On Wednesday, the President Has to Move the Health Care Debate from a Marketplace of Lies to a Marketplace of Ideas

If outright lies end up killing health care reform, the Republicans will have won, but, more importantly, the American people will have lost.
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- John Boehner has a fetish that only allows him to become aroused when he wears 1950s women's housecoats with curlers in his hair.

- Rush Limbaugh eats pudding made from the rats that infest his home.

- Charles Grassley calls in sick to the Senate once a week to stay home and watch a DVD of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants over and over again.

Are these statements true? Of course not. (Or, to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine relative to how they generally answer questions about the president's place of birth, I should say, to the best of my knowledge, those statements are not true.) But why shouldn't I write them anyway? After all, the Republican opposition to health care reform has been built on lies nearly as egregious as the ones I set out above.

As President Obama gets ready to lay out his vision of health care reform on Wednesday, it is important to note that the debate on the issue to this point has been, in reality, nonexistent. Yes, there has been a lot of talk about health care, but there has not been an honest exchange of ideas. Rather, Republicans (and some Democrats) opposed to health care reform have flooded the marketplace of ideas with outright lies, and defenders of health care reform have been forced to rebut those lies, distracting them from the simple job of laying out the case for reform, which, given the financial numbers involved, is stark (you can click here to see some of the figures I cited in July).

I am all for a debate on any important issue facing the country. Even though I consider myself a progressive and generally support progressive proposals, I don't think the left has a monopoly on good ideas, and I certainly don't have full faith in the Democrats in Congress to lead on any issue. I think that reasonable conservatives can make completely fair arguments opposing health care reform (even if I don't personally agree with them), ranging from an idea that the nation can't afford the expenditure to an honest admission that under the conservative point of view, the people who have earned (or inherited) money shouldn't be forced to subsidize health care for those who have not has been as successful or fortunate. I would especially respect any Republican (or Democratic, for that matter, since many, unfortunately, fall into this category) lawmaker who would stand up and say, "Look, I get millions in donations from the insurance and pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, so I have to support their positions, or I won't have any money and won't get re-elected." It would be the most honest enunciation yet of the real reasons for members of Congress to oppose health care reform, and it would allow us to move past the lies and misdirections employed by these legislators. (Well, for the Republicans, it's also about the political gamesmanship, since they would rather see the country suffer under the current health care environment than give the president a "win" on the issue. Remember Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina proudly saying that health care will be "Obama's Waterloo.")

But the elected Republicans (and Democrats) opposing health care reform are not standing up for their principles. Rather, they are using fear and lies to try and kill progress on health care reform. (Back in June, I wrote about the specific lies and leaps in logic employed by the right to oppose health care reform.) And seizing on the inattentiveness and/or selfishness of the American people, the opposition has had some success.

Rather than arguing finances or moral obligations, or copping to being captured by the health and pharmaceutical companies, Republicans (and some Democrats) are lying. They are stoking loony right-wing charges that the president is a socialist and that health care reform is a method by which he is trying to initiate a government takeover of American business. They talk of death panels and mandatory abortions. They accuse Obama of trying to institute a Canadian-style single-payer system and point to (largely incorrect) figures on how damaging such a system is to the health of individuals under such a regime. Hell, they even had a breakdown when the president decided to address American school children.

(As an aside, what do you think these Republicans would have said if parents protested George W. Bush addressing kids? You can be sure there would have been charges that these parents lacked respect for the president and, of course, were not suitably patriotic. But when the president is a Democrat -- and African American, to boot -- suddenly words like "indoctrination" and "socialism" are thrown out by the right. Conservatives' treatment of Barack Obama in this instance has been insanely hypocritical, and yet that issue is never addressed in the media's coverage of the opposition to the president's planned address.)

But here's the thing: Whatever you believe about socialism, Obama is not in any way, shape or form a socialist. Even with the government's forays into the financial, auto and, now, hopefully, the health care industries, it is only touching a slight fraction of American business. Calling Obama a socialist is a lie, every bit as ridiculous as my opening statements about Boehner, Limbaugh and Grassley. Same goes for death panels, mandatory abortions and the attempt to move the U.S. to a single-payer health care system.

If the media refuses to present the opposition to health care for what it is, instead pretending that an honest debate is going on, and if the American people seem unwilling or unable to recognize what the Republicans (and some Democrats) are doing to manipulate them with lies, then what is the president to do? After running a pitch-perfect campaign, we have become accustomed to Obama finding a way to counter any problem in perception, like his Philadelphia speech on race in March 2008, after the surfacing of incendiary comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Things may be much harder for the president to control now. But one thing he can do is take over leadership on the issue from the Democrats in Congress, who have less credibility with the American people and who, to date, have not shown the strength and leadership necessary to shepherd health care reform through the legislative process.

Instead, it's time for Obama to take the lead on the issue. His attempts in his first year in office to enunciate key principles but leave the nuts-and-bolts drafting of legislation to Congress were understandable, but such an approach hasn't worked with health care. On Wednesday, Obama needs to cut through the lies and lay out for the American people exactly where the country stands with regard to health care. He needs to explain that we are on financially untenable ground, with health care costs for the country exploding at alarming rates, and with tens of millions of Americans without health insurance coverage. He has to say exactly, in painstaking detail, what he wants to do. And, as importantly, he has to enunciate clearly what he is not asking that the government be allowed to do. He should even use graphs and illustrations if they'll help. Whatever it takes.

(In an ideal world, I would be in favor of a single-payer, Canadian-style system, but if such an approach is not realistic in the current U.S. political climate, and if opponents of health care reform are lying and calling the current proposal an attempt to move the country to a single-payer system, then Obama has to delineate how these charges are lies, and what exactly he is proposing the government do under a reformed health care system, which is short of a single-payer approach.)

In short, Obama has to use Wednesday's speech to move the health care debate from a marketplace of lies to a marketplace of ideas. It's a huge task, and it may be too late, but it's the best chance the president has to save true health care reform this year. The stakes are high. If outright lies end up killing health care reform, the Republicans will have won, but, more importantly, the American people will have lost.

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