Mon, Aug 17, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Town hall talks on US healthcare: Anger, fear, lunacy and lies

The heckling crowds, encouraged by conservative groups to create a sense of widespread outrage about healthcare reform, are spreading untrue claims

By John Whitesides  /  REUTERS , WASHINGTON

The sound and fury at US “town hall” meetings on healthcare reform have revealed as much about conservatives’ fear of US President Barack Obama as about health issues — and in the end might have little significance in the broader debate.

The angry crowds that disrupted recent public information sessions on the healthcare overhaul have voiced a range of concerns, from an expanding federal deficit to emotional warnings about Obama’s “socialist” policies.

The shouting captured media attention and overshadowed debate on the complex details of Obama’s top domestic priority, but the furor could limit the influence of the town hall meetings when lawmakers take up the issue again in September.

“A lot of this is the base of the two parties screaming at each other and I don’t know if it’s changing a lot of minds one way or the other,” Republican consultant Dan Schnur said.

“It just turns people off,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the moderate think tank Third Way.

He said extreme elements on each side are battling and “for everyone else this is a revolting spectacle.”

At times, the meetings have been a pretext for an emotional and often extreme debate about a changing US and Obama, a Democrat who in his seven months in office has won a costly auto industry bailout and a rescue package for the economy.

“This is about the systematic dismantling of this country,” a woman told Democratic Senator Arlen Specter on Tuesday at one of two raucous meetings in Pennsylvania, where shouting crowds said the US was heading the way of Russia and “Maoist China.”

A man told Specter to “tell Obama to represent us as an American.”

When Specter said the president was, the crowd roared in disagreement.

“I think there is a mood in America of anger,” Specter, a longtime Republican who switched to the Democrats earlier this year, told CBS’s Early Show on Wednesday.

“With so many people unemployed and so much bickering in Washington, people are disgusted with the partisanship and with the fear of losing their healthcare. It all boils over,” Specter said.

The heckling crowds — encouraged by Republican and conservative groups and talk show hosts to help create a sense of widespread outrage about healthcare reform — have frequently spotlighted inaccurate charges such as the creation of “death panels” to decide the level of care for the elderly.

That forced the president to publicly declare at his own town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday he does not want to “pull the plug on grandma.”

He condemned the “scare tactics” of healthcare reform opponents.

Obama, the first black US president, has seen those tactics before. During the presidential campaign, he battled Internet rumors that he was a secret Muslim and that he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

A group known as “birthers” has challenged the legitimacy of Obama’s place in the White House, refusing to accept he was born in the US despite documented evidence of his birth in Hawaii.

That charge has also been raised at some healthcare sessions, giving Democrats an easy avenue to counter-attack.

“Many of these people are birthers. The birthers are absolutely nuts,” Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Ed Rendell told MSNBC. “I have never seen ugliness and rage like this in the 32 years I’ve been in politics.”

Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, said the most disruptive crowd members were often the people who supported Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the campaign.

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