Hecklers turn Democrats' healthcare forums into 'town hells'

House members stumping for President Obama's reform plans return home to 'recess roasts.'

Susan Walsh/AP
In this July 28 file photo, Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) of Ohio came home to Cincinnati Monday to talk about the proposed national healthcare plan.

The conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat didn’t get to say much. Constituents booed, laughed, and heckled the lawmaker for much of the session.

The once-cozy town hall format has suddenly turned into “town hells” for legislators on the stump for President Obama’s proposed healthcare reform. Some Republicans have taken to calling the disruptions “recess roasts.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) of Texas, Rep. Steve Kagen (D) of Wisconsin, and now Mr. Driehaus have all faced rowdy crowds.

Chased from a weekend event by protesters shouting, “Just say no!” Mr. Doggett later called the crowd “a mob.”

Some Democrats have lumped the protesters together as fringe elements – Tea Party activists and "birthers" intent on undermining the passage of national healthcare reform.

The White House agreed Tuesday, saying it’s ultimately not concerned about the protests. "I hope people will take a jaundiced eye to what is clearly the AstroTurf nature of so-called grass-roots lobbying," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

But Senator Specter has said that he expects other legislators will face the same ordeal in their home districts during the August break. Indeed, such rowdy events could be worrisome to Democrats, especially if the party can’t muster constituents to equal or stand up to rowdy opposition groups. The Republicans, too, have ground to lose, especially if they’re seen as instigators of rude and unfair behavior.

The American tradition of town halls, after all, tends to single out hecklers as antithetical to civilized debate. The British system, meanwhile, has a longer tradition of vociferous political opposition, epitomized by the Hyde Park hecklers.

“If the impression comes out that people all across the country are spontaneously arguing against the healthcare bills and shouting that we don’t need them, then that certainly helps opponents,” says Kathleen Kendall of the University of Maryland’s communications department. “If, on the other hand, Republicans are tarred and blamed for this – that this is an unfair and rude approach – that may lead to the necessity of some Republican leaders speaking out against it.”

America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance lobby, has urged the public to turn out for town hall events, according to Politico. So have groups like Conservatives for Patients' Rights and FreedomWorks, a leading organizer of the Tea Parties. A volunteer for the website Tea Party Patriots has sent out e-mails describing how to disrupt town hall events.

So far, politicians have struggled with how to deal with the noisy opposition. Mr. Kagen had some success in toning down the ruckus on Monday.

"You can talk, but I can't listen to 100 people at the same time," Kagen told the crowd at the Green Bay event, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "This is not a shouting contest. This should be a discussion."

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