It’s not easy being Speaker of the House. Just look at the Herculean task Speaker Nancy Pelosi has on health care reform. Her job is to herd 256 Democrats toward a consensus – Democrats who come from diverse districts and, as a result, bring to the House diverse perspectives. Her caucus is currently engaged in a harsh and public ideological battle over health care reform, and specifically on the issue of a government-run insurance plan.
It appears that Speaker Pelosi has decided on a strategy for dealing with this division, and it’s a page out of former-Senator John Edwards playbook. Last year when he was still a candidate for President, Senator Edwards displayed his flair for demagoguery by vilifying insurance carriers as unworthy to be part of the health care reform debate. Now Speaker Pelosi is going further.
Glenn Thrush described the Speaker’s outburst at Politico.com, Speaker Pelosi was asked about liberals objecting to compromise on health care reform. He quotes her response, "’The public option — that’s where the insurance companies are making their attacks — it’s almost immoral what they are doing,’" said Pelosi, addressing reporters outside of her office a few minutes ago.
"’Of course, they’ve been immoral all along,’" she added. "’They are the villains in this, they have been part of the problem in a major way. They are doing everything in their power to stop a public option from happening and the public has to know.. They have had a good thing going for a long time at the expense of the American people and the health of our country.’"
Remember President Barack Obama’s call for for a civil debate in which “we can disagree without being disagreeable?” Speaker Pelosi apparently missed the memo.
Making the insurance industry the immoral villain may be good politics. The American public and their representatives love having a bad guy to boo. Black and white arguments generate a lot more sound bites than do debates painted in nuanced shades of gray. Slotting insurance companies into that role is a no-brainer. The public doesn’t trust insurance companies concerning health care reform and the industry has shown a startling lack of political skill over the years. Let’s face it, insurance carriers have auditioning for the villain role for years. Congratulations, you’ve got the part.
But should they be cast as immoral? Immoral people are unfit to participate in civil society. They are cast out from the community. They are less than the community. Is this what the Speaker of the House means? Is it what she believes? Is this the kind of language she should bring to bear on an opponent over a public policy issue? And is it really smart politics to describe an opponent on an issue as immoral when that opponent, if she were being fair about it, is backing a great deal of the health care reforms put forward by Democrats?
Speaker Pelosi supports a strong public policy option. I believe she sincerely believes it will “keep insurers honest,” increase competition in the market and help reduce health insurance premiums. She could have used her bully pulpit to educate voters on why she believes what she does. She could explain how a public plan paying less than health care providers actual costs strengthens the health care system in the United States. She could have explained why a public plan needs government-bestowed advantages to compete with private carriers.
Instead she chose the low road of a Glenn Beck. Mr. Beck, however, is an entertainer, not a political leader. His job is to create controversy without regard to reality and, shamefully, to inspire the worst in people. Speaker Pelosi’s job is to legislate and educate. Hers is a much higher calling than Mr. Beck’s. She should be held to a higher standard.
Legitimate concerns have been raised concerning the efficacy of a government-run health plan and its ability to create a competitive market without destroying that market. Speaker Pelosi owes it to the American public to address those concerns. In providing that explanation criticism of the health insurance industry will be be warranted, but such criticism cannot be the entire explanation. Nor does the criticism need to be less than civil.
The Bush Administration made an art form out of casting opponents to its policies as immoral and unpatriotic. Speaker Pelosi used to oppose that kind of politics and she was right to do so. She is wrong to embrace it.