Rep. Jim McDermott's Health Care Town Hall

By Erica C. Barnett September 2, 2009

This post is by Jake Blumgart.

You might think that Rep. Jim McDermott, the 7th district’s firmly progressive Democratic congressman, wouldn’t have faced too much criticism at a health-care town hall meeting in firmly progressive Seattle. In contrast to the experiences of some of his colleagues, you’d be right. Comparatively, last night’s meeting, held at the University of Washington’s 1,200-capacity Meany Hall, was downright sedate.

Congresspeople across the country have been holding town hall meetings to hear their constituents’ thoughts on the (strangely) controversial prospect of reforming our badly broken health care system. The meetings have been confused by two factors. One, there are three bills circulating through Congress and no one is sure what the final one (knock wood) will look like, making it a bit hard to explain. Second, the meetings have been punctuated by noisy protesters who have interrupted their representatives with inane comments and catcalls.

But McDermott—unlike some of his Washington State colleagues —was unflappable.


Photo by Dan Miller

A broad array of alternative ideologies set up shop on the pathway into the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. The Socialist Alternatives kiosk attested to the existence of real-life American socialists (my God, they want to … establish a health care system similar to that of almost every other wealthy industrial nation !). The requisite LaRouchies were steadfastly ignored by everyone.

Despite these diverting sideshows, the auditorium rapidly filled up without a single fist fight or sidearm reported. McDermott walked on stage to thundering applause, complete with standing ovation, and immediately launched into a vigorous pitch for the bill(s) that are painfully wending their way through Capitol Hill.

“Health care reform is the most important domestic issue we face,” Dermott somberly intoned. “I was there in 1993-4, so I’ve seen this movie before. And I didn’t like the ending.”  But this time will be different, he promised. “The director of this movie is Barack Obama,” he reminded the audience.

They seemed less than thrilled by that notion. No one stood up.

Undeterred by the deadening effect of the President’s name, the Congressman rumbled on, immediately confronting one of the more pernicious myths about Obama’s health care plan. “Almost the first words out of Obama’s mouth were ‘if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it.’”

As these words left McDermott’s lips, those displeased with our nation’s inevitable slide into godless communism made their presence known, filling Meany Hall with cries of “You’re lying!”, “socialist!”, etc. Not anything unfamiliar to those who’ve been watching the running battle of the August recess.

An ugly rumbling rose from the liberal crowd after every outburst from the anti-public-option protesters, drowning out the tiny but vitriolic minority. McDermott’s calming words (“My hope is that we can have a civil discussion”) were drowned out by the crowd of enraged liberals. One man stood up, looking ready to clamber over the rows and rend his reactionary opponents limb from limb.  Moderating his urges, he whipped around and admonished a particular noisy group of hecklers, “If you want democracy to work, allow this man to speak!”

Before things got out of hand, McDermott stepped in with a soothing year-by-year breakdown of the health care plan. The stultifying monologue had its desired effect: You could almost hear the attendees’ eyes glazing over. The next interruption (“Who pays the difference?”) was met with nothing more than a soft shushing sound.

Advocates for a single-payer system (which would replace private insurance with universal coverage provided by the federal government) pressed McDermott on Obama’s abandonment of his previous commitment to the issue. The congressman energetically agreed with them (“If I had my druthers, we would have a single-payer system”), but stuck by the president’s politically cautious proposal. Public option partisans asked whether a bill without their provision of choice would be worth it, to which McDermott responded, to loud cheering, “Not for me.”

As the event wore on, more reasonable conservative voices spoke up, asking about whether health care reform that included a public option would be fair to private insurers. One elderly man politely inquired if private companies would be able to sell insurance across state lines (something they can’t do now), to match the federal public option? McDermott assured him they would, as long as they were responsible corporate citizens, which they will be, if we regulate the shit out of them.

At the end of the evening, McDermott thanked the crowd, telling them they were truly living their citizenship by actively participating in the civic process, “Although it can be a little tumultuous sometimes [these town halls] are good for democracy.”

As the crowd filtered out, a couple of audience members decided to throw some Mencken-esque commentary on the congressman’s heartwarming final thoughts. Two grown adults, silver of hair and wrinkled of skin, stood inches from each other’s faces thoughtfully continuing the night’s discussion.

And I quote:

Liberal lady: “asswipe asswipe asswipe asswipe asswipe asswipe!”

Conservative gentleman: “Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up!”

Ah, democracy.

PubliCola's earlier coverage of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers' (R-5, WA) and Rep. Adam Smith's (D-WA, 9) recess health care forums are here and here .
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