By John Whitesides - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The sound and fury at U.S. “town hall” meetings on healthcare reform have revealed as much about conservative fears of 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 America 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 United States 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.
‘PULL THE PLUG ON GRANDMA’
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 U.S. 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 United States -- a requirement for the presidency -- 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, said the most disruptive crowd members were often the people who rallied to Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the campaign.
“There is an underlying element of ‘We don’t know this guy, we don’t trust this guy,'” he said of their view of Obama.
“Common-sense, average voters in both parties see these wild-eyed people in town hall meetings and they are mesmerized by it but put off as well,” he said. “There is a danger that the opposition will discredit itself.”
The town hall meetings were scheduled by lawmakers during their August vacation to discuss Obama’s push for a healthcare bill that reins in costs, constrains insurance companies and expands coverage to most of the 46 million Americans who are now uninsured.
But Obama and Democrats, who won control of the White House and Congress after eight years of Republican power under President George W. Bush, have been handicapped by a lack of details to discuss.
Four of five committees working on the issue -- three in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate -- have passed different versions of the bill and one Senate committee is still at work.
“If you’re an Obama supporter, you don’t really know what you’re fighting for yet,” Schnur said. “If you’re an opponent, you latch onto the single least attractive aspect of any of five different plans.”
Democrats, caught off-guard by the intensity of the criticism, have gone on the offensive and Obama has promised to become more active. He has two more town hall sessions planned this week, on Friday in Montana and on Saturday in Colorado.
“The Democrats have been shaken up by this a bit. For eight years, town halls were a pleasant experience for them,” Kessler said. “The people who show up to town halls usually are the aggrieved. Now that the Democrats are in control, the aggrieved are on the other side.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan