Protests at Democrats' Health-Care Events Spark Political Tug of War
Sparring Threatens To Drown Out Policy Debate

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.

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.

'Strategy Memo'

Liberals have seized upon a "strategy memo," issued by the Connecticut-based group Right Principles, which calls on conservatives to "pack the hall" and "yell out and challenge" lawmakers. The group's leader has ties to FreedomWorks, an advocacy organization headed by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).

Gibbs said Tuesday that Conservatives for Patients' Rights and other groups "have bragged about organizing and manufacturing that anger." But CPR founder Rick Scott disputed those accusations and said a growing number of Americans are increasingly worried about Democratic plans for health-care reform. "I agree that everyone needs to be civil, and I'm not aware of anyone who says they shouldn't be," Scott said.

Another major group, Americans for Prosperity, has supplied thousands of printed placards for protests around the country. Its president, Tim Phillips, said the conservative group would "never condone disruptive behavior."

In interviews, some top congressional Democrats denounced the town hall opponents as marginal and shrill. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called them "very rabid people," describing how, at a forum in Upstate New York, a man shouted at him, "You're lying to me."

"When you've been around as long as I have, it becomes pretty evident pretty quickly that this is an organized effort," Hoyer said. "Normal citizens just do not act that way."

"Labeling an entire group of people who have legitimate questions and concerns as extremists is one of the most insulting things we've heard in a very long time," responded Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Boehner.

Aggressive Tactics

Several recent polls suggest that many Americans are uneasy about Democrats' health-care plan, and Boehner predicted last week, before leaving Washington, that Democrats are "likely to have a very, very hot summer" as they discuss health-care reform with their constituents. And indeed, some have.

Over the weekend in Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced critical questions and boos. On Maryland's Eastern Shore, an effigy of freshman Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D) was hanged from a noose outside his district office.

In Connecticut, activists showed up at an event featuring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D), who said last week that he has prostate cancer. One man shouted from the side of the road: "How come we don't just give Chris Dodd painkillers? Like a handful of them at a time. We can flush it down with Ted Kennedy's whiskey."

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) reported a telephone death threat this week: A constituent called his Washington office and reportedly threatened him because he was not holding town halls.

And Saturday at a supermarket near Austin, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) was mobbed by about 200 people. Some held signs calling Doggett a "traitor to Texas" and a "devil to all people."

"This was very much feigned outrage that creates a phony grass-roots appearance of people coming out with their pitchforks," Doggett said. "But the folks who arose were Republican stalwarts."

"We all recognize that legitimate opposition is an important part of this dialogue, but we also recognize that tactics like threatening an elected official's life, hanging effigies and joking about someone's bout with cancer have no place in public life," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Wednesday night.

Many Democrats, however, have convened town halls with no fireworks. In Virginia, Rep. Tom Perriello (D), a freshman in a vulnerable district, said his nightly gatherings have been largely peaceful. "I think Southern hospitality is winning the day," he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said lawmakers are determined to continue holding town halls. The 30 most vulnerable Democrats are scheduled to hold more than 1,000 events this month, he said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she hopes conservative opponents understand that being "rude and obnoxious is not very persuasive" if their objective is to change lawmakers' minds.

Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Michael A. Fletcher and Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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