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Leading Conservative Activists Speak Out on Town Halls


With Democrats complaining that disorder at recent town-hall meetings on health care is tied to organized opposition groups, NRO asked leaders of prominent conservative grass-roots organizations whether they condemn the disruptions.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, told NRO that he has been “to a bunch of rallies and events” where “the vast majority, 99.9 percent, are civil and expressing their voices and defending their freedoms.” Booing and cheering, he said, is just “good, old American democracy . . . a very reasonable way to respond.”

“Whenever you have a movement numbering in the hundreds of thousands, you will have some people who will do something inappropriate,” said Phillips. “We don’t think inappropriate behavior is helpful.” Phillips cited effigies of members of Congress and physical altercations as examples of possible imprudence. However, Phillips noted that “it is difficult to give an iron-clad definition of what is disruptive and what is inappropriate — but you know it when you see it.”

Former hospital CEO Rick Scott, founder of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, told NRO that “one of the things both sides have to recognize is that everyone has to act properly here.”

“When a congressman is presenting something, he doesn’t have to talk down to the constituent. On the other side, there has to be order, with a process for asking questions and getting things answered. Everyone has to be civil,” said Scott. “We’ve all seen the things on YouTube where it appears people aren’t listening, but you’re only getting a glimpse of what’s happening,” he said. “I’ve presented at a lot of health-care town-hall meetings. My goal is to talk about bills and be direct as possible. What I’ve found is that people are sincerely interested in understanding this stuff. People are showing up with the right attitude. They want to be taken seriously and treated with respect.”

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told NRO that town-hall attendees “obviously shouldn’t disrupt or push or shove.” Nonetheless, said Keene, attempts to “demonize” opponents to Obama’s health-care plan are “typical” of what he calls “Chávez Democrats” who “don’t argue issues, instead arguing that the people who disagree with them are enemies of the people. In this country, it doesn’t work. Americans don’t like to get pushed around.”

“This idea that anyone who disagrees with you is evil is crazy,” said Keene. “The fact is that democracy, open meetings, and free speech are not always as sedate as one might expect them to be on PBS. Nobody controls this type of thing.” He added that “the coalition that the Obama people put together has been organizing for a year now, and, despite their best efforts, they can’t get people to go to the meetings to argue in support of the president’s policy.”

Adam Brandon, vice president for communications at FreedomWorks, the conservative nonprofit chaired by Dick Armey, said: “If you look at what we put online, which is how we communicate with our members, there is absolutely zero advocation of violence or lewd behavior. We don’t do that, that’s not what we do. We assist activists in becoming educated on policy. We help activists find a location so that they can be the first ones to the microphone so that they’re in-person asking questions — no shouting, no name-calling.”

“The reality of the situation is that town halls are usually very scripted events,” said Brandon, mentioning presidential campaign town halls of all parties as an example. “The congressional town halls have become more and more scripted. A lot of our activists have found that there may be 200 seats, but 194 seats are pre-filled by AFSCME or the AFL-CIO,” he said. “We don’t advise shouting, but it’s understandable when our activists are not using inside voices when they feel they’re shut out of the picture. Even if they’re frustrated, however, there is no excuse for violence. Still, when I look at town halls, violence is not what I see. I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, and passions and voices are multiple times more edgy at Browns games than at town halls. In this country, we celebrate Andrew Jackson. Vocal democracy is vital.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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