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Cathy McMorris Rodgers held a town hall last month, but defunding Obamacare didn’t win the room for her

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Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ summertime town meeting, surprisingly, turned out to be a rousing affair: Cheers, boos and one protester who was actually carried out as he shouted, “She’s a fascist!” And as it turned out, most of the questions at the Aug. 21 event, picked at random, were anything but “softball.”

Health care took up the biggest chunk of the hour. McMorris Rodgers opened by reasserting that she wants to repeal the entire law and “start over.” DEFUND OBAMACARE! — that was the partisan battle cry. She did have her supporters. One, who led with “I’m a veteran” (apparently presuming that being a veteran makes him an authority on health care), asserted that he too opposes socialized medicine and supports DEFUNDING OBAMACARE!

He then asked for a show of hands of all those who have been in or lived in a country that had socialized medicine. Drat! Over a third of the hands went up. So many socialists, so little time. Faced with this obvious insurrection, he shouted out: “Well, then why don’t you all just move to one of those countries!” (Kind of like the old Vietnam-era line: “America, love it or leave it.”)

Then came the curve ball, low and on the outside corner of the plate. The very next questioner, a woman, used her time to ask McMorris Rodgers a question, but also to respond to the anti-socialized-medicine line. She pointed out that our war hero had both veterans’ benefits and Medicare: “He is already living off of socialized medicine.”

Her comment was the biggest applause line of the hour.

Let’s specify: The Affordable Care Act no doubt will need more work. And how could it be otherwise? The gap between the parties precluded a tightly drawn bill. The Democrats in Congress wanted universal coverage, while the Republicans never deviated from their “exceptionalist” claim that “America has the best health care system in the world” — a claim that moves us right into the theater of the absurd. And we aren’t talking just about covering the poor; no, we’re talking about middle class people who have no institutional health care coverage, get sick and watch their life savings go out the window. (I personally know of three such victims, all hard-working.)

Alas, both parties seem to agree on one thing — the continued care and feeding of the for-profit health care industry, no matter what. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz reports that the health insurance industry has 3,000 lobbyists, six for every member of Congress, working around the clock to make certain that neither party gets out of line. Whether Nixon or Clinton or Bush or Obama, they all faced the same steep hill and extreme pressures: Don’t mess with the private, for-profit system.

The same questioner went on to chastise McMorris Rodgers and her party for doing nothing more than working to overturn Obamacare, instead of trying to fix it:

“It has taken the Congress a century just to get this far; ‘starting over’ is just another way of saying let’s do nothing at all.”

President Obama’s tactics during the debate over health care reform were flawed. What might he have had done differently?

  • He could have taken up the problem more incrementally, turning the exercise into a play on the old story about the frog in the slowly heating water. Make the opposition deal with the parental coverage issue, the portability issue, the prior conditions issue, then turn to financing all those changes and move on from there. 
  • He could have provided more guidance to Congress.
  • He could have devoted more time to research and analysis, so that when Republicans claimed that America had the best health care in the world, the absurdity of their position would have been obvious.
  • He could have talked more about the interrelationships between universal health care, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
  • He could have devoted more run-up time to the problems of cost containment.
  • He could have more effectively illustrated the effects of doing nothing, beginning as he did with the fact that 17 percent of our gross domestic product is spent on health care — by far the highest in the world — and ending with more discussion of the impact of health care costs, especially on small businesses.

All this criticism I’d agree with, but in a fundamental way, these are all moot points. We now know that Republicans had no intention of cooperating at all with Obama; no matter what he proposed, they would have opposed. They refused even to be instructed by the Congressional Budget Office’s findings (“CBO has their numbers, and I have mine,” said John Boehner, to which I can only respond “swell”). The GOP instead set out to wallow in demagoguery, the more the better (e.g. death panels).

Perhaps this is why Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ few noticeably awkward moments were clustered around the very issue she likely expected to receive the least criticism and opposition. 

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