By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
WEST COLUMBIA, S.C., July 27 -- On the second floor of the Lexington Medical Center here, Burrell Best, 37, an electrical engineer, and his wife celebrated the birth of their second daughter and voiced fear about the government-run health-care plan being pushed by leading congressional Democrats: "I've just never been a government-takeover kind of guy."
Five floors above him, J.B. Barker, 85, a retired truck driver, sat in a bed recovering from heart and lung congestion problems. Lunching on pepperoni pizza and Pepsi with his wife, Ellen, sitting at his side, Barker said that he does not want Washington meddling with his medical care and that he doubts Congress can craft a better system: "What we have is about as good as we can do."
As anxiety about health-care reform was being expressed Monday on the medical center's campus in this conservative suburb of South Carolina's capital, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) was sharpening his opposition to President Obama's attempt to overhaul the health-care industry.
The Republican has used fiery rhetoric to create a sense of urgency on the matter, making himself a champion of conservatives in the process.
"I'm swinging on this issue," DeMint said in an interview. "If I can stop a government takeover, I will. . . . It's not personal. It's not political. It's about stopping a bad policy."
At the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Monday night, the senator signed copies of his new book, "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide into Socialism," and received a hero's welcome. Edwin J. Feulner, president of the conservative think tank, introduced him by saying: "DeMint may be the junior senator from South Carolina, but here we call him the senior senator from the Heritage Foundation."
Last week, DeMint became a target for Obama allies after he likened the president's health-care fight to Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat. "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," he said in a conference call with GOP activists. "It will break him."
Republican Senate leaders have distanced themselves from DeMint, saying they are opposed not to health-care reform but to the proposals Democrats are pressing. Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a retiring moderate, told colleagues Monday he thinks DeMint and other conservatives are to blame for the party's downfall. And none of DeMint's colleagues has endorsed his Waterloo comment.
The Democratic National Committee seized upon the remark, airing a television ad on cable stations here accusing DeMint of "trying to kill health-care reform" and "playing politics with health care." The party announced on Monday that it had extended the ad through Friday, and a Democratic official said DeMint's outspokenness is helping to recruit candidates to challenge him in 2010 when he faces voters again.
"We're certainly not trying to quiet Jim DeMint," DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. "He's given us a gift because we're able to go to other Republican members and say, 'Do you agree with Jim DeMint that health care should be used to break the president politically?' I don't think it at all has been helpful to the Republicans."
South Carolina is reeling from the economic recession and a 12-percent unemployment rate. About 700,000 of the state's residents are uninsured, and Democratic leaders here say no health-care reform would come at too great a price.
"What will it cost South Carolina families to do nothing?" Rep. James E. Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said in an interview Monday. "This plan would help make things better. Doing nothing, things will get worse."
Peggie Jenkins, 57, a machine operator at a large bakery here, said Obama's health-care plan "inspired me. . . . He's trying to help all the people, especially the ones losing their jobs. I don't listen to all that negativity out there."
DeMint, 57, who before entering politics owned a small marketing business and struggled to negotiate affordable health-care coverage for his dozen or so employees, said fixing the system has been one of the main causes of his career. But he considers Democratic plans a threat to freedoms Americans treasure.
Since arriving in Washington in 1999 as a House member, DeMint has been on a crusade against the bureaucracy of the federal city. He sought to abolish the federal tax code and once staged a rally in his home town of Greenville, where he tossed all 17,000 pages of the Internal Revenue Service tax code from a hot-air balloon.
"I'm working with a lot of people up here [in Washington] who don't really understand the health insurance market," he said. "I don't think anyone in his Cabinet, or Obama himself, understands the business. I've been around doctors all my life.
"We need some real health-care reform," he added. "So, Mr. President, get your hands off of my health care and let's make health insurance work better."
James L. Guth, a political scientist at Furman University, said of DeMint: Health care "in many ways kind of crystallizes all of the concerns he used to start with. His first campaign slogan was 'Bring Freedom Home,' and he sees all of these government programs as a gradual encroachment of American freedom."
Some medical professionals here in Lexington County agree.
"Whenever I mention it to patients, they are afraid," said John G. Black, a longtime internist at Lexington Medical Center and president of the South Carolina Medical Association. "You could go to any state in the union and you could find patients and physicians who are afraid they will lose freedom in making medical decisions."
In other pockets of the state, the reaction to Democratic proposals has been strong, too. At a recent town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, a man stood up and told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."
"I had to politely explain that, 'Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,' " Inglis recalled. "But he wasn't having any of it."