ince Sunday's vote in the House of Representatives to pass health care reform, at least 10 Democrats who voted for the bill have received threats. Some have had bricks thrown through their office doors. In Virginia, a tea party protester published what he thought was a Democratic congressman's home address and urged people to drop by and show their opposition. Soon thereafter, a propane line at the house, which belongs to the congressman's brother, was cut, and a threatening letter was sent to the home. Democratic Party offices across the country have been vandalized. A coffin showed up in one Democrat's yard. All this comes days after protesters hurled racial and anti-gay epithets at Democrats on their way to the pivotal vote and, in one case, spit on a congressman.
Republican Party leaders have publicly condemned these actions, and whatever evidence exists for coordination of these efforts, it doesn't point to the GOP. Indeed, the party cannot be held accountable for the behavior of every person who shares its opposition to the health care reform bill. But Republicans do bear responsibility for fostering the conditions that pushed some people over the edge. The strategy they have adopted in their attempt to defeat health care reform at all costs, and the tactics they have employed to do so, have fed the paranoia of a group of people and have given legitimacy to their worst fears.
Some are singling out a pair of Republican Web pages for condemnation in this recent turn of the debate. One is a Republican National Committee Web site showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded in flames, and another is a Facebook page associated with Sarah Palin that pictures the cross-hairs of a gun sight over the districts of Democrats who voted for the bill. Those examples are tasteless, but they're hardly the cause of this abandonment of civil discourse. The real culprit is a hysteria that has grown for the past year on the fringes of the legitimate debate about health care reform, a phenomenon that began outside the Republican Party but which the GOP has sought to channel and encourage for its own political gain.
Last summer, as members of Congress headed home to talk about health care reform with their constituents, Republican leaders fanned the notion that the bill would set up government death panels to decide who got health care and who didn't, and they kept at it well after the notion had been debunked. What was actually in the bill, a provision to allow Medicare to pay for end-of-life counseling, was actually something Republicans had previously supported, but they seized on it for political gain. Encouraging people to oppose the legislation would have been fine, but cynically claiming that it amounts to government-sponsored murder helped convince a faction that we were faced not with a debatable policy decision but with something that demanded resistance at any cost.
The extreme breaches of protocol by Republicans on the House floor achieved the same purpose. When South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie" during President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on health care last fall, or when Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer yelled "baby killer" at staunch abortion foe Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, during Sunday's debate, it sent the message that the situation was so extreme that normal rules didn't apply. The same goes for the three Republican House members who fanned the same protesters who cursed and spit at Democrats on Sunday by standing on the Capitol balcony with signs reading "Kill the bill."
House Minority Leader John Boehner on Wednesday issued a statement condemning the threats on supporters of the health care bill. But even in doing so, he couldn't resist pulling for some political gain, saying, "I know many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening. But, as I've said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard - but let's do it the right way."
That is not what he and other Republican leaders need to say. They need to say that these threats must stop and that those responsible should be prosecuted. They need to acknowledge that the protests have gotten out of hand. They need to pause for a moment and see that what is happening now transcends partisan politics, and they need to put their country ahead of political gain. (The same goes for Democrats; President Obama's campaign committee should not be using these incidents in fundraising appeals.) The Republicans may not be able to stop these fringe protesters, but they need to do everything in their power to denounce them. And as we move on to new issues - immigration, financial reform, climate change - they need to consider how dangerous rhetoric can spawn forces they can't control.
Republican Party leaders have publicly condemned these actions, as do I. But maybe the Democrats should be listening to what the people want and listening to the letters that have been sent in. I guess a few of the protesters' letters were completely ignored. I hope they taped them to the bricks; maybe they'll be read now. I personally would never do such a thing; however, I might pick up a sign and stand in front of John Sarbanes' house or Elijah Cummings' house and protest. It's been a long time since I've felt so violated by our elected officials.