"Don't get up," Weiner told McCaughey with a smile when he greeted her last night, after arriving a few minutes late, to their debate at NYU's Langone Medical Center. The Congressman and the former lieutenant governor seemed to enjoy a few cordial minutes of conversation before they took their seats on stage. The mood got less cordial when Weiner's opening remarks included a list of publications that have branded McCaughey as untruthful and when he offered a "Listener's Guide to Betsy McCaughey."
"She's got a little problem today because she's actually debating someone who's read the bill, helped write the bill and has been at all the hearings on the bill," Weiner said.
Weiner argued that Americans could cut the $845 billion dollar slice of this pie chart, by getting rid of the "middle man," private insurance companies. Weiner supports a stronger public option than the one currently being debated by the House (or the Senate).
Weiner's basic argument was that people like Medicare, and Americans should have the option to choose a plan like Medicare before they turn 65.
McCaughey had her own pie chart to argue that Medicare loses money and that it's actually being subsidized by private insurance plans.
Later, the congressman made fun of McCaughey's pie charts.
When it was her turn to speak, McCaughey carried a binder with one version of the health care bill, and cued up her own PowerPoint presentation, titled "Don't Lower the Standard of Medical Care." She said she shares the goal of covering the uninsured and holding down spending, but said the current bill would be a "body blow" to New York's hospitals, health care workers, and citizens.
Occasionally pounding on the binder for dramatic effect, McCaughey called American health care the best in the world, and said "Americans spend more on health care, because they can afford more."
McCaughey's presentation included a few slides with quotes from doctors David Blumenthal and Ezekiel Emanuel.
While Weiner argued that reform would work almost like an extension of Medicare to younger Americans, McCaughey said it would hurt seniors.
"How can you support legislation that funds coverage for the uninsured by slashing Medicare services for seniors?" McCaughey asked. "That's like snatching purses from little old ladies."
The auditorium was nearly full, with a few dozen people in an upper balcony, but most of McCaughey's supporters seem to be concentrated in the first three rows, which had been marked as reserved.
They cheered loudly when McCaughey said "Anthony and the president should throw out this 1,000 page bill," and then cheered when she said: "Give us a 20-page bill in honest, plain English." She invoked the shortness of the Constitution, and added, "it's so important that this be in a short bill that's readable."
After the debate, I asked McCaughey if a 20-page bill could adequately address an issue like health care reform. "Well, several of them--what I’d like to see is if members of Congress presented 20 page bills in simple plain English—each bill doing one thing—we would preserve democracy. If it’s a 1000 page bill, it’s full of horse-trading," she said.
After their presentations and rebuttals, both presenters took questions that had been submitted previously.
McCaughey looked slightly bored as Weiner argued the current proposals for the public option are too "watered down."
"I believe it needs to be more muscular than this. If you don't have a public option, you really don't have a cost-saving mechanism," Weiner said "there's no incentive on the part of health care companies to compete with one another on price."
"If we are going to go give millions of people a requirement to go buy insurance, the very least we can do for those people is provide them some competition," Weiner said.
McCaughey argued that the public option is not a true competitor, because its costs are subsidized by private insurance.
From the front row, a man bellowed "rude man" at least a dozen times, whenever Weiner questioned McCaughey's veracity.
Earlier Weiner had said, "I feel like I'm debating a pyromaniac at a straw man factory," but when he again referred people to check McCaughey's record on various websites, someone shouted, "tell us what you have to say."
"Okay," Mr. Weiner replied, "be careful what you wish for." He then corrected what he thought was misinformation from McCaughey, and slowly read the end-of-life counseling section from the bill.
When the "Rude Man" started again, Weiner sniped back. "Pipe down, you're not at Stanford anymore."
Which was met with, once again, a cry of: "rude man."
There were also several "you lie" shouts cast in both directions, suggesting that Representative Joe Wilson's infamous interruption of the president might be catching on as a political statement for both sides.
After the debate, Weiner was swarmed by dozens of supporters and opponents. He held court for almost half an hour, answering questions from angry opponents, and obliging supporters who asked for photographs.
I asked the congressman whether he felt like his constituents in Brooklyn and Queens were pushing him for the public option, or if this was a case where he felt compelled to lead regardless.
"I think that the more my constituents understand this, the more they support the public option and the more they support single payer. Remember I have a pretty old district, but it's not a blowout in my district. My mail is 2 to 1, which sounds like a lot, but that's 30 percent of my district that's saying they're not convinced. But considering that i'm their congressman and I'm out there every day, that's not a great number, I'm not happy with 66 percent."
"I've done about 13 town hall meetings--I'm a sadomasochist, as I told somebody--when people come in they're probably split down the middle. When they leave, I think they leave 75 to 80 percent in support."
Did he feel like he had that effect on this night?
"Probably not. In my district it's a little bit different. In this group, maybe people came in already in a certain camp."
McCaughey said she wasn't concerned with how the issue plays politically, and said she "hoped people left with more information."
Before Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey took the stage for a health care debate last night, the moderator, Politico’s Ben Smith, assured the crowd this would not be a town hall meeting. Instead, it would be a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, with each side allowed to give in-depth presentations and longer rebuttals.
But the Lincoln-Douglas debates had heckling too. And the longer formats last night couldn’t quite keep the rowdy crowd from devolving–from vigorous applause at the outset to booing and hissing and shouting at the presenters, and the moderator, and one another, by the night’s end. Anthony Weiner even blew a kiss at one of his hecklers.
Here it is, in pictures.