'You lie' to 'die quickly': Lawmakers not short of sound bites in debate

Politicians have lobbed “garlic milkshakes,” described “Orwellian” behavior and questioned someone’s qualifications as a “black man” while attempting to score points in this year’s healthcare debate.

We’ve heard a House Republican accuse President Barack Obama of lying, while a House Democrat suggested he was tying to get “half-pregnant” on the issue.

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There’ve been comparisons to Nazis and the Holocaust, talk of death panels and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) dubbing one interest group “villains.”

It’s all part of the familiar Washington sound-bite competition that dominates big debates. The more outrageous the quotation, the better the chance of framing the narrative in the headlines, blogs and nightly news programs.

Perhaps no single moment defined the rhetoric of the debate better than when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) interrupted Obama’s joint-session speech to Congress by shouting, “You lie!”


His break from decorum drew an icy glare from Obama and an official rebuke from Wilson’s colleagues in the House. It also set off a round cyber-saber-rattling, with conservatives applauding the remark and liberals denouncing his behavior.

Democrats have been no less gentle with their words.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) drew guffaws and gasps for saying that Republicans hope Americans “die quickly” as a solution to the country’s healthcare issues, a remark from which the freshman congressman refused to back down, leading him to read the names of those he alleged died due to GOP inaction on reform.

The escalation of words and wild metaphors is reminiscent of the 1993 healthcare debate, said Robert Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. He said that while intense debate over healthcare is typical, the intensity has ratcheted up this time around.

“For the opponents of healthcare reform, exaggeration of possible worst-case scenarios and taking them to the extreme and putting them in a couple of scare-words is exactly what we had in ’93-94,” Entman said. “You’re certainly seeing some extra baking. They’ve certainly turned it up from 325 to 425 on the oven.”

Or in House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) case, it’s turning the dial on the blender when mixing it up with his colleagues over the contentious government-run health insurance option.

“I’m still trying to find the first American to talk to who’s in favor of the public option, other than a member of Congress or the administration,” Boehner said in an early October press conference. “This thing is about as unpopular as a garlic milkshake.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seized on a popular literary/Cold War phrase when summing up Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) suggestion that Democrats who voted to begin debate on the health reform bill would have some explaining to do.

“Now, that is really Orwellian. That is Orwellian,” Reid said. “Have a lot of explaining to do if they allow a debate to continue?”

Entman said Republicans have an incentive to rally a fear of change through more shrill rhetoric, while Democrats have to overcome any fear generated by the GOP.

“From the proponents’ view, they have the difficult task of overcoming the natural fear of change,” he said, advising Democrats to work toward framing the debate in a more polite way, lest they encourage a backlash by responding with heated terms.

“I would think that there’s a potential for a backlash against this kind of discussion,” he said. “If I were a proponent of healthcare reform, I think I would be staying away from the extreme rhetoric and trying to put the opponents on the defensive in a polite way.”

For its part, the liberal watchdog Media Matters Action Network has put together a campaign to gather and publicize incendiary Republican comments during the health debate, which the group’s spokesman said are meant intentionally to mislead.

But not all of the harsh rhetoric has been directed from one party toward the other. Democrats have tossed plenty of unfriendly words at their party colleagues during the past few months.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) directed a few at Obama when suggesting the president had too cozy a relationship with powerful healthcare interest groups.

“The Obama administration is trying to be, I don’t know how to put it, half-pregnant with the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies,” he told WNYC Radio in October. “They’re to some degree the source of our problem.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) also took a shot at Obama last week, telling the liberal Bill Press radio show that the president has done nothing but “bow down” to conservatives in the health debate.

The conversation has at times centered on a number of hypersensitive topics, including abortion rights, euthanasia and race.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson accused Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a black House member who is running for governor in Alabama, of racial hypocrisy for voting against health reform.

“We even have blacks voting against the healthcare bill from Alabama,” Jackson told attendees of a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner last week. “You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man.”

Entman said that intra-party fighting is normal in big debates, but this time around has been more intense.

“I do think the Democrats’ internal disunity is quite typical but possibly greater this time because they have a bigger majority than they did in ’93-94,” he explained. “I think there’s a certain amount of frustration from the veterans toward the newer members, who were supposed to deliver them a stronger majority.”