Politics & Policy

What I Saw at the Retribution

Town halls aren't that scary, folks.

Reston, Va. In the hour before Democratic congressman Jim Moran’s lone town hall of the August recess, the line stretched from the door of South Lakes High School, down the street, around a corner to a parking lot, into the parking lot, and then took three more turns. Temperatures remained in the 90s, the sun beat down, and flies periodically buzzed around the crowd estimated at about 3,000, many of whom came with signs, pro and con, on Obamacare. Throw in special guest speaker Howard Dean of the infamous scream, and you had the perfect formula for the ugliest of all recess town-hall meetings.

And yet, with the exception of one fistfight outside and the removal of pro-life protester Randall Terry from the event by police after he refused to cease chanting, almost everyone emerged little worse for wear.

The night offered a few lessons as Congress prepares to return, most notably that criticism and avoidance were the exact wrong response for the Democrats to make to the town-hall protesters. Since the first exhibitions of public skepticism and fury over the president’s proposed health-care bill, many members have found a newfound appreciation of “tele-town halls” or invitation-only events.

It’s easy to forget that all of these members asked for the job of representing their districts, and presumably knew full well that listening to constituents came with the territory. In a world where even a Little League umpire hears some boos, a lawmaker too delicate to withstand salty variations of “the bill stinks” and “you stink if you vote for it” probably ought to contemplate the lucrative options of post-elective life. There are few things in today’s politics more unseemly than lawmakers’ expressions of terror at the thought of departing their hermetically sealed environment of civility and obsequiousness populated by agreeable staffers and favor-seeking power brokers.

Moran, known for periodic odd behavior and intemperate outbursts, actually managed the event fairly well. Early on, he declared that “dissent is as American as apple pie” and that “people should not be silenced.” (A skeptic in the upper bleachers yelled, “Tell that to Pelosi!”) He said his staff had distributed George Washington’s Rules of Civility at the door. He noted that the room was “roughly evenly divided,” which might have even been a bit generous to Obamacare opponents.

But even Moran couldn’t avoid comments that sounded a bit too close to a whine for the crowd’s tastes. After hearing a few shouted queries on whether he had read the bill, Moran said, “We spent four hours listening to an explanation of the bill’s technical language,” generating a widespread, mock-sympathetic bellow of “AWWWWW!” Rarely has such industrial-strength sarcasm been deployed in such a wide manner. Later, attempting to explain why the bill did not include tort reform, Moran lamented that including that provision would mean the bill would have to be approved by the Judiciary Committee, which again triggered sarcastic sympathy at the thought of another hurdle.

Moran spent much of the evening going through “myths” about the legislation that he sought to dispel, an exercise that seemed futile, as genuinely undecided attendees seemed few and far between. The fact that the congressman felt the need to address eleven separate “myths” suggests that arguments against the bill are multiplying.

Moran seemed quite pleased with his answer on “death panels,” but his answer echoed other Democrats in blurring the “end-of-life counseling” provision with a panel that would review which medical procedures are cost-effective. When you create a new federal entity that would conduct “comparative” research on the cost-effectiveness of various treatments in order to establish federal guidelines, sooner or later they’ll encounter a treatment that is simultaneously life-saving (or life-enhancing) and not cost-effective. What happens then? Can Moran, or any other lawmaker, promise that no treatments would be rejected for any patient?

Moran boldly proclaimed, “There is no rationing of care under this bill.” But proponents say that a key motive in their effort is to get the uninsured, perhaps 10 million to 40 million, into a health-care plan and into doctors’ offices, at a time when all sides of the debate agree we have a shortage of primary-care physicians. There is a real possibility that the bill could make health insurance more common while making actual health care rarer, and to most members of the public flipping through magazines in a crowded waiting room, the line between rationed care and excruciatingly long waits to see a doctor may be a distinction without a difference.

Perhaps Moran’s least plausible statement was his prediction that “85 percent of people will experience no change under the legislation,” which doesn’t quite mesh with the White House’s standard talking points that the current system is untenable and that a sweeping overhaul is necessary. A driving force of public skepticism is Democrats’ insistence that the system can be changed but that everything the public likes will remain the same.

The raucous gymnasium atmosphere — similar to a high-school basketball game, with competing chants of “HEALTH CARE” and “FREEDOM” — was not the ideal circumstance for follow-ups, and perhaps Moran and Dean were counting on that. But even if the details of the “myths” were imprecise, they generally spotlighted legitimate concerns: No version of the bill includes provisions to ensure that patients are legal citizens, it will pay for abortions on some plans, and — despite the insistence that it will not lead to “expanded government control over your health” — it’s hard to imagine lawmakers who already want to ban trans fats, after-school bake sales, and smoking in private residences suddenly backing off. Instead, they’ll have the legitimate argument that your waistline’s size has a direct effect on public health-care spending, and thus is a national interest.

Obama and most of his supporters continue to misdiagnose what ails their effort. The problem isn’t really “e-mailed misinformation” or insufficient enthusiasm. It’s that their goals keep slamming into reality. The following morning, editors of the Washington Post eviscerated the plan, citing the new deficit numbers: “The new deficit numbers make it even more urgent that any health-care reform not only be fully paid for and certifiably budget-neutral in the eyes of independent analysts such as the CBO but also promise meaningful reductions in the cost growth of health care. So far, none of the plans under discussion measure up. The time is fast approaching for the president and Congress to face that reality, too.”

After finishing his thoughts on the eleven myths, Moran acknowledged that there were legitimate reasons for concern about the bill, primarily cost. And nothing he or Dean said refuted the worries of the budget scorekeepers. Back in the beginning of July, the Obama approach was the same: Let’s fire up the base and generate some enthusiasm. But all the enthusiasm in the world can’t persuade CBO chief Douglas Elmendorf to change his mind and start seeing legitimate massive savings from preventive care.

And as the turnout — and memorable signs like “Don’t Kill Betty White” — suggested, the opponents have deep reserves of enthusiasm as well.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot at NRO.

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