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The Internet news site Politico reports on the quickly escalating confrontations occurring at “town hall” meetings held around the country, featuring conservative protesters agitating against the White House’s health care reform proposals (see Late July, 2009). Reporter Alex Isenstadt writes: “Screaming constituents, protesters dragged out by the cops, congressmen fearful for their safety—welcome to the new town hall-style meeting, the once-staid forum that is rapidly turning into a house of horrors for members of Congress.” The meetings, held by Democratic House members attempting to discuss the health care proposals with their constituents, have quickly devolved into confrontational events disrupted by shouting, cursing protesters waving signs and shouting down speakers, often before they can begin speaking.
Other Methods to Discuss Issue with Constituents - After one such meeting (see June 22, 2009), House member Tim Bishop (D-NY) says he will not hold more town halls until late August. “I had felt they would be pointless,” he says. “There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation.” He adds: “I have no problem with someone disagreeing with positions I hold. But I also believe no one is served if you can’t talk through differences.” Other Democrats such as Bruce Braley (D-IA), Allen Boyd (D-FL), and Thomas Perriello (D-VA) have experienced similar incidents at their own town hall meetings. Isenstadt characterizes the meetings as plagued by “boiling anger and rising incivility.” Braley explains the heated protests by saying, “I think it’s just the fact that we are dealing with some of the most important public policy issues in a generation.” Bishop notes: “I think in general what is going on is we are tackling issues that have been ignored for a long time, and I think that is disruptive to a lot of people. We are trying, one by one, to deal with a set of issues that can’t be ignored, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of people.” Dan Maffei (D-NY), whose July 12 meeting at a Syracuse middle school was disrupted, says he is considering other options to avoid the confrontations. “I think you’ve got to communicate through a variety of different ways,” he says. “You should do the telephone town hall meetings. You should do the town hall meetings. You should do the smaller group meetings. It’s important to do things in a variety of ways, so you don’t have one mode of communication. You’re going to have people of varying views, and in this case, you’ve got the two extremes who were the most vocal.” Russ Carnahan (D-MO) says he enjoys the town hall meetings, and will not let disruptions stop him from holding them. Perriello agrees. “I enjoy it, and people have a chance to speak their mind,” he says.
Countering the Protesters - Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has planned countermethods for the spate of meetings to be held during the August recess. According to sources familiar with the meetings Van Hollen has held, Van Hollen advised his fellow Democrats to “Go on offense. Stay on the offense. It’s really important that your constituents hear directly from you. You shouldn’t let a day go by [that] your constituents don’t hear from you.”
Continuing the Protests - Van Hollen’s Republican counterpart, Pete Sessions (R-TX), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), says the protests will continue. “We’ve seen Russ Carnahan, we’ve seen Tim Bishop, we’ve seen some other people face some very different crowds back home,” he says. “The days of you having a town hall meeting where maybe 15 or 20 of your friends show up—they’re over. You’ve now got real people who are showing up—and that’s going to be a factor.” Asked if the Republicans would use the confrontations against Democrats, Sessions says, “Wait till next year.”
