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Health Reformers Need Not Fear Mob Scenes

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Craig Anthony Miller earned brief fame by screaming something about the Constitution in the face of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. A woman followed with the same scripted rant. The subject of the meeting in Lebanon, Pa., was to be health care, and the goal of the organized mobs was to disrupt it.

A Republican-turned-Democrat, Specter is not universally beloved in either party. But there he stood, straight-backed and square-jawed, before all the hollering. He even tried to respond to the shreds of coherence detectable in the attacks. Specter looked good.

Lazy pundits have portrayed such scenes at this month's town hall meetings as evidence of a growing army of opposition to the proposed health-care reforms. Polls do show some slippage in support following an onslaught of untruths over what reform to do. But the public remains pretty much divided on the matter.

After much too much time on the sidelines, President Obama is finally entering the fray. If Obama's smart -- and we know he is -- he'll counter the lies but let the vitriol work for him.

The right wing has launched another of its red-faced crusades. When that happens, the loser is ultimately the Republican Party. Sure, obnoxious behavior gets a lot of attention. So do car wrecks.

Back in 1998, Republican activists determined to sink Bill Clinton staged an impeachment carnival that froze the American government for months. Their excesses turned a population shocked by Clinton's sexual misconduct into one feeling sorry for him.

What was the political fallout? That November, Republicans lost five House seats. (The party count in the Senate didn't change.)

Remember the Elian Gonzalez affair in 2000? Elian was a Cuban boy whose mother died while taking him to Florida. His father in Cuba wanted his son back (as was his right under international law), and Republicans tried to stop that from happening. Some pushed a bill to make Elian an American citizen. When federal agents forcibly removed Elian from his relatives' house in Miami, Republicans called them "storm troopers."

The right wing had turned this family conflict in a titanic battle between capitalism and communism. What most Americans saw was a dad denied his son. His "crime" was being a Cuban who wanted to live in Cuba.

Later that year, Republicans lost two more seats in the House and four in the Senate. Americans gave the Democratic candidate for president, Al Gore, 500,000 more votes than the "victor" George W. Bush. And Clinton left office with the highest approval rating of any president in a half-century.

In 2005, Republicans tried to make hay out of the Terri Schiavo tragedy. Loud protests had convinced them of wide public opposition to letting Schiavo's husband remove her from a feeding tube after she had spent 15 years in a vegetative state. The demonstrators prayed, shouted insults at Michael Schiavo and provided a feast for the television cameras.

When someone finally did a poll, it was revealed that Americans by a more than two-to-one margin sided with the husband and disapproved of the Republicans' meddling. The more important poll took place in November the following year, when Republicans lost 31 seats in the House and five in the Senate.

Other factors influenced these outcomes, of course. But politicians now facing the wrath of enraged right-wingers should note that similar unruly outbursts in the past probably worked against the Grand Old Party. Come November 2010, voters are not going to punish Democrats or the Republicans who work with them on health reform, if the product is well designed.

"Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize," the Polish poet Stanislaw Lec wrote. Health reformers, be not afraid of scarecrows.

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