Activists Say No Letup for Health Protests

August 6, 2009 - 10:52 AM
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele defended the activism, even as he denied the party was organizing it.
Washington (AP) - Conservative activists are vowing to keep up their fight against President Barack Obama's health care plans, even as the Democratic Party pushes back hard, accusing Republicans of organizing angry mobs.
 
Democrats and the White House are claiming that the sometimes rowdy protests that have disrupted Democratic lawmakers' meetings and health care events around the country are largely orchestrated from afar by insurers, lobbyists, Republican Party activists and others.
 
"This mob activity is straight from the playbook of high-level Republican political operatives," the Democratic National Committee says in a new Web video. "They have no plan for moving our country forward, so they've called out the mob."
 
Some of the activists who've shown up at town hall meetings held recently by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., and others are affiliated with loosely connected right-leaning groups, including Conservatives for Patients' Rights and Americans for Prosperity, according to officials at those groups.
 
Some of the activists say they came together during the "Tea Party" anti-big-government protests that happened earlier this year, and they've formed small groups and stayed in touch over e-mail, Facebook and in other ways.
 
But they insist they're part of a ground-level movement that represents real frustration with government spending and growth.
 
"There isn't any group that's backing me, who's influenced me, who's pushing me to do this," said Robert A. Mitchell, a small business owner from Doylestown, Pa., who questioned Specter at a weekend town hall event about lawmakers failing to read legislation.
 
The exchange was captured on YouTube and has spread, along with other videos. One showing protesters mobbing Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, includes footage of someone holding a sign showing Doggett with devil's horns; another shows Kagen shouted down at a forum at a library.
 
Mitchell said he was angered by push-back from the White House and it would motivate him to further activism, a view echoed by others.
 
"These are town hall meetings, and the federal government is trying to intimidate people," Mitchell said in a phone interview Wednesday.
 
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele defended the activism, even as he denied the party was organizing it.
 
"We are not inciting anyone to go out and destruct anything," Steele told reporters on a conference call. "We're encouraging people to go and visit their congressman or their senator."
 
"To sit back and say that this is some Republican cabal is a bunch of baloney," Steele said.
 
Obama referenced the opposition in a fundraising e-mail sent by his political group, Organizing for America, and asked his supporters to attend events to show their support for his health care plans.
 
"There are those who profit from the status quo or see this debate as a political game, and they will stop at nothing to block reform," the president said. "They are filling the airwaves and the Internet with outrageous falsehoods to scare people into opposing change."
 
The protests have echoes not just of the Tea Parties held around tax day this year, but also of protests during the Florida election recount in 2000 and in the early- to mid-1990s, when Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled the country to promote then-President Bill Clinton's health overhaul plan, which ultimately failed.
 
There's no doubt government attempts to change health care can incite real anger. In 1989, a pack of screaming senior citizens angry about a planned change to Medicare surrounded the car of then-House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. They shouted "Liar!" and "Recall!" and hit Rostenkowski's car with picket signs.
 
Congress subsequently undid the Medicare change.
 
One thing that's different this time around is the Internet, which allows groups to communicate and mobilize on a large scale.
 
"We definitely use all the tools at our disposal," said Amy Menefee, director of communications at Americans for Prosperity, which is encouraging its many thousands of members to attend town hall events and is sending buses around the country, making stops for rallies and at some town halls.
 
Democratic lawmakers insist they won't be cowed. The only way to respond is to try to get out the message about what's really in the health care plans before Congress, they say.
 
"My concern is that some will be reluctant based on this experience and others around the country," Doggett said in an interview after describing the scene outside a supermarket in Austin, where he said activists shouted down constituents who came to ask questions. "We can't let mob rule determine this."