Possible Backlash? - Democrats warn that Republicans will likely face a backlash in public opinion if the public perceives the party as being too closly aligned with tea party activists or other radical-right protesters. Former DCCC political director Brian Smoot says: “It’s a risk that they align themselves with such a small minority in the party. They risk alienating moderates.” (Isenstadt 7/31/2009)
Some Democratic politicians accuse Republicans of organizing “angry mobs” to disrupt town hall meetings around the country (see June 30, 2009, July 6, 2009, July 25, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 31, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, and August 5, 2009). Conservatives retort that the protests are spontaneous outbursts of anger and concern from ordinary citizens who oppose the White House’s health care reform proposals. According to a Democratic National Committee (DNC) ad, Republicans “have no plan for moving our country forward, so they’ve called out the mob.… [D]esperate Republicans and their well-funded allies” are trying to “destroy President Obama.” Senator Arlen Specter, who took part in a contentious town hall three days ago (see August 2, 2009), says: “I think that a fair amount of the activity was orchestrated. I think a fair amount of it was involved individuals who came without being orchestrated. But it was a battleground.” And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says some of the anger from the crowds is manufactured: “In fact, I think you’ve had groups today, Conservatives for Patients Rights [CPR], that have bragged about organizing and manufacturing that anger” (see August 4, 2009). In return, CPR spokesman Brian Burgess says, “The White House is desperate for a scapegoat to blame for their failure to convince Americans to let the government take over health care.” A Democratic organization with connections to the Obama administration, Organizing for America, is planning strategy for upcoming events, including a Michigan appearance by Vice President Joe Biden. An e-mail from the organization encourages Michigan Democrats to “stand with the vice president and against the angry mobs being directed by Republican operatives in Washington to disrupt events throughout the month of August.” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse says that mobs of right-wing activists are being transported from one rally to another by “well-funded, highly organized groups run by Republican operatives and funded by the special interests who are desperately trying to stop the agenda for change the president was elected to bring to Washington.… This type of anger and discord did not serve Republicans well in 2008—and it is bound to backfire again.” Republican National Committee (RNC) spokeswoman Gail Gitcho responds: “In a remarkable example of callousness, the White House and Democrats have reduced the concerns and opinions of millions of Americans to ‘manufactured’ and have labeled them as ‘angry extremists,’ for voicing their opposition to President Obama’s government-run health care experiment.… Are Democrats so out of touch that they are shocked to learn that Americans are concerned about their $1.6 trillion government-run health care experiment?” CNN political analyst Bill Schneider observes: “On issues like this, intensity of opinion matters as much as numbers. Opponents of the president’s health care reform seem to feel more intensely about it than Obama’s supporters.” (CNN 8/5/2009) Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says he believes the use of intimidation and extreme tactics—including displays of overtly Nazi symbols and hanging representatives in effigy—will “backfire in a big way” because their aim is to keep people from talking about health care. “When you’ve got people shouting and hanging members of Congress in effigy,” he says, “most people are going to react badly to that. I think most people want to have a civil discussion.” Van Hollen says that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and other Republican leaders “are actively involved in sort of fueling the fire of these disruptions. They’ve got to be careful what they ask for here.… If Republicans want to continue to ally themselves with these fringe groups, it will continue to discredit them.” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain counters: “Democrats have gone from blaming Republican obstruction, to the insurance industry, to Matt Drudge, and now they are even blaming the voters who are registering their opposition at town halls across the country. At what point are they going to get the message that people simply don’t want a government takeover of health care?” (Bendery and Kucinich 8/5/2009)
After denouncing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for claiming that anti-health care protesters had used Nazi symbols and rhetoric in their protests (see August 6, 2009), conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh also makes a comparison between the Obama administration and Nazis. “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate,” he says. Like Obama, Limbaugh asserts, Hitler “was called the Messiah” and did not need the advice of a cabinet or other advisers to make decisions. “The people spoke through” Hitler, as Limbaugh says Obama believes is the case for himself. Hitler’s decisions “sound like the things liberals are doing all over this country.” To Pelosi, he says, “You look much more like [a swastika] than any of us [conservatives] ever will.” (Media Matters 8/6/2009; Rhee 8/6/2009) Limbaugh also says that the Obama administration’s health care logo looks very much like the “Nazi swastika logo.” He adds: “It reminded me of Germany. Something about it reminded me of Germany, 1942. The shape of the logo, the people.