Barack Obama ran for office as a healer, a man who promised to listen and to seek bipartisanship in decision-making. Events of the past week have shown just how impossible a task that is.
Don’t take my word for it. Read Paul Krugman‘s column in today’s New York Times, “Paranoia Strikes Deep,” or Rick Ungar’s post yesterday on True/Slant, aptly (and remarkably similarly) titled “Palin-oia Strikes Deep.”
Neither is about the fact that just one Republican voted for the Democratic health care bill the House passed; representatives of the opposition party have every right — even duty — to disagree, passionately, about policy.
What they are about is something uglier: As Krugman notes, some of the protesters who gathered in Washington last week against pending House passage of a health care bill carried signs with photos of Holocaust victims in Nazi Germany. The signs, Dana Milbank reports in The Washington Post, read, “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.”
Paranoid fantasy is nothing new in the age of Obama. One needs look no further than the discredited cries this summer than health care legislation would mandate “death panels” to decide who lives and dies.
Krugman points out, however, that what happened last week in Washington around the House health care vote raises the venomous rhetoric to a new level. This time the nut cases comparing American health care proposals to Nazi extermination camps were participating in what was billed as a Republican “press conference.” Senior GOP lawmakers, Krugman reports, participated. If the style of protest troubled them, they didn’t let on, other than in tepid comments the next day by Rep. Eric Cantor, who said comparisons to Hitler “are not, I think, very helpful.”
Not helpful? How about offensive? Or perhaps the congressman might note that the signs grossly distort and cheapen history? But then, this was a Republican press conference.
Paranoia has long been deeply ingrained in American politics. After 9/11, leftist conspiracy theorists circulated letters on the Internet insisting that the Bush Administration had ordered the attack on the World Trade Center. In the 1960s, members of the blossoming right-wing John Birch Society saw Communists behind every suburban split-level. Examples can be drawn from nearly every decade of our history.
What’s different, Krugman suggests, is that the fanatics’ positions now are less and less distinguishable from the positions of the Republican leadership in Washington (although in the era of McCarthyism that was arguably true as well).
If disenchantment with the contents of a bill leads a Republican congressman to hurl, as Ungar notes, all 1990 pages onto the ground in front of the TV cameras, what hope do we as a nation have of working out policy disagreements on this or anything else?
Perhaps we are witnessing the throes of upheaval of the two-party system as we’ve known it for generations now. Whether it be called the Whigs, the Bull Moose or something a bit more contemporary, a new political party with some serious backing may be needed before this country can break its accelerating spiral toward legislative gridlock.
Or perhaps we should turn back the clock a few centuries and invite members of Congress to challenge each other to duels, instead. It might make for a smaller chamber, but at least it would tone down the increasingly ugly shouting.