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Dysfunction in three easy steps

We need to find a way to blend the three wholly detached components of dysfunctional contemporary American politics, if, that is, we ever really want to do something important and difficult like health care reform.

Here are those three wholly detached components:

1. You have what an elected politician says and really believes when in private policy discussions with colleagues in Washington, even those of the other party.

2. You have what that elected politician says to the people back home when they turn on him and show little regard for the supposed private policy truth spoken inside the Beltway.

3. You have what gets said on behalf of that elected politician in incendiary mailings written by consultants and designed to stir people to send money to his next campaign.

On that last one: We once had a Republican congressman in Arkansas, Jay Dickey, who dismissively told me “that was just a fundraising letter” when I pressed him on an inflammatory solicitation that had gone out over his signature. In other words, it didn’t count. It wasn’t about accuracy and truth; it was about getting people to open their checkbooks. He had an outside firm that handled that kind of thing.

It would take what used to be known as a statesman to conform those three detached forms.

Alas, Chuck Grassley has not risen to that opportunity in recent weeks.

He’s a salt-of-the-earth Midwestern moderate Republican from Iowa. He sits on the Senate Finance Committee as ranking member, the former chairman. Democrats on the committee say he is fair-minded and reasonable and well-intended, and that they can work with him.

The committee’s Democratic chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, assures the White House that, if given time, he stands a good chance of bringing Grassley and maybe a couple of other center-courting Republicans on the Finance Committee into a negotiated bipartisan bill on health care reform.

The White House says great, go for it. But Baucus gets nothing done by the August recess, during which, well, you know what happened. The sky fell on Obama and Democrats because right-wingers attacked rumors and Democrats had no negotiated settlement to defend.

Grassley, as a deficit hawk, is mainly worried in these private Senate talks about the cost of the measure and how to pay for it. He is naturally and philosophically cool to a public option, but then so are three or four Democrats on the Finance Committee.

But then we confront the other wholly detached components, by which all heck breaks loose.

Grassley goes home for the recess and stands in town meetings in Iowa to behold irrational fears about supposed rationed care for old people. Being a politician, he instinctively reaches with both hands to try to cover his backside.

He says: “We should not have a government program that determines whether you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.”

But there is no proposal to do such a thing, of course, nor is there any remote conception of one. Grassley knows that. But rather than try to explain a vastly misunderstood issue, he takes the easy rhetorical route.

Now this: It turns out that a fundraising letter has gone out on Grassley’s behalf seeking donations to the senator’s campaign so that he can “defeat Obamacare.”

There is no Obamacare. There are three conflicting versions of a House bill on health care. There is no Senate Finance Committee bill, mainly because Grassley was supposedly working in good faith on a compromise.

You will understand, surely, why President Obama has thrown up his hands and intends to go back to Washington and say to heck with bipartisanship, let’s go full speed ahead with Democrats alone to try to pass whatever we can.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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