The Moran/Dean Town Hall: A Participant’s View

Yesterday afternoon, My wife and I, who live in Alexandria, and my daughter, who lives not far away in Arlington, drove to Reston, VA, to attend the Jim Moran/Howard Dean Town Hall. Jim’s been our Congressman since we moved to Alexandria in 1991 and Reston is familiar territory to us because we lived there for 6 years from the Mid-’70s to early ’80s. We’ve always liked Reston, and didn’t mind at all that the Town Hall was at South Lakes High School, because it seemed like familiar territory to us. We wanted seats in front, so we got there at about 3:50 PM, and then waited until the doors opened at 6 PM, and the event started at 7. This gave us plenty of time to talk to others who were close to us in line.

When we arrived, among the first things we saw were some health care opponents we mistook for tea baggers, beginning to set up their demonstrations outside the school. Later it became clear that they were members of Randall Terry’s anti-choice group beginning to display some of their costumes, which included one guy in a robe or cover-all with an AK-47 painted on the back of it. Once we got in line, things were friendly enough. The OFA were organized and handing out signs, we all took some and signed some paper registering with them (I think this is a duplication of earlier registrations, because I’m continuously getting e-mails from them). While we were standing in line, a lot of cordial conversation went on for some time among pro-reform people including a former missionary of the Mormon persuasion, who had become a Democrat because of the suffering he had seen in Mexico while on a mission, and another Navy veteran who had access to Tricare, and because of that experience was a strong supporter of public plans.

Eventually, two gentlemen joined the conversation who were grinding another axe. They weren’t tea-baggers; they weren’t Randall Terry disciples; and they weren’t Lyndon LaRouche people; but they were terribly anti-Obama, anti-Bush, and anti-Government; and one of them was waving around charts of projected Government deficits over the next few years, in between shooting everything, perhaps for youtube. His friend was a very good-looking young man, whom my wife and daughter later informed me was really “hot.” The “hottie” informed me that he was in “psyops,” had recently deployed 40 people somewhere and really didn’t like it when politicians interfered with the “tempo” of their operations. I listened politely while refraining from pointing out that perhaps the politicians ought to put an end to any questions of “tempo” by withdrawing from Afghanistan, where I was guessing he had “deployed” people. Anyway, we bantered a bit about health care with the “hottie” telling me that VA hospitals are really sad places, and me telling him that I’d talked to a lot of veterans who wouldn’t give up their Tricare for anything. Then we all started bantering about bank bailouts and all ended up agreeing that the big banks should have been taken into receivership, and then forced to keep credit card interest rates low and lend money to Main Street to get the economy going.

As we stood on line, we noticed the lines growing extremely long, and wondered how many people would get in because we’d heard the event would be in an auditorium seating about 300 people. I also looked for others I might know. I saw two Move-on members, and said a few words to one of them. I also ran into an HR 676 Medicare for All supporter and managed to get a poster from him to wave around in the meeting. Then I went back to my place in line, and waited in the heat and humidity along with all the other committed folks who really wanted to get in and get good seats.

Finally, at 6 PM, the doors opened and we walked in. We were directed not to the Auditorium but to a Gym whose seating capacity was very large. Later someone told me that the seating capacity was 2,700 people. Don’t know if that’s accurate, but the Gym did get filled and I heard estimates of between 2,500 and 3,000 people in attendance, and talk of standing room only, and people who were not able to get in. My wife, daughter, and I got in early enough to get our pick of seats and we settled in the center about 4 rows from the front. As it turned out, the Randall Terry group was about 7 rows directly in back of us.

