By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Comfortable at home in his favorite chair, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was watching a cooking show Sunday night, until he flipped to CNN and glimpsed his future: a man in a raucous crowd screaming at Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) about health-care reform.
Back at home 24 hours later, nothing, including the Food Network, could calm Cardin (D-Md.). The first of his two town hall-style meetings and four public appearances scheduled for the week had been mobbed by more than 1,000 people. He had been booed, hissed at and called a Nazi on national television.
Myrna, Cardin's wife of 42 years, walked into the living room of their home north of Baltimore and told the man who rarely drinks to pour a vodka. He filled a glass with Ketel One and ice and steeled himself for a week that he said Thursday was among the most intense of his 42-year political career.
In the wake of the community meetings, which laid bare the height of public distrust and fear about health-care reform, Americans on both sides of the debate are wondering whether the spectacles might alter or even derail chances for reform.
Cardin said the meetings have changed lawmakers, but probably not in the way most of those who shouted the loudest would like.
"I'm more resolved than ever," Cardin, 65, said Thursday after his whirlwind week. "I love debating. I'm sorry more of that couldn't happen this week because of so much of the shouting, but I personally believe the American people still want us to deal with tough problems. We're not all going to agree, that's obvious, but we're at the point we need a specific bill."
If Cardin's experience resembles that of other lawmakers, many might return from the August recess with a sharper focus on and a greater personal stake in the issue after intense confrontations with voters close to home. During his week crisscrossing Maryland, where he faced some of the nation's most hostile crowds, Cardin revised his pro-reform argument and devised a list of promises to try to assuage the angry.
For Cardin, the health-care bill must include two key elements he had never demanded publicly but promised to voters during the past week.
Questioned on Monday night in Towson by two men about the overhaul's cost, Cardin responded with jargon that failed to quiet the hecklers, saying that it would have to "reduce the rate of growth increase" of health-care spending.
On Wednesday in Hagerstown, he answered four questions about costs, each more forcefully than the last, saying that he would not vote for a bill that increased the national debt.
A day later, in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, Cardin made a statement before opening the floor for questions. He said he would vote only for a bill that is fully paid for in a 10-year window and that begins to lower the national debt.
In an interview after the meeting Thursday, Cardin said he had privately told the Democratic caucus that a full funding structure must be included in the bill, but he said he had never articulated that publicly.
"If it doesn't bring down the cost of health care, it's not going to be passed, or it's going to be passed as something other than health-care reform. That message has been refined" through the back-and-forth with constituents in town halls, Cardin said.
Another requirement: It must be easier to understand.
"I know what this means," Kay Gibson said Thursday in Salisbury, waving a pocket-size copy of the Constitution at Cardin. "But I have a master's degree, and I can't understand what's in this bill. Why's it got to be 1,200 pages?"
Cardin said the bill needs to be detailed enough to protect the public in every way possible, but he acknowledged the problem. "It's got to be simple so there's an understanding of what is done. A typical person who has Medicare or private insurance or who is a small-business owner, you have to be able to tell them with great detail how the bill will affect them this year, next year and 10 years from now. We need to do a much better job of that."
From his listening post behind podiums from Maryland's urban core near Baltimore to its rural western and eastern flanks, Cardin decided that the cacophony of questions, rants and boos fell into patterns, he said.
Cardin said that after this week, he sees the public in four layers: people who philosophically oppose the government taking a larger role in health care (or any industry); "serious skeptics" who doubt the government can effectively reduce health-care costs; a third group that generally supports the concept of health-care reform but has questions about how it will affect them; and a final group that is a collection of special interests bent on including certain items in the overhaul.
All four can't be brought into harmony, he said, but if the bill is written well, it could include details to win over almost all of those with questions, and maybe even some of the serious skeptics.
Cardin has been a member of Congress since 1987 and was speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 19 years. He won't face reelection pressure until 2012, and it will probably be difficult to unseat him in the heavily Democratic state.
Despite being verbally attacked at the town hall meetings, he might be more secure than other Democrats. A cardboard cutout of freshman Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) from the right-leaning Eastern Shore, for example, was hanged in effigy last month during a protest outside his office.
Still, Cardin said, the town halls were "pretty intense." He was a little surprised that his traditional recess meetings with constituents turned out the way they did.
In the final days of the Senate session last week, Cardin fielded an urgent call from a staffer who had said that roughly 1,000 more people had RSVP'd for the first meeting than there were seats. Police were worried about safety, and a day later, Cardin received a memo saying that groups might try to disrupt the meetings.
"I admit, personally, I thought it would blow over," he said. "I figured by the time the day rolled around, the national interest would be gone."
Cardin said he thinks most people who attended the meetings had gone to listen and be respectful, but he said he is convinced that there were organized efforts to be disruptive.
He said he didn't take the name-calling and other verbal attacks personally. If there is blame for the way the week unfolded, Cardin puts it on Congress for not approving a bill so that lawmakers could have a tangible proposal to present to voters.
"I think the White House and the [congressional] leadership was confident we would have a bill, so I don't think they were as prepared as we needed to be," Cardin said. "It would have been a lot easier if we had a specific bill, and it would have been a lot easier if there was a consistent national message on health-care reform, but we don't have that at this point."