A lot of pundits (including me) have been highly critical of the rhetorical Hiroshimas that some Republicans use when battling Democrats or trying to gain political support by mobilizing their political base. And now we have a classic one coming from the Democrats: the use of the label “un-American” to describe town hall protesters who are effectively drowning out discussion of health care reform:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, insisting at the start of a long and politically heated summer congressional recess that healthcare reform can be achieved this fall, today are calling the disruption of “town-hall” meetings by vocal protesters “simply un-American.”
“We believe it is healthy for such a historic effort to be subject to so much scrutiny and debate,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hoyer (D-Md.) write in an Op-ed essay published by USA Today.
“However, it is now evident that an ugly campaign is underway not merely to misrepresent the health insurance reform legislation, but to disrupt public meetings and prevent members of Congress and constituents from conducting a civil dialogue,” the two leaders write. “These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views — but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”
They point to a series of protests at congressional district hearings held by members of Congress this summer, including one where the likeness of a congressman in Maryland was hanged in effigy, one displaying the tombstone of a congressman in Texas and meetings where protesters have shouted down opponents with “Just say no.”
Here is a direct link to the post. (Thanks to readers in comments for pointing out the omission..)
UPDATE: The White House is rejecting the Pelosi Hoyer charge.
The problem isn’t pointing to or condemning behavior that squelches actual discussion of issues that protesters strongly disagree with, or the death threats or the recent news that one protester has urged people to bring guns.
The problem is the use of the phrase “un-American” coming from people who belong to a political party that has members who (rightfully) criticize Fox’s Bill O’Reilly for suggesting some people he disagrees with are “not good Americans” (in other words they are “bad Americans” and does that imply “un-American?) …or Sean Hannity whose callers say “you’re a great American’ (suggesting that if you don’t agree with Hannitys rip-n-read the RNC talking points broadcasts, you are not a great American because the only great Americans are Republicans)….or Bush administration members or Republicans who suggested that if Democrats didn’t support Bush policies they wanted to lose in Iraq, didn’t care about making the country safe, didn’t care about terrorism.
The word “un-American” is the danger zone — stepping up the rhetorical political life-death struggle that has huge stakes for what Americans will pay or not pay in health care, the Obama administration’s future clout, and the Republican party in terms of both its clout and how it will wind up being perceived by swing voters. A phrase such as “is not the way discussions have been conducted in American democracy at Town Hall meetings.” would be more accurate.
The use of the phrase can turn off some people who don’t approve of the lets-drown-the-Democrats-out-and-get-media-time tactics that suggest the Town Hall meeting is outmoded anyway (unless it’s new role is in “scream therapy”). Here are a few excerpts from Doug Mataconis, who thinks the op-ed is riddled with factual errors:
Even worse then getting the facts wrong, though, is the fact that Pelosi and Hoyer have decided to characterize those who disagree with them as “un-American.” They and their supporters will, no doubt, claim that the label is only meant to apply to those who have been disruptive, however it’s worth noting that they never managed to find it necessary to say the same thing when the disruptive tactics were coming from the left..
The use of “but the left did it…” or “but the right did it” is often a device to excuse one side. But Mataconis isn’t doing that at all and the example he provides is a valid one. He gives an instance of a protest involving drowning out speakers that Pelosi didn’t condemn, then writes:
So, a town hall filled with disruptive Code Pink demonstrators is “democracy in action,” but a town hall filled with opponents of ObamaCare is Un-American. Or at least that’s how the calculus works in Nancy Pelosi’s universe…I’ve been critical over the past week of some of the more sensational of the town hall protesters tactics.. I’ve denounced those like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and the folks at Americans for Prosperity who have decided that the way to fight HR 3200 is to lie about it. However, the fact that I think their tactics are wrong, or counter-productive, doesn’t mean they’re un-American, or that they should be compared to Nazis, or that they’re racist.
The whole Nazi thing going on now between the two parties shows how frenzied the battle is becoming over health care reform, how polarized the country has become, and how emotions, rage and aggression increasingly trump real discussion over policy.
FOOTNOTE: In the early 70s my grandfather Abraham Ravinsky would often show me his photo album and show me pictures of how the Ravinsky family’s men, women, infants, and kids were almost all brutally murdered by the Nazis. So to Republicans and Democrats who use the phrase I say:
My family had experience with the Nazis. Part of my family was wiped out by the Nazis. Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans are not Nazis. And it downplays and sugarcoats the unspeakable horror they experienced in the last days of their lives when you use that phrase. Can all of you cut the polemics, please?
There are other aspects to this:
1. The use of the word “un-American” is as unlikely to win over some people in the center and independents and Republicans who decry the tractics as Republicans calling Obama a “Marxist,” “socialist,” or suggesting that he is basically a Nazi-fascist-communist-authoritarian like figure is going to win over some people in the center and independents and Democrats. It’s language that appeals mostly to the choir. This could CHANGE, however, if there is an act of violence at a meeting or a death threat goes beyond a threat.
2. The op-ed is one more instance of the story now becoming the STORY about the CONTROVERSY over the policy. Bad news for the White House and Democrats.
3. The Democratic and Obama political teams are not as slicks skillful as they did during the campaign. When Obama was elected many believed that due to the way he ran his campaign, and how the Democratic party finally got its act together, the Democrats would be in for a long haul in office since it seemed as if they had superior political skills, instincts, and a response mechanism to trump the Republicans in the future. Today (and this can change, of course) it seems as if the Democrats can’t get a handle on how to effectively deal with the situation without making it worse or hand delivering their political foes red meat that can be fed to a hungry ideological choir warmed up by frenzy-fanning overstaters Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
In the great-minds-think-alike department, here’s NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg:
Another weekend, another spate of health-care debate nuttiness. The debate — not the issue itself — is now the story. Think about that… In fact, that may explain why it appears the White House is losing the message war. It is trying to fight back by unveiling two campaigns. One is a truth squad of sorts via the White House Web site. It’s easily the most aggressive Web effort by any White House to date. Meanwhile, on the political front, the DNC is asking supporters to flood congressional district offices to voice their support for health-care reform. This is a big test for the Obama political machine, because one thing that has gotten lost in this debate over town hall protests: how the Obama supporters have been out-organized so far.
Another question: Will the next target of Town Hall protesters be Obama’s upcoming Town Hall? And, if so, if they create a media event will it drown out or help Obama’s message? Todd & Co again:
By the way, it will be interesting to see what happens when President Obama holds his own town hall in Portsmouth, NH, tomorrow. One of us got our hands on an invitation from a conservative group planning a protest outside of Tuesday’s venue. “There will be news media from all over the world at this event,” the invitation reads, “and it will be the ideal opportunity for us to tell the rest of the country exactly how NH voters feel about Obamacare (taxed/rationed healthcare).” If anything, we’d bet some inside the White House are hoping for a confrontation, since they believe the president’s demeanor alone will politically play well with the folks they care about most about right now: ACTUAL independents.
Indeed, what is emerging is a battle between two parties and, in many cases, the typical ideological battle between left and right. The race is on to see which side discredits itself first — and the one that looks to have overreached the most or is most frighetening to those in the middle will likely lose credibility and important chunks of public opinion on health care.
Future opinion polls will be very interesting — and one side will see it’s clout rise…and the other will see it fall. Place your bets in Vegas now.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.