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Health Care Reform Tests Promises of Bipartisan Politics

September 14, 2009 at 3:45 PM EST
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Despite campaign promises to change the tone of politics in Washington, President Barack Obama finds Congress and the nation still split over a range of critical issues. Gwen Ifill and guests discuss the roots of the division.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, one year after then-candidate Obama promised a new era of bipartisanship, the political tone in Washington and elsewhere remains heated. Gwen Ifill has our story.

GWEN IFILL: Rancor have become the hallmark of Washington debate, so much so that even the president weighed in on the matter on “60 Minutes” last night.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The truth of the matter is that there has been a coarsening of our political dialogue that I’ve been running against since I got into politics.

You’ve got a convergence of things: worst recession since the Great Depression, people feeling anxious. I think we’re debating something that has always been a source of controversy, and that’s not just health care, but also the structure and the size and the role of government. That’s something that basically defines the left and the right in this country, and so extremes on both sides get very agitated about that issue.

And so one of the things that I’m trying to figure out is, you know, how can we make sure that civility is interesting?

GWEN IFILL: Last week’s primetime example occurred during the president’s address to a joint session of Congress.

BARACK OBAMA: The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

REP. JOE WILSON, R-S.C: You lie!

GWEN IFILL: Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, who apologized for his outburst to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, said yesterday he will go no further.

REP. JOE WILSON: I am not going to apologize again. I apologized to the president on Wednesday night. I was advised then that — thank you. And now let’s get on to a civil discussion of the issues. But I’ve apologized one time. The apology was accepted by the president, by the vice president, who I know. I am not apologizing again.

GWEN IFILL: Although House Democrats threaten to sanction him, Wilson’s approach won support from many in the crowd of tens of thousands of protestors who marched to the U.S. Capitol this weekend. Government, many of them complained, has grown too large and the president too powerful.

PROTESTOR: We don’t want your new health care. We don’t want any more taxes. We don’t want any more stimulus. We don’t want any more lies.

PROTESTOR: We’ve been mischaracterized as a mob, as terrorists, as racists, as gangsters, when really we’re just Americans who are fed up.

GWEN IFILL: New polls show Americans split on the president’s health care plan. And the divide extends to Congress, where few Republicans have signed on.

So why hasn’t the president been able to change the tone in Washington? And what is feeding partisanship throughout the country? For that, we turn to Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and NewsHour regular Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in- residence at George Mason University.

Congresswoman Jones, you are up there in the middle of it all, so give us a — is it me or do things seem extraordinarily loud right now?

The death of moderates

Ross Douthat
New York Times
It used to be that you had very conservative Democrats, often in Southern states, and you had very liberal Republicans in the Northeast. And both of those species have more or less died out.

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON, D-Texas: Things are loud. I think that the lobbyists and many of the insurance representatives are organizing the people who bring this discord, lots of misinformation out there, lot of untruths, and people really are worried.

You know, the economy is supposed to be doing better, but as long as people don't see jobs being created, it's still going to be a situation where they'll continue to be worried. But it's the worst that I've experienced, and I'm in my 17th year here.

GWEN IFILL: You don't believe, Congresswoman, that any of this is sincere grassroots activity? You think it's all organized by people who oppose the president, organizations, corporations?

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: Well, I think some of it is very genuine, because when people have neighbors and to get out and take the leadership for getting attention, they join it.

I think some of the people are very innocent in this movement that's going on, because they are showing up almost at any place, screaming, primarily not listening. So that's just the way a democracy works when people are upset and they're being led by a very powerful lobby that does not agree with what we're doing.

GWEN IFILL: Ross Douthat, are we seeing partisanship or polarization?

ROSS DOUTHAT, New York Times: Well, we're seeing both, and they go hand in hand. I mean, what we're seeing, in a way, is the working out of something that's been happening for 50 years in the United States, which is that the parties are sorted by ideology in a way that they hadn't in the '40s, '50s and '60s. It used to be that you had very conservative Democrats, often in Southern states, and you had very liberal Republicans in the Northeast. And both of those species have more or less died out.

