Health Care Tension Tears Up Town Hall Meetings

At some recent town halls, members of Congress were heckled and jeered by protesters speaking out against proposals to overhaul the nation's health care system. Some Democrats have said the protests were staged by conservative groups seeking to undermine the Obama administration's health care agenda; some Republicans have said those complaints are a smokescreen to distract attention from legitimate grass-roots concerns. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Alex Isenstadt, congressional reporter for Politico, about what's really going on.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Members of Congress were back in their districts last week, but not everyone received a warm welcome.

(Soundbite of protest)

HANSEN: At some of the town halls, representatives were heckled and jeered by protestors speaking out against proposals to overhaul the nation's health care system. Some Democrats have said the protests were staged by conservative groups seeking to undermine the Obama administration's health care agenda. And some Republicans have said those complaints are a smokescreen to distract attention from legitimate grassroots concerns.

Alex Isenstadt is a congressional reporter for Politico. He's been covering the town hall backlash. He's in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. ALEX ISENSTADT (Congressional Reporter, Politico): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: We've seen these protests all over television, the Internet, have most town meetings been like this or is this just a few incidents that have managed to get a lot of attention?

Mr. ISENSTADT: Well, what's clear is that there certainly has been a stepping up of the amount of protests that we've seen, particularly over the last week when members of Congress came back home to their districts.

HANSEN: Republicans say it's a grassroots backlash. Democrats say it's Astroturf. Can you filter out the spin for us?

Mr. ISENSTADT: Well, that's right. You know, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday held a press conference, and he held up fairly animatedly a piece of Astroturf. And he said this is Astroturf; this is not a grassroots. And his point was that, look, these protests are being sponsored by corporate interests based in Washington, D.C. with ties to the Republican Party. If you talk to Republicans, they say, look, these are very much grassroots-oriented protests that are being done by activists at a very local level.

Now, as is so often the case in politics, I think the truth is probably somewhere in between. And I think, you know, talking with people who are involved with these lobbying groups in Washington, these conservative-minded groups, I think they are very heavily involved in trying to orchestrate some of these protests at a local level. But I think that what they have is they have member groups in these, you know, local areas, whether they're in Florida or Texas, and they say, you know, they try to mobilize people. They say, go out to these protests and speak up at these town halls. So, I think what they would say is that, look, we do have a role, but at the same time, these are grassroots activists.

HANSEN: So, even if some of these protests have been orchestrated, they're still tapping into an energy that was already there.

Mr. ISENSTADT: Absolutely. And, you know, it's interesting, I think Republicans in Washington don't have very much power in the House or the Senate. What power they do have is going to be on the airwaves - people like Rush Limbaugh or on TV with FOX News and people like Sean Hannity - but also in their activist base. And I think that that's part of where the conservatives have their power and their ability to sway public opinion.

HANSEN: What's the White House strategy in all of this?

Mr. ISENSTADT: Well, I would say the White House strategy and the Democratic Party strategy, more broadly speaking in all this, is to tell their members of Congress to go back home over the August recess and explain to the constituents exactly how health care reform is going to benefit their constituents. And, you know, I know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before she saw her members off, she said, don't let a day go by when you're not telling your constituents exactly how health care reform is going to benefit them.

HANSEN: Is this a successful strategy for the conservatives or might it backfire?

Mr. ISENSTADT: Well, you know, it's interesting, I think that's a good question. I think if you talk to Democrats here in Washington, they're betting on the fact - they're hoping, rather, that some of these protests get out of control - that you start seeing swastikas and comparisons to Adolph Hitler. And Democrats are hoping that really turns off, you know, a wide span of the more moderate-minded electorate.

I think Republicans say, look, we can portray this as sort of a populist uprising and a populist backlash to what President Obama is trying to do with health care.

HANSEN: Alex Isenstadt is a congressional reporter for Politico, and he joined us in our studio. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. ISENSTADT: Thank you for having me.

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