Grassroots Activism For Me, But Not For Thee

Democratic legislators are complaining vigorously about the push-back they are receiving on health reform during town hall meetings. House Majority Leader Pelosi stated that reform opponents were “carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on healthcare” and dismissed them as “Astroturf” rather than a grassroots movement. An editorial cartoon in the Washington Post similarly suggests that the protests are being orchestrated.

Senator Reid views protesters as a “fringe that is trying to mess up our meetings.” The White House Deputy Chief of Staff has advised legislators if “If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard.” The Administration is asking individuals who hear things that are “fishy” to submit them by email. Paul Krugman concedes that anti-privatization activists” who opposed social security reforms during the Bush Administration were “sometimes raucous and rude, [but] I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds." Krugman concludes this is “something new and ugly” – and reforms opponents must be motivated at least in part by racism.

Krugman’s claim that protests of this sort are unprecedented is wrong. A virtually identical scenario played out in 1989. By an overwhelming margin, Congress had enacted the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1988. The Act provided more extensive hospitalization benefits and prescription drug coverage, but it imposed the costs of that benefit on the elderly.

Congress was soon flooded with angry letters and there were numerous confrontations with angry constituents when individual congressmen returned to their districts. As Andrea Mitchell observed on ABC News, “the elderly are not against the new benefits – unlimited hospital care, new at-home benefits, prescription drug coverage; they just don’t want to pay for them.”

The turning point came on August 17, 1989, when Dan Rostenkowski, House Ways and Means Chairman and one of the most powerful men in Congress, found himself fleeing a crowd of irate senior citizens protesting the Catastrophic Coverage Act.

Representative Rostenkowski had scheduled a meeting in his home district to hear constituent concerns and speak about the advantages of the Medicare catastrophic coverage act. A crowd of angry senior citizens waved signs protesting the fact they would have to pay more taxes to fund the covered benefit. People shouted “coward,” “recall,” and “impeach” after Representative Rostenkowski refused to speak with them and got in his car. One senior citizen (Leona Kozien) even jumped on the hood of Congressman Rostenkowski’s car to stop him from leaving.

The picture below was taken moments before Ms. Kozien jumped on the hood – she is the women in the rose-colored heart shaped glasses. (The picture appeared in Newsweek and the Chicago Sun Times, and was taken by Tom Cruze)

Representative Rostenkowski got out of the car and ran a block, chased by the crowd. He was then picked up by his car and whisked away. The incident resulted in front page coverage nationwide. The TV news ran footage of Rostenkowski fleeing from his constituents. Rostenkowski reportedly asked his press secretary whether the issue would go away in a few days, and was told “Let me put it this way Congressman. When you die, they will play this clip on television.” Three months later, the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act was repealed.

As with today, the media had little sympathy for the protesters. The New York Times editorialized that “there’s little reason to sympathize with the aggrieved affluent elderly,” whose complaints were “short-sighted and narrow-minded.” In the New Republic, one commentator condemned the “selfishness” of the “affluent elderly,” and asked “so long as we continue to provide enormous subsidies to the affluent elderly, why shouldn’t they help pay for the poor of their generation?” (You can read more, and find the sources for the enclosed in chapter four of my book on Medicare.

It is understandable that the Administration and Congressional Democrats are unhappy with push-back to their plans. But, August is proving to be rich in ironies. The Administration of a former teacher of constitutional law is unhappy that individuals are exercising their Constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Administration of a former community organizer is complaining about community organizing. Congressional Democrats have long relied on community organizing (and union members), and are suddenly appalled at organized communities.

And, perhaps the richest irony of all -- the organizer of the protest against Rostenkowski was Jan Schakowsky – then Director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens – and currently Democratic representative from the Ninth Congressional District of Illinois, and chief deputy whip to Majority Leader Pelosi. You can read Schakowsky's account of the incident, her role, and her views on the importance of citizen involvement in government here – at a lecture she gave at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research in 2002, entitled “Why Citizen Activism Matters: The View From Washington.”

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Perils of High Public Office: II
  2. The Perils of High Public Office
  3. Grassroots Activism For Me, But Not For Thee
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The Perils of High Public Office

CBS News has dug up some video of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski being chased down the street by a crowd of angry seniors. This event took place twenty years ago next Monday -- August 17, 1989.

Here's Rostenkowski starting at 1:35 in the video:

Rostenkowski: I don't think they understand what the government's trying to do for them.

Reporter: Do you sympathize with their anger on this?

Rostenkowski: No, I don't think they understand what's going on.

As this book makes clear, Rostenkowski was comfortably within the mainstream of Congresssional and elite media opinion in dismissing the objections of his constituents as uninformed, ill-founded, or rabble-rousing. But, the day had long-term consequences. As the New York Times observed in a 2002 article, "the television images of Mr. Rostenkowski under assault struck fear in the hearts of politicians that remains to this day. Few want to be pitted against older people on issues involving Medicare. ‘Politicians were traumatized by the Rostenkowski episode and they remain traumatized,’ said Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.”

I devote a few pages of my book on Medicare to the subject.

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The Perils of High Public Office: II

National Review Online just posted a piece that I did on the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, and its implications for our latest efforts at health (insurance) reform.

Here's the conclusion of the piece:

No one can predict whether the latest effort at health-care reform will meet a similar ignominious defeat. But this story does hold lessons for the current debate.

First, health care is personal. If you mess with people’s health coverage, they won’t just write a nasty letter to the editor. They will show up at demonstrations with home-made signs, scream at you, chase you down the street, and maybe vote you out of office. So you’d better have a good reason for doing what you’re doing, and a compelling explanation of how your plan would personally benefit your constituents.

Second, framing is critical. The Obama administration has shifted ground several times, trying to find a frame that will persuade voters. It remains to be seen whether the latest frame — it’s about providing people with insurance; insurers are evil, and the reforms will make them behave — will stick. Update: today's new framing is that health reform is "a core ethical and moral obligation."

Third, don’t assume that people who disagree with you are stupid, misinformed, greedy, or evil. They may just have different preferences about health insurance, taxes, income redistribution, or the role of government in health care. If preferences differ, telling people they can’t understand the complexities won’t help matters. Such condescension just makes aggrieved citizens angrier.

Fourth, be lucky. The administration had better hope that the elderly don’t figure out that reform will be paid for, in part, with hundreds of billions in “savings” from cutting Medicare. (In past years, Democrats routinely savaged Republicans for proposing far smaller Medicare cuts.) If seniors figure this one out, support from AARP’s national office won’t be any more help this time than it was last time — even if AARP stays on board, and there are already indications that it won’t.

Finally, embrace your sense of humor and irony. The administration of a former teacher of constitutional law complains about Americans exercising their constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. A party that elected a community organizer president complains about organized communities. One of the architects of the Democrats’ current health-care strategy (Rep. Jan Schakowsky) is the very community organizer responsible for the horde of seniors that surrounded Rostenkowski’s car. Last year, dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Now, dissent is un-American, and reporting dissent is suddenly patriotic. Who knows what fresh irony tomorrow will bring?

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