Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

August 17, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Town Halls


  • Town halls being held nationwide on President Obama's health care reform plan have been tumultuous. Patrick Keney, chair of the Arizona State University Political Science Department, will talk about the town halls in terms of democracy and freedom of speech.
Guests:
  • Patrick Keney - Arizona State University Political Science Department
Category: Medical/Health   |   Keywords: arizona state, politics, health care, town hall,

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Tonight on "Horizon," President Obama concludes his visit to Arizona, but the anger at town hall meetings over his health care plan continues. Learn more about a local newspaper's special report on how some of Arizona's student tuition organizations could be 3 violating the law. Next on "Horizon." Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon," I'm Ted Simon. President Obama spent the weekend in Arizona, arriving Saturday and visiting the Grand Canyon yesterday. Today here in town he spoke to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The speech took place at the Phoenix Convention Center where the surrounding streets featured protesters debating the president's health care reform ideas. I'll talk to a political expert about recent health care protests at town halls, but first, here's part of what the president had to say this morning to the assembled veterans.

Barrack Obama:
We're dramatically increasing funding for veterans' health care. This includes hundreds of millions of dollars to serve veterans in rural areas, as well as the unique needs of our growing number of women veterans. We are restoring access to V.A. health care for a half a million veterans who lost eligibility in recent years, our priority veterans. Let me say this. One thing that reform won't change is veterans’ health care. No one is going take away your benefits. That is the plain and simple truth. [Applause] We're expanding access to your health care, not reducing it.

Ted Simons:
Here to talk about recent health care protests at town halls is Patrick Kenney, chair of the Arizona State University political science department. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us.

Patrick Kenney:
Thank you.

Ted Simons:
These town halls have been quite lively. It looks from a distance as if they are rather testy at the Democrats' town hall meetings and not as testy when the Republicans hold town halls. Is that the way you see it?

Patrick Kenney:
I think that's correct. The Republicans aren't the one pushing this reform, the biggest reform since the mid sixties, around Medicaid, Medicare, and civil rights. Consequently, the Democrats are the party in power and the protests are focused on them.

Ted Simons:
The anger at some of these town hall meetings, is this a grass roots movement?

Patrick Kenney:
That's difficult to know. We don't have any real good data on that. Most likely no, and here's why. These major reforms like this are very difficult to percolate down to the grass roots in this amount of time, just a few months. So the level of emotion and intensity, and some on the knowledge side, that level you probably wouldn't see at the grass roots because most people are going about their daily business, trying to find work, meet their daily needs.

Ted Simons:
Who would be organizing these sorts of things? Are these grass roots organizations? Are these lobbyists? Corporate interests?

Patrick Kenney:
All of that. There are special interests lobbying organizations opposed to reform. In particular they are opposed to having some kind of government-supported program in there. And they behave very much like the grass roots organizations. The reason is these are town halls that are open. Congressmen and senators hold these fairly frequently. We don't hear about them, they hold them all the time. This is a good place to go and tell people what you're thinking.

Ted Simons:
Talk about the media's impact in getting folks together for these meetings.

Patrick Kenney:
The media's impact in particular is the level of anger disseminated at some of these meetings. If you compare this to the Social Security in the '30s or to Medicaid or certainly civil rights, we are quiet compared to some of those protests. However, the media is 24 hours. Everyone has access to it, there's lots of different venues, radio, internet, television. We're much more aware. That's true on all political issues, I think.

Ted Simons:
Critics of these town hall protesters are calling this an Astroturf movement, not grass roots, but fake grass roots. Is that a valid criticism?

Patrick Kenney:
I think it probably is, but a true grass roots, it's a little too quick for them to be mobilized. You have organizations targeting groups or individuals to attend these, helping them with the script, what to say, when to say it. The passion is there, because there's a sizable minority, I guess, it would be my guess from looking at the public opinion polls, really opposed to changing the health care system at all.

