Ask any politician in the free world, and they will tell you that intense public scrutiny and uncomfortable clashes with detractors are all in a day's work for an elected official. The general expectation is for the recipients of such scrutiny to navigate the choppy waters of public discourse with dignity, graciousness, and aplomb. The Democrats' handling of public criticism over proposed health care reform, however, reveals a sinister side of the Left that is about as intolerant, undemocratic, and illiberal as it gets. Recent actions suggest that they will stoop to any level and go to any length to delegitimize, demonize, and derail public speech that threatens their agenda.
During his eight years in office, President Bush was no stranger to impassioned, often caustic, criticisms of his Administration's policies. He routinely endured the severest forms of personal insult, mockery, and ridicule by those fond of drawing comparisons between his administration and Nazis, murders, maniacs, and dictators. When asked for a response to the anger and vitriol directed at him by his detractors, the President made it clear that he did not allow his policies to be influenced by shouting voices on the fringe, but he also made it clear that he supported the right of Americans to voice their dissent freely. He even managed to respond with humor when an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at his head during a press conference in Baghdad (an act of disrespect that would have meant the torture chamber under Saddam Hussein but which, in a newly liberated Iraq, was lauded as a heroic act of civil protest).
Unlike the Obama administration, the Bush White House never set up a special website for supporters to report "fishy" e-mails and websites. Yet during her presidential bid, Hillary Clinton accused the Bush administration of questioning the patriotism of its critics and declared in no uncertain terms that political dissent is a sacred American right. What Mrs. Clinton neglected to explain, however, is that-as far as many Democrats are concerned-criticism of the government is only legitimate when aimed at Republicans, conservatives, and their sympathizers.
President Obama campaigned largely on the theme of change; this we all know. He's talked about America choosing its "better history"-a history with a proud legacy of equality and inclusion for all. He built his resume of leadership as a community organizer in Chicago and rode to the White House on a tidal wave of "grassroots" support. Why then, when those who have grave concerns about one of the most important legislative proposals in American history employ the same organizational tactics to express their point of view, are they immediately attacked, their authenticity questioned and their concerns dismissed as nothing more than the manufactured rhetoric of the Republican propaganda machine?
Why are ACORN and SEIU free to bus activists around, pass out signs, and provide talking points to their members, while conservative groups are denounced as illegitimate when they organize their supporters? There is a gross double standard at work here, a shameful display of rank hypocrisy that reveals the true colors of those in power in Washington, D.C.
It seems that when the Left occupies the minority position in Washington, dissent-no matter how crude, insulting, or bitter-is celebrated as the highest form of patriotism. But when the tables turn and they find themselves holding the reigns, all of a sudden public criticism becomes "hostile," "un-American," and even "racist."
The fact of the matter is that the American people are scared and angry-for good reason. President Obama-invoking his customary rhetoric of crisis-is asking Americans to hand over a vast segment of our economy and our personal freedom to a centralized government authority. The health care plan that President Obama is asking us to accept on blind faith (since it is too long to read and too confusing to understand for those that try) has hugely important implications, not only for Americans' health care, but for the ballooning deficits required to implement it. The debt incurred by this plan will mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. An issue of this magnitude and importance should spark robust discussion and debate. Most people do recognize that our current system is broken and needs fixing, but the American people should not be denied the opportunity and time necessary to arrive at a national consensus.
If the First Amendment exists for anything, it exists for precisely this kind of scenario. Regardless of which party is in power, the American people should be free to voice their concerns, ask questions, and speak their minds about a proposal that has the power to transform American life in a fundamental way. Unfortunately, the Administration's response to the First Amendment in action does not reflect a choice for America's "better history." Indeed, when the government of the United States begins encouraging its political allies to snitch on detractors and critics, a history most definitely is being chosen... it's just not an American one.
Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC and a nationally recognized trial lawyer who represented Governor Jeb Bush in the Terri Schiavo case. Connor was formerly President of the Family Research Council, Chairman of the Board of CareNet, and Vice Chairman of Americans United for Life. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to www.ajustsociety.org. Your feedback is welcome; please email firstname.lastname@example.org.