to all its

It’s interesting to look at where there is bi-
partisan consensus and no calls for “civility” when
that bi-partisan consensus is likely to lead to
certain death. Like taking a cleaver to public
assistance budgets at the local and state level.
Show me a Democratic controlled government that
doesn’t do it. Or the witch hunt against Wikileaks
and Julian Assange, which has included open calls
for assassinating Assange and executing Bradley
Manning, after a tortuous imprisonment, of course.
I don’t recall any sermons about the need for
“civility” when Assange was the Goldstein of the
moment last month.

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By Chelsea, January 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It sounds to me as if EJ Dionne is on-board with this
health care “deform” sham.
What else would one expect from the Washington Post?
Perhaps Truthdig is not digging for the truth on this point.
I subscribed to Truthdig because I’m a Hedges fan—- but this story is disappointing—much like that of mainstream corporatized media.

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By the worm, January 17, 2011 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

Let’s be clear about the rhetoric around the ‘debate’ rhetoric.

The American people wanted a government administered plan like Medicare -
for everyone. (72% - CBS/New York Times poll June 2009)

The original “Health Care Town Halls” (remember them) were attended by
shouting, gun-toting Tea Party types intent on shutting down any ‘debate’.
President Obama sat on his hands during this period and did nothing. The
circus continued, but certainly no ‘debate’.

Next, Max Baucus became the “Health Care Kingmaker” and in this capacity
held “hearings” from which he excluded any person who favored “a government
administered plan like Medicare - for everyone”. President Obama sat on his
hands during this period and did nothing.

Finally, the House and Senate completed fashioning legislation that protected
the insurance industry, but did little to help the American people, saddled the
American people with more expense, ‘mandated’ the American people become
‘customers’ of the private sector insurance companies and required the
American people to contribute 20% to the overhead of the insurance companies
- by law such overhead could be used for lobbying, campaign contributions to
‘sympathetic candidates’, for sitting on “Boards” established to set rates, etc.
President Obama signed the law with great fanfare.

Now, where in the original process was there “debate”?

I would submit to you the whole process was orchestrated by both sides to
avoid “debate”, to keep the American people from learning the facts and
maintain the cozy situation that prevails in DC - simply accommodate the
establishment and they’ll peddle it for you.

The insurance industry is not about to let this piece of legislation go! It would
have to give up and guaranteed ‘overhead’ (read ‘profit’) package and hundreds
of thousands of guaranteed ‘customers’.

There may be ‘re-branding’ ,so the Republicans can take credit for certain
features. There may be lots of chest beating. But there wont be any “debate”. EJ
who are you trying to fool?

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By MrWebster, January 17, 2011 at 2:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Somewhat of a ridiculous question, but had to asked I suppose.  Of course the gopers will move forward on repealing Health Care Reform.  Their poltiics of nihilism was a big factor in getting them elected.  Why change it now.

And also, I will be willing to speculate that their base stands with them after the shooting on the use of violent and extremist rhetoric as the right wing propaganda outlets blamed leftists and held innocent the right and republican officials.

If you asked them about toning it down, they would reply “sure the left has to tone it down”.  They see nothing extremist nor untrue about what was said health care reform by the right.

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