The shouts and clashes at August town-hall meetings were a blow to President Obama and his allies in Congress, who had hoped to return to Capitol Hill next week with a strong, fresh mandate for health care reform.
Instead, 2 in 3 Americans say they are confused about the healthcare options being discussed in Congress, according to a new poll released this week by CBS News. Only 36 percent of those polled said that government would do a better job than private insurers in providing medical coverage, down from 50 percent in June.
But supporters say it's not too late for President Obama and Democratic leaders to make a mid-course correction and rebuild momentum for "meaningful" reform.
"This has been a summer of necessary wakeup calls," says Ralph Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, which is lobbying for reform. "While the ideological right won the month of August, this is going to toughen up the administration ... to address these anxieties, as it should."
House Democratic leaders report that the great majority of their members did town-hall meetings on healthcare over the August recess and often faced tough crowds. But they say that President Obama's speech to the nation next Wednesday is a chance to regain ground.
"A lot of our members got spooked by the disruptive crowds at these meetings," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But I do believe we're reaching a turning point here. Some of the claims of the opposition have been such total fabrications that they discredited themselves."
"There's a big opportunity here with the president's speech to go back on the offense on this issue," he adds.
Representative Van Hollen, who also chaired the House Democratic campaign effort in the 2008 election cycle, attributes the drop in support for reform in public polls to a huge disinformation campaign.
"It's like Whac-a-Mole: Every time you dispel one myth, another one pops up," he says.
In a conference call on health care Wednesday night, Van Hollen assured his Maryland constituents that the proposed law won't mandate "death panels" or provide coverage for individuals in the country illegally, and it won't cut Medicare benefits.
Taken out of context, a few paragraphs in a 1,000-page draft bill can be misleading. Exhibit A is the claim that a provision to compensate doctors for consulting with families on end-of-life issues is, in fact, a death panel empowered to "pull the plug on Granny."
"There are websites and personalities that get attention and money by being in a perpetual state of outrage," says Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "Now, they're encouraging people to echo things they're saying at these town meetings."
There has been so much misrepresentation of the healthcare bills that the FactCheck.org website has to put up three or four corrections a day.
"We're seeing an escalation in some really outrageous claims," Mr. Jackson adds, noting that the site has recently seen traffic almost equal to the final months of last year's presidential election.
In an hour-long teleconference with several hundred constituents on Aug. 10, he was challenged to show a basis in the US Constitution for a government overhaul of the healthcare system.
There is a constitutional basis, he says. "The Congress can do a lot of things that deal with the public health; the public welfare, such as the Veterans Administration; the interstate highway system; the safety of our skies. Our Founding Fathers never envisioned the airplane."
But Senator Pryor, a centrist in the Senate, notes that "I can't promise I'll vote for anything yet on final passage, because I'm not sure yet what it will look like."
Learning from angry voices
Stunned by the intensity of opposition at some early town-hall meetings, top Democratic leaders said that the protests represented manufactured angst, ginned up by outside partisan groups, and could be ignored.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid famously dubbed anti-reform protesters who drowned out opposing views as "simply un-American," in a joint op-ed column in USA Today on Aug. 10.
But critics say that these member-to-voter encounters are also setting off alarm bells that lawmakers dismiss at their peril.
"The changes the president is proposing are so profound and so transformative that it's created a firestorm across the country," says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "Most of these members have never witnessed an intensity level like this before."
He notes that many of the questions shouted out at these town meetings go beyond healthcare to other big-government issues, such as the bailout of investment bankers and auto companies, the $787 billion stimulus plan, huge deficits, and a cap-and-trade "tax" on energy.
"What we're seeing now is that healthcare has become the microcosm of these bigger changes. It has stirred up a genuine populist anger among a whole number of voters," he adds.
"I want my voice to be heard about healthcare," said Kay Dallavalle, an accountant and "proud member of the angry mob," outside an Aug. 12 town meeting in Hagerstown with Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland.
"If the [plan] is as effective as the postal service and as compassionate as the IRS, we're in for a nice time," she quipped. "They haven't read the bill."
In fact, there is no bill. Senator Cardin begins his town meetings by reminding people that there are three House versions of a bill, one Senate draft, and another Senate version in the works.
This legislative limbo has made it tough for lawmakers, especially Democrats, to defend a strategy that has yet to take final shape.
"Why does the government want to rush into a bill when many don't want it," asked Ingrid from Smithsburg, to cheers from a largely conservative crowd. "Please take the time to get it right."
"I want to underscore this point," said Cardin, straining to be heard. "The problems are going to continue to grow. We need to move forward. The status quo is unacceptable.
A chance to engage
Fearing disruption by outside groups, some lawmakers opted out of public meetings on healthcare altogether. But for hardy members of Congress – or those in especially safe districts – the mob scenes also provided an opportunity to engage voters.
"It's important to keep your focus on the question and not let them rattle you," says Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, who faced some 3,000 people at a town-hall meeting on Aug. 11 that included shouts of "liar, liar, pants on fire!"
He urges House colleagues not to be discouraged from doing public events "just because you have some rabble-rousers out there."
The key, he says, is giving constituents a chance both to ask questions and make statements, regardless of whether they are for or against the Democrats' version of healthcare reform.
"I have found that I do get constructive input on concerns that people have with the reform," he adds, citing as an example public concerns over the privacy of medical records in government hands. "And you also give people an opportunity to be heard."
"What you saw over the summer was a huge ramping up by the insurance industry to quickly hire political consultants and lobbyists all over the country, not just in DC, to spend millions in television, radio, local papers around the state," says Michael Huttner, founder and CEO of ProgressNow and author of the new book, "50 Ways to Help Obama Change America."
But, he adds that, "at many of these town-hall meetings, you saw groups of three or four people talking to each other on what should be the best policies going forward. As much as the media has focused on the antagonism, it's been a very healthy conversation."