The Bullying Pulpit

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

Nurse Ratched is at it again.  Like the controlling nurse in Ken Kesey’s classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, RoseAnn DeMoro is taking another “my way or the highway” stand—this time over the California Nurses Association’s single payer health care proposal—SB 562.

DeMoro, Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, has declared war on Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who had the audacity to shut down deliberations on SB 562, which had passed the State Senate without any provision for funding or a realistic blueprint for implementation.  Rather than take on DeMoro and company, the Senate had punted the measure to the Assembly. In response to Rendon’s move, DeMoro and company cried foul and  DeMoro tweeted an image of the bear on California’s state flag, stabbed in the back by a large knife labeled “Rendon.“ Regardless of the merits and demerits of a single payer system, this is certainly not the propitious moment to be moving forward with a massive revamp the state’s health care system. And ugly threats are not the way to advance it.

First the policy: California is one place where the Affordable Care Act is working well.   It’s anybody’s guess what the outcome of the health care wars in Washington will be.  If the GOP proposals were to become law, California would be shorted $30 billion by the feds.  And it’s impossible to imagine the Trump Administration cooperating in any way with federal waivers necessary for a grand single payer experiment.  What would become of Medicare and employer provided health insurance under the new system?   How would physicians, hospitals, clinics and other providers fare under a new single payer scheme?   Where would the money come to pay for the new system, which could cost more than double the current State Budget?  Even if California had the means and the will to move forward with a single payer system, it would take extensive deliberations and negotiations to make it work—not a joy ride through the legislative process.

But the current political environment appears to preclude “extensive deliberations and negotiations” and there is no “joy ride” through any legislative process. Social media and Donald Trump have given everyone permission to engage in bullying as a means of lobbying—and pressuring–politicians (and the media, too) on policy decisions.

Death threats to Speaker Rendon, posted on Facebook and Twitter, and DeMoro’s irresponsible action are more examples (e.g., Trump’s “fake” CNN body slam is now reported to be the second highest  retweet ever) of this “bullying political culture.”

Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton has called Speaker Rendon “heroic” for putting the brakes on SB 562.   Rendon has gone in the opposite direction from the on-again, off-again Trump-Ryan-McConnell effort to ram through “Obamacare repeal and replace” without hearings or consultation with key players.   Rendon isn’t opposing single payer; he’s simply slowing down a runaway train.   That’s called “adult supervision” and it’s a much better strategy than pushing forward with a half-baked plan that Governor Brown would have surely vetoed.

With its lock on the Legislature, Democratic leadership will be facing more cases of strident advocacy from important liberal constituencies like the California Nurses Association and the Berniecrats, plugging ideological agendas.   A look at the mess in Washington shows what can happen when the true believers run amok.

This likely isn’t the last time legislative leadership is going to have to call a time out.  That’s what good legislative leaders do-take a hit for their caucus on political risky issues. That’s why, in California, legislative leaders generally come from “safe” districts.

With Jerry Brown in the home stretch of his governorship, it’s reassuring that there are legislative leaders prepared to lend a steadying hand. But it’s also disturbing that violent images and charged rhetoric seem to be replacing civilized political debate at all levels of government.

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