Politics & Media
Sep 16, 2009, 10:29AM

The Left's Selective Memory

The disagreements about health care, and the mild protests that have sprung up across the country, are hardly an indication of an apocalyptic battle.

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Photo from TCOT in Arizona

A neutral observer, if such a creature exists in today's political culture, would, I believe, read the liberal (or "progressive," if you will) print and online commentary about the injustices hoisted upon Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress, and wonder if the purveyors of such opinions are either still so besotted by the President's victory last November or simply having a self-administered case of amnesia.

The media's still in a state over the historically tame public protests-whether at local schools and lodges, or in Washington, D.C.-about the administration's health care proposal, the fate of which is certainly presently unknown. Hendrik Hertzberg, a fine veteran journalist who currently plies his trade at The New Yorker, is in a mad lather, writing in the Sept. 21 "Talk of the Town," about the "tea-partying, town-meeting-disrupting, pistol-packing mensis horribilis of August" that "came as a profound shock to many who voted for Barack Obama." Hertzberg goes on to praise Obama's speech last week, meant to buck up Congressional Democrats, as "his best as President." I don't agree—while Obama is without peer as an orator in this political era, his grandiloquent flourishes are getting increasingly musty—but if others believe that every address the man gives is his best, well, that doesn't ruffle my feathers.

In addition, I agree with Hertzberg that Obama ought to toss the façade of bipartisanship in the trash bin and work solely with Democrats on his initiatives. He has the numbers on his side, after all, and White House photo-ops with the likes of Sens. John McCain or Olympia Snowe may look snappy on the front pages of daily newspapers, but they don't advance his interests.

What I take issue with is Hertzberg (and he simply echoes, although in more elegant prose, innumerable like-minded pundits) consigning those who disagree with the health care plan as part of a new "fringe," one which is beholden to-surprise-Fox News and a slew of similar modern-day Westbrook Peglers. Hertzberg writes: "The protestors do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche figures media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint." He then says that the "dominant wing of the Republican Party" is "increasingly an appendage" of this chaotic, foaming-at-the-mouth crew of entertainers.

A few thoughts. One, the protests (the "good" kind that personified freedom of speech and democracy in action) of the 1960s, especially those against the Vietnam War, were not inspired by politicians, but rather charismatic figures outside the mainstream, such as Tom Hayden, the Berrigan Brothers, David Dellinger, Mark Rudd and, for comic relief, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. And, in truth, the fear of military conscription probably trumped any speeches at rallies given by the above-mentioned.

Second, the bewildered grayhairs (and let's face it, the punditry is still overpopulated with men and women who have, as Bill Clinton says upon each of his birthdays, "more yesterdays than tomorrows") who use clowns like Beck and Hannity as shields are forgetting that while Obama's victory was decisive, a full 46 percent of the electorate voted for the other guy. That John McCain-the GOP's default candidate in a disastrous climate for anyone who'd been photographed shaking George W. Bush's hand-managed even that total is still surprising, considering his ramshackle and amateurish campaign.

Finally, as a citizen who is conservative economically but is just as appalled by the tiny minority of wackos who claim Obama's a communist or fascist (to say nothing of the noisesome canard that he was foreign-born and therefore not eligible for the presidency), it's offensive to be herded in Hertzberg's pigsty of crazies because I didn't support Obama and believe that the authors of the incomprehensible health care bills are out of touch with perhaps a majority of the country.

I have not tossed a tea bag in the air nor attended a town hall meeting and interrupted a politician's defense of the President's agenda. I don't watch cable television news shoes or listen to talk radio. However, is it lunacy to think that in the midst of an ongoing recession that an enormously expensive health care bill ought not be Obama's first priority? Is it lunacy to wonder if the government will manhandle private insurance plans and drive those companies out of business? Is it lunacy to question whether the government can operate health care with the fiscal restraint of an honest entrepreneur? And if the government does take control of health care-yes, I know there's an alleged "choice" of staying with a private insurer, but that won't last long-who polices the police?

These are reasonable concerns, shared by millions, and not the ravings of a Dittohead. Should Obama prevail with his objectives, there won't be a hint of insurrection from this quarter; after all, he's the guy who was elected. But in the meantime, spare me the invective directed at those who aren't in lockstep with Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Jon Stewart, The New York Times, and CNN.

