ED SELLERS is surprisingly disarming for an insurance executive.
It doesn't hurt that the head of the insurance behemoth BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina is a policy wonk with a strong geek streak. I remember one meeting where he noticed that one of his charts wasn't drawn to scale; for the rest of the meeting, he kept coming back, apologetically and increasingly fretfully, to that error. If you're someone who tries to deal honestly with numbers, you have to be impressed by that fixation, which is foreign to most politicians who like to play with numbers and increasingly alien even in journalism.
But the main thing that makes him disarming is his willingness to deal fairly with opinions that differ from his own, to even explain why critics would disagree with what he says and, on occasion, concede that they have a legitimate point - just one he does not share. I was struck anew by this when he met with news reporters and our editorial board recently to talk about the most demagogued issue I can recall, the one that has set new lows in incivility - health care reform.
Now, Mr. Sellers does not pretend to be a disinterested party; he leaves no doubt that he's an insurance executive, with a strong stake in the debate. And he makes an aggressive case for why he believes some proposals would be disastrous and why his preferred way is better - which is what sets him apart from most people who oppose the central points of the legislation: He actually makes a case.
The loud-mouth know-nothings spit out such emotion-laden, debate-stopper terms as "socialized medicine" and "communism" and declare that a public option (or any reform, it seems) will send granny off to the gas chamber and give the government the access code to your ATM card. Mr. Sellers brings in charts and graphs (these are drawn to scale) that show how over time a public option that pays below-market rates would shift more costs to hospitals and eventually drive consumers out of the private marketplace, creating a de facto single-payer system; yet he concedes that support of single-payer is "a defensible point of view."
The ideologically driven opposition argues (still, despite what we've just been through) that the market holds all wisdom, that any government involvement is more expensive, more stupid, more wasteful. Mr. Sellers makes the very logical point that it would take the Congress years to agree to the sort of experimentation in cost-cutting that he can order immediately, and that any attempts to actually implement cost cuts would be stymied as soon as interested parties started screaming.
The most obnoxious of the critics denounce the president as a liar who has no right to be president and is driving our nation down the road to perdition. Mr. Sellers interrupts his critique of the president's proposals at one point to say, in all seriousness, "I love Barack Obama."
My point is not that Mr. Sellers' criticisms are correct. I find some of his arguments persuasive and others transparently self-serving and off-base. Rather, he serves as an important reminder that it is possible to debate divisive matters in a civil way - and provides a road map for anyone who is too dense to figure it out on their own. (Hint: Stick to facts; don't make it personal or emotional; treat your opponents with respect.)
I'm not talking about decorum. You don't have to call the president a liar to degrade public debate. Deliberately mischaracterizing your opponent's position degrades the debate. Refusing to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to disagree - that those on the other side could love this country as much as you do, could even love freedom as much as you do, could even want to get to the same end point as you, but disagree as to how to get there - degrades the debate.
Madison Avenue took over election campaigns long ago. Then pundits, particularly of the broadcast variety, glommed onto ad tactics. Now we've descended to the point that the "debate" by the actual elected officials who are elected for the purpose of debating amounts to nothing more than dueling ad campaigns - each side spitting out the talking points that have been focus-grouped and polled and honed to an emotionally charged, stinging and memorable point.
This undermines the very reason the founding fathers wisely chose to make the United States a republic, and not a democracy: so we could elect knowledgeable people whose job it would be to go to Washington, or the state capitol, to get themselves educated and have an honest exchange of ideas - an exchange that inevitably will lead to some people changing their minds, to smart compromises being reached.
It's easy to get discouraged these days, to conclude that we are witnessing the failure of the magnificent experiment that was representative democracy. But then we get these occasional glimmers.
Lindsay Graham demonstrates, yet again, that a Republican senator can cross the partisan divide and broker compromises with Democrats that give both sides something - and result in much better legislation than what the Democrats would ram through over unanimous Republican opposition.
An insurance executive gives a largely balanced critique (going out of his way to identify the parts that aren't balanced) of proposals that he believes could put his entire industry out of business.
And once again, while I breathe, I hope.