Marc Dunkelman is a vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Public options and cooperatives. Subsidy thresholds and individual mandates. It may be democracy's greatest blessing that such esoteric concepts can spark intense debate.
Those attending town halls meetings around the country this summer might have thought that someone wearing a Yankees cap had just wandered into a Red Sox bar. Or that Michael Vick had just walked into a PETA convention. The most important litmus test in Washington today may be whether you are for or against the Obama administration's healthcare reform proposals. Politicians, operatives, interest groups, and pundits, all of whom picked sides months and years ago, have come streaming out in full fan gear, with buttons and fliers, facts and figures, talking points and charts. In turn, they have mobilized the nation's most engaged citizens—the volunteers and activists, petition carriers and bloggers.
But let's not kid ourselves: If you have your TiVo set to record Rachel Maddow, or you've altered your commute so that you can tune in to Rush Limbaugh, your mind was most likely made up well before the town halls began. You are what we might call a "superfan"—an ideologically committed voter with a vested political interest. By contrast, most of the nation's swing voters (think soccer moms and NASCAR dads) do not have time to follow each witty retort from right to left and back. To the extent that most have a general outlook on national politics, it is that both parties are too consumed with self-promotion to pursue the public interest. If anything, the health debate's nasty tone has simply confirmed for them that Washington is as broken as our healthcare system.
And that's the problem. The widest chasm in American politics is not between Democrats and Republicans or even progressives or conservatives. The nation may be most split between those who are intensely engaged in the national debate and those who are not. The truth is that health insurance reform is daunting for the average American, and it is incumbent on proponents to reassure the public. But the real effect of the town hall cacophony has been to deprive swing voters of an opportunity to consider what is at stake. No single version of the bill being considered by Congress remotely resembles "socialized medicine," whatever that is. In fact, on the "how socialist is this?" scale, even the broadest reform proposal would be less "socialist" than the current system for issuing driver's licenses. (I have to take a government-issued test!? I have to carry a government-issued ID!? What's next—federally mandated seat belts?)
Whatever your thoughts on the state of American democracy, the current debate will not affect the outcome of the healthcare struggle. Republicans, dead set on popping the president's balloon, were never going to help shepherd through a bipartisan bill. It is not in their political interest to set down the cudgel of partisanship. Nor is there any real question about whether Democrats will support a reform proposal at the end of the day. It would be political suicide for all of them—moderates and liberals alike—to see the president fail.
The casualty of the summer's rancor will be that more and more Americans will turn away from politics. And moderate Republicans, many of whom have it in their nature to work in a bipartisan manner, will feel compelled not to for fear of being crucified by the superfans in their own party. Chuck Grassley, a wily Senate veteran who has been at the heart of efforts to forge a compromise, admitted recently that the protests at town hall meetings had made him more recalcitrant.
The superfans on both sides have every right to mobilize. And no one should have expected that the debate would be polite: American democracy is not an Oxford debating society. But the focus on conflict and hyperbole, in the context of an electorate already disgusted by politics as usual, will only serve to confuse and befuddle many of the rest of the nation's voters, few of whom have the time, or the inclination, to read the legislation itself.
The tenor of the recent town hall meetings reminds us why it is so difficult to accomplish real change in Washington. If an industry as plainly inefficient and dysfunctional as healthcare is resistant to reform, less wasteful sectors of the economy have little to fear. The pattern that has persisted for the last generation—rank partisanship widening the chasm that separates progressives and conservatives—will deepen despite an electorate and a president who had hoped to mitigate the divide.