Soon it became apparent that those attending were predominantly pro-reform people. There were many more blue OFA signs in the audience and also other signs that were clearly in favor of the public option, or even single payer signs. Along with the majority however, there were also many anti-signs, and it was clear that tea-baggers were well-represented and also more quiet opponents of health care reform, as well. As we waited for the event to start, there was a sense of great anticipation, and news began to spread that if you wanted to ask a question, you had to write it on an index card and place it in a box just outside the Gym. I did that and placed my question in the pro-health care reform box. As it turned out, I’m not sure I should have placed it in that box rather than the undecided box, because an equal number of questions were blindly selected from the three boxes, even though the make-up of the attendees was predominantly pro-reform. This meant that the chances of getting to ask your question were greater if you were an opponent or undecided. So many people wanted to ask questions that the chances of getting to ask your question was not good; and I never did get a chance to ask mine, which was designed to try to get Jim Moran to explain why he wouldn’t make a commitment to at least vote for a very strong public option, if not HR 676.

When 7 PM rolled around Jim Moran and Howard Dean arrived amidst mixed but very loud receptions, and Jim announced that he and Howard Dean would talk for about a half hour each, and then there’d be questions for about an hour. Things didn’t really work out that way, however. Jim talked for close to an hour, Howard made a relatively short statement of principles and then there were roughly about 45 minutes of questions and answers. Most in the audience seemed very unhappy about the Q and A time, if mutterings at the end of the meeting can be taken as an indication. Let’s turn to the dynamics of the meeting to find out why things worked out that way.

First, as Jim and others began to speak, the anti-reform participants responded to even trivial statements. The meeting began with a benediction from the Rabbi at Reston’s Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. The benediction was pretty non-controversial, but the anti-reform participants began to call out, or boo at particular phrases they didn’t like. Then Jim Moran started his presentation, and he got the same treatment even in response to some pretty non-substantive, non-committal statements he made. After a very short time, the pro-reform people in the audience began to answer the anti-reform people with cheers for statements Jim was making. The gym began to rock as if one were at a basketball game, and many people stood up and waved their signs They chanted “yes, we can,” or various "anti" slogans. Of course, all the calling out, booing, and cheering in response to statements slowed things down. Things slowed down still further, when Jim finished his initial statement on HR 3200, the House’s PO bill, and launched into a treatment of 11 myths about the bill, countering them with facts one-by-one.

Each myth and myth-counter engendered cheers, boos, and call-outs, with some in the anti-reform group frequently shouting “liar” at Jim, and others calling out all sorts of uncomplimentary things. In response, the pro-reform forces, including me, would tell the anti-reformers to shut up, or perhaps to leave, and would often cheer Jim, and many of the points he was making. At one point, there was even a disturbance with a good deal of loud cursing, about 4 rows in back of me, between two men of hispanic descent, and opposing persuasions, on reform; each accusing the other of not being a citizen, and one demanding the other’s driver’s license, while saying loudly that insurance companies were busing undocumented immigrants up from Mexico to disrupt town meetings like this one (a claim that seemed a bit far-fetched, but is indicative, I think, of some of the suspicions alive in a very fragmented and mistrustful audience).

Generally, Jim did a very good job of talking over the disturbances and getting his points out clearly and simply. For the most part, I was very pleased with his presentation, and I think it was direct, and that he told us what he believed about the bill honestly. But it was also apparent that he was selecting aspects of the bill to talk about. For example, he didn’t mention the 2013 operative date for the market exchange and the public option. Also, he didn’t mention that the ability to choose the PO is restricted to uninsured individuals at first, and he didn’t mention that CBO had only forecast 10 million enrollees for the public option after it became operational in 2013. Many other aspects of the bill were also not covered by him, and I did have the impression that he wasn’t calling attention to those parts of the bill that raise questions about how difficult it would be “to bend the cost curve” with this legislation.

Second, I also think that Jim’s style in handling the audience lent itself to delays in the presentation, and cut down the time for questions. That is, there were relatively few people who were calling out rudely, and booing when he said things. Also, there were relatively few people who were calling out “liar” when he said something. He could have had some of those people ejected. And I think he should have. I think that after the first few ejections, that behavior would have stopped quickly, since the anti-reform people wanted to stay in order to ask questions. As it was, without a strong hand insisting on civility, their exercise of their own “free speech,” limited my “free speech,” because it created the atmosphere of a sporting event, rather than a town hall, and evoked time-consuming responses from the pro-reform people. The back-and-forth delayed Jim’s presentation enough that the question period was cut short, and I and others didn’t get a chance to ask the questions we had so carefully prepared. In short, the anti-reform uncivil behavior sucked up time and “oxygen,” and interfered with the informational and question-and-answer aspect of the town hall.

