Partisan mentality won’t fix health care

Shattered windows, vandalized offices, a faxed image of a noose and death threats ­­— welcome to the shadier side of political discourse in America.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. Two days later, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 passed the Senate. The more-than-spirited debate that health care reform stirred up shows no sign of relenting; efforts to repeal it are in the works, and there have been outpourings of both celebration and opposition.

The stakes are high and the subject can be incredibly emotional. Fundamental questions about the role of the government are central to the debate. But violent action and threats against lawmakers are inexcusable; such scare tactics run contrary to informed and rational debate.

No lawmaker in D.C. would condone such tactics, but a subtler — and perhaps even more corrosive — influence is at work there. The political atmosphere is charged, and extremely partisan. When the capitol was snowed under this winter, many joked that it wasn’t the only “deep freeze” in the city.

Realistically, Republican and Democratic legislators are not going to be able to come up with a compromise on health care reform that satisfies both parties. Debate and disagreement will always be a part of the political process, and they should be. But an intensely partisan atmosphere with debate that is often shallow, oversimplified, misinformed and attacking is simply toxic. Political figures on both sides have contributed to such passionate, yet unsubstantial, discourse.

The violence may have been undertaken by a few extremists, but political leaders must also remember that their high profiles require them to set an example for others. Recently, Sen. John McCain defended Sarah Palin’s use of gun metaphors, including encouraging opponents of healthcare reform to “reload,” calling them “part of the political lexicon.”

While it is doubtful that Palin actually wishes to incite violence, such language may be interpreted more extremely by a few, and should not be considered politics as usual. For a wide audience, it frames the issue as a battle to be fought with an “us vs. them” mentality.

That kind of thinking will not serve legislators well in the other battles they must face — battles that should not be fought against other legislators, but against the challenging issues America faces today.