Anna Eshoo vs. Hecklers at CA-14 Town Hall (Long)
Two weeks ago I went to the health care "town hall meeting" (actually in a school gymnasium, because what town has a Town Hall anymore?) with the representative for CA-14, Anna Eshoo.
It was a depressing circus of rabid hyper-partisanship and grown adults acting like middle-schoolers in a playground fight.
It's taken me two weeks to write about the town hall just because it was such a weird and disturbing experience. I needed some distance from it.
I'm a very non-confrontational person, you know? Raised tempers, confrontation, and people yelling at each other makes me uncomfortable. Being in the middle of about a thousand people angrily booing each other made me feel threatened. I felt like I needed a detox afterwards.
While I didn't see any signs equating Obama to Hitler, there was a group of people outside with a mix of protest signs more or less focused on opposing government intervention. Standing across from them was a group of counter-protesters who were all little old ladies in crazy flowery hats with signs about how much they love their Medicare, "which is a socialist government single-payer program", and how they wish they could share it with everyone. They sang a song about it. I'm serious.
Inside the auditorium it was jam-packed; there were lots of people who didn't get a seat. We all got a stack of question cards on which we could write our name and contact info and a question, and pass them to one of the moderators, who collected them and brought them to Eshoo on the stage. She answered the first question from each person, with promises to answer the rest later, by e-mail.
It was clear from the moment Anna Eshoo took the stage that it was going to get rowdy. It was hard to tell for sure but I estimated about 1/3 of the crowd were vocally anti-reform protesters, mostly older people, who booed and jeered at pretty much anything positive Eshoo said about health care reform or HR 3200 or Obama, shouted out statements contradicting her, etc. Maybe 1/2 the crowd was on the pro-reform side, judging by the fact that they clapped at all the things the protestors booed at, but they weren't nearly as forceful or organized. Complicating matters there was another small but vocal contingent, maybe 1/8 to 1/6, who were die-hard for single-payer, so they would join in on booing the public option but then start up chanting in favor of HR 676.
I thought Anna Eshoo handled herself quite well in the face of this circus. She knew her stuff; she took questions straight from the pile without filtering them, and made honest attempts to answer them no matter how dumb or how hostile they were. She displayed an impressive command of facts and figures while answering difficult questions off-the-cuff, without notes. She didn't let the vitriol of the hecklers damage her composure. Several times when the audience got too rowdy, she tried to shame them into behaving, saying "I don't care if you disrespect me; I know some of you don't like me and that's fine, I can take it. But please have some respect for your neighbors, who have come here to have their questions answered, and quiet down so they can hear."
Man. Sometimes when people act like middle-schoolers, you have to treat them like middle-schoolers, know what I'm sayin?
Eshoo spent a lot of her answers focusing on the fact that the currently uninsured are costing us a lot of money by showing up in emergency rooms, that emergency care is more expensive than prevention, and therefore that we can save money by insuring the uninsured and getting them preventative care. (The point I made in this post.)
"Californians with insurance pay an average of $1400 on their health insurance premiums every year to help offset the cost of health care provided to the uninsured.", according to Diane Feinstein's website. I'd take that $1400 figure with a grain of salt, though, since I don't know how you can accurately measure these things.
A lot of the questions, I'd say the majority, were hostile, based on false premises, or were questions that were not really questions, like:
"Why do you want to destroy the best health care system in the world?"
"What will it take to convince you the majority of your consituents don't want more government control over our lives?"
It was pretty clear that these people were not against specific details of the plan; they were dead-set against having any reform at all. I mean, how the heck can a public option be described as "more government control over our lives"? That makes no sense. These kind of questions were just trolling, trying to get a reaction out of the audience, which they certainly did.
Some questions that were more about the protesters themselves than about health care reform. There were a couple which basically demanded that Eshoo apologize for mean things that other Democrats had said about the protest movement, like calling them "astroturf" or "angry mobs". This is both off-topic and, um, why should Eshoo apologize for something she didn't say? "I don't agree with demonizing anyone" is what she said.
