The healthcare battle: What the anger is about

On the same weekend as the Tea Party confab, over 500 people gathered at Al Lopez Park in Tampa, and over 150 stood alongside the Courtney Campbell Causeway the following day, all in support of health care reform.

As Janet Dao from Clearwater admitted when I asked her if her troops had been slow to action, “If  you’re saying did the teabaggers get a jump on us? Probably? Yeah, but we had a little campaign fatigue. We worked hard for two years, we took a little break, but we’re ready to fight again.”

Malanda Schmitz is with United For Change, the activist group that called for the Courtney Campbell protest. She says that anger and fear are strong motivators, which is how she characterizes the thrust of Obama critics.

“There’s a lot of misinformation going around, and some of those people out protesting don’t really know what’s going on. But instead of learning what are in the proposals, they’re seizing on things like ‘death panels’ and other things that aren’t true.”

The day earlier, on 9/12, I spoke with about two dozen people in Lakeland on 9/12. Some of those some citizens were filled with a fierce anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment. These are the people who will ruefully acknowledge that they didn’t speak up enough to the spending excess of George W. Bush (whose spending makes up the vast bulk of the current federal deficit, despite nearly everything you hear this year that Barack Obama is singlehandedly responsible for such largess).

But then there’s the rage that only a Democrat — make that a black Democrat — seems to bring out in some of these protesters.

Karen Temple from Lakeland  worried that “There’s so many things to this administration that are fearful to all of us. The taxes he’s trying to do, the rights he’s trying to take away from us.” I interrupted her, curious to know what rights she was in danger of losing.

She did not respond. However, after an uncomfortable couple of seconds of radio silence, her husband Glenn, cheerfully and chivalrously, if not incongruously, piped up a with a touchstone of Obama conspiracists: “One of the things that bothers me is — where’s his birth certificate?”

As I nodded uncomfortably at the seeming non sequitur, Glenn Temple then indicated why that was important.

“If he can get away with not showing a birth certificate, can he get away with saying, ‘Hey look, when it comes to me leaving office, I’m not going?’”

I heard another attendee also mention that with Obama’s cravings for power, the 22nd Amendment (which limits any president to two terms in office) was in jeopardy. I also heard, and saw, numerous references to the community organizing group ACORN.

The power of conservative talk radio was exemplified by one man carrying a sign blasting Cass Sunstein, just confirmed by the Senate as Director of White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Ginned up by Glenn Beck and Michael Savage as Van Jones redux, the now former University of Chicago academic actually has a fairly centrist, libertarian pedigree. In fact, back in January, the conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds, a/k/a Instapundit, endorsed Sunstein. But when I asked the man, who identified himself as  Joe from Plant City, what he had against Sunstein, he replied, laughing, “Everything.  He’s a piece of trash.”

Although Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC have asserted that the Tea Party and town hall meetings regarding health care are simply manufactured by organizations like former Texas Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, those interviewed in Lakeland bristled at such charges.

“You’re going to find so many people who tell us that ‘I’ve never come to something like this before, but somebody has to do something,’” said Barry Foster, activities director for something called The American Party in Florida (“the alternative to the Republicrats,” he boasted).

“This is a groundswell of support. I’ve been told that we’re Astroturf, that we’re getting paid to do this? If somebody would please e-mail us to tell us where to pick up our checks, I’d really appreciate it.”

As some of the organized right’s opposition has devolved into downright hysteria in recent weeks (with Florida GOP Chair Jim Greer taking center stage with his fear of socialist indoctrination via Obama’s address to students).

Some Democrats, most notably former President Jimmy Carter, have detected flat-out racism pulsing through these crowds.

Jay from Polk County strongly disagreed when I challenged him on this notion. However, he does believe that “we’re about to see some very, very huge changes in this countr.” Pause. “Hopefully nothing gets violent. Hopefully people do it in the proper fashion.”

Providing the proverbial red meat for the crowd was GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio, whose anti-Washington criticisms provided catnip for the crowd. Rubio told the cheering throng he was for off-shore drilling, term limits, the 2nd Amendment and against the president’s plan for health care reforms — and everything else Obama stands for.

He also strongly denies any racism, latent or otherwise, in the Tea Parties’ rebukes of Obama, telling CL “that’s ridiculous.  …The truth is people are scared, they look at a very radical leadership, and are afraid of how this president and Congress will take this country.”

As has been documented in local media, the antipathy toward Governor Crist amongst these Tea Partiers is palpable, as is their love for the former House Speaker. But Crist is still leading Rubio by over 20 percentage points in the most recent polls on the Senate race.  Rubio attributes that problem to name recognition (or lack thereof), and says he has nearly a year to overcome that with the GOP electorate. Whether the 1,000-plus in Lakeland really are just a loud minority or a force to be reckoned with should become apparent to Florida Democrats during next year’s Senate primary, two months before the winner of that race will take on probable Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election.

Earlier this month — actually, September 12th (or “9-12” in Glenn Beck parlance) — conservative Tea Parties were again held across the country, essentially to bring like-minded folks together to decry excessive federal spending — at least when Barack Obama is doing it.

In Lakeland, a crowd estimated to be around 2,500 people showed up at Lake Mirror Ampitheatre despite a steady rain. (That’s what the Lakeland Ledger reported — though it looked to this observer to be maybe only half that that amount). It was at least the third major such event that I’ve attended in 2009, and was again a stark reminder that in opposition, conservatives have found their voice in a way that John McCain was unable to articulate for them in 2008.

Though it’s debatable how representative these protesters are in the body politic, it is undeniable that their protests — at least in the arena of health care reform — have had an impact. Because protests and street activism can make a difference. Liberals were united in the latter parts of this decade against George Bush and his egregious war in Iraq. Joined by disaffected independents, they came together in harmony last year, first battling each other (in their epic Democratic primary race), before coalescing behind the brilliant campaign of Barack Obama last fall.

That same energy wilted for much of the just concluded summer, but the Democrats seem finally to be getting it.

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