Toward a Healthier Discourse

The long-fought war of words over the administration’s health care program and the budget deficit has once again brought the government to stalemate and impending shutdown.

Indeed, the words of both sides, the irresponsible rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, have contributed mightily to the present predicament.

An analysis which compares the various claims and counter-claims with the facts provided by the Associated Press reveals that what the politicians are saying is frequently so out of synch with the facts that one wonders if they themselves even know what the facts are.

For example, President Barack Obama’s own sales talk for his program has wandered rather farther from the truth than anyone should be comfortable with.

“Knowing you can offer your family the security of health care, that’s priceless. Now, you can do it for the cost of your cable bill, probably less than your cell phone bill. Think about that, good health insurance for the price of your cell phone bill or less,” he stated in a speech in Largo, Md., last Thursday.

That is priceless, in another sense, considering that the cell phone analogy can be made only for the cheapest of four major options offered by the new markets, the “bronze” plan. But, as the AP points out, those who choose bronze will have to pay 40 percent of their medical bills out of pocket through deductibles and copayments. A family’s share of medical costs could go as high as $12,700 a year, or $6,350 for individuals, on top of those cell phone-like premiums.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius last week reassured Americans that there’s nothing coercive about Obamacare:

“The big employers are already in the market. Their plans won’t change, and actually that’s one thing that we need to remind everybody. If you have insurance with your employer that you like, if it works for you, if your employer is a state or city government, a large employer, if you’re in Medicare, if you have veteran’s benefits, your patient protections are already in place. Nothing changes in this new market.”

Actually, a lot can change in this new market. There are no guarantees that people can simply hold on to the health insurance they now have. Indeed, everything they now have is up for grabs. Costs can rise, benefits can change, and employers can drop coverage.

Insurance policies that are offered must now meet minimum standards, covering more preventive services, for example, and larger employers that don’t offer insurance to workers will face penalties when that provision of the law goes into effect.

On the other side of the aisle, rhetoric and fact don’t line up any better.

Republican claims of a bipartisan majority to defund Obamacare makes a farce of fact.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declared on September 20 that, “Today, the House of Representatives did what Washington pundits only a few weeks ago said was impossible: A strong bipartisan majority voted to defund Obamacare.”

In the language of Mark Twain, it was a real “stretcher.” Not exactly a lie, but Cruz displays remarkable elasticity in his handling of the facts. His definition of bipartisanship includes an all-Republican majority aided by two Democrats, Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Jim Matheson of Utah, who voted with the Republicans. Only one Republican, Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell, voted with the Democrats. The 230–189 vote was blatantly partisan.

The state of the economy continues, of course, to be a factual pitfall for those whose minds are made up, whatever the data shows. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) recently charged that “We’re seeing our economy turn from a full-time job economy into a part-time job economy,” which he blamed on “Obamacare.”

However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people forced into part-time work — because they can’t find full-time jobs — was 7.9 million in August. That’s slightly less than a year ago, when it was 8 million. In that time, the average weekly hours worked also went up marginally. And unemployment overall dropped to 7.3 percent from 8.1 percent. (If Cantor had in mind that since 2007, prior to the recession, involuntary part-time work soared by 75.6 percent, that has nothing to do with Obamacare.)

During the Cold War, some American leaders practiced what they called “brinksmanship.” The term was coined by United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who stated: “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. ”

This term is widely applied these days to the strategy of legislative leaders in the current stalemate.

But there is one glaring difference between the brinksmanship of the 20th century and the brinkmanship of the 21st century. Instead of being aimed at an implacable foreign foe, it is turned inward, against the nation itself.

Instead of the communists in the Kremlin blinking at the last moment, the ayatollahs of Iran and the terrorists of al-Qaida rub their hands with fiendish glee over the spectacle of a U.S. government in mortal combat with itself.

For a government in chronic dysfunction — that cannot pay its bills, that cannot agree on the most basic commitments to its citizens, that is periodically gripped by paralysis — cannot combat the enemies from without. Such a situation makes Homeland Security an oxymoron, and the liquidation of Osama bin Ladin almost meaningless.

Some would say the politicians are too far gone, that Washington is so broken that you can’t fix it anymore. And that more than four years on, Barack Obama himself would admit as much.

But we cannot give in to shutdown and despair.

Perhaps the place to start is in pulling away from the rhetorical brink: to divest ourselves of the empty demagogic claims, the misleading hyperbole, the inflated or deflated estimates (depending on which serves the interest of the moment), the personal invective, the partisan shots.

However audacious it might sound, there is always hope.