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Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson’s Self-Serving Collapse on Health Care Reform and Columnist Michael Gerson’s Critique and Retrenchment

–Richard E. Vatz

There is a “criminal element” in the NFL – famous observation by former Steeler Super Bowl coach Chuck Noll, referring to the infamous cowardly clubbing of the back of Steeler star Lynn Swann’s head away from the action by George Atkinson. Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny Stabler defended the hit with the eloquence one would expect from an enabler: “…a little outside of the rules, but that was George’s way of setting the tone for the game.”

Do you tend to be gullible? Did you believe nasty Republican operative Lee Atwater’s 1990’s contrition (when he was terminally ill) was sincere regarding his apologies for his rough political strategies? Had he not contracted brain cancer, he would still have had a deathbed conversion, yes?

Do you believe Jimmy Carter, the bane of American Jewish community (for his “Blame Israel First” rhetoric in his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid and near anti-Semitic statements since his failed presidency), is sincere when he apologizes for his “words or deeds” which may have “stigmatize[d] Israel?” His grandson Jason Carter is about to enter into battle for elective office.

On December 23rd Michael Gerson wrote the lead editorial in The Washington Post excoriating Senator Ben Nelson’s health care debate cloture-guaranteeing conversion, a move motivated by, as Mr. Gerson put it, Nelson’s being “offered and accept[ing] a permanent exemption from his state’s share of Medicaid expansion, amounting to $100 million over 10 years.“ Gerson then quotes South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham’s revulsion at “backroom deals that amount to bribes” and “seedy Chicago politics [that] personifies the worst of Washington.”

Gerson then adds another charge, that “Nelson caved” and “surrendered his beliefs” as well on the matter of allowing public funds to support abortion in many states, but not Nebraska. The motive for this too, Gerson implies, was “for $100 million.”

Pretty tough column, but pretty compellingly fair and accurate, no?

The next day, December 24, columnist Gerson was called by Sen. Nelson. Pursuant to the call, Gerson announced that he was grossly unfair to the Senator.

Nelson explained to the credulous Gerson that Nebraska’s singular right to be held harmless for Medicaid increases was not a motive for his (Nelson’s) health care reform support, but was merely, as Gerson describes this explanation, “part of a legislative strategy to press for an ‘opt-out’ of Medicaid expansion for all states in the House-Senate conference.” Gerson concludes with this non sequitur: “We will see what the conference brings.”

Why would that prove Nelson’s original good faith? One wonders why Sen. Nelson didn’t make this point in, for example, his CNN interview following his change-of-heart.

Nelson tells Gerson that “the legislative language on abortion he [Nelson]accepted accomplishes most or all of what the Stupak amendment does in the House.” The Stupak amendment is unambiguous and reasonable regarding insurance coverage of medically non-required abortions. No pro-life leader shares Nelson’s protestations as to the equivalency of the no-insurance-supported-abortion wording in the Senate bill with that of the House bill, as Gerson makes clear.

Michael Gerson needs to learn that it is difficult to effectively criticize politicians if every non-substantive-but-kindly collegial response causes you to feel guilty for the criticism.

If I may amend Finley Peter Dunne’s famous aphorism, let me conclude that “Some Politics is Beanbag.”

Toughen up, Mr. Gerson. Sen. Nelson doesn’t deserve a conservative enabler.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University






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