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- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
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A thing I wish I had not done: A report from Sunday's Health Care Reform Town Hall
After all of the hullabaloo the past week about chaos and disruptions at health care oriented town halls across the country, here's a somewhat tardy account of last Sunday's Philadelphia event, one of the very first to be over-run with anti-reform protesters.
On Sunday, I went to what was billed as "a town hall meeting on health insurance reform" at the Constitution Center, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and recent-D Senator Arlen Specter. The event was also billed as being devoted largely to "taking questions from the audience," but "questions" is far too generous a term to describe the reality, and, I suppose, so was "audience." An ample crowd packed into a limited space (not the auditorium, but a large open area on the second floor) and tittered as we awaited the event's start, with ample stickers and shirts, and animated conversations too numerous for me to effectively eavesdrop on.
Unfortunately, an ominous chill was also in the air, as tight-lipped women shook their heads angrily, young men (one of whom I'm certain was recently given his first Bill O'Reilly book for his Bar Mitzvah) muttered about "socialism" and many, many "Tell Washington No.com" (the site is too embarrassing for me to even link to) bumper stickers were sported, oddly, on shirts and foreheads. An angry minority spontaneously driven to protest encroachment on their freedoms or some kind of astroturfing? Impossible to tell, though at the very least, these folks seemed to be watching the same Fox News programs and reading the same fringe websites, and someone gave out all those stickers (From a tactics memo: "Try To 'Rattle Him,' Not Have An Intelligent Debate").
Once the event began in earnest, the loud booing started almost instantly, though it was hard to tell what it was for. Constitution Center president Linda E. Johnson? I asked a women nearby, and she just hissed "Specter, Specter!" A few feet over, a taller guy started yelling "socialism! socialism!" (I think he meant this as a pejorative descriptor and not a request, unfortunately). And then. . . things proceeded to actually find a hill to go down. Anything Sebelius or Specter tried to say was drowned out by boos, chants, and cries of "no socialized medicine." Sebelius looked genuinely shocked and troubled. Specter just looked glad to be anywhere. I actually quickly began to feel bad for Sebelius, an intelligent person charged with explaining the Obama administration's position, a quality and a task that many of the most vocal members of the audience seemed to reject a priori. This youtube video is rather indicative of the surreal spectacle, in which - and video evidence provides I didn't hallucinate this - people seem to DEFEND the insurance companies, a target I'm certain Sebelius (with reason) thought we could all agree on.
This video has been accruing about 1,000 comments a day:
The general tenor of the town hall event and quality of the dialogue there could probably be approximated by reading the comments on those youtube videos: inchoate ranting, many vague allusions to "socialism," booing, and yelling. At one point, I'm pretty sure I heard a line about "making it illegal for insurance companies to eliminate people with pre-existing positions" get booed. !!! In this climate, there wasn't much for Sebelius and Specter to do but what they do: Sebelius vainly trying to counter the litany of absurd accusations ("No sir, I don't think this has any new funding for abortion in it [federal funding for abortions has been illegal since 1976] or anything about assisted suicide.") and Specter saying as little as possible. The only real "news" was Specter's repeated proclamation that "single-payer should be on the table," a newly public declaration that seemed oddly toothless and cynical: note the (repeated) attention to the words "should be on the table" and not "I intend to introduce legislation establishing single-payer" or even "I'll support such legislation."
Many of the audience questions seemed to stick to sundry anti-reform talking points, mixed with a few pro-reform voices (a retired nurse declaring, "I'll gladly come back to work for single-payer!") and several true nut-jobs, including a guy babbling about "genocide" (abortion), a person with a convoluted question about assisted suicide, and similar paranoid theories. Questioner after questioner mentioned "socialized medicine" and "government takeovers," as the audience booed or cheered. One strapping young lad seemed so pleased at his question that he fairly beamed, assuming a Superman hands-on-hips stance. Certain segments of the audience delighted.
The overall effect was deeply depressing and demoralizing, as I watched ignorance and volume carry the day, reducing any chance at dialogue to histrionics and sloganeering. Predictably, Fox News reported that "Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter got a preview Sunday of the tough sell lawmakers will face over health care as audience members booed and jeered them during a town hall meeting in Philadelphia," as if this were somehow indicative of larger public sentiment (which, polls repeatedly show, it is not).
Even after much reading about industry lobbying, I still find it hard to fully comprehend how many individuals seemingly internalize the arguments of the health insurance industry and really, truly feel that the government is trying to somehow take over their lives. The amount of pure paranoia and rage on display was staggering but also somehow amazing: people really seem to fear the abstract threat of "socialism" more than they fear the very real threat of being without health insurance. Almost no attempt was made to understand the actual intricacies of health care reform or the dire situation health care is in. Unfortunately, I never got to use my heckle - "more funding for mental health screenings!" - on any of the stupider questioners, but a real lesson was realizing we need MUCH more funding for public education.
Mercifully, the event was cut off after an hour. People filtered out to confront more signs and yelling, among them the predictable jeremiads against abortion and yet more signs decrying "socialized medicine."
The most telling event took place outside. I asked an older woman carrying one of these anti "government medicine" signs if she was on Medicare. "You won't be able to choose your doctor," she screeched, as her similarly old friend smoked nearby (never mind that my HMO doesn't let me choose my doctor NOW). I asked her again, and she told me yes, she is on Medicare, "but I pay taxes!" She told me she gets to choose her own doctor. Then she started going on again about how government can't be trusted to run health care. I asked her if she liked her Medicare (a fully government-funded and operated true single-payer health system). "It works pretty good for me," she told me.
There are some encouraging signs that the White House and DNC are drawing the right conclusions from these events and utilizing appropriate responses in their messaging, but we may not know the real effect until Congress re-convenes in September. Meanwhile, the LA Times and New York Times both take shots today at sorting out what's really going on in the health care bills and debunking those "euthanasia" myths. Oh, and Sarah Palin is concerned about "Obama’s 'death panel.'"