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Protests at Democrats' Health-Care Events Spark Political Tug of War

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) talks to people protesting the Democrats' health-care policy prior to a town-hall meeting. An effigy of the freshman congressman was hanged from a noose outside his district office.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) talks to people protesting the Democrats' health-care policy prior to a town-hall meeting. An effigy of the freshman congressman was hanged from a noose outside his district office. (By Joey Gardner -- Salisbury Daily Times)
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By Philip Rucker and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hectoring protesters at a handful of Democratic town hall forums became a flash point Wednesday in the health-care debate, as party leaders cast the critics as "angry mobs" trying to "destroy President Obama" while Republicans accused Democrats of dismissing public opposition to their proposals.

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As House members head home for the August recess, some Democrats have been met by taunts, jeers and, in one case, an effigy. Video footage of the sometimes-belligerent protests has taken hold online and on television in a relatively quiet news week, threatening to drown out any health-care debate.

That has fed a political tug of war over whether the protests, at gatherings from Pennsylvania to Texas to Wisconsin, have been organized by conservative groups or sparked by average citizens voicing their own displeasure.

Democrats have sought to marginalize the objections as part of a fringe movement, prompting House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to respond Wednesday: "Democrats are in denial. Instead of acknowledging the widespread anger millions of Americans are feeling this summer toward Democrat-controlled Washington, Washington Democrats are trying to dismiss it as a fabrication."

Seeking a Middle Ground

Amid the rancorous partisanship, some political figures have tried to find a middle ground.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said Wednesday, "We have to be careful we don't just jump to the conclusion and label every bit of opposition above a certain decibel level as organized and contrived." And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week that the opposition includes voices that are genuine.

"Look, I don't doubt that there are people that come to ask their members of Congress honest questions about the direction of the country," Gibbs said. "I also have no doubt that there are groups that have spread out people across the country to go to these things and to specifically generate videos that can be posted on Internet sites."

Obama, meanwhile, called for support Wednesday from the 13 million people on his e-mail list, asking them to commit to attending at least one health-care event this month.

"This is the moment our movement was built for," Obama wrote in the message, distributed by Organizing for America. He continued: "There are those who profit from the status quo, or see this debate as a political game, and they will stop at nothing to block reform. They are filling the airwaves and the Internet with outrageous falsehoods to scare people into opposing change. And some people, not surprisingly, are getting pretty nervous. So we've got to get out there, fight lies with truth, and set the record straight."

The Democratic National Committee released an advertisement Wednesday alleging that "desperate Republicans and their well-funded allies are organizing angry mobs" to "destroy President Obama."

Several conservative groups have taken the lead in organizing opposition, but Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele denied that his party is behind the town hall uproars. "We're not inciting anyone to disrupt anything," he said. ". . . To sit back and say this is some Republican cabal is a bunch of baloney."

Steele blasted Democrats' accusations in an RNC fundraising appeal sent out Wednesday night. "They're using this fear-and-smear tactic to silence ANY American who disagrees with their risky scheme. . . . It's a page out of their standard playbook of name calling and outright lies to stifle all debate," he wrote.


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