Going to the Mat On Health-Care Bill

Protesters Exercise Civic Muscles, Lungs At a Raucous Towson Town Hall Meeting

At a town hall meeting in Baltimore on Monday night, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) faces strong opposition to health care reform. Protesters shouted and drowned out much of what Cardin tried to say. Video by AP
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Congressional town hall meetings on health-care reform have transcended their original purpose and become a kind of professional wrestling for the civically engaged. Monday night it was Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's turn in the ring.

The Maryland Democrat had booked a 500-seat concert hall at Towson University weeks ago, before the town halls had become so notoriously wild. His office got 1,200 RSVPs.

People started lining up -- and arguing with each other in line -- three hours before the event began. The many hundreds who didn't make it inside didn't seem entirely disappointed. An alternative was to join raucous opposing rallies being held on opposite sides of the street, waving signs and hurling chants at each other over the honking rush-hour traffic.

"All we are saying," sang skeptics of Democratic reform proposals, "is pay your own bills!"

"We already pay!" answered the reform supporters. And: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, status quo has got to go."

Labor unions and reform activists had tried to organize a firm response in Towson after town halls elsewhere were dominated by opponents who shouted down Democratic lawmakers. Before the town hall, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers passed out fliers that mocked the other side as "Tea-Baggers, Birthers & Dittoheads" and urged: "Don't hijack tonight's town hall."

This further incensed the reform opponents, some of whom were wearing their "Tea'd Off" American flag pins -- souvenirs of "tea party" tax protests in April -- and they said they had heard about the rally on talk radio, and they did want to know what President Obama was hiding about the circumstances of his birth.

A Question of Sincerity

But the professional-seeming organizing by the supporters of the health legislation only undermined their own narrative -- that they are the genuine grass roots, while the opponents of reform are themselves organized by the unseen hand of right-wing forces, Adam Smith, Obama haters. Many of the supporters waved glossy signs from the activist coalition Health Care for America Now -- setting themselves up for a chant from hand-lettered-sign-carrying opponents: "Why the pre-made signs? Why the pre-made signs?"

It became a question of authenticity.

"I'm sure when those people were organized by whoever their handlers were, they were told to make their own signs," said Margaret Henn, a small-business owner and health-reform supporter, who, wisely, was herself carrying a hand-painted sign: "Universal Coverage" on one side and "Be Civil" on the other.

"If I was paid by the RNC [Republican National Committee], I would have dressed better. I wouldn't have paint on my shirt," said Rob Baranoski, a stay-at-home father from White Marsh, shouting with the skeptics across the street from Henn.

But if the skeptics were so spontaneously unorganized, why were some of them carrying around the list of 20 questions for Cardin and "Obamacare" being circulated ahead of time in conservative circles?

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company