Playing to the middle

Last night's speech struck me as, above all, extremely shrewd. President Obama played the middle, as he does whenever he can, stressing the common ground of the issue and marginalizing what belongs to the margins. He began by stressing the moral and financial cases for health-care reform as matters of common principle that no one disputes. The distortions he then enumerated sounded as petty and unworthy of serious attention as they indeed are. His appeals to the American spirit, to freedom and independence, good-faith debate and the "sacred trust" of providing security to citizens, made it very uncomfortable for Republicans to sit with their arms folded acting out their refusal to cooperate. He even threw them a few surprise bones. Rep. Charles Boustany, offering the "response," was left with very little to say.I think Obama accomplished something simple but very important: he made reforming health-care and insurance seem like a common cause, a reasonable thing everyone ought to be able to commit to (as indeed it is). As Obama presented it, supporting reform isn't a matter of choosing sides. At the same time -- and this wasn't entirely Obama's achievement -- the Republican "side" came off looking smaller and less attractive than ever. When the speech was over Jim Lehrer asked Mark Shields and David Brooks for their reactions, and Shields immediately called attention to the astonishing sight of the Republicans "sitting on their hands" when Obama called out the "death panels" claim as a lie. At other times -- the Joe Wilson outburst; the pouty fellow with the "What Bill?" sign in his lap; the representatives waving whatever-they-were-waving in the back of the hall -- the GOP simply looked petty, at least to my eyes. And they did it to themselves. When, in the end, Obama made the case that the debate over this issue is a measure of our country's "moral character," it was hard not to feel queasy. Since the GOP was defeated in November, they've been scrambling to find their footing as the minority party. The tactic I find most remarkable is the simple fingers-in-ears posture of pretending they still represent the majority. It's what drives all the Obama-is-a-usurper hysteria, from birthers to Fox News: he's erecting a "shadow government," he's compiling an "enemies list." Anything to avoid having to admit that he won the election (and the popular vote), along with many other members of his party, and is now pursuing the very things he said he'd do if elected. That same tactic is at the heart of rhetoric about "the real America" -- Democracy only counts when the majority agrees with me; otherwise it must be malfunctioning. And you can hear it now anytime any Obama opponent talks about how reform is being "rammed down our throats"; how it's something "nobody wants." There are even people like Bill Kristol willing to claim "There is no health-care crisis." Boustany, in his response, claimed that "most Americans" wanted the President to admonish Pelosi and Reid and "start over." But by the time Obama's speech was over, Boustany didn't have much ground to claim to speak for "most Americans." Lest we forget: Most Americans voted for the Democrats, and this is what they promised they would do. So what I most wanted to see in the speech last night, and what I did see, was Obama countering that line of opposition without acknowledging it outright. In fact, we do need reform. People do want it. And if your representative is acting in good faith, (s)he'll work to improve it, not kill it for the sake of killing it. What did you think?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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