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Democratic Senator: GOP on Desperate Mission of Propaganda, Obstruction and Fear

In his Senate floor speech on the health-care bill, the Rhode Island senator accused the GOP of fomenting the kind of paranoia that led to Kristallnacht and lynchings.
 
 
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This floor speech was delivered by the junior senator from Rhode Island yesterday, as the Senate remained in session to debate the health-care bill before a procedural vote that will bring the bill to the Senate floor later this week. References to "Madam President" or "Mr. President" refer to the senator who is presiding over the body at the time of the senator's comments. When Whitehouse began speaking, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was presiding; when he finished up, it was one of the male senators wielding the gavel. Transcription and links added by AlterNet.

Madam President, as we are here in the Senate today, Washington rests under a blanket of snow, reminding us here of the Christmas spirit across the nation -- the spirit that is bringing families happily together for the holidays. Unfortunately, a different spirit has descended on this Senate. The spirit that has descended on the Senate is one described by Chief Justice John Marshall back in the Burr trial: "those malignant and vindictive passions which rage in the bosoms of contending parties struggling for power."

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Hofstadter captured some examples in his famous essay, " The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

The "malignant and vindictive passions" often arise, he points out, when an aggrieved minority believes that "America has been largely taken away from them and their kind. Though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion." Does that sound familiar, Madam President, in this health-care debate? Forty years ago he wrote that.

Hofstader continued, those aggrieved fear what he described as "the now-familiar sustained conspiracy" -- familiar then, 40 years ago; persistent now -- "whose supposed purpose," Hofstadter described, "is to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism." Again, familiar words here today.

More than 50 years ago, he wrote of the dangers of an aggrieved right-wing minority with the power to create what he called "a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible."

A political environment "in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible."

The malignant and vindictive passions that have descended on the Senate are busily creating just such a political climate. Far from appealing to the better angels of our nature, too many colleagues are embarked on a desperate, no-holds-barred mission of propaganda, falsehood, obstruction and fear.

History cautions us of the excesses to which these malignant, vindictive passions can ultimately lead. Tumbrels have rolled through taunting crowds. Broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets. Strange fruit has hung from Southern trees. Even this great institution of government that we share has cowered before a tail-gunner waving secret lists. Those malignant movements rightly earned what Lord Acton called "the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict upon wrong."

But history also reminds us that in the heat of those vindictive passions, some people earnestly believed they were justified. Such is the human capacity for intoxication by those malignant and vindictive political passions Chief Justice Marshall described. I ask my colleagues to consider what judgment history will inflict on this current spirit that has descended on the Senate. Let's look at what current observers are saying as a possible earlier indicator of the judgment history will inflict.

Recently the editor of the Manchester Journal-Inquirer editorial page wrote of the current GOP, which he called "this once-great but now mostly shameful party," that it "has gone crazy," "is more and more dominated by the lunatic fringe," and has "poisoned itself with hate." He concluded, "They no longer want to govern; they want to emote."

A well-regarded Philadelphia columnist wrote of the "conservative paranoia" and "lunacy" on the Republican right. The respected Maureen Dowd, in her eulogy for her friend, William Safire, lamented "the vile and vitriol of today's howling pack of conservative pundits."

A Washington Post writer with a quarter-century of experience observing government -- married to a Bush administration official -- noted about the House health-care bill, "the apalling amount of misinformation being peddled by its opponents." She called it "a flood of sheer factual misstatements" about the health-care bill and noted that "the falsehood-peddling began at the top."

The respected head of the Mayo Clinic described [video] recent health-care antics as "scare tactics" and "mud."

Congress itself is not immune. Many of us felt President Bush was less than truthful, yet not one of us yelled out, " You lie!" at a president at a joint session of Congress. Through panics and depressions, through world wars and civil wars, no one ever has -- never -- until President Obama delivered his first address.

And this September, 179 Republicans in the House voted to support their heckler comrade, and here in the Senate, this month, one of our Republican colleagues regretted, "Why didn't I say that?"

A Nobel Prize-winning economist recently concluded thus: "The takeover of the Republican Party by the irrational right is no laughing matter. Something unprecedented is happening here, and it's very bad for America." History's current verdict is not promising.

How are these unprecedented passions manifested in the Senate? Well, several ways:

First, through a campaign of obstruction and delay, affecting every single aspect of the Senate's business. We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year. Never since the founding of the republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding the Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body. It is unprecedented.

Second, through a campaign of falsehood about " death panels" and cuts to Medicare benefits, and benefits for illegal aliens, and bureaucrats to be parachuted in between you and your doctor. Our colleagues terrify the public with this parade of imagined horrors. They whip up concerns and anxiety about "socialized medicine" and careening deficits. And then they tell us the public is concerned about the bill. Really.

