Obama Critics Win at Moran’s Health Care Town Hall Meeting

As a pro football fan, I always welcome the late summer, which brings pre-season games. They are great to watch, for about ten minutes, and then they disappoint. The starters play a couple of series and then they are gone. Then you get that sinking realization that it doesn’t matter that much, either to you or the teams, who wins. So you go to bed craving the authenticity of the regular season.

Tonight, I found a replacement in the form of Rep. Jim Moran’s Town Hall meeting on health care. I took my two kids and we had an authentic Town Hall experience. It was everything it was cracked up to be.

Moran represents Virginia’s eighth district, including the cities of Arlington and Alexandria. It hooks weirdly out into the DC suburbs to encompass Reston, where the event was held a high school gymnasium that held more than 2,000 people. This was meant to be a liberal district by Democrat and Republican gerrymanderers alike. Finding such a lively clash in a place that should be reliably pro-Obama was an unexpected treat.

By now, the Town Hall has been refined to the point where certain appearances and behaviors are expected. This event did not disappoint. It had all we’ve come to expect from a summer of cable TV news watching, including sign waving, chanting, hooting, catcalling, and of course, a flustered and annoyed member of Congress who looked like he wished he was somewhere else.

For this event, there were actually three teams. There were the antis, including myself, who numbered no more than a third. Then there were the pros, but they seemed strangely cast into two overlapping camps. At least half were proponents of a “single payer” or the “public option,” who were in sort of their own protest mode, fearing that Obama is in the process of selling them out. I tried to explain these distinctions to my kids, who are eleven and nine, without much success. They are more used to two teams.

Thus, the crowd’s center of gravity was probably to the left of any plan that can pass, if any plan can pass. Apparently expecting this, Moran had a special guest, none other than Howard Dean. He was perfect for the lineup because not only does have a devoted following among the purist crowd on the Left, he absolutely inflames Obama critics, even more than Obama himself. What a great idea to bring him along!

Moran opened things up by asking a local Rabbi to lead a prayer. His prayer sounded more like a political speech, inviting catcalls, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

Moran, who somehow has retained a Boston accent even though he has lived in Virginia for decades, proceeded with an hour-long effort to dispel the “myths” about the House-passed plan, complete with a slideshow.  The crowd was much too restless, and much too eager to tangle with each other, to sit through silently through this.

Moran’s 10 or 11 “myths” demonstrated just how thoroughly Obama’s critics have dominated the health care debate. This long hour was spent completely on the turf of sign-wavers like me. It’s like when your NFL team is way ahead. Even though you don’t pay total attention to the TV, you don’t turn it off. You just sit there and kind of take it in. Such fleeting moments are to be appreciated.

And then the moment for which we all had waited. Moran introduced Dean. All heck broke loose. Some guy grabbed my sign and tried to tear it up. It was made of Tyvek or something, so he had to give up. I got it back, and had it back up in front of the 30 or so TV cameras in no time. Town Hallery at its best.

Once things died down, Dean commanded a more serious presence than Moran and actually at times had a calming influence. By the time the Q. and A. came around, people were pretty much shouted out. My son said he wanted to go home, but it was soon obvious that Moran would mishandle this part of the program, too.

On the way out, my daughter asked me when the next Town Hall meeting was. I told her that these are not regularly scheduled events like football games. I explained that the purpose of the Town Hall was not to give a stage to protesters, but to make the Congressman look good.

I explained that Town Hall meetings only took on significance this summer because one party controlled the White House and Congress, and bills were being passed without members of Congress reading them. People were feeling helpless and powerless, so they started showing up at the only place where they could directly confront a member of Congress. They yelled. They vented. Even worse for the member of Congress, they asked good questions.

At first, they were dismissed as geeks, the same amateur bunch that came out for the Tea Parties on April 15 in their sneakers and Bermuda shorts. Then they were called professional agitators and paid agents of the insurance companies. Now they are winning.

I tried to explain that Congressmen want to make everyone happy. If they have 100 people cheering and one guy booing, they will worry about that one guy. Auditoriums full of dueling, chanting mobs are just too much. Members of Congress, even safe ones, do not like voting on controversial issues, and that is why health care may never go to a vote.

It’s the Redskins and Patriots Friday night. I hope it is as exciting as tonight, but I have my doubts. I am going to bed.

photo: AP/Wide World