Third, when Jim finally finished handling the myths and facts in the midst of interruptions by both opponents and supporters of reform, Howard Dean’s time was pretty much used up. He contented himself with a very short statement on problems in health care that he thought everyone could agree needed to be fixed. His statement was very good, very common-sensical and to the point. It seemed very real and un-stereotypical, and I was sorry there wasn’t more time for him to speak. This was the only time I’ve seen Howard Dean in person, and I think he’s much more effective that way than he is on television. I don’t know why it seems that way to me, but I think he’s very comfortable in front of people.

Fourth, soon after the question period started, Randall Terry’s group started to make a lot of noise from about 12 rows back in the center of the audience. It was hard to understand what they were saying, because those immediately around the group were shouting over them and calling for the group to leave. I found myself meeting the eyes of one woman just to the right of Terry and seeing her shout something I couldn’t make out, while I was shouting for them to go home. The whole gym seemed to join in, and Jim quieted people down, introducing Terry to every one, telling him that he would be ejected, and also offering him the option of asking a question and getting 5 minutes to say whatever he wanted to say. I think that Jim’s offer to Terry was out of bounds, since he hadn’t put a question in the box, and therefore he didn’t deserve to be able to ask one, not to mention that he wasn’t one of Jim’s constituents from the 8th District, anyway. I was, therefore, happy that Terry chose to be ejected, because frankly, I had no wish to listen to his nonsense, which generally amounts to uncivil lying and intolerance of the views of others.

Fifth, after Terry was ejected, the question and answer period really got going. For some reason, there seemed to be many more anti-reform questions then pro-reform ones, and I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the “antis,” knowing how the questions would be selected, had organized to place their questions in all three boxes. A question about whether Jim was willing to accept the same system as specified in HR 3200 as his own family plan was asked by three different people. This seems unlikely unless some box-stuffing was going on. The people asking the question a second and third time evidently had not believed the answer the first time around, which was “yes.” Eventually, Jim gave a really long answer, taking time away, I think, from answering other important questions. One lady, a medical student, asked why Jim wasn’t supporting Anthony Wiener’s amendment to substitute HR 676, the Medicare for All bill for HR 3200. Jim seemed a bit uncomfortable in answering this question. He said he had supported that legislation in the past (he was a co-sponsor), but that he thought it was best to support Barack Obama’s plan now, which he felt was represented by HR 3200. He didn’t really explain why that was better; nor did he explain how he knew what Barack Obama’s plan was, since the Administration has not had a bill introduced into Congress. The medical student’s question was the only one about HR 676 asked during the Q and A period, and the only time Medicare for All was brought up in the context of the town hall meeting. There were a number of questions on the PO and how it would work. While Jim was very good on the concept of the PO, he wasn’t very specific on its details and avoided any mention of when it would be operational and why he thought it would lower costs, beyond making an appeal to “competition.”

A number of questions were answered by Howard Dean, rather than by Jim, or were turned over to Howard after Jim commented. One of these was on tort reform. Some in the audience, including the two guys I had exchanged with before the meeting started, hold the exaggerated view that our health care cost problem is mostly due to law suits, and can be solved by tort reform. The answers by Jim and Howard Dean were direct and honest about this and hopefully opened some minds in the audience to reality on this point. One woman in the audience, announcing herself as a supporter of the public option, asked whether it was possible to get to affordable universal coverage with a PO. Jim turned that question over to Howard, who mentioned the systems in The Netherlands and Switzerland, pointed out that both were very heavily regulated, and then said that he often thought that if one wanted the health insurance industry to embrace the PO plan, the best way to do that would be to introduce a bill to adopt a system like Switzerland’s, because such a system regulates the insurance industry so heavily and comprehensively that our own industry would not want to have anything to do with it. Other important questions emphasizing the importance of policy analysis and the lack of it in the Congress in relation to alternative bills, asking why the US couldn’t have a wonderful system like the French have, and raising privacy issues related to electronic chips or cards with everyone’s medical information on them, were also answered either by Jim, Howard, or both, but I won’t summarize the details here.