Third, we see it in bad behavior. We see it in the long hours of reading by the clerks our Republican colleagues have forced. We see it in Christmases and holidays ruined by the Republicans for our loyal and professional Senate employees. It's fine for me, it's fine for the president; we signed up for this job. But why ruin it for all of the employees condemned by the Republicans to be here?

We see it in simple agreements for senators to speak, broken. We see it, tragically, in gentle and distinguished members -- true noblemen of the Senate who have built reputations of trustworthiness and honor over decades -- being forced to break their word and double-cross their dearest friends and colleagues. We see it in public attacks in the press by senators against the parliamentary staff. Madam President, the parliamentary staff are non-partisan, professional employees of the Senate who cannot answer back. Attacking them is worse than kicking a man when he's down; attacking them is kicking a man who is forbidden to hit back. It is dishonorable.

The lowest of the low was the Republican vote against funding and supporting our troops in the field at a time of war. As a device to stall health care, they tried to stop the appropriation of funds for our soldiers. There is no excuse for that; from that there is no return. Every single Republican member was willing to vote against cloture on funding our troops, and they admitted it was a tactic to obstruct health-care reform. The secretary of defense warned us all that a "no" vote "would immediately create a serious disruption in the worldwide activities of the Department of Defense." And yet every one of them was willing to vote "no." Almost all of them did vote "no"; some stayed away, but that's the same as "no" when you need 60 "yes" votes to proceed; voting "no" and hiding from the vote are the same result. And for those of us here on the floor to see it, it was clear; the three who voted "yes" did not cast their "yes" votes until all 60 Democratic votes had been tallied, and it was clear that the result was a foregone conclusion.

And why? Why all this discord and discourtesy, all this unprecedented destructive action? They are desperate to break this president. They have ardent supporters who are nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama. The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups, it is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist. That is one powerful reason. It is not the only one.

The insurance industry -- one of the most powerful lobbies in politics -- is another reason. The bad behavior you see on the Senate floor is the last, thrashing throes of the health insurance industry as it watches its business model die. You who are watching and listening know this business model if you or a loved one have been sick -- the business model that won't insure you if they think you'll get sick, or you have a pre-existing condition. The business model that if they insure you and you do get sick, Job One is to find loopholes to throw you off your coverage and abandon you alone to your illness. The business model, when they can't find that loophole, that they'll try to interfere with or deny you the care your doctor has ordered. And the business model that, when all else fails and they can't avoid you or abandon you or deny you, they just stiff the doctor and the hospital, and deny and delay their payments for as long as possible -- or perhaps tell the hospital to collect from you first -- and maybe they'll reimburse you. Good riddance to that business model. We know it all too well. It deserves a stake through its cold and greedy heart, but some of our colleagues here are fighting to the death to keep it alive.

But the biggest reason for these desperate acts by our colleagues is that we are gathering momentum. And we are gathering strength. And we are working toward our goal of passing this legislation. And when we do, the lying time is over.

The American public will see what actually comes to pass when we pass this bill as our new law. The American public will see first-hand the difference between what is, and what they were told. Facts, as the presiding officer has often said, are stubborn things. It is one thing to propagandize and scare people about the unknown; it is much harder to propagandize and scare people when they are seeing and feeling and touching something different.

When it turns out that there are no death panels, that there is no bureaucrat between you and your doctor, when the ways that your health care changes seem like a pretty good deal to you and a smart idea -- when the American public sees the discrepancy between what really is and what they were told by the Republicans, there will be a reckoning. There will come a day of judgment about who was telling the truth.

Our colleagues are behaving in this way -- unprecedented, malignant and vindictive -- because they are desperate to avoid that day of judgment. Frantic and desperate now, and willing to do strange and unprecedented things, willing to do anything -- even to throw our troops at war in the way of that day of reckoning.

If they can cause this bill to fail, the truth will never stand up as a living reproach to the lies that have been told. And on through history, our colleagues could claim they defeated a terrible monstrosity. But when the bill passes, and this program actually comes to life and it is friendly -- when it shelters 33 million Americans, regular American people in the new security of health insurance, when it growls down the most disgraceful abuses of the insurance industry, when it offers better care, electronic health records, new community health centers, new opportunities to negotiate fair and square in a public market, and when it brings down the deficit and steers Medicare toward safe harbor, all of which it does, Americans will then know, beyond any capacity of spin or propaganda to dissuade them, that they were lied to. And they will remember.

There will come a day of judgment -- and our Republican friends know that. And that, Mr. President, is why they are terrified.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

Sheldon Whitehouse is the junior U.S. senator from the State of Rhode Island.