Washington, D.C. — Urban coffeehouses aren’t exactly the preferred habitat of the species conservativus americanus. Still, I was hardly prepared for my trip to “Busboys and Poets,” a trendy D.C. hangout I’d been hearing about for a couple of years.
How left-wing is this place? Well, the menu has a mission statement: “Busboys and Poets is a restaurant, bookstore, and gathering place for people that believe social justice and peace are attainable goals.” Right. Let’s try that again: “Busboys and Poets is a glorified coffee shop frequented by people that are fundamentally ignorant about human nature.” There. Fixed that for them.
Of course, given why I decided to go, I should have seen this coming. The press release was intriguing: “The Obama Campaign & DNC are inviting We the People to define ‘change we can believe in’ through online submissions and a grassroots house-party-based platform creation process. This innovation will strike some as a bit strange.”
A crowd of local Dems and I arrive at Busboys and Poets and are told to assemble in the “community space” in front of the stage, which features as a backdrop a series of portraits that catch my eye. The first is a picture of the Dalai Lama, above the word “Waiting” in big, bold letters; the next is Ghandi, captioned “Watching”; then Martin Luther King Jr., who is, appropriately enough, “Dreaming”; and finally there’s Che Guevara underscored by the word “Killing.” (Okay — I made up that last one.) The few people in the room wearing Obama rainbow “Pride” shirts seem blissfully unaware that the revered Dalai Lama looking down on them considers their lifestyle choices unnatural. (That I’m not making up.)
After the sign-in, everyone is welcomed, and the festivities begin in earnest with a song. The national anthem? “God Bless America”?
No, “Daylight,” by special guest performer Dan Reed. Reed is the former lead singer of the entirely forgettable adult-alternative band The Dan Reed Network, notable chiefly for the fact that they opened for the Rolling Stones on the Steel Wheels tour. Alas, the Gods of Rock are capricious. (If you think I’m being harsh, I heartily recommend you watch the video for “Rainbow Child” and get back to me.) As Reed describes it, “Daylight” is about his faith in Obama, and, well, a lot more.
“I was living in Israel the last few years and I just moved back here about a month ago, and after Bush’s second ‘election’ — I guess you could call it that — I felt I needed to leave for a while, and now that Barack Obama is on the way up and I see the energy that is behind him I realize the last seven years of negative energy was actually to give us hope again,” he, uh, explains. (Wait, hold on. He was despondent over the political situation in the U.S., so he went to Israel?)
Even as coffeehouse entertainment goes, Reed’s song is an exceptionally banal stream of caterwauled clichés: “I see you in the cloud/let’s lift it up/now we tear the walls down.” It’s almost enough to make me yearn to watch the Dip Dive video again.
After the introductions and the “entertainment,” I’ll confess that I am caught flatfooted by what happens next. They begin organizing the crowd into small groups and assign each a topic to discuss — foreign policy, the economy, health care, etc. The sub-groups will then share their thoughts with the whole group, and together we’ll all come up with a specific statement that expresses what we think the Democratic party’s official position on the various issues should be.
Now, I came simply to observe. I didn’t officially introduce myself as a reporter for National Review, but you would think that my tape recorder and notebook scribbling might have given me away as a member of the press. But one of the policy groups is forming around me in a far corner of the room — and to my surprise, I find myself a full-fledged member of Obama’s D.C. health-care brain trust.
You see, the Democratic organizers of the event introduced the process by rhapsodizing about the group creating a “safe space” for people to express themselves. (Note to liberal organizers: the constant invocation of the word “space” preceded by random adjectives makes you sound, well, spacey.) The more I politely decline to contribute to the group, the more insistent the moderator becomes that I say something.
At this point, I suppose the proper thing to do would be to identify myself as a journalist. But I hold back. It strikes me suddenly: What happens if I argue for free-market health-care solutions in this crowd? How would I be received? My presence here means that they likely assume my good intentions — so how would they respond to reasoned arguments in the absence of ideological preconceptions? I decide to find out.
I start out slow. I tell the moderator that I would like to see the Democratic party make the creation of a national insurance market one of their top priorities. I explain that regulations currently prevent Americans from buying many plans from insurers outside the state in which they live — and their home state might have coverage mandates that make plans very expensive. Policies in New York, say, must cover treatments and procedures that aren’t mandated in Pennsylvania. As a result, an affordable insurance plan that’s popular in Pennsylvania is not available to New Yorkers. If Congress were to let Americans buy their health insurance from any state in the union, it would create a competitive national health-insurance market, driving down costs.
The suggestion is received very well — by most members of the group. After one participant asked me to clarify, another member of the group cuts me off and unhelpfully suggests that my call for a national health-insurance market is about “nationalized” health insurance. Umm, no, that extra syllable makes a world of difference.
When someone else recommends that the party platform explicitly call for free health care for illegal aliens, I can’t help but scoff. “Do you know how politically unpopular that idea is?” I ask. “We’re here just to say what we believe,” another discussant counters. “No, we’re here to create a political document,” I reply.
Needless to say, I don’t expect to convert the discussion group into Milton Friedman acolytes at the drop of a hat, but I am surprised at how receptive these Democratic activists are to free-market health-care ideas. My biggest obstacle is That Guy. You know, the person in every small working group who thinks he is uniquely qualified to lead, whatever the project. I have That Guy to deal with.
That Guy loudly announces that he has over $100,000 in health-care debt and that he works for one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, which is a nice combination of arrogance and playing the victim. It becomes clear that he is there to agitate for cradle-to-grave socialized health insurance. I insist that the immediate solution is to make insurance more affordable and that nationalized health care would eliminate choice. But he is sure he is the only one who knows anything about health-care policy. He says things like, “The only reason we don’t have national health care is because of myths being pumped out by the Heritage Foundation and CATO.” And National Review, no doubt.
Things get heated and he confronts me directly: “You think that [cheaper insurance] will take care of 47 million uninsured Americans?”
I take a breath. “That figure of 47 million uninsured Americans includes 18 million people in the upper half of income distribution who can probably afford insurance right now — or come close. If you care about getting more Americans health care as soon as possible, make insurance cheaper today. Don’t wait for somewhere down the road to overhaul the entire system to your liking.” From the heads nodding in agreement around me, I see that That Guy is going down in flames.
I wish I could report a bigger victory. The statement our group produces is largely meaningless and reflects mostly liberal Democratic positions. Still, it could have been much worse, as far as I was concerned. Our health-care plank doesn’t explicitly call for socialized health care, it emphasizes the preservation of consumer choice, and it encourages the party to pursue “politically achievable” ends (thus, the suggestion about illegal immigrants doesn’t make the cut).
Ironically enough, I am asked to represent the health-care group and present our statement on stage — prompting a congratulatory handshake from That Guy. I demur, letting Guy have his 15 minutes of fame instead. Another member of the group tells me, “Mark, I’m really glad you’re here, because a lot of people feel as you do.”
Whatever aesthetic differences Republicans and Democrats may have (and a trip to a place like Busboys and Poets will draw those into sharp relief), I found that people are still willing to listen to opposing viewpoints — once the political baggage is stowed away. When asked to think about ideas that will actually work, a lot of Democrats are receptive to policies that their party’s activists abhor. Would they have listened to me if they knew I was a writer for the flagship publication of modern American conservatism? Judging from the majority of emails and letters to the editor I get from liberal readers, the answer too often is no.
So I don’t know whether my time as a make-believe Democrat is encouraging or amounts to a lament. But I do know that it’s a shame that we often have to lie about where we’re coming from in order to talk honestly to each other about where we think the country should be headed.
— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.