Rally has a lot of salt, but little pep

By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 30, 2009

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi led her House Democrats down the Capitol steps Thursday morning for a health-care pep rally, the sound system began to crank out . . . wait, that's not U2's "Elevation," is it?

Alas, it was.

I need you to elevate me here

At the corner of your lips

At the orbit of your hips

Eclipse, you elevate my soul

I've lost all self-control . . .

Okay, you can stop blushing now.

Whenever politicians stage pep rallies to roll out the details of a new policy, the proceedings should be taken with a grain of salt. But Thursday's effort by House Democrats came with six 50-pound bags of salt -- ice-melting salt, to be specific -- placed on the bases of the six U.S. flags on the stage to keep them from toppling over in the wind and marring the event with unwanted visuals and ruinous metaphors.

The Democrats' preparations were elaborate. They chose a spot, on the West Front of the Capitol, near where Newt Gingrich announced his "Contract With America" 15 years ago. They had red, white and blue convention-style signs that, instead of displaying the names of states, offered messages such as "Expand coverage" and "Strengthen Medicare." They shared the stage with about 30 "real people," flown in from around the country, who could tell tales of health-care woe. One Capitol police officer, claiming that she was acting under instruction from Pelosi's office, even kept Republican staffers from entering the event.

But for all the precautions, policy pep rallies have a way of taking unwanted turns, and Thursday's did so almost immediately after Pelosi stepped to the microphone. "Nancy Pelosi, you'll burn in hell for this," said a voice, amplified by a bullhorn, from about 50 yards away.

"Thank you, insurance companies of America," Pelosi replied to the man. Actually, they were abortion protesters, and they were loud.

"In this legislation, we will immediately begin to close the doughnut hole," the speaker proclaimed.

"We won't pay for murder!" a heckler heckled.

"Prevention and wellness are an important part of this legislation," the speaker declared.

"We won't pay for murder!" the heckler repeated. Finally, police were able to silence the activists, who held a gruesome poster showing an aborted fetus and signs demanding "Kill the bill."

Pelosi and her lieutenants did an impressive job of putting together a health-care reform compromise that probably has enough support to pass. Her watered-down version of the "public option" -- leaving the government insurance plan to negotiate rates with providers rather than imposing Medicare rates -- meant that Thursday's rally included a few moderates from the "Blue Dog" coalition along with liberal Democrats.

But Pelosi's legislative finesse was not matched by her skills as a pep rally organizer. Only about 80 House Democrats, about a third of the caucus, were on the stage on the cool and gray morning. The others, Pelosi tried to explain to the crowd, "are in hearings, because the work of Congress does not stop just because we have an important message to give to you."

Another possible reason for the sparse attendance: Health care may be hugely important, but it's hard to get fired up about the nitty-gritty of policy. "The uninsured will have access to a temporary insurance program -- we're calling it a high-risk pool -- from the date of enactment until the exchange is available!" Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.) told the rally.

A small number of people, many of them paid staffers standing off to the side, offered polite applause for the high-risk pool.

"From the date of enactment, we'll hinder price-gouging with sunshine requirements on insurance companies to disclose insurance rate increases!"

Light applause for rate-increase sunshine requirements.

"From the date of enactment, COBRA health insurance coverage will be extended until the exchange is available and displaced workers can have affordable coverage!"

Modest ovation for temporary COBRA extension.

Speakers were told to limit themselves to a minute apiece, but no attention was paid to the rule, and by minute 50, the rally had lost the little bit of pep it had at the start.

Still, there were moving moments, as when Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio) spoke of her battle with multiple sclerosis. And Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), who succeeded his father in Congress in 1955, recalled the birth of Medicare in 1965.

"I did have the privilege of sitting in the chair when we passed Medicare," he said, and "I used this here gavel to preside over the House." The audience gave a hearty cheer this time when he held up the instrument. "And I'm going to lend it to whoever it is who gets to preside over this legislation, because a good piece of wood doesn't wear out with one great event."

It was a powerful image. But then it was time for the lawmakers to walk back up the steps into the Capitol, and the sound system piped out another U2 song, "City of Blinding Lights," with another unhelpful message:

The more you see, the less you know

The less you find out as you go

I knew much more then than I do now.

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