O’Brien would be natural in DC
Former House Speaker Bill O’Brien’s remarks at an Americans for Prosperity rally last week comparing the Affordable Care Act to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 are a stain on the New Hampshire House to which he was elected, the towns of Mont Vernon and New Boston that elected him, and on the state as a whole.
O’Brien said Obamacare “is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that allowed slave owners to come to New Hampshire and seize African Americans and use the federal courts to take them back to federal … to slave states.”
Sorry, but nobody’s going to be forced into servitude because the government is trying to make health coverage a reality for millions of Americans – as opposed to just the wealthy ones – who can’t afford checkups or face financial ruin if they come down with a serious illness.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress and required the people of the United States to help return slaves to their owners. Those who didn’t, faced criminal penalties. It bears no resemblance at all to the Affordable Care Act, even if you think the Obamacare law is badly flawed.
The principles of decorum in the realm of political discourse are generally understood to err on the side of tolerance. Politicians who say stupid things are accepted as part of the political landscape, as when Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a racially mixed group in Virginia last year and said of Republican plans to unfetter Wall Street investment banks: “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
Bringing race – and especially slavery – into the discussion, however marginally, was wrong, but Biden survived the gaffe, perhaps because he has a track record of supporting initiatives that benefit African-Americans.
O’Brien, on the other hand, championed legislation that gutted programs to help children, the poor, the elderly and those afflicted with mental illness during his tenure as Speaker of the New Hampshire House; some of the very people who would benefit from the Affordable Care Act. But that doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to as much tolerance as the next guy, even though his remarks were noxious.
It’s likely that O’Brien thought he was using the sort of political hyperbole on which he has thrived in the past.
But even if that’s true, we suspect the electorate is tired of politicians like O’Brien whose primary rhetorical instrument is the politics of division. That strategy would make him a natural fit for Congress – an office he is said to be considering – even as his use of the Fugitive Slave Act comparison calls into question his fitness for that or any elected position.
His fellow Republicans will have something to say about that, though they haven’t said much about these latest comments.
It’s fair to ask whether the former Speaker’s comments – coming from one of the state’s highest-profile Republicans – represent those of the party.
If they don’t, party leaders should say so. If they agree with him, they should say that, too. Either way would give voters a read on the direction the party is heading.
And it’s voters who will ultimately decide if O’Brien is fit to hold office by deciding, among other things, if his incendiary statements are, in fact, representative of how they feel.