The Guns of August 

The Big Dog comes to the rescue as the battle for national health care gets grim.

click to enlarge Bill Clinton at the Jackson Day dinner in Nashville - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Bill Clinton at the Jackson Day dinner in Nashville

History will doubtless record the torrid month of August 2009 as something of a crucible for the matter of national health care.

Negotiations in Congress, between Democrats and Republicans on the one hand and between Blue Dog Democrats and progressives on the other, either proceeded or stalled or were stonewalled, depending on how one looked at it. President Barack Obama's concept of a truly universal insurance plan underwent considerable give-and-take, with adherents of the crucial public-option part of the package trying not to give too much.

During the annual August congressional recess, representatives and senators in Tennessee, as elsewhere, took the issue to the people. Famously, there was 9th District congressman Steve Cohen's S.R.O. "town meeting" at the cavernous Bridges Center downtown.

Something like 1,000 people crammed into what came off as a prototypical public meeting of the sort being held by Democratic congressional representatives elsewhere in the country. Provocateurs, some from elsewhere, vied with locals. Sloganeers shouted down speakers. It was rowdy.

Somehow, by virtue of patience, tenacity, and dedicated staff work, Cohen was able to mount a discussion of the pros and cons of pending health-care legislation.

Still, the images and sounds of his meeting coincided with those being presented on nightly news broadcasts of meetings being disrupted by organized protesters. Agents of the insurance companies, it was said. Right-wing vigilantes. Militia types with guns strapped to their legs and incendiary mottos on their T-shirts.

Given that someone trying to smuggle a gun in was indeed stopped at the door of Cohen's meeting by police, it was easy enough for proponents of national health care to conceive of the protesters in that way.

Such a stereotype was even consistent with a previous meeting held in the parking lot of a Germantown shopping mall by Representative Marsha Blackburn, the archconservative Republican who represented the sprawling 7th District, which stretches from the affluent suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville, with abundant rural turf in between.

There were placards in Blackburn's crowd denouncing "ObamaCare," as one would expect from an organized partisan effort; there were protesters on hand from elsewhere who frankly admitted they intended to pose as 9th District residents in order to demonstrate at Cohen's then forthcoming meeting. And there were acknowledged cadres of the national "Tea Party" movement which had begun orchestrating grass-roots meetings — "astro-turf" events, they were called by skeptics — to protest the Obama administration's stimulus efforts in general.

But it was another, more formal Blackburn health-care meeting in Somerville two weeks later that confirmed for me an impression that ran counter to the conventional wisdom on the left, which had it that the protests against the president's plan, even at the watered-down versions that were making their way through the several committees of the House and Senate, were nothing but organized disruptions, fed and prepared by the special interests.

The reality is that there is a grass-roots reaction against national health-care legislation, at least in portions of suburban Memphis and rural West Tennessee.

The fact was that the Fayette County meeting, presumably like others held by Blackburn, was open to the public and had been amply advertised (amply enough for me to know about it a day or two in advance, anyhow).

And nobody, nobody at all, spoke in favor of the president's plan, of the House bill, or even for the principle of a national health-care plan in general. There was no organized disruption. There was no need for it. If there were dissenters among the several score attendees squeezed into a community meeting room off the Somerville town square, they were very, very cowed and very, very quiet.

There was no reason to disbelieve Blackburn when she claimed, as she had earlier that morning at a Lipscomb & Pitts-sponsored breakfast in Memphis, as she would at later town meetings, that the constituents she encountered at her meetings shared her aversion to a "government-centered" health plan, as against a "patient-centered" one.

Grudgingly, she admitted the need for legislation adding a degree of "portability" to private health insurance, and she insisted on "liability reform," i.e., the imposition of caps on awards in malpractice litigation. That, she said, was the best way to hold down health costs.

Beyond that, nada. Anything else — certainly that which went by the name of "public option" — would be just so much government interference in private lives. When Blackburn opened the meeting up to questions, she instead drew statements — like that from an elderly gentleman in overalls who rose shakily and, leaning on his gnarled wooden cane, complimented Blackburn for "standing firm on your conservative principles." Then he began a lengthy disquisition in which he denounced the proposed health-care legislation in terms stronger than she had. "It's control!" he thundered. "That's all it is. It's control!"

As animated and single-minded as the discussion in Somerville had been, it was as nothing compared to the outright ferocity that had emerged from the 500 or so people who filled a small Lutheran church in Oakland the week before, when U.S. senator Bob Corker had presided over a health-care meeting of his own.

Though something of a moderate on the contemporary Republican scene, Corker stood foursquare in opposition to a plan which he, too, saw as conceding too much authority to the federal government and undermining the "American free-enterprise system."

But even he seemed taken aback at the volume and vigor of the opposition. People in the crowd talked openly of taking up arms against the government, one man hinting darkly at potential retribution against Obama himself.

To his credit, Corker attempted to defuse such talk, defending the president's sincerity and patriotism. When an angry citizen came to the front with a petition for Corker to sign, the senator firmly turned it aside. And he uncovered an irony when he asked for a show of hands from those who derived most of their health insurance from Medicare. A significant number responded, including several who had just, in effect, called for insurrection against the government.

What we got here is a failure to communicate.

Assuming, all the same, that there is a legitimate need for health-care legislation of the sort proposed by President Obama, how then to overcome or turn around such resistance — this stiff-necked grass-roots sort that is far more formidable than any boilerplate from the insurance industry, even if such propaganda is part of what stokes the fires of discontent?

Enter Bill Clinton. The former president, whose own would-be health-care reforms were foiled by a reluctant Congress back in 1994, was the keynote speaker at the state Democratic Party's annual Jackson Day dinner Saturday night in Nashville. And he hit the subject of health-care legislation head-on.

"I don't think all these people are coming to these town meetings raising Cain with your congressman in bad faith," he told the crowd. "I think they've had the daylights scared out of them. And I get it. But let's just start with a few basic facts I want you to share with your friends and neighbors."

Whereupon the Big Dog began to lay it on the line: "First of all, we pay 16 1/2 percent of our income on health care and nobody else pays more than 10 1/2. That's between $800 billion and $900 billion a year we're paying that we would not pay if we had any other country's health system.

"Second, so we're paying $800 billion or $900 billion that could be going into education and jobs and clean energy and covering the uninsured. We only cover 84 percent of our people and everybody else covers 100 percent. That's one reason we spend too much — because the people who don't have health coverage when they're too sick, they show up at the most expensive place they can, the emergency room, and you pay for it in your health premiums."

There was more in that vein, all convincing, all detailed, all said in that part down-to-earth, part Rhodes scholar, part matinee-idol manner that the former president commands. Not even Obama touches so many points of an audience's psyche.

Clinton advised the crowd, "Doing nothing is the worst thing we can do for the country, the economy, and the Democrats. ... Don't get on the defensive. Play offense!"

And when he was done, the roar of the crowd signaled that they'd got his message.

The question is: Who else, besides himself, is both willing and able to deliver it?

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