A lot of the questions were pure right-wing memes. You can find the same memes all over any number of blog comments and forum posts all over the Internet right now. For example, there's a meme going around that says the Tenth Amendment puts any health care reform beyond the constitutional powers of the federal government, and thus it would be illegal for Congress to pass any such thing. (By that logic, Social Security and Medicare would also be unconstitutional... is anybody in favor of repealing them?) I was wondering if this meme would show up in a question at the town hall, and it did! Somebody challenged Eshoo with "What clause in the constitution gives the federal government the right to take over the medical system?"
The answer, by the way, is Article 1, Section 8:
"The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."
Eshoo pointed out that Congress has people whose job it is to check the constitutionality of bills before they're voted on, that opinion in the mainstream constitutional law world is that the bill is legal, and that the Supreme Court is right across the street from Congress and ready to strike down any laws it finds unconstitutional.
This was one of a couple of fun moments when Anna Eshoo schooled the hecklers. Others:
She was asked if she would "promise to read the bill before voting on it". (This is another common right-wing meme: the idea that nobody in Congress has read the bill.) She picked up an actual copy of bill HR 3200 (in a large black 3-ring binder) and waved it at the audience, saying "I never vote on anything I haven't read. Not only have I read it all, I wrote parts of it. Maybe you should try reading it too."
She was challenged on the fact that some of the uninsured are uninsured voluntarily, and that HR3200 would take that choice away by forcing people to buy insurance. (One of the more well-founded criticisms, I think.) She countered by asking everybody in the audience who voluntarily chose to remain uninsured to raise their hand. Not one person did. "Very interesting", she said.
She also said, at one point, "I don't think anybody in this room wants to stand up and defend the practice of recission" ( when an insurance company drops a customer after that customer gets sick and attempts to collect on their policy). Total silence; nobody stood up. She pointed out that aside from the public option, none of the most important things HR3200 (and all the other bills in consideration) does is to make recission illegal, and that this is one of the ways the bill is trying to benefit the currently insured, not just to cover the uninsured.
I like Anna Eshoo a lot. Even though I think HR3200 is a pretty flawed bill (more about that later), I respect how she kept her cool under fire, schooled people with facts, took questions in good faith, and argued both the moral and economic rationales for why we need more coverage for more people. I find myself wanting to come to her defense against the people who were booing her.
Aside from the stupid questions, the other thing that pissed me off was that people just had to politicize everything she said. For example, she mentioned Ted Kennedy, and all the conservatives booed (really? so soon? no respect for the dead at all?), and all the liberals clapped louder to try to cover up the booing. Later she mentioned Ronald Reagan — not to praise his policies, just to establish the time frame of a certain Medicare reform — and all the liberals booed while all the conservatives clapped. Now what was the point of that?
Naked partisanship is an ugly, ugly thing. It's politics as war, as zero-sum game, where winning is not about passing laws that improve people's lives, it's about inflicting damage on the opposing team. It brings out the worst in human beings.
Said naked partisanship doesn't belong soley to the hecklers and anti-reform protestors in the current controversey. It exists on both sides. There was no reason for liberals to boo the name Ronald Reagan, except to, I dunno, express their team spirit, like soccer hooligans. He's dead, and although I don't agree with a lot of the stuff he did, his policies were not the topic of what we were talking about, and booing him has nothing to do with reforming health care.
Similarly, it's easy to dismiss the hecklers/tea-partiers as a bunch of angry cranks who can't get over the fact that their side lost the election last year. A lot of them would be protesting pretty much any serious reform plan by the Obama administration, regardless of its merits or flaws. It's also easy to laugh at them given the absurd falsity and illogic of some of their core arguments.
But you know what? I think it's too easy. For people like me who are generally pro-reform, it is too too easy to dismiss the opposition and, in dismissing them, overlook serious problems with HR 3200 and other proposals. These problems exist. It's fine to point out the stupidity and racism of some of the protest signs the opposition is waving, but doing so isn't going to make HR 3200's problems go away.
I don't know how many other people in the audience were like me — generally in favor of reform, but skeptical on the particulars, not ideologically committed to one particular method, and there because we wanted to ask questions and learn something. But whoever else was in that camp must have been as disappointed as I was that Eshoo had to spend so much time answering stupid troll questions and admonishing people to quiet down.