POSTED ON AUGUST 19, 2009:
Town Hall Showdowns
Americans are cramming into town hall meetings in incredible and highly-vocal numbers.
The usually highly-organized Left is upset that those opposing their plans have dominated the turnout.
President Obama told a Virginia campaign rally, "I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way."
In other words: "Unless you agree with me, shut up." Mr. Obama's message is sharply as odds with the Democrat National Committee's ads that claim it's the other side which is trying to silence people.
The White House and its allies claim opponents to their plans are simply well-organized extremists. But what about the Left's efforts to orchestrate? The union-backed HCAN (Health Care for America Now) is a huge coalition that sent a memo nationwide that explicitly details the Left's strategy, including:
Bring more people than the other side has.
Arrive earlier than the other side does.
Be more visible than the other side. Approach reporters and be assertive.
When the other side gets too loud, shut them down with chants
HCAN discourages any debate about the facts; the memo states, "Do not debate on their policy points."
Congressmen and Senators are adopting their own strategies for avoiding the crowds without appearing chicken. President Obama demonstrated the control-the-venue approach at a June 11 town hall event in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was polite, stage-managed and completely supportive. Why? For starters, there was heavy screening. Everyone attending had to get a ticket from the White House.
It was the same town, but a much different story for Rep. Steve Kagen (D, WI). His overflow town hall crowd was angry and vocal. Most of those who attended urged Kagen to oppose the Democrats' proposed health care overhaul.
Similar patterns have held true in states across the country. Some Congressmen have asked labor unions like the SEIU to "sponsor" their events, prompting complaints of stacking the audience and sometimes of union thuggery.
Other lawmakers are meeting constituents only by phone.
"Tele-townhalls" are popular with Congress. Their best use is when a member can't appear in person because they must be in Washington. But that's not the case during this five-week break.Lawmakers can speak with large numbers by phone, but constituents can only speak if their phone is activated.
Tele-townhalls are mostly one-way communication. There is no face-to-face. The politician has complete control and keeps inconvenient constituents out of sight. Questions can be limited or screened. Best of all, it leaves no embarrassing videos on the Web.
Then there's total avoidance. Rep. Tim Bishop (D, NY) sparked a trend when he canceled further town halls after angry constituents chased him in July. Many others aren't holding town halls either, claiming it's to avoid mobs.
But it's not wise to call your constituents a mob, and hiding from them only makes them madder. A CNN poll says 71 percent of the public wants a town hall where voters can speak and tell their Congressmen what they think.
Today's quick-and-easy videotaping and Internet postings gives these events an enormous impact that is new to politics. More than a million have viewed Specter's town hall videos.
The whole thing illustrates why President Obama and others wanted Congress to act before its August recess--to avoid getting the feedback from a the ever-growing numbers who are getting angrier by the day. Rather than understanding that the big-government agenda has millions genuinely scared for their country, the Left is condemning its critics.
Calling insurance companies "immoral villains" and labeling large-scale outcry simply a "mob" is no way to run a country. That's the attitude that prompts so many loud voices--because they're convinced that those in charge won't listen to anything less.
Ernest Istook, now recovering after 14 years in Congress, is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, talk radio host, and a practicing attorney. He can be reached at (405) 659-6500.
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