Tea Party? Not here

ANYBODY LOOKING FOR A DRAMATIC confrontation last Saturday at the Golden Harvest farm store on Route 9 in Kinderhook went away disappointed. It was mostly talk and very little shouting, and probably didn’t change anybody’s mind, either. 

If Saturday is any indication, that’s the way the debate over healthcare reform is shaping up. There are two sides separated not by a middle ground or even uncertainty. The gulf is filled instead by rancor, mistrust, propaganda and ignorance. 

The occasion was Congressman Scott Murphy’s meet-and-greet with constituents of his 20th District, in sessions now called Congress on Your Corner. For his predecessor, Kirsten Gillibrand, audiences for these events were largely local residents. So it was a little unusual to find people at Saturday’s event who came from Albany suburbs, from Dutchess County and a few from outside the district. But they have a right to talk to a congressman just like every other citizen.

Who gets to talk became a national issue after video clips made the news last week showing protesters opposed to the healthcare reform plans under consideration in Congress and supported by President Obama shouting down Democrats trying to speak at public forums. Aware that Mr. Murphy was a target of a national effort to stop healthcare reform, the county Democratic Committee issued an email alert Friday afternoon urging local Democrats to attend, with the leadership imploring members of the party on behalf of Mr. Murphy, “Don’t let him be shouted down.” 

Hard to say how well the plea worked, because a roughly equal number of people turned out for each side in a county that voted heavily for Mr. Murphy in the special election earlier this year that put him in office. At this point healthcare reform opponents may be more motivated or better organized. In fairness, though, it was hard to tell the two sides apart, because most of the attendees were casually dressed, white and middle-aged. Only their signs and what they applauded or booed made their politics clear. 

From the gruff shouts that emerged at the beginning of his remarks to the crowd, it sounded like the anti-reformers were spoiling for a verbal clash and perhaps an attempt to muffle their protest. Shouting can be an effective tactic for shutting down a meeting and preventing someone like Mr. Murphy from not only explaining his position on the issues but from sharing information with voters who don’t have the same access to the sources that he does. But he didn’t take the bait. 

Instead of scolding his would-be antagonists, he explained, repeatedly and affably, that he was going to let them speak. And surprisingly, given the build-up, they took him at his word. It was a masterful effort that required restraint, focus and sincerity. But one after another, people, many of them opposed to the reform effort, got their say and received direct answers to their questions. 

Mr. Murphy used one of the oldest, most effective political tactics in the book: Answer the question you’re asked, and even questioners who don’t like what you say will treat you with the respect you’ve just shown them.  

His approach Saturday also served another purpose. By diffusing the confrontational moment, he forced reform opponents to hear–though probably not accept–that they have been told lies about what the reform proposals would do. Chief among these is the gross distortion that reform would mean the government determining when people must die. None of the proposals call for that or anything like it. They never did. 

Telling opponents of healthcare reform that insurance companies ration healthcare in the U.S. in ways that no government would dream of doing in any other developed nation around the world, telling them that regardless of the wonders that American medicine can perform, we’re less healthy than countries than spend far less per capita on healthcare, telling opponents that government does a good job running Medicare, none of these will change the mind of those sure that government is always the problem, never the solution. But telling folks that they’ve been duped by the people leading them is something they need to hear.  That was the message Scott Murphy delivered at a farm stand in Kinderhook last weekend. It needed to be said, and he deserves a lot of credit for saying it.

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