August 11, 2009

August 11, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care

Town Hall Showdowns

Which is the real America that is cramming into town hall meetings during Congress' recess?

Upset citizens on the Right have turned out in incredible numbers. It has put the Left on the defensive and in counter-attack mode. Altercations and arrests have begun.

President Obama publicly delivered a message to those who oppose his plan. At a Virginia campaign rally on Thursday, he pronounced, "I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way."

In other words: "Unless you agree with me, shut up." Obama's message is sharply as odds with the Democrat National Committee's ads that claim it's the other side which is trying to silence others by using mob tactics.

And what of claims that the Right is just orchestrating outrage? A memo from the union-backed HCAN (Health Care for America Now) details the Left's strategy. It includes:

  • Bring more people than the other side has.
  • Arrive earlier than the other side does.
  • Be more visible than the other side. Approach reporters and be assertive.
  • When the other side gets too loud, shut them down with chants

The Left disavows any focus on the facts. The HCAN memo states, "Do not debate on their policy points."

Representatives and senators are adopting their own strategies for avoiding the crowds without appearing chicken. These include:

  • Manage the crowd to include friends and exclude foes
  • Switch to "telephone town halls" which let the organizer silence disagreement and dominate the discussion
  • Cancel the meetings and blame the protestors

Stage-Managed Events

President Obama demonstrated the control-the-venue approach at a June 11 town hall event in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was polite, stage-managed and completely supportive. Why? For starters, there was heavy screening. Everyone attending had to get a ticket from the White House.

Then, any opportunity to ask a hard question was extremely limited. In an hour-long meeting, Obama took questions from only five people.

Unsurprisingly, the hand-picked questioners tossed up softballs. For two of them, their top request was for Obama's autograph. Another loudly proclaimed her support for him. Three were health care workers. One openly supported a single-payer health system -- and Obama responded that he still supports that approach and wants to keep it on the table.

It was the same town, but a much different story for Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wisc.). At his August 3 town hall, the overflow crowd was neither hand-picked nor docile. Indeed, it was angry and vocal. Local TV reported that several hundred were turned away because "only" 300 seats were available. Police were called to keep order. Those who got in unloaded on Kagen, urging him to oppose the Democrats' proposed health care overhaul.

As noted by the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "If the event were a shouting match, the mob won."

But trying to manage events Obama-style is easier said than done.

Many who gathered to meet with Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) complained they were turned away while SEIU union members favoring a government-run plan were admitted. A fight broke out afterwards, leading to arrests of SEIU members and hospital treatment of a man who opposes Obama's plan.

In response, Carnahan criticized only those who protested the pending bill.

In Florida, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) openly advertised SEIU as sponsors of her meeting. In a hall seating 250, the turnout was closer to 1,000. SEIU members were seated; opponents of the legislation were turned away. A local paper called it "total mayhem." Scuffles broke out, and Castor left early, slipping out the back.

"Phone-y" Town Halls

Some lawmakers are meeting constituents only by phone. They include Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), John Tanner (D-Tenn.), Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.).

"Tele-townhalls" are popular with Congress. Their best use is when a member can't appear in person because they must be in Washington. But that's not the case during this five-week break.

Lawmakers can speak with large numbers by phone, but constituents can only speak if their phone is activated. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) used this system last week to talk to 15,000 via phone. She took questions from 14 of them -- but 500 unsuccessfully signaled the operator that they wanted a chance to talk.

Tele-townhalls are mostly one-way communication. There is no face-to-face. The politician has complete control and keeps inconvenient constituents out of sight. Questions can be limited or screened. Best of all, it leaves no embarrassing videos on the Web.

Scrubbing Town Halls

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) sparked a trend when he cancelled further town halls after angry constituents chased him in July. Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) isn't holding a town hall. Neither is Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). Or Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.). Or Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Or Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Or Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who explains, "It's a lynch-mob mentality out there. There is an ugliness to it."

Many Democrats, with White House support, are claiming that opponents to their health care plans are simply corporate shills or extremist nuts.

Whether they believe it or not, they hope the public will buy that claim.

But hiding from constituents only makes them madder. A CNN poll says 71 percent of the public wants a town hall where voters can speak and tell their Congressmen what they think.

Elected officials fear being ridiculed en masse as was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). Or the heckling by hundreds that greeted Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio).

Today's quick-and-easy videotaping and Internet postings gives these events an enormous impact that is new to politics. More than a million have viewed Specter's town hall videos.

Angry members of the public are destroying the Left's pretense that all normal Americans want a big-government agenda. That's just an inconvenient truth.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Health Care

First Appeared in Human Events