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The health reform debate is political theater worth watching

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A17

For all our bemoaning the tortures of health-care reform, the debate has been healthy for the nation.

Everybody's crazy aunts and uncles have been let out of their respective attics and basements, and it's good to know who they are. It's also been helpful for Americans to see how the sausage is made and figure out whether they really want any.

Last week's summit was not wasted time, despite criticism that it was only political theater. What's wrong with that? I like theater. I especially like the tiny details and what they tell us. In theater, as in life, details matter.

My major professor in graduate school, a scholar of 17th-century Spanish drama, used to say: "Always trust the artist." If there's a small white house perched on a hill, assume there's a reason for it. Consider why the artist put it there.

And so I watched the summit with this in mind. What did the actors in this particular play do and why? What did they want us to see? What were they trying to convey?

From the physical evidence alone, one could draw certain conclusions. If you looked closely, you saw that Republicans all carried the same briefing book with the same seal. Loaded with numbers and power points, they presented themselves as the party of reason. Message: Unity and discipline.

Democrats, who toted various binders and materials, presented a far less unified, less disciplined image and relied heavily on anecdote. Message: Caring.

What do people remember from the summit, to the extent they watched? They surely remember Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan hammering the Republican message about deficit spending in the health-care legislation. And, they remember New York Democrat Rep. Louise Slaughter telling about a woman who, because she had no insurance, had to wear her deceased sister's dentures.

There's nothing to laugh at here, obviously. If true -- and she dared us not to believe her -- it's a pathetic tale. Right-wing talk show hosts who have made sport of Slaughter's story don't get much credit for cleverness, but truly, sometimes an anecdote is too strange to be effective.

Maybe Republicans can trade Sarah Palin's "death panels" for Louise Slaughter's dentures and call it a draw.

As a political point, however, the contrast between personal anecdote vs. mastery of health-care economics is stark and telling. If you're in the market for competence, which vendor gets your attention?

Theatergoers learned a couple of other things at the summit. The Democratic spin that the GOP has no ideas was contradicted by the summit. And, the bumper-sticker slogan that the GOP is the party of "no" isn't quite true.

It's the party of "hell, no." There's good reason for this. Republicans feel the wind at their backs, not only because of polls, but also thanks to these unsubtle clues: New Jersey and Virginia both elected Republican governors; Massachusetts sent Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate.

And, two words: tea party.

Meanwhile, incumbent Democrats are in trouble. If they pass health-care reform without Republican support, those from conservative districts likely won't be returning to Washington next year. If they don't pass health-care reform, they may be tossed out anyway.

If you're a Republican, why would you want to fix this?

And yet. Does anyone really think that no reform is an option?

On one thing, regardless of political affiliation, everyone seems to agree: The gridlock now clutching Washington is unacceptable.

Health-care reform is now about the November election. It's about gamesmanship. And though the parties differ in fundamental ways that really do matter, a growing majority of Americans no longer care who's up or down, who wins or loses. A pox on everyone's house, they say.

The tea party movement is partly a manifestation of this perspective. And, contra wing-nuttery in the margins of the movement, most constituents are everyday Americans who don't think the federal government should control one-sixth of the economy.

This is not an irrational position, but rather suggests respect for human nature and chaos theory.

At the same time, more and more Americans are abandoning traditional political parties, with about 40 percent of the electorate identifying as independents. A perfect storm this way comes.

Regardless of whether health-care reform passes in the coming weeks or months, the debate has forced Americans to organize their thoughts. Come November, climate change is going to have a whole new meaning.

Talk about good theater.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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