It's being reported today by Fox News that Rep. Charlie Rangel says "bias" and "prejudice" toward President Barack Obama is fueling opposition to health-care reform. I have no doubt that many of the same people who had hard feelings about Sen. Obama because of his race prior to the election still feel that way -- and they could be using the health-care debate as an opportunity to attack him. But portraying the opposition in simplistic racial terms stifles honest debate. With so many years in public life, Rangel ought to know better -- as should Gov. David Paterson, who made a similar statement last week. Here's what Rangel, the dean of the New York delegation, had to say:
"Some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, 'How did this happen?' " Rangel (D-Manhattan) said Tuesday.
Speaking at a health-care forum in Washington Heights, Rangel said that when critics complain that Obama is "trying to interfere" with their lives by pushing for health-care reform, "then you know there's just a misunderstanding, a bias, a prejudice, an emotional feeling."
First of all, every president has detractors. No one is elected with 100 percent of the population voting for him. And the people who "lost" the presidential election always wait in the wings for a moment to pounce. It's been that way for as many presidential terms as I've witnessed. Calling it race prejudice doesn't make it so. Obama's detractors are motivated by many reasons, and just one of them is racial.
The other thing that bothers me is that now anyone who speaks out against health-care reform is presumably a racist, if we are to take Rangel's statement to its logical conclusion. Of course Rangel can't believe that. But people with a valid opposition to the president's plans may feel tarred by that brush for speaking up. What kind of way is that to run an important national discussion? Likewise, when Gov. Paterson accuses "some in the news media" of portraying him in a biased way, isn't he essentially telling them to shut up?
I remember when New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn -- an openly gay politician -- was first elected. I like and admire Quinn, but I also think she revels in being a very sharp political player. She cuts deals. Because I thought that was her calling card, I sometimes wrote about her that way.
One morning I received a call from one of her aides questioning my judgment. "You write about her in a way you don't write about anyone else," the aide said. I felt at that moment that I was being called a homophobe -- although Quinn's political moves, not her orientation, was what interested me. After that, I tried to avoid the issue altogether by writing about her less. But I don't think that served anyone well -- not me, and not Quinn, who after all is in politics. Politicians like attention.
I'm not sure it ever serves a debate well to question the other side's motivation. Although, it is a thriving practice in modern America.