Saw me some democracy tonight. The best part: free admission!
Our resident Blue Dog, Bart Gordon finally held a town hall, after having decided earlier to just phone one in. After taking some heat, he changed his mind. He did it on campus, which as state property means no guns allowed. Good thing, b/c the crazy was on parade tonight. Now, not everyone there to oppose health care was a nut. Just most of them, especially the most vocal ones. For me, the most fun part was getting there early (@ 4:30, tix were handed out at 6, party at 7) so that I could discuss health care with the people near me in line. I had e-mailed a few Dem students, current and former, to make sure we'd have at least some representation, and I met up in line with Will, a recent grad now working for the TN legislature.
The early crowd was mixed--I'd say about 50/50 pro- and anti-, and the pro-side was vastly better organized, handing out signs, stickers, and brochures. This did not, however, represent the eventual crowd, which was probably 3:1 against reform. The people near us were an interesting lot. One elderly man in a wheel chair, who told me he's got Medicare and likes it, could only grumble about how "Obama's a liar." Although he wouldn't call him "Obama," preferring instead just to call him "the Oddball." He also couldn't give me any examples. For him it was an article of faith, not an empirically testable claim. And then there was a very vocal group who were convinced that this was a secret plot "to control all our lives." They also argued--passionately-- that no one in America was uninsured except for the illegal aliens, and that if we just deported them all we wouldn't have any more problems in this country. Interestingly enough, without recognizing the contradiction, a few of them admitted that they had gone through periods where they had no insurance and couldn't get treatment. Nobody helped them, and they didn't want to help anyone else. One dentally-impaired gentleman told me that he wouldn't take government health care even if he didn't have insurance. So I asked, What if you got a deadly disease? Would you rather die uninsured when you could live? What about your kids, what if they got sick? Would you want them to die just so you could say you hadn't used a government program? "YES!" he said. Hard to argue with that.
There was also a lot of concern about the infamous "death panels" and "single payer" and "tort reform" and "socialism." "Where is it in the constitution!?" they demanded. OK, I said, where's the air force explicitly mentioned, or "capitalism" for that matter. The word didn't even exist in 1787. There are lots of things that government does that aren't explicitly mentioned, and the government has long had powers to raise taxes for the "general welfare" and to "regulate commerce." "It's being forced down our throats!!" they argued. How?, I asked. This is a democracy. Obama won in a landslide after campaigning on this issue. You win, you get to govern. Then there was the angry vet who started ranting about socialism, government control, and plug pulling, yada yada yada. So do you have care at the VA?, I asked. Yes. Do you like it? Yes. That's a government program--some of the best health care in the country, right? Yes, but they didn't serve!! Oh, I get it, you think government can run a great health care system, you just don't think ordinary Americans deserve access to it? YES. Alrighty then. That lasted for about 90 minutes.
We had good seats inside the theater (capacity 900) and managed to sit with some other reform supporters. Apparently, our corner of the hall was the most reform oriented. Most of the rest was angry and obnoxious opposition of the shout-down-their-enemies variety we've all come to know and love from YouTube. It didn't take long for the first cry of "Kill Obama!" It would not be the last.
Gordon had devised a pretty good strategy, starting off with a little salute to a recently deceased local veteran and his family. His peeps had set up three lines in the crowd: pro- (along the wall nearest us), anti- (along the wall farthest from us), and neutral/other in the middle, supposedly meaning people who are undecided or who have other, non-health care issues to raise. The idea was to take one question/statement from each line, starting with the antis, and then rotate around. Now, as it turned out, the "neutral" line didn't really live up to its billing. It should have been called the "gimme some o' that!" line b/c apparently they replaced the mic with a crack pipe. Most of the questioners in that line gave unhinged rants of the Rand-Hayek-Beck variety, although there was also one lady who offered a charming excursus how God was gonna smite Bart over abortion. My favorite "neutral" gave a speech about how the Jamestown colony had been founded to promote socialism, which is why they all died, until--thank God, they invented capitalism. And that, my children, is how America was born.
Over in the anti line, most of the questions were about abortion. At least six, I think. They really just couldn't give it up. Gordon's position was simple: I support the status quo, or "Roe plus Hyde." Of course, he said Hyde amendment a lot more since it gives him better cover, but the point itself is pretty clear: abortion is legal, whether you like it or not, but no fed money will ever pay for it except for rape, incest, and life of the mother. That is true of Medicaid, and it will be true of the new plan, whatever it is. Yet they just kept coming back to this, berating him for not supporting amendments that would eliminate those exceptions, although they were never actually articulate enough to say that's what they were complaining about. There was also one "death panel" question from a man who was convinced that Obama wanted to kill his daughter, who suffered from cerebral palsy. 'Cause that's what smart politicians do: murder your handicapped children. Muahaha!!!!! If I recall, that's about when we heard our second "kill Obama!"
Abortion may have been the most frequent rant, but "illegal immigrants" was the biggest crowd eruptor. Let me tell you, this crowd hated them some illegal immigrants. (The only real competitor on that hate-o-meter was, it seems, Nancy Pelosi.) Frankly, this made the whole protest look like a racist primal scream. I spent a fair amount of time in line explaining that Obama's position wasn't much different from Bush's or McCain's, and that the last preznit to have granted "amnesty" was Ronald Reagan. Not a persuasive argument it turns out. Ya see, it turns out that illegals are the root of all evil. Apparently, some people who work in fast food restaurants speak Spanish. "So how do you know they're illegal?" I asked. "Do all citizens speak English? You're just assuming they're illegal b/c you don't like having immigrants here period." That point they conceded. Luckily, one of the pro-reform questions came from a man (of Indian extraction, I believe) who proudly proclaimed himself a legal immigrant--to great applause from our corner of the hall.
Gordon seems to have survived the ordeal. He seemed nervous early on, and he did a bit too much pandering to the nuts for my taste, putting up right-leaning power points for his record on tort reform and illegal aliens. He also pissed off the wingers by trying to relate to them with stories about how his mom went to that same school, etc., etc. Note to Dem congressmen: this is not the time to score personality points with the freak show. They hate you more for looking like a "politician." Gordon's search for a mushy middle ground also makes it hard for him to go on the attack, especially on the "socialism" hooey. I wish he had swatted that shit down much more forcefully. He was clearly trying to finesse his position here, which appears to be "Yeay, co-ops! (Although I don't know what they are yet.)" This was an idea NO ONE liked. He didn't really want to talk about the public option, so whenever it came up he did a little "I don't support single payer" dance, as if we wouldn't know what was up. I think he's probably trying to give himself future wiggle room. He's officially "against" a public option, but he won't say that he would vote against a bill that has it. Still, he got in a few shots at the RNC, and he didn't always let the lies pass without refutation. At times, he actually seemed to have found his mojo.
The best part of the night came from the various testimonials in the pro-reform line. Where the antis had mostly ideology, myth, and vitriol, there were some really moving stories in what I'll call the "reality" line. People who can't get coverage b/c of lost jobs, preexisting conditions, and family histories. People who wanted reform b/c they can't believe we treat our citizens' health care so much worse than other advanced nations do. People who had actual stories, actual facts, macro- and microeconomic. For them, this is a moral crusade. I wish Bart Gordon had had the confidence to put it in exactly those terms.