The start of the August recess saw Democrats heading home to try to sell healthcare reform to their constituents. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, my local suburban Maryland congressman and one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's lieutenants, told the New York Times: "We understand the future of health reform could hinge on how the conversation with the American people goes in the next six weeks."
Pelosi began that conversation by promising a "drumbeat across America" to respond to what she called a "shock-and-awe carpet-bombing by the health insurance industry to perpetuate the status quo." This despite the fact that up until that point the industry had reportedly run only one ad, which wasn't negative, and had done little grass-roots organizing. So it wasn't the industry that began the bombing; it was Pelosi, when she tied the "immoral" bad-guy health insurers to Republicans and labeled them all "villains."
The battle was on. Town hall meetings in Texas, Missouri, Maryland, and elsewhere were "crashed" by citizens upset with the Democrats' healthcare reform bills. Americans for Prosperity, a state-level organization heavily involved with the Tea Party movement, plans to bus protesters to August town hall meetings in Montana, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana, to name a few states with important Democratic members of Congress. Montana, for example, is the home state of Sen. Max Baucus, powerful chair of the Finance Committee overseeing the Senate healthcare bill.
One grass-roots organizer in Wisconsin with Americans for Prosperity told me he hasn't seen anything like this since the Vietnam War protests; over a thousand people attended a town hall in Fond du Lac in early August. "Something's going on out here!" he said.
What's going on is that constituents who don't usually go to town hall meetings are suddenly deciding that they want to talk with their Member of Congress about the Democrats' proposed healthcare reform -- after all, nothing is more important to most people than their health. Most adults alive today have seen an increase in healthcare costs over the last few decades, but they've also seen advances like MRIs, PET and CAT scans, cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, and heart medications for their loved ones; and a concurrent jump in our expected life spans. Unlike, say, monetary policy, healthcare is something about which most Americans have a very strong opinion.
Speaker Pelosi, in a USA Today op-ed with House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, called these "disruptions" in public meetings an "ugly campaign," and implied that the health insurance industry was behind them.
"Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American," they wrote. Through a spokesman, President Obama tried to undo the damage, saying that "vigorous debate" is actually "part of the American tradition." As the cable news shows have continued to stoke the summer fires by running footage of town halls and interviewing angry participants, it's been Sen. Claire McCaskill who has been the voice of reason. She told MSNBC she's looking for the "moderate middle" on healthcare reform, and her town hall of 2,500 voters -- "just frustrated" people who don't trust government -- was a "great democracy moment" in Missouri, not manufactured or un-American at all, but "absolutely authentic."
There's more to the story. It's worth noting that many of these healthcare battleground states also have very high unemployment: Missouri (9.3 percent), Indiana (10.7 percent), North Carolina (11 percent), and Ohio (11.1 percent), for example. It's no wonder the Gallup numbers show that 7 out of 10 Americans think the economy is our top problem, not healthcare (in fact, most Americans do not believe that the U.S. healthcare system is in a state of crisis, according to Gallup). People in those states are nervous about approving major healthcare reform. They are not yet convinced that the last massive government spending program, the stimulus package, has had any impact. It's no surprise folks are concerned. Many of them are upset because of the economy and government spending, not because they are lunatics or haters or "un-American."
As they take the podium at town halls, Democrats face not only tough poll numbers and increasingly angry voters but a GOP message that has been breathtakingly simple. "It's as if every single American gets up in the morning, walks over to the window, and tosses two dollars out into the wind, every day for the next 10 years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said of the Democrats' plan. That's not hypothetical mumbo jumbo about "portability" or the like. People understand throwing money out the window.
And so the Democrats have called an audible. No more public plan, no more moral obligation to the uninsured, no more duty to rein in high costs. Printed on little laminated cards, the leadership's healthcare reform (or "health insurance reform" as President Obama has started calling it) talking points were distributed to the rank and file, with district-by-district factoids answering the questions: What's in it for me? What goodies are there for the majority of folks back home, the already insured?
But their plan may be futile. These angry citizens are, for the most part, victims of the recession in states that have been hit hard by rising foreclosures and falling income. And they're not buying what the Democrats are selling.
But here's what they are buying: Rick Case, a businessman who has 16 car dealerships across Florida, Ohio, and Georgia, told the Washington Post that his showrooms were "swamped." He'd had his biggest sales weekend since 2003, thanks to trade-ins of older cars under the "cash for clunkers" program. And Florida, Ohio, and Georgia, where Case operates, all have double-digit unemployment figures. Florida has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Yet people are flocking to dealerships to spend money.
Republicans oppose it, but cash for clunkers provides an opportunity. Despite its drawbacks, it's a free-market solution that puts money and choice in consumers' hands, rather than funding more endless bureaucracies. It's really a glorified tax credit for Main Street, and it appears especially popular in the hardest-hit states, where folks seem to be wary of more government intrusion and massive spending, whether in the form of healthcare reform or additional stimulus.
There's a lesson there. Maybe one way to mollify angry town hallers is to offer free-market healthcare reforms that put choice in the hands of consumers, without new bureaucracies.
Perhaps the conversation with the American people over the next six weeks will get that across.
Read the case for healthcare rationing from Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute.
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