scrubsLast night’s Columbia Political Union Healthcare debate boasted no special format: the soothing power of the free market versus humanity and logical responsibility. Their respective groupies cheered, scoffed and even engaged in some raucous Joe Wilson-ery.  More valuable than watching the news, less valuable than personally investigating the issues, but more time-effective than either – it was as perfect as perfect can be in dialogue on a contentious issue. So is Bwog’s empty, conflicted soul a pre-existing condition?

The Republicans agreed that the healthcare system is broken, but because of overregulation. By their account, a freer market and a shift to individual healthcare policies (not employer-based policies) should remedy the problem. They also took a quick jab at the Democrats, claiming that they desire a single-payer system, want to use the public option to take over the health industry, and are essentially reckless social experimenters – not the most constructive use of a debate, but at least no one started a semantics catfight.

Logically, the Democrats took the opposing stance with equal certitude and equally misused facts.   The healthcare system is broken and it is because of profiteering insurance companies who care more about making a buck than saving a life. Thousands are dying, millions are uninsured. It’s all so preventable with early-stage medical care, itself helped along by a public option, which would be cheaper overall than private insurers and eventually nullify its own cost.  “These are facts. You can’t argue with them.”

Jargon and numbers flew about faster than the audience could catch or calculate. There was a basic assumption that the audience would understand the terminology of the debate and that they would also be willing to accept their supporting evidence without questioning its relationship to the argument.  And indeed both sides occasionally forced each other to admit that certain core equivocations to their arguments were false ones. One high point was when the audience and the Republicans engaged in a shouting match over the meaning of the contents of a Congressional Budget Office report published that day. As the argument reached fever-pitch, one of the Republicans shouted out, “Have any of us actually read the report?!” The ethos of the debaters was severely harmed.  It was just like Congress.

All was made more tolerable by a few moments of absurd drama and passion. The Democrats made some dubious equivalencies – a mandate is like a law enforcing seatbelts. The Republicans made some unclear logical statements – a public option would not pay doctors as much, decreasing incentive to become a doctor, but it would also increase lines for doctors, driving up costs and demands for doctors? And of course, eventually each side sputtered out a few golden nuggets. From the Democrats, “There’s more money in giving white, rich guys erections than in AIDS medicine” in our system. From the Republicans, after the Democrats attacked insurance profiteering, “I’m sorry; I didn’t know we were holding up the Soviet Union and Cuba as economic models here.” And both sides deigned to answer a can-o-worms question on abortion coverage in a public option.

The two sides did find some common ground, though. Both agreed that the current policies on fee for service systems, pre-existing condition qualifications, and tort reform need to be altered. Both agreed that the healthcare system is broken. They just had opposite and irreconcilable ideological views on how to reform it.

So did this debate accomplish anything? Both sides are excellent trumpeters and they play a good show, but the tunes are tired, the melodies cribbed from someone else’s playbook.  The engagement was highly shamanistic, summoning up the terms of political deities and magic numbers. It’s an action movie. Walk in, watch some rhetorical footwork, feel amused, walk out. Feel a deep emptiness in your soul realizing that the arguments did not sway you in the least and left you feeling more confused and helpless about the future than ever before.

– Mark Hay