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Town Halls Go to Hell

Democrats on Defensive All Recess Over Health Reform

August is supposed to be the month when Members of Congress escape the heat.

This year, it burned them.

Instead of quiet vacations and sleepy town hall meetings, both Democrats and Republicans faced overflow crowds of angry constituents.

Videos captured the harshest exchanges and loudest voices, with each day creating another Joe the Plumber whose moment in the sun started on C-SPAN and YouTube, percolated through the blogosphere and eventually burned out in an interview on a cable news channel.

The protesters succeeded in drowning out supporters, catching the Democratic Party off guard and changing the storyline of President Barack Obama’s signature effort to reform the American health care system.

But in the long run they may also have hurt their cause by tying opposition to the bill to angry rhetoric about Nazis and the right to carry guns at public events.

It’s still too soon to tell the ultimate fate of reform, but whichever way the story ends, the fight in August will be a central chapter.

Before Recess

Before August, the focus of the health care debate was on Democrats.

For months, Obama pushed members of his party to pass a mammoth health care bill before recess, but haggling over how to pay for it held up the effort. A House version made it through three committees but not onto the floor. In the Senate, one committee passed a Democratic bill, but a promised bipartisan bill got held up by the Finance Committee.

As July drew to a close, most of the attention was on Democratic infighting, especially between conservative Blue Dogs concerned about cost and more liberal Members who wanted a more progressive bill.

Some Democrats even seemed to look forward to recess: The president could take up the reform mantle while bickering Democrats got a much-needed vacation. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close ally of Obama’s, said the president would be “in the driver’s seat” in August, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted “a positive drumbeat” for reform across the country.

When Democrats did express concern, such as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), it was over the possibility of “swift-boating” by special interest groups — perhaps another “Harry and Louise” style ad campaign like the one that derailed President Bill Clinton’s attempt at reform in the 1990s.

An early sign that things would not go as Democrats expected came when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) were booed by a standing-room-only crowd at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Aug. 2. Many of the elements were already in place: members of the local Tea Party Patriots group, signs warning of socialism, citizens asking angry questions about the cost of expanded health coverage and the size of a government to administer it.

“We have a challenge to get the message out,” Sebelius told a reporter after the event.

It only became more challenging as the month wore on.

Town Halls Gone Wild

The initial response from the White House was to disparage the protests.

On Aug. 4, spokesman Robert Gibbs said they were coming from a small group of Astroturfers trying to create “manufactured anger.”

That same day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was confronted in upstate New York by a local organizer with the Tea Party Patriots, an anti-tax group that first became active opposing the stimulus package earlier this year. Hoyer was supposed to be talking about high-speed rail, but Rome, N.Y., resident Don Jeror questioned him about health care and repeatedly called him a liar.

“Why would you guys try to stuff a health care bill down our throats in three to four weeks, when the president took six months to pick a dog for his kids?” he shouted.

Jeror was the first of a dozen citizens who briefly took center stage throughout the month. Mike Sola of Milan, Mich., was thrown out of a town hall held by Rep. John Dingell (D) after pushing his son’s wheelchair to the front of the room and shouting that his cerebral palsy would not be covered by the Democratic health care plan. Craig Anthony Miller of Lancaster, Pa., became briefly famous for shouting that Specter would face the judgment of God, while Katy Abram of Lebanon, Pa., warned in a breaking voice that the Democratic bill had “awakened the sleeping giant.”

Each ended up briefly extending their moment on TV talk shows: Sola went on Fox News, Miller on MSNBC and Abram on both networks.

At the same time, key Republicans were fanning the flames of discontent.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that reform would cause her son Trig, born with Down syndrome, to “stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’” — a distortion of provisions for research on medical effectiveness and end-of-life counseling.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) later echoed the attack, lending it further credibility with conservative voters.

Democratic Counterattacks

By the middle of the month, Democrats were back on the offensive, but it was still an uphill struggle.

At a rally in Portsmouth, N.H., Obama said the argument over “death panels” was overblown, but his remarks were overshadowed by a protester who had a handgun strapped to his leg and carried a sign referencing a quote by Thomas Jefferson about the need for periodic revolution.

On Aug. 13, Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod sent a “viral e-mail” offering rebuttals of various arguments against the bill. But a related effort to encourage citizens to forward questionable e-mails to the White House drew fire from conservatives concerned that their addresses would be collected in an “enemies list.”

Obama town halls in Montana and Colorado went smoothly, but the lack of fireworks may have hindered the reform effort since they were not as memorable as the shouting matches on YouTube. The president wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, while Sebelius went on CNN’s Sunday morning show, but both efforts backfired with liberals who complained the administration was not supporting the public insurance option strongly enough.

Democrats also tried a few tricks to subdue the crowds at town hall meetings: asking attendees to show that they lived in the district, prohibiting signs inside the meeting room, moving to larger venues, passing out George Washington’s “Rules of Civility” and having local Boy Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Sometimes they worked, but it only took one exception to spark another round of complaints.

The most memorable pushback from Democrats came at a town hall on Aug. 18, when Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was questioned about Obama’s “Nazi policy” on health care. Frank, who is Jewish, responded forcefully: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Video of the event soon went viral, one of the few instances where a Democrat appeared to have the upper hand.

Then, on Aug. 25, the protests were overshadowed by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of health care reform. Cable news coverage quickly shifted from riotous town hall meetings to a somber funeral procession.

What’s Ahead?

In the end, Kennedy’s death may affect the future of health care reform more than the weeks of protest.

His yearlong absence had already robbed the debate of one of the strongest liberal voices. Along with former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Obama’s original nominee to be Health and Human Services secretary, he could have persuaded more than a few of his Republican colleagues to sign onto a bill while persuading liberals to accept a compromise. And his death left the Democrats one vote shy of the 60 needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) called for renaming the bill for Kennedy. Some liberal Democrats may see passing the bill as an appropriate memorial. But just as likely, some House Democrats in swing districts may see the town halls as a warning for the 2010 midterms.

Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary for the White House, said Obama still believes he can get a bipartisan bill through both chambers, and he’s preparing to make his case before a joint session of Congress Wednesday. “The American people are still foursquare behind making some progress on health care reform,” Burton said. “Over the course of the last 60 years, a lot of different presidents have tried to bring about comprehensive health care reform, and the reason that they haven’t been able to get it done is that it’s not just a series of easy and politically popular decisions.”

Adriel Bettelheim, Alex Wayne, Shira Toeplitz, Tricia Miller and Scott Montgomery contributed to this report.

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