Ted Simons:
Compare and contrast what these organizations might be doing, and what organizations on the other side of the aisle, the moveon.orgs of the world, what they have done.

Patrick Kenney:
The support, the more Democratic-oriented groups, they are on television with ads. That's the biggest difference. There are a lot of ads opposed to it, I think. But they knew, I think, which is smart politically, tactically, if you raise a high level of passion among ordinary citizens, that captures people's attention.

Ted Simons:
So there are those interests, as well as whoever is behind the tea parties and those things?

Patrick Kenney:
I think that's correct.

Ted Simons:
I read on a number of occasions the comparison between what's happening right now and some of the disruptive tactics used in the '60s against the Vietnam War. Is a group taking a page out of some of the folks that got famous in the '60s and '70s?

Patrick Kenney:
The point here is to raise the level of awareness about a topic and an issue. They are doing it effectively, probably not the same size. The civil rights or war in Vietnam were much bigger and bigger quicker. We will get a bill out of Congress in the next few months and this will dissipate and trickle away.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned getting a bill out of Congress in the next few months. How much of an impact is that in shaping the debate?

Patrick Kenney:
I think it's not only shaping the debate, it has an impact on how Congressmen and senators think about their votes. We have good research that shows they pay close attention to these things. They are often self-reinforcing. Conservative congressmen opposed to this are hearing most dramatically from their constituencies and the same with people who want change. It's highly unlikely that the people who most need health care are the ones out there. They are the least likely able to organize and be there, right? Because they are poor, disadvantaged, the working poor can't find there, can't get there.

Ted Simons:
Is health care at the core of these protests, or is something else going on?

Patrick Kenney:
Well, there's lots of people insinuating that it might be broader, it might be anti-Obama, anti-Democratic Party. You even hear race entered into it. My guess is by and large it's driven by health care and the idea to stop or slow this huge movement on health care. I don't have any strong evidence but that's my guess.

Ted Simons:
And the polar divide we've seen for quite a while in American politics between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that is also showing itself, a different manifestation.

Patrick Kenney:
It starts with Clinton and the Republican Congress in 1994, and has been just almost as intense all the way through the last decade and a half. Both sides are diametrically opposed to each other on certain issues. Health care is one of them.

Ted Simons:
I don't know if this is something you can answer. From a distance, it seems as though the country has gotten used to the left marching and shouting, lots of protests over the last 30, 40 years, from the left. Not seeing quite so much in the way of public protests, yelling and screaming, from the right. We're getting it now. Is America a little uncomfortable with that?

Patrick Kenney:
There's some really good political research. Some finds Americans are uncomfortable with this really intense kind of debate. They just don't like it; they turn away from it and don't like to follow it. I think that's true probably on both sides. The last time we saw the left mobilize was against the Iraq War in 2003. Or maybe here in the southwest on the immigration issue. You see that level, people out there and talking and protesting.

Ted Simons:
With that in mind, could some of the more vocal protests, could those types of tactics backfire?

Patrick Kenney:
Much has worked, so they can backfire. They lower the level of paying attention, the level of awareness. They hear about it and turn away from it. Also, this debate is so complicated. I can see people turn away for that alone. Again, we do not have a bill yet to put on the table and talk about.

Ted Simons:
I guess the last point is the cliché that Democracy is a messy business, welcome to the example.

Patrick Kenney:
Democracy is very messy, especially when large numbers of people are involved. Most Americans don't like the messy process of democracy. They don't like compromise, the fighting, all the back-room deals. That's going on, or will go on when they go back after this August recess.

Ted Simons:
Isn't America grand, but once the mess starts to come around they get a little hesitant about it.

Patrick Kenney:
Exactly. People with strong principles don't like to compromise. People with less than strong principles think the ground is in the middle. People don't like the shouting and deal-making. They like the output but not the mess that goes into it.

Ted Simons:
Patrick thanks for joining us.

Patrick Kenney:
All right.

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