Obama’s Town Hall: No Screams, Real Issues

At Barack Obama’s town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, an older man who identified himself as a Republican calmly expressed to the president his concern that a government-run “public option” might undermine private health insurers because, “Who can compete with the government?”

Obama acknowledged the validity of this concern and then explained why he doesn’t share it. His main point: that a public plan that has to play by the same rules as private insurance companies will have no unfair advantages, which should allow for healthy competition.

Whatever you think of each man’s position, the exchange was respectful, substantive, and rational—a reasonable concern answered with a reasonable argument; two intelligent people with a reasonable disagreement.

Now, contrast that scene to what played out just hours earlier in Pennsylvania, where Senator Arlen Specter held a town hall meeting of his own. The crowd, much smaller (not surprisingly) than at the Obama event, was filled with furious reform opponents united mainly in their hysterical irrationality. Their arguments, even when expressed with relative calm, were laced with misinformation, faulty assumptions, and baffling leaps of logic.

There was, for instance, the woman who, her voice quivering with rage, told Specter that she’d been apolitical until recently but that the health care reform effort was part of “a systematic dismantling of this country…I don't want this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country. What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution?”

“You ask me to defend the Constitution—that’s what I’ve been doing,” Specter replied, a comment that provoked a torrent of screams from the crowd. Seated a few feet away, the woman’s eyes widened as she shouted, “WHAT?” (Maybe Specter was referring, in part, to his courageous vote against Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987. Not that this outraged citizen would know or care about this—by her own admission, she only just started paying attention.)

Shortly thereafter, an angry man grabbed a microphone and unleashed a whale of a tirade, closing with an ominous warning: “One day, God is going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill, and then you’ll get your just desserts. I’m leaving.” The crowd roared its support.

But the irrationality of the Pennsylvania crowd was best articulated by a man who, in an apparent effort to sound reasonable, assured Specter that he did want to see health care reform—“but not this.” Then, before he dove further into his rant, Specter called his bluff: If not this, he asked, what kind of reform would you support?

The man hesitated, then finally recommended the following steps: enact tort reform, round up all of the illegal immigrants and send them home, and impose term limits on Congress.

This was very telling. Tort reform, long a favorite of the right, has been pushed relentlessly by the usual right-wing suspects (like these two fellows) as a key aspect of any reform. Never mind that malpractice costs—both in payouts and premiums—account for a tiny (less than one-percent share) of overall health care costs and that the states that have adopted tort reform have enjoyed no reduction in health care costs.

But at least tort reform is somewhat related to health care, in that it involves doctors. The man’s other suggestions—round up the illegals and give us term limits!—are totally unrelated. His exchange with Specter was the exact opposite of Obama’s with the Republican in New Hampshire: substance-free and rooted in paranoia that has noting to with health care.

Specter’s experience, of course, is consistent with the experiences his fellow Democratic senators and House members have had holding town halls—something that has been well documented by the media.

It would be easy to say that the tone of the Obama event was different simply because he’s the president, and as such automatically commands more respect from an audience than a mere member of Congress. No doubt, this was part of it.

And it would be fair to note that the White House, unlike the office of a random senator or House member, was able to choreograph the event in a way the ensured a more friendly crowd.

It was no accident, for instance, that when Obama finished his opening remarks, he was greeted by a standing ovation from what (on television, at least) appeared to be 75 percent of the audience. And a question from a random young girl—who asked Obama to dispel all of the bad things that protesters outside were saying about him—was rather suspicious.

Still, he did receive several questions from citizens who expressed rational, substance-based concerns about health care reform. This kind of skeptical-but-intelligent dialogue was all but absent from the Specter event, just as it’s been absent from most other recent town halls.

This is further evidence that the non-presidential town halls have functioned largely as an echo chamber for the most passionate and motivated segment of the electorate: angry rejectionists who feel instinctively threatened by Obama and who have been resisting his legitimacy since the moment he was elected. Really, it’s not hard to imagine the man who lectured Specter about God’s wrath cheering at a McCain-Palin rally last fall, screaming about Obama’s “socialist” agenda. 

The mistake that’s been made by the media has been to lump the irrational rejectionists in with the much broader chunk of the electorate that supports the concept of health care reform but is uneasy with what they’re now hearing out of Washington. The first group will never—ever—support an Obama-led reform effort; the second group is largely open to doing so, but wants some questions answered first.

What’s frustrating, of course, is the enthusiasm gap between these two groups. The rejectionists are fundamentally committed to stopping Obama; hence, their mobilization for even the most obscure House Democrat’s town hall meeting. They’re smaller but louder.

The other group is less committed and more muddled in its views; it takes a presidential visit to bring them out. But Obama came face-to-face with a few of them today, and the difference was refreshing.