The healthcare town hall meetings certainly make for entertaining TV. When it’s not an election year, policy debates are usually drab affairs, taking place in forgotten corners of Capitol Hill with no television networks in sight, save for the lonely CSPAN cameraman. But this summer, whenever a Democratic congressman hosted a town hall on healthcare reform, thousands showed up, and it was almost always must-see TV.
In Michigan, a man stood in Democratic Rep. John Dingell’s face and accused the Michigan politician of plotting the death of his son, who used a wheelchair. Another gentleman, this time in Pennsylvania, told Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., that “someday he was going to stand before God” and then would get the judgment he deserved. A town hall in Missouri was disrupted when two women had to be escorted out the door for physically assaulting one another. A man carried an AK-47 around outside President Barack Obama’s town hall just because he could.
High-profile Republicans have almost universally endorsed the town hall calamity because they see it as a means to the end of stopping the Democrats’ healthcare reforms. But encouraging such craziness will only hinder the GOP in the long term. Republicans have been flirting with their right-wing cousins ever since losing power last November — and not just in the healthcare debate.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., claimed that the AmeriCorps, the domestic arm of the Peace Corps, could eventually utilize “re-education camps” (ironically, Bachmann’s son recently volunteered for AmeriCorps). And don’t forget the conspiracy theory that just won’t die: the one that says Obama was actually born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be President. Never mind that this particular theory has been proven false by all forms of logic and investigation; the tinfoil hat-wearers will not give it up.
Actually, there’s a reason Obama has made only the feeblest of efforts to debunk these crazy claims. Independent voters are the kingmakers of American politics. Roughly the same number of Democrats and Republicans will vote and cancel each other out. But the candidate that can capture the most people in the middle of the political spectrum usually wins.
Centrist voters are naturally turned off by conspiracy theories of all kinds, and the more the Democrats can associate Republicans with the far-right wingnuts, the better they will do in the next election. Gravitating to the fringe is natural when your party is in the minority and searching for direction. The Democrats did it while Bush was President with persistent rumors that somehow Bush and Cheney planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. But even though one poll in 2004 showed that nearly one-third of Democrats believed such nonsense, no party leaders added this to their stump speeches. Barack Obama would not be president if he had campaigned on the “Bush and Cheney planned 9/11” platform.
The healthcare bill is a bad one, but it needs to be defeated with reasoned debate instead of shouting matches. The former will help rebuild the Republican Party, but the latter will doom it to more years of irrelevance.