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Christine Baker/The Patriot-News/AP

To the streets

Healthcare | With Congress in recess the healthcare debate, and the debate about the debate, moves outdoors

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

The people overflowing the hallways at Rep. Steve Rothman's town hall meeting in Palisades Park, N.J., were civil until a man asked about a single-payer system. When Rothman, a Democrat, said President Barack Obama hadn't proposed a single-payer system, a well-dressed older woman yelled back, "Yes he did!" They had all seen the YouTube videos of Obama telling an AFL-CIO audience he supported single-payer healthcare, and the questioner yelled, "You're lying to us! I watched it! I saw it with my own eyes!" as the audience erupted into applause.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer decried the disruptions at healthcare forums in an Aug. 10 USA Today opinion piece, saying, "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American." Time magazine and other news outlets have called the protesters "mobs" and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., said he held a conference call instead of a forum because of the forums' "lynch mob mentality."

Rick Scott, chairman of Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR), said that politicians are used to talking about healthcare in sound bites, but the town hall meetings make this impossible. Information is no longer filtered since protesters have seen YouTube videos of Obama advocating single-payer healthcare, or lawmakers admitting they haven't read the bill. "You stand up in front of a group, you can't talk in soundbites," Scott said. "You have to know the sections. You have to know exactly what these bills say."

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CPR is running national TV ads (one features an orthopedic surgeon saying that people are "languishing and suffering on waitlists" in Canada) and informing supporters about the time and location of town hall meetings. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the protesters' anger "manufactured" and said CPR has bragged about "organizing and manufacturing that anger," but Scott said it only tells people when the meetings are. And since healthcare is a life-and-death issue, there's no need to manufacture the passion.

On the other side of the debate, Christian liberals are pushing back with national ads, in-district prayer rallies, and a call-in with President Obama. The "40 Days for Health Reform" coalition, a group of 25 denominations and organizations, is targeting areas where it says religion is dominant and politics are more moderate.

In a telephone press conference, Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, said the coalition is letting justice "roll down like waters" instead of advocating policy details: "We leave the plumbing to the politicians." He too criticized town hall protesters, saying, "I see lies being told. I see fears being raised. I see even the threat of violence with these mob sessions."

In New Jersey, protestors passed out literature with the heading, "Act now to stop Obama's Nazi Health Plan!" next to posters of Obama with a Hitler moustache and the words "I've Changed." A brisk young woman walked past and advised them to support healthcare reform so they could take their psychotropic meds.

At other rallies, like one in Denver outside Stout Clinic where Pelosi was scheduled to speak, the tables turned: About 200 peaceful demonstrators showed up with handmade signs. Soon opposing protesters showed up and took places in front of them with well-made printed signs from Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama's campaign organization. Some of those protesters included Spanish-speaking day laborers apparently hired from an unemployment line who spoke no English.

Back in New Jersey Elsie Lopez, 83, hobbled out of the town hall meeting with the help of a cane: "If that program comes, I will not survive two more years. If I need something-two more years, one more year with my age, it's very possible that I will not get it." But she will first have to survive the debate over the healthcare debate.

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