And so now you have a much more -- you could say a much more rational system, where you have a liberal party and a conservative party. But what that means is that you're going to have -- especially on a big-ticket issue like health care -- real divergence, real heated debate, and real inter-party tension.

I mean, this isn't -- you know, George W. Bush came to Washington eight years ago promising to change the tone and saying he was going to be a uniter, not a divider, and so on. And we all know how that worked out. So I don't think it's a big surprise that, you know, Barack Obama's health care push has produced this kind of passion and polarization.

The hope for bipartisanship

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
It may be rational in theory to have a neat liberal party and a conservative party. But we see an awful lot of irrationality arising out of that equation this summer.

GWEN IFILL: So is bipartisanship too much to hope for anyhow?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, I think it's too much to hope for in the current political alignment. Given that the Democrats have such large majorities in Congress, you're dealing with a situation -- and, actually, the president made this point in his "60 Minutes" interview, where the Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate.

That means that the Democrats basically occupy the political left and a big chunk of the political center, so they're in a sense negotiating with themselves, and the Republicans are off somewhere in right field. So you'd expect that a large Democratic Party and a shrunken Republican Party to have a very hard time finding common ground.

GWEN IFILL: So, Richard, if you accept that, where is there value at all in bipartisanship? Why not just force things through?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Oh, my gosh. Let me go back to something Ross said, because it may be rational in theory to have a neat liberal party and a conservative party. But we see an awful lot of irrationality arising out of that equation this summer.

The structural -- you know, there's a reason they call it the House of Representatives. It represents the country and the culture. And as the president said, not only the political culture has been coarsened, the country has been coarsened over the last 40 years.

Forty years ago, people went to the House, in particular. They may have been liberals or conservatives. And they fought like cats and dogs until 6 o'clock. But at the end of the day, there were political incentives for them to seek out common ground. Consensus was not a dirty word. Differences were seen as something to be narrowed, rather than exploited.

Those incentives have been taken away in the current political culture. Cable TV -- I mean, we have cable networks that should be registered with the Federal Election Commission. We all know about that.

But it's not just cable. Radio, pragmatism, consensus-seeking, that doesn't move the radio dial. And so you have all of these outside forces, including lobbyists, whose business -- and I would say whose profitable business -- it is to pour kerosene upon those differences rather than try to put out the fire.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman, if consensus, as Richard suggests, is no longer what it once was, what do you do about that on Capitol Hill? Do you just forge forward in your own separate paths? Or do you try to find a way to one another and reassure the public at the same time?

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: Well, I don't think we should just forget it. I think there has to be some effort toward bringing people in, in to the discussion. I hear lots of complaints about not being a part of the discussion. I don't believe all of that, but I think some of that is true. No one likes to be left out when we are discussing various provisions in various bills.

I also think that people have to desire to get along and to be a part of a team and have very honest questions and the representation of their constituents and to look for answers. I don't see quite as much of that. I see more of an effort to be disgruntled, finding ways, gotcha-type of things to bring up at given times.

Obama's struggles with the right

Ross Douthat
New York Times
Clearly Barack Obama's race plays some role in the kind of -- you know, the kind of anxieties and so forth that are roiling the political right.

GWEN IFILL: May I ask you -- interrupt you and ask you this question? Is there something about this presidency which brings that out?

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: I don't know if it's this presidency; I hate to think that it is. But I do think that we do have a progressive president. It's one that probably many people didn't think he would become president. And many are having a very difficult time accepting him as president.

But I think he's extraordinarily smart, and he's very, very easy to work with. He's made an attempt. He's reached out to Republicans. And I think the very first time he came to the Hill he was insulted, but he still seems to be attempting to work with them.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Ross? Is it about this presidency? Is it about this set of issues? What has made...

ROSS DOUTHAT: I mean, it's about all of those things. And, you know, clearly Barack Obama's race plays some role in the kind of -- you know, the kind of anxieties and so forth that are roiling the political right.

