Sen. Arlen Specter brings his new Democratic message to the town hall mob in Kittanning, Pa.
KITTANNING, Pa. — All of this couldn’t have been what Sen. Arlen Specter thought he was signing up for when he switched from the Republican Party to the Democrats earlier this year. Sure, losing his seniority was bad enough. Facing GOP voters who had backed him, noses held, for years, despite his frequent apostasies? He could probably handle that. A primary challenge from the left designed to deny him the nomination for another term that was the main reason he quit the GOP? Bring it on.
But after a week of town meetings all around Pennsylvania, you could hardly blame Specter if he wondered what he’d gotten himself into. Don’t think so? You try being yelled at by a woman dressed elaborately as Betsy Ross who keeps asking why you never read the House — not Senate — bill on healthcare reform; or being called a “Socialist, Fascist pig” by a furious guy who storms out of the room at a town hall meeting Thursday just before your brand-new Capitol Police bodyguards could toss him, accompanied by a woman who later insists that the Obama administration is a bunch of Nazis. The normal political trials and tribulations are one thing, but getting hassled by a bunch of Tea Party loons, day in and day out, adds such a layer of absurdity to the business of governing that even a longtime survivor like Specter must wish he could escape it all.
Arlen being Arlen, though, he mostly shrugged all the hostility off. “I’ll be reporting to my colleagues what temperature it is” back home, Specter told a packed room of about 100 people Thursday afternoon. “In Kittanning, it’s about 213 degrees Fahrenheit.” He kept calm, defending the healthcare bill no matter who was yelling about it, and answering friendly questions in the same “I’ve seen it all” tone that the angry ones generated. An hour later, the meeting over, he amended his reading as he wrapped it up. “There’s a lot of diametric opposition in this room,” he said. “I understand that, I respect it, I’m glad to know your views, and I’ll take them back to Washington and tell my colleagues that I was wrong — it’s not 213 Fahrenheit, it’s about 235. Thank you!”
Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly friendly turf for Obama or his allies — which Specter, now that he’s switched parties, is trying hard to show he is. Armstrong County, of which Kittanning is the capital, voted for John McCain by a 61-37 margin over President Obama last fall, even as the area’s Democratic House member, John Murtha, cruised to reelection. Specter was never popular among the GOP base here, and now that he’s flipped sides, they really. don’t like him. The town hall meeting overflowed the small room Specter’s staff had reserved; hundreds of people milled around in the parking lot outside, waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and grumbling about socialized medicine. They booed Specter’s police-escorted SUV as it departed afterwards.
But the angry turnout showed that both political parties may be misreading the mob scenes that have drawn so much media attention this August recess. Yes, as Republicans say, much of the frenzy against the healthcare reform bill is organic, and not put together by corporate shills for the insurance industry, as Democrats have charged; that much was clear from talking to the people who waited hours in the hot sun to have the chance to yell at Specter.
But the GOP’s claim that the furious protests somehow represent the American mainstream turning against Obama’s proposals for reform is also wrong: What the town hall meetings are doing is attracting the hardcore Republican base. All of the people I spoke to outside the town hall meeting made a point of saying they’d voted for Sarah Palin last fall, not McCain — all, that is, except for Betsy Ross (video below). Her real name is Melina Brajovic, a baker who emigrated from Serbia, and she came to the meeting dressed as a patriot — bonnet and all — “to remind America that we are a constitutional republic.” She voted for Chuck Baldwin on the Constitution Party ticket last year, because “they didn’t give a chance to Dr. Ron Paul to be on the ballot at that time.” (And yes, she’s still upset that former President Clinton bombed Belgrade to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of genocide.)
What the summer is showing is that the hardcore GOP base is mad as hell, and just a few months into Obama’s administration, they don’t think they should have to take it any more. “We are going to take back our government,” one man told Specter during the meeting. “There is such a disconnect from Washington to the people of this country,” another man said, lecturing Specter as he asked a question. “You have set yourselves up on a level that you do not identify with your own constituents anymore… You are talking down to the American people if you think we are that stupid!” Opponents of healthcare reform held their fingers in an L shape and waved them in the air, calling out, “Lying!” whenever Specter tried to dispel some of the right-wing blog fodder masquerading as “facts” about the bill.
There were also supporters of the reform plan in the room, though; the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups had made an effort to get seats, and two women with hats and t-shirts from ACORN, the right’s most hated boogieman, sat in the front row. “I want to know where all these angry people were when we declared a preemptive war,” one woman said, drawing boos from the opponents and cheers from her side. A young medical student from the University of Pittsburgh bashed the insurance companies for putting profits over health. Specter used that to pivot to his support for a public insurance option.
But the opponents turned out in greater force, and it seemed like healthcare was only the tip of the iceberg that concerns them about Obama. “This plan was created by Rahm Emanuel’s brother and others, and it’s based on what occurred in Germany,” said Judith Brown, the Pennsylvania coordinator for the Second Amendment Sisters. She was talking about the bogus “death panel” allegations that the reform bill would lead to euthanasia. I asked how she knew her facts. “Because I was reading some information on the Internet,” she said. The conspiracy she’d discovered online went deeper than just Zeke Emanuel. “Everything is being nationalized — they’ve nationalized the banks, the auto companies are nationalized, you have nationalized volunteerism, they’re going to nationalize the farms,” she said. “Eventually everything will be nationalized — and what do you call that? Nationalized socialist? In German, what is nationalized socialist? In German, what’s the word for it?”
So I took the bait, telling her that in German the National Socialist Party was the Nazis. “Exactly,” she said. “You think that the people in government are Nazis?” I asked. “Yes,” Brown said. “We have a Stalinist government.” Having taken a high school history class or two, I pointed out that Stalin wasn’t a Nazi. “Well, I know,” Brown said. “But he’s a Communist.” It wasn’t clear whether she meant Obama or Stalin; it wasn’t clear whether she bothered to distinguish between the two of them, anyway.
That might seem like an unfair example to single out, but it actually seems, sadly, quite representative of the town hall mobs. The angry disruptions don’t mean the country is turning against the reform plans — but as polls are showing, they are starting to win sympathy, especially from like-minded voters watching them from afar. All the shouting isn’t helping Obama make the case that he’s trying to get past politics as usual, and his GOP opponents, and their base, know it. Will the town meetings tip momentum away from reform? Probably not on their own; the crowds should be too angry, too obviously over the top, to scare most lawmakers. But by the time August is over, Arlen Specter may not be the only one who’s glad to see it go.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11