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President Barack Obama went nuclear this week in his attacks on Republicans trying to derail the Affordable Care Act, painting the controversial law’s opponents as fat cats who watch too much Fox News. Or freeloaders. Or the Koch Brothers. Or folks who think the Fugitive Slave Act and Obamacare are equally terrible.
That’s a slight exaggeration. Slight.
And always-pugnacious senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer took to CNN to compare Republicans to terrorists. And kidnappers. And arsonists.
Here’s Pfeiffer on CNN’s The Lead :
“It is not a negotiation if I show up at your house and say give me everything inside or I'm going to burn it down.”
“The Republicans have provided a laundry list of essentially ransom demands.”
“What we're not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”
That’s some take-no-prisoners stuff, only days before Americans can sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and the government might shut down if congressional Republicans and the White House can’t agree on a spending plan for fiscal 2014 by Tuesday.
The strategy is not without risks, like alienating good-faith skeptics about the law. But Democrats say it serves multiple purposes. It rallies the troops ahead of the 2014 elections (midterm elections are generally thought of as decided by the parties’ core or “base” supporters). It also turns signing up for Obamacare into a blow against some of liberals' favorite targets. And it aims to transform the discussion about Obamacare from a philosophical dispute about the government’s role in health care into a fight over benefits. If that sounds almost like an effort to turn Obamacare from a battleground into a popular entitlement, well, here’s another part of Obama’s message on Thursday at Prince George’s Community College just outside Washington:
“Medicare and Social Security faced the same kind of criticism. Before Medicare came into law, one Republican warned that ‘one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free,” Obama said. “That was Ronald Reagan. And eventually, Ronald Reagan came around to Medicare and thought it was pretty good, and actually helped make it better.”
On the possible government shutdown, it’s even simpler: Democrats say they're sure that the public will blame Republicans.
When it comes to Obamacare, the president said Thursday, “There are parts of the bill that some folks don't like. “
What kinds of folks? Here’s how Obama broke it down:
“To help pay for the program, the wealthiest Americans, families that make more than $250,000 a year, will have to pay a little bit more. Extremely costly health insurance plans will no longer qualify for unlimited tax breaks.”
“When uninsured people who can afford to get health insurance don't, and then they get sick or they get hit by a car and they show up at the emergency room, who do you think pays for that? You do, in the form of higher premiums because the hospitals, they got to get their money back somehow. So if they're treating somebody who doesn't have health insurance, they jack up premiums for everybody who does have health insurance. It's like a hidden tax of a thousand dollars per family every year whose got health insurance. So we're saying, well, that's not fair. If you can afford to get health insurance, don't dump the costs on us."
Fox News watchers
“We need you to spread the word. But you don't have to take my word for it. If you've talked to somebody who said, well, I don't know, I was watching Fox News, and they said this was horrible [the transcript records “laughter, boos”] and you can say, ‘you know what? Don't take my word for it. Go on the website. See for yourself what the prices are. See for yourself what the choices are. Then make up your own mind. Just make — that's all I'm asking. Make up your own mind.’”
The Koch Brothers (though he did not name them)
“Some of the tea party's biggest donors, some of the wealthiest men in America, are funding a cynical ad campaign trying to convince young people not to buy health care at all. I mean, think about it. These are billionaires several times over. You know they've got good health care.”
“But they are actually spending money, on television, trying to convince young people that if you've got the choice between getting affordable health care or going without health care, you should choose not having any health care. Now, do you think if you get sick or you get hurt and you get stuck with a massive bill, these same folks — they're going to help you out? Are they going to pay for your health care?”
“One congressman said that 'Obamacare' is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed. Ever in the history of America, this is the most dangerous piece of legislation. Providing, creating a marketplace so people can buy group insurance plans, the most dangerous ever.”
“You had a state representative somewhere say that it's as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act. Think about that. Affordable health care is worse than a law that lets slave-owners get their runaway slaves back. I mean, these are quotes. I'm not making this stuff up.”
(He isn’t making this one up, anyway. Here’s Republican New Hampshire state representative Bill O’Brien on Aug. 1: “What is Obamacare? It is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that allowed slave-owners to come to New Hampshire and seize African-Americans and use the federal courts to take them back to ... slave states.”)
"The closer we get, the more desperate they get," Obama said. "All this would be funny if it wasn’t so crazy."
It might be tempting to view this ugly debate as the latest exhibit in the case against Obama's 2008 campaign promise to drain the fever swamps of nasty political rhetoric.
But here's the thing about presidential candidates who promise to "change the tone" in Washington:
If they mean it, they’re naïve. Republicans are hardly blameless in the escalation of Washington rhetoric since Obama took office. And even presidents can’t change their opponents’ tone, after all.
If they don’t mean it, oh, right, they’re politicians.