Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009

An Unhealthy Debate

The bearded man was shouting at Senator Arlen Specter, though the two were only a few feet apart. "You can do whatever the hell you please to do," he sputtered at a forum in Lebanon, Pa. "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies on the Hill. And then you'll get your just deserts."

How many Americans does 59-year-old Craig Anthony Miller speak for? The answer isn't simple. From Maryland to Michigan to Missouri, lawmakers on their August recess encountered voters skeptical or downright livid about health-care reform — and some who turned up at town halls to applaud it. In many places, the shouting started hours before the doors opened, as the armies for and against waited outside by the thousands just to get in.

Opponents of "Obamacare" tried to buy time with the far-fetched claim that reform would leave federal "death panels" to decide which ailing seniors deserved lifesaving care. In other places, rumor drove the debate. At a town hall outside Detroit, a man complained to Democratic Representative John Dingell that his mentally handicapped son would "be given no care" under the Obama plan.

Some of the passion stems from a legitimate frustration that the government is already too deeply involved in the economy and is about to be more so. But some is simply self-interest. "All we are saying," sang the doubters in Towson, Md., co-opting the John Lennon ditty from 1969, "is pay your own bills."

As the skirmishes gathered momentum on cable TV, the White House attempted to turn a position of weakness into an opportunity: with its opponents overplaying their hand, the Administration scheduled a series of town halls with Obama to calm the situation. "People who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks," he said in Portsmouth, N.H. "They'll create bogeymen out there that just aren't real."