WASHINGTON – Around the country, the debate over overhauling the nation’s health care system has grown increasingly bitter and divisive.
From Connecticut to California, angry demonstrators opposed to health care reform have disrupted town hall meetings held by congressional Democrats. They attack lawmakers for backing a “socialist agenda,” shout questions without waiting for answers and repeat misinformation as fact, in some cases even accusing Democrats of favoring mandatory euthanasia for senior citizens.
On Friday, a Democratic lawmaker from Washington state received a faxed death threat a day after he described angry town hall demonstrators as “a lynch mob.” Rep. Brian Baird of Washington, who supports President Barack Obama’s push to overhaul the health care system, said that he also received threatening phone calls. He canceled the rest of the town halls he’d scheduled during Congress’ August recess.
A few Democratic congressional offices also have received threats connected to the health care debate. The U.S. Capitol Police department has advised all of them to cancel their town halls.
“President Obama underestimated the free-fall the nation had already taken in partisan hostility when he talked about bringing change to Washington,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who supports reform. “It has gotten worse. There is something at play here that is indescribable.”
The demonstrations have grown more unruly. Six people were arrested Thursday after a forum on aging in St. Louis held by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan drew an overflow crowd of health overhaul opponents and backers who came to counter them.
In recent weeks, demonstrators in Maryland hanged in effigy a Democratic congressman who backs an overhaul, and in Texas opponents erected a tombstone with the name of another. Police in New York had to escort a Democratic House of Representatives member to his car after a raucous town hall meeting on health care.
Congressional switchboards are lighting up, as well. Democratic and Republican offices both report a high volume of calls opposing an overhaul, and some Democrats have decided not to hold any public meetings during the recess because of the overheated atmosphere.
Aides to Republican members said the callers were generally polite, but worried.
“Lots of people are happy with their coverage and really don’t want government meddling in their health,” said Wendy Knox, a spokeswoman for Republican Todd Tiahrt of Kansas.
Democratic aides, however, said the callers are usually combative, often use profanity and accuse the lawmaker’s staff of lying to them.
“They are much more aggressive, much more hostile,” said Rebecca Black, a spokeswoman for Rep. Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat.
“I don’t agree with people cussing them,” said Bob Ballard, an organizer with Kansas City Tea Party, a conservative activist group involved in the protests. “I do believe people get very passionate, but passion and vulgarity are two different things.”
So are facts and allegations. In calls to lawmakers and at the town halls, opponents charge, among other things, that proposed legislation would force them to lose their insurance even if they’re satisfied with it, or require euthanasia for seniors.
Neither is true, according to FactCheck.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Republican congressional leaders point to the angry protests as signs that the public opposes Democratic plans to overhaul health care.
Whether the protests reflect a growing segment of voters upset over everything from the economic stimulus package to the auto bailout and now a $1 trillion overhaul of the health care industry, or just a narrow but very vocal minority magnified by the media – especially talk radio – is unclear.
Recent polls, however, have found that public support for both the president and a health care overhaul has been slipping.
“Democrats are in denial,” Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said last week. “Instead of acknowledging the widespread anger millions of Americans are feeling this summer … Democrats are trying to dismiss it as a fabrication.”
Backers of the protests include a variety of conservative groups, including the Tea Party movement, which grew out of protests earlier this year against Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. Some of their Web sites list every upcoming congressional town hall held by lawmakers from both parties.
Democrats charge that the demonstrators are organized and scripted. They point to a memo widely available on the Internet called “Rocking the Town Halls,” whose tactics – “Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early” – have been used at demonstrations around the country.
Ballard denied that the town hall protests were coordinated.
“We’re a bunch of common people doing this, just a bunch of regular Joes who are concerned about what’s going on in Washington,” he said. “We don’t guide our people to ask certain questions. We’re not going to direct their speech. The First Amendment is of the utmost importance to us.”
Obama’s administration is encouraging supporters in Congress to reach out to voters during the August recess and counseling them on handling town hall settings.
But the heightened polarization is prompting some members of Congress to question the wisdom of meeting people in unscripted settings and to seek alternative ways to interact with voters.
“I won’t be doing sucker-punch town hall meetings,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s assistant majority leader. “They can do all the political theater they want, but I don’t have to supply the stage for them.”
In the coming weeks, Durbin plans to meet Illinois voters in a half-dozen or more forums that are more structured than town hall events to talk about health care and other matters.
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and former liberal activist whose books have analyzed protest movements, said he is surprised by the speed with which the protests have taken shape.
Whether they come from left or right on the political spectrum, he said, movements usually escalate slowly. “What is remarkable here is that this went from zero to 60 just like that,” Gitlin said. “If supporters of health care reform are smart, they will evoke a backlash against those people.”
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