Wednesday, August 12, 2009

That crazy thing that the crazy lady said.

It's been a good week for humorists like John Stewart and Bill Maher as the fringe right continues to offer up comic fodder with their increasingly vitriolic and non-sensical attacks on health care reform. Sarah Palin chummed up the waters real good when she jumped into the fray with her Facebook (omg!) posting in which she spoke of Obama's "death panels" getting to decide whether her baby gets to live or die. But as nutty and hyperbolic as some of these claims are, I wonder if the war of words is ultimately being won by the crazies simply by virtue of acknowledging them through satire and rebuttals.

The evocative phrase "death panels" has dominated the news cycle and public "discourse" this past week. From internet searches, to cable news pundits, to political satirists, to President Obama himself, much time has been spent (and will continue to be spent) debunking, ridiculing and poking fun at Palin's fear-mongering claims of what the Obama plan for health care reform would resemble. Oh, it's been a good time for us liberals, alright. There's little we enjoy more than a good dose of extra-crazy from Palin, except, of course, for the inevitable skewering she'll get from John Stewart. The problem, however, is that "death panels" has risen from the obscure to the well known.

For those with a brain, the concept of a death panel is easily dismissed as so far beyond reality as to barely register as anything more than "that crazy thing that the crazy lady said." But for those, shall we say...less book-inclined, the very fact that the phrase merits such self-perpetuating discussion is, perhaps, evidence of its truth. While not on the same level, obviously, the problem in dealing with Palin's remarks is not entirely dissimilar to the problem posed in dealing with Holocaust deniers. Certainly they have the right to express such a bizarre view (unlike in certain European countries where that's a crime), but how far should one go in opposing such a meritless argument before the opposition itself gives the issue some sort of false credibility? It's a tricky issue. Say too little and it seems as though you're afraid to defend the facts. Say too much and it might come off as overcompensation. The same predicament was also true on the "birthers" non-story. And it was also true on the Swift Boat fiasco for John Kerry. A small, ultra-crazy minority has tremendous power in the 24-hours news cycle to dramatically influence perception.

In the case of Palin's "death panels," I fear the war of words has been lost. Astonishingly, Obama's health care plan has been successfully associated with Palin's words. The left will associate the words as a prime example of the lunacy of those on the right, but many on the right---it's always impossible to know how many---will now associate it with the plain-spoken truth about Obama's plan. One of the main refutations being offered to Palin's words is that nowhere in any of the bills being reviewed do the words "death panels" appear. I've literally read this a dozen times in mainstream articles. While that's true, of course, it's one of the most pointless truths I've ever read. If anything, using that to refute Palin's claims only makes her seem saner. Even the dumbest of the dumb are smart enough to know that Obama wouldn't use those words in the bill...even if that was his intention. Making this argument only makes it seem even more so that Palin is cutting through the legalese to tell it like it is.

Some would say that Palin's remarks are a good thing...that they make the right seem crazy, and that they force the left (and the media) to give a clearer explanation of what the plan would really do. Wishful thinking. The battle for health care reform is not going to be waged over specifics---at least not in the public domain. I consider myself a bright fellow who has read a good deal about health care these last few weeks, but even I feel ignorant in the face of such complex issues. I understand the broad strokes, but the finer points are, for the most part, incomprehensible to all those but an extreme minority. No, the battle for health care reform will be won with perception, not necessarily truth. Right now, the prevailing perception, artfully created by the right, is that the plan is dangerous, expensive, and ill-advised. Some of that perception is valid. Most is not.

My advice for President Obama at his town hall meeting (provided the audience allows him to speak) is to spend more time addressing the valid concerns (cost mostly), dismiss the invalid perceptions with little comment (death panels), and focus more on what this is really about: COMPASSION (no, not reparations, Glenn Beck). In the end, I think Obama's greatest argument for health care reform rests on his ability to convince America this is the right thing to do...the Christian thing to do, if that's your guiding principle. Obama excelled during the campaign at getting people to imagine themselves as part of a greater whole. That's what he needs to do here. The average voter has a hard time envisioning how this will help themselves, even if it does so in the long-term. No, it's far easier to get the average voter to envision it helping the millions of uninsured adults, seniors and children who would immediately benefit from reform. And that should be the focus. Doing what's right. Helping those who need help. Caring for the sickest, weakest, most wretched among us. It's a patriotic argument, it's a religious argument, and it's a moral argument. We must do what's right.

That's the perception Obama must continue to drill home. We can laugh at Sarah Palin's lunacy all we want, but those jokes may end up written on the tombstone for health care reform: "Here lies the second major effort by Democrats to reform the broken health care system. They died laughing."


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