John Edwards’ Dangerous Rhetoric

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Perhaps that explains why Senator Edwards has taken his populist message to a new and dangerous extreme. Senator Edwards is seizing on the recent tragedy of a teenage girl in California to demonize health insurance carriers and their executives. Late last month, Cigna denied Nataline Sarkisyan a liver transplant on the grounds it was experimental and, consequently, not covered. Without the assurance of being paid by the carrier, Ms. Sarkisyan’s doctors would not perform the transplant. After public pressure, including pickets at their office, Cigna relented. Unfortunately, Ms. Sarkisyan died before the procedure could begin.

The story is sad and complex. It’s easy, and lazy, to simplify what happened and ignore the subtleties. Should, for example, the doctors have performed the surgery and then worried about the money? Should they have recommended a treatment that only had a 65 percent chance of keeping the patient alive for six months? The Los Angeles Times, in its extensive coverage of the case, has done a good job of presenting these nuances. Senator Edwards has not.

Senator Edwards could have used the incident to define the difficulty of creating meaningful health care reform. Because as the Sacramento Bee’s Daniel has pointed out, Medicare and Medicaid might have made the same decision as Cigna — obtaining experimental treatment is always a judgement call whether the decision is made by a private company or a governmental agency.

Instead, Senator Edwards chose to use the tragedy as political fodder, employer language that would make the Association of Demagogues proud. According to the Des Moines Register, Senator Edwards is using the incident to ostracize the insurance industry from civil society. Here’s how the Register reports Senator Edwards as describing what happened:  “The doctors pleaded, the nurses pleaded, and finally, Americans started literally picketing and walking outside their offices…. And they finally gave in, and notified the family that they’d pay for it. But then a few hours later, she died. Because it was too late.”

This over-simplified description of what happened makes all insurance executives “Untouchables” in the mind Senator Edwards. Again from the Register: “The candidate paused for a second to let this sink in. Then his voice rose in indignation. ‘And people say to me that as president of the United States, they want me to sit at a table and negotiate with these people? Never. It will never happen.'”

I understand politics. I was Deputy Campaign Director for Tom Bradley in 1982 and worked alongside Joe Trippi, a Senior Adviser in Senator Edward’s campaign who has a significant impact on the Senator’s strategy and message (and who is someone for whom I have great respect). I understand the pressure to create an “us” versus “them” mentality in a tight election.

But Senator Edwards has stepped over a very important line. It’s one thing to debate the role of profits in America’s health care system. It’s fine to debate whether there should be private health insurance companies. Those are legitimate issues. But defining insurance executives — or anyone else — as unworthy to be in the presence of the president of the United States and, by implication, all right thinking people, that’s not legitimate. Once insurance executives are ostracized, who is next? Which executives or interest group is unworthy? Does the list continue to grow as the campaign heats up? Does the Senator’s enemies list include anyone who disagrees with him? This is a country built on tolerance of people and ideas. In descending into inappropriate rhetoric and a Nixonian mindset, Senator Edwards shows himself to be a politician who fails to grasp this vital aspect of America.

Maybe I’m being hypersensitive. But I’ve seen the “these people” used too often in the context of bigotry and stereotyping. (In addition to political work I’ve held leadership positions in organizations like the American Jewish Congress and the Westside Fair Housing Council). So I hope Mr. Trippi is not responsible for Senator Edward’s descent into this kind of de-humanizing rhetoric. I know him to be better than that. I don’t know Senator Edwards, but I hope he returns soon to the realm of civil discourse.

Senator Edwards is desperate to do well in Iowa. If this demagoguery is any indication, however, he’s doesn’t deserve to.