Town Halls Madness a Sideshow, While Baucus and Blue Dogs Cut Deals

Roger Bybee

It’s been hard to ignore the brazen displays of loutish ignorance, bristling hostility and blatant racism vibrating throughout the rightists’ well-orchestrated and well-financed invasions of town meetings on healthcare.

However, as ugly and frightening as these heavily-covered events have been, they may well be a mere sideshow. There is good reason to worry that healthcare reform is being quietly suffocated behind closed doors in polite meetings of insurance and Big Pharma executives on the one hand and the Blue Dog” and moderate Democrats that they have so richly funded.

But most media coverage has been drawn to the loud confrontations breaking out at the town meetings. The conventional storyline in this long hot summer for Democrats,” as Republic Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell approvingly put it, is that vociferous average Americans were finally emerging in force. Meanwhile, McConnell has defended that the rightist mobs, intent on shouting down congresspeople and threatening opponents, claiming that they were being unfairly demonize[d]?.”

This frame set the tone for media coverage of Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s town meeting on healthcare. Thus, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a huge above-the-fold photo of a stern woman holding a large sign reading, Kill the Bill Not My Mother,” with a reform advocate relegated to the margin of the photo.

The photo failed to reflect the crowd’s makeup. The opponents of reform were outnumbered by a ratio of about five to one in an overflow crowd of some 1,500 with perhaps a third of the audience African American or Latino. But news coverage stuck to the theme of high tensions” between reform backers and those fiercely opposed to it, although even verbal skirmishes were closely monitored by extra-large security men drawn from the labor movement, and no scuffles flared up.

State AFL-CIOP President David Newby told In These Times that the massive labor turnout was led by the Milwaukee Labor Council’s Secretary-Treasurer Sheila Cochran. Cochran, with her distinctive gray buzz haircut, spent the event vigilantly event scanning the crowd and directing labor security staff to trouble spots and steering other reform advocates to sit near reform opponents, to prevent them from developing a big cheering section. The State AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, Wisconsin Federation of Nurses, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin also supplemented the local Labor Council’s efforts with big turnout pushes of their own.

Entirely buried in the coverage was the enthusiastic, raucous response of the crowd to Rep. Moore’s slashing attacks on the insurance industry. Directly confronting the claim that healthcare reform would somehow insinuate the federal government into the decisions of doctors and patients, Moore declared, This legislation is designed to improve the doctor-patient relationship by getting the insurer out of the middle,” drawing prolonged thunderous applause.

Most tellingly, Moore and UW Prof. Tom Oliver both triggered uproarious applause and cheering when they stressed the importance of a Medicare-style public option” in holding down insurers’ premium increases.

Moore also tackled the pervasive myth that Obama’s health reform would condemn the elderly to death, which is actually rooted in pro-life Republican Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson’s sensible proposal. for insurance coverage of counseling on living wills and related end-of-life issues. This was perversely twisted into Republican charges calling it euthanasia” (Newt Gingrich), decisions by death panels” (Sarah Palin), putting seniors to death” (Rep. Virgin1a Foxx, R-NC). Stunningly, even supposed GOP moderate” Sen. Charles Grassley claimed that citizens had valid reasons to fear that the government would pull the plug on grandma.”

The revealing Grassley statement — made by one of the Senate Big Six” negotiating on health care— ought to finally convince Obama that it is utterly impossible to create a worthwhile health plan with Republican support. The Republicans are clearly set on defeating any worthwhile healthcare reform for largely the same reason they opposed the Clinton plan in 1993-94. As William Kristol wrote back then, Republicans must not allow health reform to revive the reputation of the Democrats… as the generous protector… of middle class interests.”

While the Republican Party and their army of zealous zombies doggedly pursue defeat of healthcare reform for political reasons, the big insurers organized in and the huge pharmaceutical firms see enhanced profits in the way that reform is shaping up in their quiet talks with Max Baucus, Evan Bayh, and the Blue Dogs Democrats.

For example, fully 72 percent of the public and 90 percent of Democrats favor the public option,” which would allow citizens to select a Medicare-style option to private insurers, as Sen. Bernie Sanders has pointed out. But a group of the Big Six” senators — led by the lavishly-funded Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus states with a combined population of under 3 percent of the nation, have determined that the public option must be tossed overboard. The New York Times reported. July 28:

Already, the group of six has tossed aside the idea of a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. They have also dismissed the House Democratic plan to pay for the bill’s roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost partly with an income tax on high earners.

Business Week delivers even more frightening news in its Aug. 6 headline, The Health Insurers have already won”:

The carriers have succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics emerge in the voluminous bill Congress may send to President Obama this fall, the insurance industry will emerge more profitable. …nsurance CEOs ought to be smiling.

The industry has already accomplished its main goal of at least curbing, and maybe blocking altogether, any ne publicly administered insurance program that could grab market share from the corporations that dominate the business….[The industry] has also achieved a secondary aim of constraining the new benefits that will become available to tens of millions of people who are currently uninsured. That will make the new customers more lucrative to the industry…[The industry has donated more than $19 million to federal candidates since 1007, 56% of which has gone to Democrats…Senators stung by the projected $1 trillion pricetag are winnowing down the required coverage levels to cut costs.

If working people are to have any chance at rescuing health reform from the closed-door dealing in Washington between bought-off Democrats and the insurance companies and Big Pharma, we had better use the next month to persuade the Baucus and the Blue Dogs that they can lose all labor funding and be ousted from committee chairmanships.

We have waited too long time for this chance, and we can’t let these shameless sell-outs stand between us and real health reform

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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