by Jules Witcover

The country won't have to wait very long to find out whether President Obama's lecture on the tone of political discourse has borne fruit in the wake of the Arizona shootings. His plea that "we make sure that we're talking to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds" will be tested in the House debate this week over the Republicans' bid to repeal his health-care reform law.

The opening indications are not particularly hopeful.

Not satisfied with repeatedly referring to that law as "Obamacare" with derogation clearly implied, the House Republicans are calling the vehicle for eradicating it the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act."

Democratic suggestions that the "job-killing" reference be dropped have been flatly rejected by its sponsors. The clear objective is to push through the repeal legislation quickly as a fulfillment of the 2010 GOP pledge to the faithful to do so.

The proposed action confirms that the effort is theatrical rather than substantive, inasmuch as upon arrival in the Senate, still marginally in Democratic control, repeal is almost certain to be rejected. And if not, Obama is poised to use his veto power to bury it.

The apparent Republican strategy is to score this political point first and then have appropriate House committees draft new legislation embodying the reforms the party has in mind. It's in keeping with the "repeal and replace" battle cry of the successful 2010 midterm congressional campaign, but offering those fixes in the repeal bill would have put more substance into what is now the initial step of meat-axing "Obamacare."

There is always a chance the much sought-for civility mutually proclaimed in the wake of the Arizona shootings can be achieved in the House. The Republicans can make their case calmly in the knowledge they now have the votes for repeal, and the Democrats can remain relatively placid knowing repeal awaits execution in the Senate or by presidential veto.

But the real test of any new civility will come when the Republicans offer the specific provisions they want in their own health-care replacement legislation. Retaining decorum may not be so easy in the House once the Republicans take aim at provisions in the new law for which there is a substantial constituency in the country.

The Democrats are already welcoming the opportunity to defend the protection of care for pre-existing medical conditions, the extension of dependent health care to age 26 and other features of particular interest to the elderly and the young. Efforts to cut or reduce the effects of such provisions are likely to imperil whatever civility exists on either side of the health-care debate.

The temptation to resort to misrepresentation in challenging the new law remains present and potentially effective. Prior to enactment, critics like Sarah Palin made hay with the myth that it would create "death panels" of bureaucrats deciding who would be eligible for end-of-life counseling.

Later, when it came to light that a provision for such reasonable counseling was included in the statute, administration officials quickly removed it, contending there had not been sufficient public discussion of the proposal. But an obvious reason was fear of resurrecting the "death panel" myth.

A more substantive debate, rife with potential for heated and angry discourse, is likely to be over the federal mandate on the uninsured to buy health-care insurance. This question already is under judicial review in more than 20 states over its constitutionality. The matter ought to be dealt with without rancor, but it has the potential of disintegration into squabbles over patriotism, class warfare and other catalysts for name-calling and slander.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has proposed as an antidote to deep congressional partisanship that Republicans and Democrats forego their tradition of sitting as blocs during the president's State of the Union address, and join in mixed-party seating. House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer says the idea would "help end the political theater of repeatedly seeing one side of the aisle rise in applause, as the other sits still."

The Republican leadership's reply was that members could sit wherever they wanted. And so it goes.


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