The political world froze on Friday when a man entered Hillary Clinton’s office in Rochester, N.H., claiming he had a pipe bomb strapped to his chest. In round-the-clock assessments of the day’s events, pundits have been too busy discussing electoral repercussions to emphasize how messed up the country’s social situation must be for a man to pretend he is a suicide-bomber in the hopes of getting better health care.
Leeland Eisenberg, the alleged perpetrator, held three campaign workers hostage after barging into the office and demanding to speak to Clinton. After a six-hour standoff, the crisis was resolved with no bloodshed; Eisenberg was escorted out by the police without getting to talk to the New York Senator.
But as details of the incident emerged, what at first seemed to be a hideous act with the potential for terrible violence was cast in a different light. For one, the hostage-taker was not armed, and authorities say the bulge under his jacket that he claimed was a bomb was only a set of road flares.
Eisenberg, due in court that day on domestic violence charges, was reportedly bemoaning the state of mental health care and insurance coverage. He complained to the campaign workers that he was turned away from getting psychiatric treatment because he couldn’t afford insurance.
The Clinton staffers explained that their captor was hoping to get Clinton to assist him. “She helped that guy, she can help me,” he reportedly said in a reference to a campaign ad currently running in New Hampshire. The ad features Joe Ward, a New Yorker who recounts how Clinton helped him secure insurance coverage for his son’s marrow transplant.
The unsettling details highlight the depth of this social crisis that links poverty to health care. Pretending to be a suicide-bomber in order to beg a presidential candidate to help you receive better care might look entirely irrational; but there is little else anyone uninsured and in need of treatment can hope for but to be featured in a Michael Moore movie.
The events unleashed a deluge of reports about their electoral consequences. Will they strengthen the perception that Clinton is a polarizing figure that causes everyone’s passions to flare? Or will they benefit her campaign because she appeared “calm and presidential” in subsequent press conferences carried live on New Hampshire local television?
The media missed a perfect opportunity to highlight the issue of health care and the state of psychiatric institutions in its coverage. Whether or not Eisenberg’s claim to be in need of mental treatment is true, it is undeniable that the health care crisis has reached urgent proportions. And the Democratic presidential candidates have failed to meet the challenge.
By the time of my next column in mid-January, Democrats will have already voted in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and Nevada. It is likely that a candidate will have emerged as the presumptive nominee by then, so this might be my last opportunity to assess the primary race at large — and lament that the two most likely nominees have been blazing too cautious a trail.
On the one side, Hillary Clinton looks increasingly comfortable about running as the most conservative candidate; just this weekend she found herself booed at a forum while answering questions related to immigration. On the other side, Barack Obama has admirably learned the art of triangulation. Aside from his disappointing foreign policy positions, last week’s health care back-and-forth was emblematic of his middle-of-the-road approach that clashes with the idealist image he tries to project.
Obama has been denouncing his opponents’ health care plans for relying on mandates. He voiced his worry that such proposals would force people to participate in a government plan — and penalize those reluctant to do so. These talking points have little to do with what mandates are actually about and are taken straight out of the Right’s rant against “socialized medicine.”
And then there is John Edwards, who has to be given credit for taking positions Democrats are typically too shy to endorse. Yet Edwards has not been able to convince left-leaning voters of his sincerity; the rhetoric of this new Edwards has little in common with his senatorial record nor with his positions during his presidential campaign in 2004.
If Edwards had been a more consistent populist, Democratic voters might have been more comfortable overlooking the central argument against his candidacy: What sort of message would the party send if it once again failed to break the streak of 55 presidential elections with all major candidates being white males, especially after all the hype surrounding Clinton and Obama’s history-making candidacies?
Left-leaning voters are in a bind. Supporting Edwards might be an unsettling option, but can they back Clinton or Obama in good conscience? If running in the primary did not push the two frontrunners to be more daring, then they are unlikely to abandon their centrist caution down the road.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.