Conservatives organize to shout down congressmen at town halls

These days, elected officials can't even say the word "healthcare" without getting booed

Published August 3, 2009 8:25PM (EDT)

The American people have apparently forgotten how to use their indoor voices. For a few different elected officials, that's meant their trips home recently have been interrupted by encounters with agitated citizens, people who have something they want to get off their chest. Loudly.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., was shouted down and saw his town meeting hijacked over the question of the president’s birth certificate. Watching the crowd force Castle to recite the Pledge of Allegiance instead of talk about healthcare can make you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Then, two days ago, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, had his meeting with constituents overrun by people protesting healthcare reform and chanting, “Just say no!” There’s apparently a loose affiliation between this “mob,” as Doggett called them, and the infamous Tea Partiers of several months ago. At the very least, the “Just say no!” crowd, with its hammer-and-sickle-adorned anti-government posters, draws obvious inspiration from the winter anti-tax rallies.

And on Sunday, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius presided over a tense public meeting at a packed Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Questioners raised the standard complaints about the government being incompetent to run any sort of healthcare plan. Said one audience member -- who sounded a bit like the Castle meeting hijacker -- to the applause of the audience and the barely-concealed eye-rolls of Sebelius and Specter:

I look at this health care plan and I see nothing that is about health or about care. What I see is a bureaucratic nightmare, senator. Medicaid is broke, Medicare is broke, Social Security is broke and you want us to believe that a government that can't even run a cash for clunkers program is going to run one-seventh of our U.S. economy? No sir, no.

But the nastiest booing was reserved for Specter, when he revealed that he wasn’t going to read the entire piece of legislation when it came to the floor. The senator tried to explain that his staff would split it up, because otherwise the process would take too long. This is, apparently, outrageous.

The truth of all three meetings -- in Delaware, in Texas and in Philly -- is that there were probably at least as many supporters of the Obama administration in the room as there were opponents. That is almost certainly the case when considering the congressional districts as a whole of Mike Castle and Lloyd Doggett, as well as the state of Pennsylvania (and certainly the city of Philadelphia). But it’s not hard for an angry few to derail a meeting, especially when they're so much more interested in confrontation than conversation.

In addition to the disrupting these three meetings, protesters have surrounded Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., forcing him to rely on a police escort to escape to his car. They've also hung Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Md., in effigy. A leaked memo from a volunteer with conservative group FreedomWorks entitled "Rocking the Town Halls -- Best Practices" advises exactly this sort of behavior. (The man listed as author, Frank MacGuffie, denies having written the memo on behalf of FreedomWorks.) The memo tells protesters to spread out to appear more numerous than they are and maximize disruption, reminding them, "Try To 'Rattle Him,' Not Have An Intelligent Debate."

That's probably why there's so much bad information in play here. Just as the president was, in fact, born in the United States, no proposal on the table actually has the government running one-seventh of the economy. We already do ration healthcare, as Sebelius pointed out (to applause). Nor is it the least bit unusual, despite the booing, for senators not to read the full text of legislation. Sometimes a sneaky little earmark or amendment does squeeze through, but nobody is going to trick Congress into passing a law requiring that we pull the plug on ailing seniors or refuse treatment to kids with cancer.

Still, this is the kind of thing that spooks elected officials. To see that, you don’t need to look any further than otherwise moderate Republicans looking over their shoulders at Mike Castle, and then refusing to admit that Obama is constitutionally qualified to be president.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Birthers Healthcare Reform U.s. House Of Representatives U.s. Senate