Dishonesty and cowardice

It could have been different.

As the health-care debate unfolded this summer, it could have been a time of national deliberation and education. The merits of the different provisions of proposed legislation could have been analyzed in constructive community meetings and responsible congressional debates.

Instead, we heard emotionally loaded terms designed to scare us, fact-free claims designed to terrify senior citizens, crazy arguments designed to trigger free fall in polls of support for changes in the health-care system.

The Republicans issued an array of lies—not deceptions, not deceits, but lies, which those of us in journalism dressed up in weasel words like “disputed claims” instead of just calling them what they really were.

The Democrats responded to those lies by showing their skill in what must be the official Democratic Olympic event—caving in.

Consider, for example, the now-well known lie about “death panels” that would be used to decide which patients would live and which not, a lie peddled by such great thinkers as New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaffrey, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, and former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Journalism, which was late in exposing health-care lies, nevertheless finally started doing its job, and from coast to coast the death panels story became the first of many lies to be exposed as a fraud, a lying misrepresentation by Republicans of actual legislative proposals that provided for optional consultations with doctors about hospice care and other “end of life” needs.

So what did the Democrats do in response to the exposure of the death panels lie? They responded to their victory by surrendering.

They removed the language on end-of-life counseling from the legislation, thus accomplishing what the Republicans set out to do in the first place. Cowardly Democrats, in effect, were so intimidated by the polarizing heat generated by the lie that they rewarded the behavior of lying Republicans. They made sure that Republicans would pay no price for lying to the public or the Congress.

Step by step throughout the entire debate, the Democrats backed up, weakening the legislation, softening it, watering it down, all in response to a pack of lies.

How can a legislative process in which one side lies and the other side crumbles produce good legislation?

The two sides made a great pair. Republicans did their worst on behalf of insurance companies, and Democrats enabled what those Republicans wanted to do. Little wonder the public has so little respect for the political process. The final health-care reform products have little in common with the desires of last year’s voters.

After years of the political system degenerating, the Republicans could have responded to the burst of idealism so many voters expressed in last November’s election by finding their moral compass. The Democrats could have developed backbones. Instead, the whole health-care debate became just another tawdry episode in the downward spiral of U.S. politics.

It could have been different.