As an early nineteenth century writer/humorist famously said, "Politics ain't beanbag," and that has surely been true recently as many Democratic lawmakers have been inundated with protestors at their hometown meetings on health care reform, many confrontations underscoring the bitter underbelly of opposition.
And Senate Democrats Thursday called in some high level help from the White House. Senior Adviser David Axelrod spent one hour with members at their weekly Thursday policy lunch giving pointers on how to deal with opposition, with members watching a YouTube video of Cong. Lloyd Doggett, D-TX, that has become a viral sensation.
Hundreds of protestors surrounded the congressman at an outside health care event, with posters proclaiming "No Government Counselor in My Home!", pictures showing Doggett with red horns added to his head, and a resounding chorus of shouts, "Just say no!" repeatedly, until Doggett gave up and left.
Axelrod would reveal no strategy but suggested that some of the protests, which have allegedly included a life-threatening call to a member's office, as well as the lynching of an effigy of one member, are coordinated, "I think that there's obviously some evidence that there are some groups out there promoting this. But I'm not going to disparage this. I believe in freedom of speech."
Democratic leadership also distributed a playbook of sorts to help members deal with not only unruly protestors but confused constituents. Basically, the answer appears to be: give them a (Democratic) education.
The 25-page booklet, obtained by Fox, is entitled, "Responsible Reform for the Middle Class," and is chock-full of tidbits on legislative efforts, with a specific section titled, "Responding to Opponents of Health Insurance Reform."
This section deals with hot button issues, like funding for abortion, cuts to Medicare, and a government takeover of health care. On abortion, the book tacitly acknowledges what enrages some on the right -- that abortion could be paid for with taxpayer dollars.
The book says merely that "abortion coverage is not mandated...Just like today's private insurance market, reform will not force or prohibit health plans from covering abortion." But there is nothing stating that taxpayers funds will not be used, though reform effort negotiators have said they are attempting to deal the issue.
Some members were clearly anxious about raucus townhall events.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, leaving the meeting, clutched her booklet and said to an aide, "I'm ready!" Lincoln told reporters, "You just have to go back to your basics. I plan to deal with them in a very ladylike way, showing them respect, but also demanding respect," adding, "The disrespectful way that I think a lot of the disruptive people have approached this is not just unpleasant to us but to our other constituents who really want to engage in a substantive conversation."
One problem, the Senate has not yet completed a health care bill. Members are still waiting for one committee to finish its work on the only bipartisan reform bill expected to emerge from Congress.
Some of the most vocal opponents at these townhalls decry what they fear are Democratic attempts to socialize health insurance. The bipartisan bill emerging from the Finance Committee is not expected to have a government-run health care program, something many Demcocrats want, but more conservative Dems are not able to say much about it, as the details are not yet available.
No problem. The handy playbook deals with that, too. "A government takeover of health care is NOT an option. If you like your health insurance, you can keep it. Senate health insurance reform will increase choices -- not take them away. Health insurance reform will actually result in MORE competition and options than what exists today," the booklet teaches.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, said, "I think there are people out there that have real questions. We just have to tell them the facts." Casey said, "There's going to be conflict and combat, but there are still people out there who want answers. We cannot allow a vocal, well-organized minority to drown out, not just a message from a member of congress, but the questions from members of the public."
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-IL, said he doesn't even hold town hall meetings. "We shouldn't fall for these sucker punches," Durbin said. A spokesman said Durbin holds more structured events with a clear sponsor, like a hospital. If anyone tries to shout down the senator there, there are people to remove them.
"We're going to have meetings, but they're not going to be meetings that they want," Durbin said, referring to the protestors.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, a member of leadership, counseled a more nonchalant approach, though, chalking up all of the tension to "politics." Schumer said, "We're just basically going to ignore them...They can do what they want to do. The facts will win the day."