  • Russ, I couldn't agree more and agree that the left is lumping all those who dissent with the teabaggers. The only point I think you miss here is that the right is lumping all those who don't teabag with Obama worshippers. Each side is equally offensive and wrong.

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  • It's troubling to ponder whether this battle for healthcare reform, however well-intentioned and desperately needed, might still be ill-timed and wasteful. And I was as delirious and "besotted by the President's victory last November" as almost everyone else I know!

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  • I'm not sure I understand Russ' measurement for why these protests have been "mild" and "historically tame." If we're talking about the size or the violence of the protests, then I agree. But my understanding is that the anger over these protests concerns the overwhelming levels of ignorance and hate. I attended the 9/12 protest in person, and while I agree that the focus of every speech was about the size of government and the amount of spending, those notions took a clear backseat to the ignorant and hateful views toward the president that I saw expressed on signs and t-shirts.

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  • Phil, I agree that there are kooks who hate Obama for who he is and only who he is, but invective directed at a president is hardly unprecedented. Bush was of course vilified on signs and t-shirts, and one of the enduring slogans of the 60s was, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today!"

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  • Russ -- Well, let's see. Some see this as some sort of reincarnation of the Progressives, but that dog just don't hunt. Andrew Sullivan sees racism as a motivator but not as much as what he calls the "projection" onto Obama of the fear that our perfect land isn't so perfect. I gather David Brooks mumbled something, but who cares.("Amateur sociologist" - exactly right, and a sloppy one at that.) It's easy to see the left-center talkies as being totally predictable, but nonetheless, many seem genuinely worried and upset. At heart, they, like the few remaining responsible commentators on the right, are policy wonks and good-citizen types, and they're concerned. Anyway, I'm no anal-list, I just know it smells like the same old fear and racism that hasn't changed a whit and never will and comes out of the ooze whenever the country's changing and feeling unsure. So maybe Sullivan comes close, though the racism is there for anyone to see. But the important thing is how long before this settles down, what pull does it have on the politicians, how is policy affected. And there I think you may be misjudging the power of all this ugliness. Without even an Eisenhower around to frown occasionally when the extremists rant, they are now driving the Republican policy as much as, if not more than, anyone else.And if all politicians are whores, the GOP pols are doing it for free and without protection.

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  • Russ: No, none of the concerns you raise are "lunacy." They do, however, fail to acknowledge the factors driving our current economic situation. Health care costs are crippling the economy; they are one of the primary reasons wages remained flat during the Bush years. David Frum, who of course is Republican, wrote about this recently. Major reform of the health care system should absolutely be a top priority precisely BECAUSE we are in the midst of a recession. There are, of course, legitimate questions about the government's role in reform -- though I don't buy the argument that everyone will end up in government-run health care as a result of THIS bill -- as there are moral questions about profiting from other people's sickness. This is an important conversation for the American people to have. Unfortunately, Glenn Beck and the tea baggers are much louder than you are, and they're not interested in any debate at all.

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  • No, it's not lunacy to ask those questions, but I still haven't seen a reasonable explanation of why the US government can't run a reasonable health care insurance program with fiscal restraint, and you haven't offered one. Why do you think there won't be private insurers after the government enters the arena? You're still welcome to mail packages with a private courier, aren't you? Yes, it is debatable whether or not the "public option" will actually cause costs to go down, but why fight the desperately needed health insurance and tort reforms?

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  • Your overall point is a fair one Russ; the problem with it is that so few of those with sensible, reasoned concerns about the health care plan are willing to clearly distinguish themselves from the rabid, vocal elements on the Right.

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  • Chris, I think you, like the media focus too much on the relatively small amount of vocal and sometimes rabid "elements" on the right. One of the problems in the health care debate, no matter what your view, is that, typically, it's turned into a political spectacle with the goal of "winning" rather than taking a measure, responsible look at all sides of the picture. I realize that this is difficult, given the sensationalism of the unrelenting media and the fractious Congress, but one can hope. For example, one more than symbolic gesture that the Democrats who are in favor of expansive health care reform could make is to publicly announce, as a group, that they'll forego their current excellent health plans and accept what they're proposing for everyone else. It's small, but often the symbolic means a lot, and might well sway moderates who are understandably utterly confused by this whole debate.

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