On the other hand, if you look, again, at the last eight years of George W. Bush and the White House, I think it's hard to say that there wasn't an awful lot of this kind of anger, this kind of protest, this kind of sense -- I mean, again, the congresswoman is right. There are people who are having trouble accepting the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency. There were a lot of people who had a tough time accepting the legitimacy of George W. Bush's presidency, and not only because of the events in Florida in 2000.

So, again, I think the phenomenon is real, but it's something that has deeper roots than just the Obama presidency. And I'd make one other point just in response to what Richard said. I mean, I quite agree that -- particularly the media environment, with the rise of cable news, rise of the Internet and so on has contributed to polarization, contributed to sort of gotcha moments and so on. A moment like Joe Wilson's outburst wouldn't have gotten the attention it gets now, 40 years ago.

That said, I don't think we should over-romanticize the politics of the '60s and '70s. I mean, this is the era of, you know, George Wallace and Bull Connor on the right and the Weathermen on the left. I mean, we worry about political violence bubbling out of these protests now, but there was real political violence in America in the '60s and '70s. And in a sense, we've come a long way since then.

GWEN IFILL: Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, in fact, I'm actually -- let me echo something you said. Those pictures of the demonstrators over the weekend, you know, there was nothing said -- as offensive as some of those signs were -- that was worse than people standing outside the White House saying, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

So, I mean, this kind of -- the federation of the fed-up that we saw this weekend is of the right of the moment. It has been of the left in the past.

ROSS DOUTHAT: I mean, it's about all of those things. And, you know, clearly Barack Obama's race plays some role in the kind of -- you know, the kind of anxieties and so forth that are roiling the political right. On the other hand, if you look, again, at the last eight years of George W. Bush and the White House, I think it's hard to say that there wasn't an awful lot of this kind of anger, this kind of protest, this kind of sense -- I mean, again, the congresswoman is right. There are people who are having trouble accepting the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency. There were a lot of people who had a tough time accepting the legitimacy of George W. Bush's presidency, and not only because of the events in Florida in 2000. So, again, I think the phenomenon is real, but it's something that has deeper roots than just the Obama presidency. And I'd make one other point just in response to what Richard said. I mean, I quite agree that -- particularly the media environment, with the rise of cable news, rise of the Internet and so on has contributed to polarization, contributed to sort of gotcha moments and so on. A moment like Joe Wilson's outburst wouldn't have gotten the attention it gets now, 40 years ago. That said, I don't think we should over-romanticize the politics of the '60s and '70s. I mean, this is the era of, you know, George Wallace and Bull Connor on the right and the Weathermen on the left. I mean, we worry about political violence bubbling out of these protests now, but there was real political violence in America in the '60s and '70s. And in a sense, we've come a long way since then.

GWEN IFILL: Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, in fact, I'm actually -- let me echo something you said. Those pictures of the demonstrators over the weekend, you know, there was nothing said -- as offensive as some of those signs were -- that was worse than people standing outside the White House saying, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" So, I mean, this kind of -- the federation of the fed-up that we saw this weekend is of the right of the moment. It has been of the left in the past.

Censuring Joe Wilson

Eddie Bernice Johnson
D-Texas
I would expect him to come forth and make an apology to the body, because it was a reflection on the entire membership.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman, you're up there on Capitol Hill where there's discussion underway among Democrats in the House to further -- to censure, officially censure Joe Wilson for his outburst. Do you know if that's going to happen?

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: I don't. I have not been in any discussions about it.

GWEN IFILL: Would you like to see it happen?

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: I'm not sure. I think that, as a member of this body, to respect himself, I would expect him to come forth and make an apology to the body, because it was a reflection on the entire membership. If he does not do that, then I think there will be other ways; I'm not sure what they are. As I say, I haven't been in any discussion, because we got out early the next day, and it was not that much discussion about what would happen.

I had hoped that his own party would take some action and not leave it to the opposite party just to start some other big argument and get some of this hate-mongering reignited.

GWEN IFILL: It does sound like the arguments aren't over quite yet. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Richard Norton Smith, and Ross Douthat, thank you all very much.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You bet.

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: Thank you.