Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Tenniel illus. from Alice through the Looking Glass

One didn’t have to be a political expert when Republican Representative Paul Ryan introduced his voucher plan to fix Medicare to know that it would prove a political windfall for Democrats.  After having spent months watching Obamacare get hammered for “death panels,” “health care gulags” and “16,000 IRS agents policing heath care,” Democrats had a Republican proposal that they could attack in return.  Currently they are out for blood.

In an April post where I invoked getting King Lear, I wrote,

It appears that a major strategy in the next election, as in the last one, will involve firing up seniors.  Frightened and angry old people can do a lot of damage.

And so it has transpired.  The Democrats won a special election in a heavily Republican district and now visions of electoral sugar plums dance in their heads.  As Gail Collins of the New York Times puts it,

There is no escaping our fate. We are going to spend the next 17 months hearing about how the Republicans want to kill off Medicare. By 2012, the current video on the Web showing a guy who resembles Representative Paul Ryan pushing an old woman off a cliff will look like a Teletubbies skit. By the fall, there will be ads showing the Republicans hacking their way through rows of bedridden seniors with scimitars.

Some people would find it delicious that the demagoguers now find themselves being demagogued.  Hypocrisy, always standard fare in Washington, is particularly thick in this case. (Here’s a Dana Milbank column on how “Paul Ryan Gets a Taste of His Own Shameless Demagoguery.”) I, however, find the whole spectacle depressing.  When the Democrats respond with their own scare tactics, they just become Tweedledee to the Republicans’ Tweedledum.  Am I politically naive in wanting them to take the high road?

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, of course, are the two characters that Lewis Carroll fashioned from a nursery rhyme for Alice through the Looking Glass.  They are perfect for the looking glass theme because, whatever one says, the other contradicts.  When Tweedledum says one thing, Tweedledee says, “Contrariwise.”

How like the current polarization between our two political parties.

In the nursery rhyme, the battle is over something ridiculously small:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle!
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel!
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.’

Let’s say that the rattle is Medicare, which each side claims the other is spoiling—or at least not fixing.  While Medicare is not as insignificant as a rattle, the differences between the mainstream of the two parties are small.  Neither party, after all, wants (or dares) to do away with Medicare.

Since I’m on this track, let me try out a Medicare reading of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” the poem that Tweedledee recites.  The Walrus and the Carpenter offer the oysters “a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk along the briny beach.” (The poem can be found here.)  The eldest oyster is too cagey to be taken in—why take a risk when one is comfortably settled in one’s oyster bed?  But all the young oysters hurry up and are promptly eaten.

Let’s say that those who are consumed by the walrus are those who are prepared to be eaten up by Paul Ryan’s voucher plan, which experts agree could shift as much as a third of Medicare costs to seniors.  And let’s say those who are consumed by the carpenter are those who are eaten up the exploding costs of Medicare, which many Democrats now don’t want to address.

Who is more culpable, the walrus or the carpenter?  Alice is unable to decide and finally concludes, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters.”

By the way, no one holds the eldest oyster accountable for failing to counsel the young oysters.  Does he care that his comfortable oyster bed may not be around for the next generation?  The young oysters are to be commended for venturing into unknown territory, but they must resist facile promises of pleasant talks and pleasant walks.

The battle between the Tweedle brothers also resembles the jockeying in Congress.  It is a ridiculous affair of posturing, and they are so swathed in blankets, dishpans, and the like that neither can get hurt.  After all, Congress has their own cadillac (and free) health insurance.

At this point, it is necessary to mention the limitations of my literary allusion.  The Tweedledum-Tweedledee analogy operates only if both parties engage in the same slash and burn tactics.   If one party actually tries to govern–I have in mind here how both Montana Senator Max Bacchus and President Obama tried reaching out to Republicans to find an agreed-upon compromise to address issues surrounding Medicare–then Tweedledum-Tweedledee becomes a false equivalence.  If there are many one-time Republican plans in Obamacare, including some once embraced by probable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, it is because there were people trying to find common ground.  It can take vision and courage to avoid simply becoming one of the Tweedle Brothers.  There have been politicians who put country over convenient political cheap shots.  Some of them are no longer politicians.

