Last week, I had the honor and privilege of moderating the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon, featuring a discussion on health care reform by U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) and Paul Ryan (R-Janesville).
The event at the Newsroom Pub in downtown Milwaukee was packed to capacity. The room was divided, somewhat evenly, between supporters of Moore, supporters of Ryan, the working media and people with professional or personal stakes in this debate.
However, unlike many other town hall-like settings taking place across this country, where people are screaming and jeering to drown out the other side of the debate and some are even bringing loaded weapons, our event here in Milwaukee was civil, polite and informative.
And I have little doubt that one key reason for the civility at the luncheon was the character of the featured guests.
We seated Reps. Moore and Ryan side-by-side at a table in the front of the room. Before the start, considering the contentious tone of the nation’s debate over the issue of health care reform, I wondered how that would play out.
Any concerns there were immediately put to rest when Moore walked in and threw both of her arms around Ryan. He reciprocated.
During the discussion that followed, they made their case for their political viewpoints. As expected, Moore argued on behalf of President Barack Obama’s plans for health care reform.
In speaking with her afterward, Moore said her stance on this issue is rooted in a core belief: Health care should be an American right, not a privilege reserved for those who can afford it. (Note the Declaration of Independence, which seeks to protect the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I don’t know about liberty, but how can one sustain life or pursue happiness without health care?)
Of course, the political rub comes when we get to the part of how health care is delivered and paid for.
As expected, Ryan argued against the Obama plan.
To Ryan’s credit, he did more than just argue against it. He has proposed a plan of his own, which he calls The Patients’ Choice Act. Ryan says his plan is modeled after the Swiss health care model.
Ryan fully acknowledges that America’s current system is flawed and is in need of reforms, and issues such as the lack of portability and pre-existing conditions are serious problems. Ryan says the status quo in health care is not sustainable for consumers or businesses.
The discussion ended with Ryan and Moore agreeing on some aspects of reform, with Ryan even saying, "Amen, sister. She was right on that point." As he walked away, I overheard Ryan as he called Moore, "Sweetie" and said he’d see her on the same plane back to Washington, D.C.
"I enjoy being with Paul Ryan. He and I really are good friends, and I appreciate and respect him because he’s a policy wonk. I think what I’ve taken away from this is the importance of just continuing to listen to people and trying to find out where you can find some agreement," Moore said after the event.
It is obvious the two of them have mutual respect for each other. You get the feeling that people such as Moore and Ryan, left to their own devices, could come together with some sort of meaningful health care reforms.
Unfortunately, both of them are drowned out in Washington by their acerbic party leaders in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have no desire to engage the arguments from the other side of the aisle.
At the same time, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have no desire to negotiate any type of reform that could give Obama any political capital in 2010.
Perhaps the abrasive party leaders could learn a lesson in civility and civics from their Wisconsin counterparts. The country would be better off for it.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.
Click here to watch a Wisconsin Eye webcast of the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon featuring U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore and Paul Ryan.