Sixth, during the Q and A period, the calling out and cheering for one side or the other, was somewhat less prevalent than during the talks preceding it. But there was still quite a bit of it, and certainly enough to shorten the time devoted to the Q and A. In general, I think the Q and A was pretty effective, but not nearly long enough to satisfy people. Jim seemed open and direct for the most part, however. Don’t know if he changed any minds among the antis. But among the undecided, I’m sure he was effective in persuading people that he’s trying to be a conscientious representative and to inform his constituents about health care reform as he understands it. I think he demonstrated very strong knowledge of those aspects of HR 3200 he discussed, and I also think he came off as a “heavyweight” Congressman in this town hall who really knows his business.

I hope I’ve given you a flavor of the dynamics of the Town Hall meeting by summarizing details of it above, and it’s now time to characterize it. It was a big event, and full of venting and emotion. Jim Moran exerted limited control of the dynamics allowing the anti-reform forces, which were certainly in the minority, to have a major effect on the meeting. That effect was to turn it into a kind of competitive sporting event with two sides: a pro-reform and an anti-reform side. The pro-reform side probably out-shouted the anti-reform side. But the dynamics of the meeting were such that the Q and A period where people really get to be informed about difficult issues and get to question the Congressman on difficult details of the bill, and possible alternatives, was cut way short. Another reason why the Q and A session was cut short is that so much time was spent on trying to dispel the myths that the insurance industry and its operatives have cultivated. The combined effect of the myths session and the sporting event, pitting opposing sides against each other, was that only two points of view sucked up all the oxygen in the meeting: the pro-reform side, represented almost entirely by HR 3200 presented in a seemingly very reasonable way, by Jim and Howard, and an incoherent anti-reform side that presented various unrelated arguments held together only by their tendency to “just say no.”

This result of the meeting is very convenient for supporters of HR 3200. They get to blame its disorder on the anti-reform forces, and also get credit for a reasonable and fairly rational presentation of their own, and for being open enough to listen to “all sides.” But really, the meeting was far from covering all sides, since there was little oxygen or time available to discuss other more comprehensive versions of a PO bill, or a Medicare for All bill such as HR 676. The one question and answer about HR 676, only scratched the surface of what could have been said on the subject.

In short, the result of the meeting was to structure the complex issue of health care reform into two sides, and to make HR 3200 the only reasonable side. Was this the actual purpose of the Town Hall meeting, both from the viewpoint of Congressman Moran, and from the viewpoint of the insurance industry, which perhaps will gain a great deal and won’t lose too much if HR 3200 is passed, and will gain a great deal, and lose even less, if a revised version of HR 3200 without a PO is passed? If so, it was a great success. On the other hand, if its purpose was to inform constituents about health care reform issues, and really explain why Jim Moran is in back of HR 3200, rather than a more comprehensive PO, or a Medicare for All solution, then I’m afraid that it did very little on that front, and that perhaps Jim Moran ought to schedule a second town hall, so that reform supporters can ask why he supports HR 3200, rather than alternative versions of health care reform. All I know is that I’d sure like him to answer that simple question in a meeting devoted only to it, and I’ll bet a lot of other supporters of health care reform in the 8th district would like that too.

Finally, I’m sorry to say that I missed Jane Hamsher’s announcement about a session for bloggers at Clyde’s in Reston after the Town Hall for pie. I would have enjoyed comparing notes about the meeting. My wife, daughter, and I went a little way down the road to the South Lakes Center and found a little Restaurant open late, called The Lakeside Asia Cafe, with a disposition to generous servings and really delicious Thai Curry. Don’t know about the pie though, we got pretty filled up on the other stuff, while we all compared notes on the Town Hall.

(Also posted at the Alllifeisproblemsolving blog where there may be more comments)

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