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The best moment of almost every YouTube video of the raucous town-hall meetings on health care is the same: It’s the nonplussed look on the face of the senators and congressmen who have rarely suffered such indignity. Be assured: No one talks to them that way in the “members only” elevators in the U.S. Capitol.
Nancy Pelosi and Co. insist that the town-hall protesters are the tools of special interests. Not likely. Almost all of the special interests have been enticed or bullied into cooperating with Obamacare. The alphabet soup of major players on health-care policy is basically on board — PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), the AMA (American Medical Association), the AHA (American Hospital Association), AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), and the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons).
Pres. Barack Obama and the Democrats may still imagine themselves insurgents storming the gates, but that self-image should have expired last November. On health care, they have played a brilliant inside game. They have used their sheer power to cut deals with craven lobbyists seeking to limit damage to their clients. Everything was set for a cram-down of sweeping legislation — with special interests uttering hardly a peep — before August in a well-executed power play.
Then public opinion intervened. Obama is now on the wrong side of a genuine grass-roots revolt by people who feel ignored by everyone who is supposed to be representing them.
Consider the AARP. It has all but endorsed a plan to slash several hundred billion dollars over ten years from Medicare. It is providing cover for the creation of a new system that, if it ever succeeds in “bending the cost curve,” will have to scrimp on expensive end-of-life care. The AARP is overwhelmingly favorable to a plan opposed by the elderly more than any other age group. Who is the more authentic voice of seniors — the AARP playing along with its Democratic allies, or the elderly at town-hall meetings wondering what the Medicare cuts will mean for them?
The inside-Washington players are easily co-opted and cowed. The AMA came out in opposition to a public option in June, and then — after a stern talking-to by Washington’s political barons — immediately backtracked. It ended up endorsing the House bill even though by one estimate it will cost doctors almost $19,000 annually by its third year. Even the vilified insurers have been running gauzy TV ads in favor of reform (although they oppose the public option).
Aggrieved voters aren’t co-opted or cowed so easily. When one angry man stood toe-to-toe with Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter and condemned his “damn cronies,” this man was the outraged voice of American populism. His beef probably wasn’t with Specter or his associates exactly, but with the entire panoply of interests battening on the new era of corporatism and hulking government, from Goldman Sachs to the United Auto Workers to the lobbyists gaming the stimulus and cap-and-trade bills.
Like it or not (and it always has its unfortunate excesses), this kind of populism is part of the idiom of American politics. The same distrust of power that had left-wing activists spinning feverish theories about George W. Bush’s eavesdropping has the Right agitated about Obama’s “death panels.” Liberal intellectuals hail populism when the likes of Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Obama direct it against “the malefactors of great wealth.” They are appalled when it is turned against the grand schemes of Washington itself.
But they should listen. “It’s been a mistake for anyone to say that this has been a manufactured effort,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said after her own rollicking town hall. “This is real. It’s grass-roots.” Despite all the media tsk-tsking about the tenor of the meetings, a USA Today poll found that independents, by a 2-to-1 margin, say the protests have made them more sympathetic to the protestors, rather than less.
Still controlling the inside game, Democrats will be tempted to steamroll their opponents anyway. In which case, the populist revolt will have just begun.