It’s gut-check time for Democrats.

The battle over health care reform has become just that: a drag-out, scream-out brawl in town hall meetings across the country, a vitriolic and sometimes violent display of pent-up emotion rarely seen in American politics. We’ve seen the images of supposed constituents attending open meetings with their representatives, screaming at the top of their lungs to draw attention away from the civil debate and instead focus the issue on their issue: to show their elected officials and anyone who will listen that “the people” are really upset with the direction of the country and the “government takeover” of health care.

It’s the nasty confluence of testy events and attitudes – the downturn in the economy putting everyone on edge, the flexing of new muscles of power held by Democrats, and, let’s call it like it is, the tantrum of the ostracized radical political right after eight years of unfettered governmental access – that has only a tangential relevance to the actual health care debate.

Judging solely by these disruptions, you’d think that health care reform was an issue being rammed down the throats of a disinterested populace, a populace stirred from their apathy to finally take back command of the issue from out-of-touch Washington fatcats. The numbers, however, continue to tell a different story. Only 34 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll (Aug. 12) say the protests are making them more sympathetic to the views of the protesters, while 56 percent say they are either less sympathetic or have not changed their opinion.

I’m not saying the health care bill currently up for debate is a perfect one, or that it should necessarily succeed. But the debate needs to be fair and fair-minded. It must take into account the true national psyche – another Gallup poll (Aug. 11) suggests that equal percentages of constituents would tell their representative to vote for and against the bill, while almost a third are unsure – and insist that health care reform isn’t portrayed as some new menace or Democratic sneak-attack, as the cataclysmic rhetoric would have you believe.

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s debacle of trying to pass sweeping reform legislation in the early years of his presidency introduced both sides to the issues, benefits and costs of reform, plus the kind of debate – civil and uncivil – and effort necessary to broach such a critical issue. That was almost two decades ago, and there isn’t a soul in the country who can lay claim to the righteous, surprised indignance appearing in droves at these town halls.

In fact, if anti-reform protesters want to appropriately channel their anger, they’d be best advised to go and protest at former President George W. Bush’s residence in Dallas. It’s not overreaching to say that his leadership, the leadership that lost control of both houses of Congress and the White House, losing states in the electoral college that hadn’t gone for a Democrat in at least 30 years, like North Carolina and Indiana, gave this reformist mandate to the Obama administration. Democracy in a representative republic is a cyclical process: Your voice means more at certain times (elections) than others (eight months into a new administration), and the results from the ballot box don’t go away because a contentious issue is now up for debate.

So why is it gut-check time for Democrats? The historical knock on Democrats, one well deserved in many instances, is that they lack the ability and forbearance to govern.

Such is the case with health care reform. If Democrats, enjoying a filibuster-proof coalition majority in the Senate, a 77-seat advantage in the House and a still-popular president (even with a drop of 10 points in his approval rating, Obama stands in the mid-50s) cannot come up with reform now, it may never happen, and they may never find themselves in the majority again.

And if a collection of Fox News-supported protesters decked-out in no less than 15 clothing items bearing the American flag (true patriotism) and waving, as they always do, some Ziploc bag filled with “evidence” of how health care reform is going to either: a) murder old people or b) murder babies or c) turn us into Nazi Germany or d) prove that Obama is in fact a Kenyan citizen with a secret plot to move the White House to Nairobi and begin a triangle slave trade to ship white people on rickety old wooden ships from the United States to the Caribbean and Africa to serve in some of the finest African homes, can derail reform that’s at least 30 years overdue, then shame on the Democrats and shame on us as a country for once again bowing to extremism.