Like most epithets, the u-word says more about the person hurling it than it does about the object of disapproval. So when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called opponents of Democrats' health care reform "un-American" this week, she became the focus of attention, not the vocal protestors at congressional town hall forums. In a column for USA Today, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer accused those who have showed up at rallies of "drowning out the facts" and pointed to a handful of over-the-top protestors among the many who are genuinely frightened by what the Democrats propose. But the Democrats' name-calling is backfiring.
A USA Today poll finds that a majority of Americans believe that "angry attacks" on proposed health care legislation are examples of "democracy in action," not an "abuse of democracy," and that these protests reflect concerns that "average citizens had well before the meetings took place." Nonetheless, most people don't like opponents who try to shout down supporters. Incivility -- no matter who engages in it -- still isn't popular with the public, but calling people who disagree with you un-American is the ultimate in incivility.
Unfortunately, the Democrats, especially the president, have created the problem they now deplore by trying to run campaign-style rallies around the country to gin up support for health care reform. They've packed halls with union members guaranteed to voice support and then been taken aback at the temerity of others who use similar tactics to organize opposition. If health care reform is going to be decided like an election, no one should be surprised when rhetoric carries the day and "facts" become in dispute. After all, if everyone agreed on the facts, we wouldn't need elections.
President Obama seems to believe that he has a mandate to overhaul the entire health care system. But his timetable -- he originally wanted a bill on his desk before the August congressional recess -- has made genuine debate on the issue difficult. It's no surprise that the public feels railroaded when the president insists he wants to spend more than a trillion dollars and change the way most Americans pay for health care.
Why the rush? The way the Democrats are selling health care reform feels a lot like a car dealer desperate to make a sale. The salesman shows you a shiny new model and tells you that you can drive it off the lot today, no money down, and you won't have to pay a penny until sometime in the distant future. What's more, he'll give you a great deal as a trade in on your reliable existing car. But the offer is only good if you make the decision on the spot. And, he doesn't have a copy of the actual contract so that you can read it before signing, but, not to worry, you can trust him.
Only a fool would buy under those circumstances, but Americans are expected to buy into something even more fundamental in the health care reform the Democrats are selling -- and to do so without a peep of protest.
The Democrats may have the votes to ram health care reform down the throats of the American public, but they do so at their own peril. President Obama's popularity is already suffering because voters have become wary that he's spending too much money and mortgaging our future. He's down to 47 percent approval in the latest Rasmussen tracking polls, and those who strongly disapprove of the job he's doing outnumber those who strongly approve by nearly 10 percent. But the president has three more years before he faces the electorate again, while many Democrats in Congress don't have that luxury. Those who won in previously Republican seats are worried, rightly so.
There is no reason why health care, which accounts for over a sixth of our economy, has to be entirely redesigned in the next few months. It's better to do it right than to do it fast. And there's nothing un-American about voicing honest concerns when our elected leaders seem not to want to listen.