We live in interesting times. Back before special weekend sessions, when presidents power-napped through Cabinet meetings and Congress kept bankers' hours, March Madness was confined to college basketball. But now that we're saddled with a self-consciously progressive young chief executive and a Speaker of the House who thinks of herself as "capo di tutti capi," bipartisanship is a shadow of its former self, and one-sixth of the economy is now set for an extreme makeover. As a result, tea parties have outgrown the American Girl set, radio hosts warn about dangers to the republic, and the global village seethes with indignation from allies who have been told to acquaint themselves with the torn upholstery on seats in the back of the bus. Democratic operatives, many of them avowed secularists with an impoverished understanding of the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, daily give the rest of us more than a few reasons to pray harder.
Meanwhile, the friends and enemies of Obamacare talk past each other. The current scene reminds me of a joke about a grasshopper that springs into a bar. "What'll you have?" asks the bartender, who is quick on his feet. "We don't get a lot of your kind in here, but we actually have a drink named after you." Then the grasshopper says, "Really? You have a drink named 'Bob'?"
A similar disconnect bedevils arguments with my friend "Boris." He knows the arcana of health care better than I do, so his Facebook notes on that subject are tinged with polite exasperation. I hold my own in our occasional arguments by exploiting his weaknesses as a debater, the most glaring of which is his fondness for hyperbole. On March 15, for example, Boris informed all who would listen that "Every single poll that digs into what people actually want confirms that people want all the things that health care reform is going to begin to deliver to them. And the Republicans know that." Consequently, he added, "Fear-mongering, demonization, and outright lies are the only tools [Republicans] have in their arsenal to fight health care reform; and they're totally fine with using those tools."
The best response to that might have been a shrug and the kind of "ho ho ho" that sounds like it came from Inspector Clouseau. Instead, I bookmarked the tirade. I did not expect Boris to explain why early versions of the legislation over which he pants got nowhere until Democrats resorted to bribery and parliamentary sleight-of-hand. I'm sure he would say that the "Louisiana Purchase" and the "Cornhusker Kickback" were just the price of doing business with obstructionists. But If anyone ever asks me what a defensive crouch looks like, and whether it can be transposed from the sparring floor of a dojo to the paragraphs in an essay, I'll know exactly what to show them.
Note the line of attack Boris used. He's certain that anyone who has strong reservations about Obamacare is "fear-mongering."
Had Boris shouted that from a park bench in Chicago, I'd be more inclined to overlook it, because there are certain precincts in the Windy City where people still think of President Obama as a favorite son rather than an eloquent-but-unhinged nephew. Yet overlooking those insults might be uncharitable, because Boris is flirting with something that sounds very much like libel.
May I extend the grasshopper gag for educational purposes? Suppose a doctor, a politician, an economist, a writer, and an archbishop walk into a bar. The doctor is cousin to President Obama, and the politician is a ranking member of the budget committee in the House of Representatives. None of these people supports Obamacare, and none of them is hypothetical.
Can they all be fear-mongers? They're not even all Republicans. Dr. Milton Wolf, Congressman Paul Ryan, Dr. Thomas Sowell, Ms. Megan McArdle, and Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, I'm looking at you (I have to do the looking, because friend Boris is holding his hands over his eyes).
Someone off his or her meds might be thinking that the archbishop would "demonize" people with whom he disagrees, on the theory that broad-brush rhetoric tempts men of the cloth. But Chaput seems an amiable chap, and anyone who answers to a rabbi famous for saying "Be not afraid" makes an exceedingly poor excuse for a fear-monger. Worse for Boris, it's not like everyone else opposed to President Obama built a career on lying, either. Democrats are not the only ones with access to figures from the Congressional Budget Office. Representative Ryan, for example, was widely praised for his impressive command of subject matter at the president's Potemkin "health care summit."
As for the idea that Republicans criticize initiatives from the Democrats but do not propose serious alternatives of their own, the fact that even a professional provocateur like Ann Coulter has a health care reform plan ought to give pause, if "Democratic math" (that is, not counting when possible, and double-counting when necessary) had not already.
All this is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, and yet the people I've cited are routinely ignored by progressives because listening to them would interfere with progressive ability to make sweeping pronouncements. This weakness in logic does not confine itself to Boris, or to arguments over healthcare reform. Nearly every progressive outlet seems rife with attempts to pass insults off as arguments.
Earlier this month, for example, the free weekly tabloid serving my town published a cover story saying "Wake County Goes to Hell." Sure enough, the editor who smelled sulphur found something diabolical about a "right-wing school board" whose new majority threatened to "eliminate diversity as a factor in student assignments" and "adopt a strictly neighborhood (or 'community') schools approach." Imagine the horror. Imagine the non sequitur. Who knew that busing low-income students miles from their homes was so wonderful? Would a real champion of diversity have decided that hell is other people? And how is this any different from screeching about Sarah Palin as a symbol of everything wrong with the world?
Angst about alleged conservative heartlessness runs deep in the progressive worldview, and of course the conservative counterpart to that angst is worry over progressive brainlessness. Monster legislation throws these opposing camps into high relief. But this weekend's trillion-dollar question was and still is for Democrats: Do you see anything even a little implausible about "saving" money by extending mandatory health insurance and a retinue of new regulations to at least 32 million more people?
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