Marita Vargas
Taking our president at his word: "Barry's rules of order"
By Marita Vargas
September 11, 2009

Our man in the oval office is a speechifying fellow; one day addressing organized labor, the next the country's school children, the next a joint session of congress and the whole darn nation. Whew! To keep up with the plethora of words requires hours of independent research and analysis, and to what end? Our president isn't listening. We have been having a one-sided conversation.

How to remedy the situation? As luck would have it, President Obama himself has given us the answer. In his Notre Dame address he gave his prescription for conducting a civilized debate, a prescription that applies very well to this summer's health care Town Halls and to our president's latest health care address (9/9/09).

Mr. Obama asked this question in his Notre Dame speech: "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"[1]

The answer is simple: By debating — point by point, reason by reason, substantiated fact by substantiated fact, courtesy by courtesy.

All President Obama has to do to nourish the national conversation is to debate a worthy opponent from the other side each time he offers one of his prime time broadsides. Doesn't that sound fair?

Such a practice would eliminate the need for Mr. Obama to promise (rather aggressively) to "call out" those who disagree with him; as it would eliminate the need for over excited members of Congress to call out when they disagree with the president.[2] If everyone felt listened to and everyone knew he would have his say, the national business could be conducted in orderly fashion.

In this area, our president has taken the lead. Here is what he had to say in his Notre Dame speech. Barry's Rules of Order (title invented): "...persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds." And later in the speech: "...when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do — that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."

At the very least.

Because if we really talk, we discover that hearts and minds can be changed — though our president doesn't say so in so many words. But why else do we debate? An appeal to both heart and mind is the only way to win the intellectual and emotional assent of the listener and to gain the consent of his will. Our president's words remind us that we must reach the whole man to arrive at the whole truth. Naturally, out of respect for this serious endeavor, we must present the whole picture.

Think of the understanding that a debate format would create. Rather than our President insisting on a Monday, in a show of rhetorical flourish, that his opponents have no alternative health care ideas to offer; only to declare the following Wednesday, in a show of good will, that he has crafted a bi-partisan plan that incorporates his opponents' best ideas — he could simply put forward the merits of his own plan and listen quietly when the other fellow later does the same.

Naturally, he'd be allowed a rebuttal, as his opponent would. No attacks, no straw men, no ad hominem grist for the ever spinning mill. No. Only clear rules and clear and vigorous discussion. That way the American people can make up their own minds. Why the debate habit might even catch on in congress.

So, in the interest of true debate — minus the big microphone, the equal time, the audience share, and the full courtesy of an honest exchange — it must be said that alternatives to the Obama health care plan abound.

Here is a short list:

Direct employer-doctor partnerships, group insurance pools, high-deductible/catastrophic plans, inter-state insurance competition, regional non-profit insurance companies, reduced state mandates forcing private insurers to cover every conceivable procedure, portability of insurance policies in the wake of job loss or change, reformation of Medicare and Medicaid, doctor pools that provide fee for service arrangements, tax breaks for low income families making premium payments, medical school/community partnerships, tort reform, and medical savings accounts.

Any one of these could be tried anywhere in the country tomorrow without Big Brother stepping in. Plus, other plans to increase the supply of doctors or reduce medical training costs could yet be developed. And we haven't mentioned preventive care, early screening, and pharmaceutical alternatives.

In offering these "fair-minded words" I hope to inspire the kind of dialogue that will result in real solutions, not imposed fixes. Government doesn't know everything after all. In fact, it knows next to nothing if it will not listen to those it pretends to serve.

It is a sad day for our nation when we have to remind our public officials that democracy is taking and using a good idea whatever its source, and serving the public means searching out the best ideas however long and hard one must search — or however long and hard one must debate. But in one way the president is right. The time for bickering is over. But, in another he is wrong, the time for true debate has just begun.


[1]  President Obama's Notre Dame Speech can be found online at various websites. The address was made on May 17, 2009.

[2]  Representative Joe Wilson

© Marita Vargas


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Marita Vargas

Marita Vargas believes in freedom of speech and in civil discourse. Because for decades the American people have been silenced, intimidated, and poorly informed, they are in danger of losing their freedoms for the simple reason that they rarely discuss the underlying reasons for the current state of affairs. She can be reached at


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