Up close, the opposition to Obama's health care plan doesn't look all that strong, as I learned at a forum in Rhode Island last night.
Over the last few weeks, the assaults on the Obama plan have started to feel like a replay of the Swift Boat attacks of 2004. So when I heard that there was going to be a meeting on health care in Warwick, RI, near where I'm on vacation, I had to attend. I recruited my teenage son Max, dusted off a quote from John F. Kennedy about the importance of defending freedom when it is in danger, and drove an hour north to Warwick City Hall. There, Rep. James Langevin, a Democrat, was holding a town meeting.
The state chairman of the Rhode Island Republicans, Giovanni Cicione, had called for massive protests, so I expected to encounter only a few Obama supporters, cowed into silence. In fact, Obama supporters narrowly outnumbered opponents inside and outside the meeting. The opponents used volume to make up for what they lacked in numbers: in the meeting they shouted often, and outside they used a bullhorn.
There were some 200 people outside, where Max and I carried signs in support of health care reform. Our allies included union members, lab-coated medical students from the American Medical Student Association, and a broad range of liberal activists. All were in solid form and didn't seem to be intimidated by the opposition.
The opposition seemed weaker in person than I had anticipated. For all the lies about death panels and the reports of gun-toting conservatives, we were confronted by a motley crew of LaRouchites, opponents of immigration, disciples of Ayn Rand, conservative libertarians, anti-abortion protesters, anti-government activists and loudmouths.
Despite claims that this is an "astroturf" movement, the people I saw appeared to be fairly comfortable with political action. All of them seemed to have been doing this for some time. (In contrast, the tea party that I saw in Manhattan back in the spring contained a large percentage of uncomfortable-looking demonstrators.)
Yet for all the volume of the Obama opponents, their message didn't add up to much: lies about death panels, cheers at the mention of the name of Sarah Palin, chants of "no free lunch," and signs encouraging us to read the works of Ayn Rand.
For the opponents of Obama last night, the president's health plan is the focus of a wide range of emotions and ideas. That helps make them effective in opposition, but it is hard to imagine them getting together to propose anything constructive of their own.
Nevertheless, the Obama opponents effectively manipulate the media. Television news thrives on displays of strong emotion, and the shouting opponents of the health plan exploit that to win air time.
They also make great use of reporters' ignorance. Last night, the local news showed Barney Frank dismissing one woman's claim that the Obama plan is a Nazi plan. The woman appears to be a LaRouche supporter. And the news last night also panned over the LaRouchites' despicable poster that depicts Obama with a Hitler-type mustache.
At the very least, reporters have an obligation to identify the people who make absurd claims. If the wildest arguments against the Obama plan come from folks as utterly dishonest as the LaRouchites, people need to know that. "Consider the source," as the saying goes.
As for me, I carried a sign, moved through the crowd listening to people, and mostly kept mum. I lack my son's admirable ability to listen to despicable arguments without losing my temper.
I did get in one good exchange, though. A man who saw me carrying a sign in support of health care reform asked me if I was a fascist. No, I replied, I'm the son of a proud veteran of World War II. They guy gulped with incomprehension--he didn't know what to say.
Bottom line: the fight for health care reform isn't over. After a bad start, Obama is starting to act. We can beat these guys.