… The Obama health care logo is damn close to a Nazi swastika logo.… Ms. Pelosi has some major apologizing to do.” He says perhaps Pelosi’s supposed “repeated botox injections” have caused her to have “blurry vision” that may have prevented her from seeing the similarities he noticed. (Media Matters 8/6/2009; Rhee 8/6/2009) Limbaugh apparently gets much of his information, including the Botox joke, from a right-wing blog, “Sweetness and Light,” which he credits in his statement. (Sweetness and Light 8/6/2009) The next day, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says, “It is preposterous to try and make a connection between the president’s health care logo and the Nazi Party symbol, the Reichsadler.” (Urbina 8/7/2009) Jennifer Crider of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) responds to Limbaugh’s assertions: “Rush Limbaugh’s comparison of the Democratic Party to the Nazi Party in World War II is as disgusting as it is shocking. Limbaugh’s use of the Nazi swastika in attempting to make a tasteless political comparison has no place in the public discourse. At a time when families need real solutions to rebuild the economy and make health care more affordable, Rush Limbaugh is attempting to sidetrack the important debate through his use of symbols that are synonymous with murder and intolerance. Americans deserve better.” (Rhee 8/6/2009) Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times calls Limbaugh’s rhetoric “insane.” (Media Matters 8/10/2009)
After briefly backing away (see August 10, 2009) from her earlier claim that the Democrats’ health care reform legislation would mandate so-called “death panels” (see August 7, 2009), former Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) reiterates her claim. In a post on her Facebook page, Palin writes: “Yesterday President Obama responded to my statement that Democratic health care proposals would lead to rationed care (see August 11, 2009); that the sick, the elderly, and the disabled would suffer the most under such rationing; and that under such a system, these ‘unproductive’ members of society could face the prospect of government bureaucrats determining whether they deserve health care. The provision that President Obama refers to is Section 1233 of HR 3200, entitled ‘Advance Care Planning Consultation.’ With all due respect, it’s misleading for the president to describe this section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients.… Section 1233 authorizes advanced care planning consultations for senior citizens on Medicare every five years, and more often ‘if there is a significant change in the health condition of the individual… or upon admission to a skilled nursing facility, a long-term care facility… or a hospice program.‘… President Obama can try to gloss over the effects of government-authorized end-of-life consultations, but the views of one of his top health care advisers are clear enough (see July 23-24, 2009). It’s all just more evidence that the Democratic legislative proposals will lead to health care rationing and more evidence that the top-down plans of government bureaucrats will never result in real health care reform.” Members of Palin’s own party have called her claims inaccurate (see August 11, 2009) and “nuts” (see August 10, 2009), White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has identified Palin as one of the persons responsible for spreading “wrong” information about health care reform, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is using her claims in a fundraising plea to supporters, calling her statement “disgusting” and “outrageous.” (Barr 8/13/2009)
Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA), a cardiac surgeon, gives the Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s speech on health care reform (see September 9, 2009). (Thrush 9/9/2009) Boustany tells his listeners that Americans “want health care reform,” but wanted to hear Obama “tell Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, Majority Leader [Harry] Reid and the rest of Congress that it’s time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality.” Boustany acknowledged in an interview that the Republicans had done almost nothing themselves to address the health care crisis, but says in his speech that the Democrats’ reform proposals are too big, too expensive, and too ineffective. (Weisman 9/9/2009)
Large Campaign Donations from Health Care Corporations - Boustany is an unusual choice for the response, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes that he has received $1,256,056 from health and health insurance interests in his five-year political career. Such donations make up over 20 percent of his total fundraising. David Donnelly of Public Campaign Actions Fund notes: “There is a conflict of interest when members of Congress stand before the public and recite the same talking points put forth by lobbyists and the heads of insurance and HMO giants opposing health care legislation. Rep. Boustany has taken more than $160,000 in campaign contributions from insurance and HMO interests alone. Do you think he’ll disclose that to his national audience tonight?” Boustany makes no such mention during his response. (US Newswire 10/9/2009)
Voted against Children's Health Care, Flu Vaccination Funding - The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) notes that Boustany voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), did not support a supplemental appropriations bill that included an increase in flu vaccination funding, and voted against an expansion of COBRA funding, a government program designed to supplement working Americans’ health coverage. DCCC spokeswoman Jessica Santillo says: “Congressman Boustany’s no votes on issues ranging from providing health insurance for children, to fighting pandemic flu, to keeping the doors open at community health centers makes him a credible voice for special interests, but not for hardworking Louisianians who struggle with health insurance companies.” Boustany has explained that his vote against S-CHIP funding was to encourage a different way to expand the program: “I proudly support S-CHIP, so we must ensure our children are getting the quality health care they need. A massive increase of S-CHIP further neglects those children who already slipped through the cracks. These children need to see a doctor to receive care.” (Romm 9/9/2009)
Other Details of Boustany's Life and Career Brought Up - Politico notes that Boustany had three malpractice suits filed against him while he was a practicing doctor. Two of the cases were ruled against Boustany, and the third was settled out of court for an undisclosed monetary amount. (Thrush 9/9/2009) Boustany has previously indicated his doubts that Obama is actually an American citizen, aligning him with the “birther” movement (Daily Kingfish 9/9/2009) , a position he later recanted. (Linkins 9/9/2009) And several progressive blogs delight in recounting his 2004 attempt to purchase an English lordship from a British con artist. (Daily Kos 9/9/2009)
Members of Florida’s Southeast Broward [County] Republican Club take to the firing range for their weekly meeting, where they fire handguns, AK-47s, and AR-15s at targets. The purpose of having the meeting at a gun club, says chapter president Ed Napolitano, is to have fun, educate non-shooting members, and to send a political message: “Why are we here? Because we’re Republicans and we appreciate the fact that we have the right to bear arms,” he says. “Without the Second Amendment, I don’t think the other amendments would hold up. I think they would just be suggestions that the government would decide to do whatever they want.” However, the choice of targets causes some outrage. Most of the members shoot at traditional targets—human silhouettes—but some of the shooters use color posters depicting Arab men in traditional headdress holding rocket-propelled grenades, and one, Robert Lowry, shoots at a target with the letters “DWS” written next to the target’s head. Lowry is the Republican candidate for the district’s US House seat, running against incumbent Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), whose initials are DWS. Lowry says he didn’t write the initials on the target, but was aware of them before he began shooting. At first, he attempts to dismiss it as a “joke,” but after answering some questions on the target, he says it “was a mistake” to use a target labeled with the initials of his opponent. Wasserman Schultz says of Lowry’s action: “I find this type of action serious and disturbing. Tonight I am going to have to talk to my young children about why someone is pretending to shoot their mother. Trivializing violent behavior is the kind of extreme view that has no place in American politics.” Lowry issues a statement that reads: “Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a fine lady and we wish her and her family well. It is her continued support for harmful policies affecting seniors and her failure to act for the general benefit of US Congressional District 20 is what we take issue with.” Jennifer Crider of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says: “It’s absolutely outrageous. He needs to rethink his sense of humor. It wasn’t about issues, it wasn’t about anything of substance, it was a personal attack that wasn’t called for.” Napolitano defends the club’s use of targets designed to appear as Arab terrorists, saying: “That’s our right. If we want to shoot at targets that look like that, we’re going to go ahead and do that.” (Man 10/8/2009; Sedensky 10/9/2009; Reinhard 10/11/2009)
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) releases a video showing Delaware Republican primary winner Glen Urquhart (R-DE) comparing believers in the separation of church and state to Nazis. Urquhart is running for the House seat vacated by moderate Republican Mike Castle (R-DE), who lost a contentious Delaware Senate primary to right-wing candidate Christine O’Donnell (see September 13, 2010). Both O’Donnell and Urquhart are backed by state and national “tea party” organizations. The DCCC is attempting to portray O’Donnell, Urquhart, and others as right-wing extremists. The video shows Urquhart speaking directly to the cameras, saying that the idea of the separation of church and state originated not with the Founding Fathers, but with Adolf Hitler: “Do you know, where does this phrase separation of church and state come from? Does anybody know?… Actually, that’s exactly, it was not in [Thomas] Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. He was reassuring that the federal government wouldn’t trample on their religion. The exact phrase ‘separation of church and state’ came out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth, that’s where it comes from. Next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of church and state ask them why they’re Nazis.” Urquhart’s spokesman David Anderson says the candidate has repeatedly apologized for the remarks, and says Urquhart “believes 100 percent in religious freedom for all Americans.” He was merely speaking out against what he calls the “oppression of religious freedom in the name of separation of church and state.… The phrase he used was unfortunate, and he apologized for it.” (Berman 9/17/2010; Montopoli 9/17/2010) CBS News notes that Jefferson indeed used the phrase “separation of church and state” in his letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association, writing, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church & state.” (Montopoli 9/17/2010; Jefferson 9/17/2010)
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