News & Events

Foes’ decibels replace debate on healthcare (MS)

MARDELA SPRINGS, Md. – Repeated heckling and shouted interruptions – “Answer the question!’’ “We’re your employers!’’ “You don’t get it!’’ – overtook a town hall-style meeting in rural Maryland this week, as US Representative Frank M. Kratovil Jr. withstood a verbal beating from a partisan crowd airing its displeasure with the healthcare overhaul working its way through Congress.

The freshman Democrat fielded question after question about rationing, euthanasia, and abortion, as two state troopers stood guard and Kratovil’s staffers looked on nervously. But at least Kratovil was not hung in effigy, as he had been at a recent protest outside his district office.

“Being as neutral as I can, being that it was me hanging, I do think that crosses the line in terms of political protest,’’ Kratovil said.

Scenes like this are playing out across America. As Congress returns home for its summer break, conservative activists are packing community halls and school cafeterias to protest the healthcare legislation, hoping to derail President Obama’s top domestic priority. In Texas, Representative Lloyd Doggett was confronted by a crowd chanting “Just say no!’’ In Philadelphia, protesters shouted at Senator Arlen Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

This summer, the Rockwellian ideal of neighbors gathering to discuss community issues in a neighborly way is gone,replaced by quarrelsome masses hollering questions downloaded from activist websites, as video cameras record every word of the squirming lawmaker’s response. Many seem to be following advice laid out in a memo circulating on the Internet advising activists to “watch for an opportunity to yell out’’ early in the presentation and “have someone else follow up with a shout-out.’’

Republicans say the crowds prove there is strong opposition to revamping the healthcare system at the grass roots.

Democrats complain about “mob rule,’’ or dismiss the protests as “astroturf’’ – not genuine public sentiment, but orchestrated outrage manufactured by wealthy Washington interests.

Either way, political specialists say, endlessly looping images of these confrontations on cable TV could hurt the case for the healthcare overhaul.

“In politics, intensity trumps magnitude,’’ said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Most lawmakers are sophisticated enough to discern between extremists and the mainstream, he said, but “the thing to get concerned about is the people who are really disaffected and cranky are going to affect the ones who thus far have been passive – that this contagion of intensity is going to spread more broadly.’’

Conservative activist groups are deeply involved. A leading example is Americans for Prosperity, whose sister foundation is chaired by David H. Koch – a billionaire whose family made a fortune in oil production and whom Forbes magazine in March ranked as the world’s 19th richest person – and which also coordinated the “tea parties’’ in April protesting Obama’s “irresponsible’’ economic policies. The groups are running millions of dollars of television ads and have sent a bus across America to stir up sentiment against revamping healthcare. Its website lists town hall meetings planned by Democratic lawmakers to help activists find a venue for protest.

Another group organizing against the overhaul is Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, led by Rick Scott, former head of Columbia/HCA, a healthcare company that paid $1.7 billion in fines for overcharging government programs in the 1990s. It has been working with a public relations group responsible for the “swift boat’’ ads against Senator John F. Kerry during his 2004 presidential bid. Still another is FreedomWorks, a conservative group led by Dick Armey, a former Republican House majority leader.

Amy Menefee, communications director of Americans for Prosperity, said her group does not condone impolite behavior, and just because it encourages involvement does not mean its members’ views are “manufactured,’’ as Democrats allege.

“Our members are regular people,’’ she said. “They’re not paid. They’re not union members – how about that.’’

At any rate, the debate’s virulent tone has forced Democrats onto the defensive. Lawmakers’ news-media aides are quietly comparing notes on how best to handle the problem. Some lawmakers have canceled public gatherings, others are holding tightly controlled “telephone town hall meetings’’ instead.

Obama sent out an e-mail yesterday asking supporters to attend at least one healthcare event this month, and Democrats have set up websites to “truth-squad’’ distortions on the Internet, cable news, and talk radio.

But Democrats had clearly done no organizing for Kratovil’s event; only one person spoke up in favor of the public insurance option that Obama and many Democrats favor. And overhaul supporters will need Kratovil, a conservative “Blue Dog’’ Democrat who has said he would vote against any of the pending bills in the House because of cost and their treatment of rural providers, but has left the door open to reconsider if changes are made.

The crowd at the Mardela Springs school cafeteria Tuesday night was mostly white and over 60. Most said they were Republican or conservative independents and had not voted for Kratovil; generally they said they heard of the event in the local paper, or on talk radio, or by word of mouth, or from Kratovil’s office.

Suzanne Roberts, 64, said a church friend had suggested she attend, and she agreed because she was confused and worried about some of the things she had heard about the healthcare overhaul on Fox News – for example, that it would give the government and others access to her private medical information. She said she was favorably impressed by Kratovil’s sincerity but not surprised at the fury in the room.

“People are very, very concerned that this is totally out of control, and there’s nothing we can do about it,’’ she said.

One of the loudest voices in the crowd belonged to 36-year-old Julie Brewington of nearby Salisbury, who repeatedly shouted questions at Kratovil – because, she said, he refused to take her query. Brewington, who works in sales, said she had become involved with Americans for Prosperity through the tea party protests this spring.

Her reasons for opposing the overhaul? “I’m concerned about taking $2.5 billion out of the private sector and putting it into the government,’’ she said. (The healthcare bill would probably cost around $1 trillion over 10 years, most of it to pay insurers, doctors, and hospitals.) She said she also worried about “the illegalization of private healthcare that is in the bill on page 16.’’ (Every draft of every bill allows people to get private insurance).

“Our representatives are obviously not listening to us,’’ she said. “It has come to a level where the volume has to go up.’