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.
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