This is a shame because a monstrous crow is looming.  Think of it as Medicare going bankrupt in 2024, which is the latest projection by the program’s trustees.

Will the twins forget their quarrel and work together when the crow strikes? Will they realize that reasoned discourse and compromise are virtues?  If people are still pointing fingers about spoiled rattles, then God help us all.

Go here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter summarizing the week’s posts. Your e-mail address will be kept confidential.

This entry was posted in Carroll (Lewis) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • You have a great eye Robin, lol, this is just way to funny, lol, not the problems in the U.S.A. but the comparasions, lol, brilliant.
    Good day, WS

  • Funny and sad and essentially terrifying. But I like the Tweedledee/Tweedledum allusion anyway. Unfortunately, Robin, if Dems take the high road they’ll be evicerated by the Republicans. It’s happened before.

    I know it’s not what any of us want to hear, but ‘fighting fire with fire’ seems to be the only thing that works in today’s politics.

    I don’t know what the answer is.

  • Robin Bates

    I hear your frustration, Yvette, and I think I’ll write another post on this next week. I know that politics is a rough and tumble affair that can trample the mild. I guess we should get specific about what fighting with fire looks like. What worries me is losing one’s moral compass in the midst of the firefight–certain tactics become permissible because the other side is doing them and then where is one? And then there’s the question of how far one is willing to go: can one halfheartedly apply fire and thereby lose both the moral high ground and the battle. It’s like a friend of mine once said after I’d been taken to the cleaner by a car dealer: “There are two things you need to know when you’re fighting with a hog. One is, that you’re both going to get dirty. The second is, the hog loves it.” How dirty is one willing to get and who much energy is was willing to devote to being dirty?

    And come to think of it, the most successful car dealer I know–the mother of a former girlfriend of my younger son–was successful precisely because she had full integrity. (She sold high end cars and made more on commissions than the owners of the dealership.) And her husband traveled all over the world giving seminars on how integrity was the most successful and profitable business strategy.

    Along these lines, I wonder if there’s not something to be said about the moral high ground as a political tactic (in addition to it being the right thing to do). I watch politicians like Bachmann and Palin and Gingrich just make things up and wonder if they won’t, in the end, lose out to people who tell the truth. I see Obama doing everything he can to maintain his integrity and stick to hard truth and wonder if, in the end, that won’t be better than opting just for shallow expediency.

  • Susan

    I wonder if there’s a combination of integrity and shrewdness that should work in politics. And if there’s a certain amount of trust needed that the end game is worth the wait.

    As you mention in your comments, wrestling with hogs gets one dirty, and those who live by the sword, die by the sword. We can’t be naive, but neither should we engage in morally questionable behavior for a good goal. Here’s a portion of Psalm 18, written by King David, politician and bard, speaking of God’s way of walking this fine line.

    “To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
    to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.
    You save the humble,
    but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low.

    I like the fact that Jesus picks up on this when he agrees one isn’t supposed to roll over but be “innocent as doves AND wise as serpents.”

    In the original post I was caught by the fact that only the crow can keep the twins from fighting over lesser things. If seems as if a national tragedy or war is necessary to pull us together. One wishes that apocalypse wasn’t the only tool to move us into creative collaboration. I’ll be looking forward to the next post on this, Robin!

  • Pingback: Obama, Unconventional Epic Hero()

  • Pingback: Tweedledum And Tweedledee()

  • Pingback: The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland()

  • Pingback: Mitt Romney and Looking Glass Politics()

  • Pingback: Medicare Politics and Trusting Oysters()

  • Pingback: Is Trump Running a Red Queen Race?()


  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete