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Bachmannacare in Lake Elmo: U.S. rep meets the people

I suppose you could call it democracy in action: the hot issue of the day, the elected rep stating her views, taking questions and feedback from her constituents, all in a junior high auditorium in beautiful Lake Elmo, Minn., on a balmy Thursday aft

Video by Chuck Olsen of The UpTake.

I suppose you could call it democracy in action: the hot issue of the day, the elected rep stating her views, taking questions and feedback from her constituents, all in a junior high auditorium in beautiful Lake Elmo, Minn., on a balmy Thursday afternoon when everyone involved could have been eating from a stick at the State Fair. Kudos to Rep. Michele Bachmann for holding the event (some congressfolk seem to be ducking the opportunity this recess) and to the roughly 1,000 Minnesotans who took the time and trouble (about half of them didn’t fit in the auditorium and watched the proceedings by closed-circuit from the cafeteria).

Yes, there was some booing and more raucous cheering from the overwhelming pro-Bachmann crowd, but it seemed civil compared with what we’ve seen on the tube from other health-care town meetings. Another kudo to the GOP congresswoman who spoke respectfully to the Obamacare supporters and urged her supporters to let the heresies be heard.

No one got hurt. But did anyone get informed? Did anyone hear anything that changed their minds? Maybe so, but I couldn’t find them. I asked about 20 folks in the parking lot how the meeting was for them, and they also said it was some version of pretty good. I asked them all if they heard anything they didn’t already know or learned anything that opened their minds to the other side’s point of view, and they all answered with some version of no, not really.

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We all want to believe (anyway, I do) in a self-governing society where facts, arguments, neighborly discussion and shared experience leads to a better-informed citizenry wrestling its way closer to consensus, or if not consensus (OK, forget about consensus, let’s keep this real) closer to a self-governing decision. But it’s very hard. For all the Frank Capra trappings, the Bachmann health-care town hall in Lake Elmo yesterday left me feeling pretty hopeless about a Frank Capra ending where the middle Americans (who, in Act IV, were inflamed by evil self-seeking propagandists into an angry mob) turn back into neighbors, realize that, after all, It’s a Wonderful Life, and send Mr. (or Ms.) Smith back to Washington to represent them better than ever.

But this health care deal is a rough one. It’s really too complicated for most of us to have a truly informed opinion. But it feels very personal. And the “government will reform it” versus “government makes everything worse” battle lines make it a perfect medium for the basic Democrats-are-from-Mars, Republicans-are-from-Venus problem of our general political culture in these times. So, here is one ink-stained wretch’s impressionistic painting of what happened when Bachmann met the people yesterday in Lake Elmo.

Sign-carrying protesters

When I arrive, several hundred are waiting to get in. The audiences seems mostly Bachmann likers. The sign-carrying protesters are mostly for the Obama plan (to the degree that anyone can say what that is). The signs say: “You and your staff have a public option — We want it too,” “Healthy People make a Healthy Nation,” “Love your neighbor, Support Reform,” “Dump Bachmann,” and one bears a Martin Luther King quote: “Of all the forms of inequality and injustice — injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

One of the sign-bearers is engaged, fairly shrilly, with one of the line-waiters. It goes something like this: “Get a job and you’ll get health insurance.” “I have a job, I’m worried about people who don’t.” “This is America. It’s about liberty.” “America is about rights and health care is a right.” “It’s not a right if you have to take money out of my pocket to pay for somebody who doesn’t want to pay for it himself. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights.” The tone was nasty, but not really ugly, and I noticed they both calmed down immediately once they gave up on each other and moved on.

When they open the doors, the auditorium (capacity 420) fills up quickly and peacefully. Another 400 or so score places in the cafeteria.

It starts late. The moderator, state Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, introduces himself, mentioning that that his sons are all either on active duty or veterans. Tremendous applause. All afternoon, there will be many references to servicemen, which brings down the house every time. Dettmer leads us in the pledge of allegiance. Dettmer’s wife, Colleen, leads us in the “Star-Spangled Banner,” hitting even those tough high notes. I find myself wondering whether we pledge and sing at Democratic town meetings.

Bachmann’s Minnesota Nice opening statement meanders, then, when she seems to be working on a joke about whether Obama will play golf with Tiger Woods, she starts getting heckled slightly to start talking about health care. She drops the Barack/Tiger theme, but says she can’t really talk about the health care bill until we get the context. The United States is “functionally bankrupt.” The new 10-year deficit project is $9 trillion. Several homey tools to understand that trillion is a really, really big number. Our country continues to spend money with no idea of how we’re going to pay for it. Today’s 19-20 year olds will inherit the debt burden. Obamacare will add trillions more. Question is, is it going to be about putting you in control of your own health care (the Bachmann plan) or putting the government in control (the Obama plan.) Taxes will be 88 percent and more.

Here’s our alternative (to having the government own everything): “You Own Your Health Care.” Thunderous ovation.

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I wonder what this really means. Bachmann gives some more facts, but the only one I can understand is that insurance companies can offer policies in all 50 states. This (plus several other aspects that I couldn’t grasp but were very free markety) will create so much competition that you will have choices and you will pretty much find a plan that meets your needs and that you can afford. She mentions such options as high-deductible policies paired with health savings accounts (you own them!).

All health care expenses will be fully deductible from your income taxes!

“Let’s not destroy what truly is the greatest health care system the world has ever known.” (Thunderous applause.)

Turns out there are several ways to get a big ovation here today. Be a veteran. Trash the government option. Trash government in general. Praise liberty and/or freedom. Say that no one in America needs to pay higher taxes. Say that the U.S. health care system is the greatest in the world.

Questions from the audience

U.S. Rep Michael Burgess, a Texas Repub who is also an M.D. and is one of the House Repubs’ health care experts, has come along with Bachmann. He also gives an opening statement. He is shocked that Obama didn’t push health care through earlier, when his approval ratings were high. He emphasizes that the Dems have the votes to do anything they want and that the quarrel in Washington is within the Dem ranks.

Now the questions from the audience begin. What will happen to Medicare Advantage plans? Bachmann: Obama wants to end them. Burgess: Many programs intended to save money within Medicare will disappear with Medicare Advantage.

What about the famous “death panels?” Burgess says the basic idea in the bill is a good one: pay the doctors for a consultation on end-of-life directives, if the patient wants one, when a person first enters Medicare coverage. But later in the bill, Burgess says, there are these comparative effectiveness boards that rate the effectiveness of doctors and of different procedures. Turns out, Burgess says, Medicare doctors are rated more effective if they get more of their patients to undergo this end-of-life counseling. Hmm? Is this true? If so, I suppose it provides a double incentive for docs to encourage this counseling (you get paid for it, and you get rated more effective). Even so, can this be reasonably described as a death panel encouraging euthanasia? Not by me.

Bachmann chooses this moment for one of her cheesiest shticks of the day. She calls attention to a poster she has brought (You can see a version of it here.) purporting to be the bureaucratic scheme of the House Dems’ bill.

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The bill creates 53 new bureaucracies, Bachmann says. “It’s a full employment act for bureaucrats,” Bachmann says. And then the emotional capstone of the cheesy shtick: “Put yourself, your children, your elderly parents on one side of that board, put your doctor on the other side of that board, and just recognize that you have to go through these 53 new bureaucracies to connect yourself and your family ….” (I assume the sentence ended with Bachmann saying you had to fight through the 53 bureaucracies to get health care. The hyperbole of the suggestion that 53 bureaucracies were between the patient and the doctor was the first thing that set the anti-Bachmann elements of the audience off to the point that they drowned her out with groans.)

But she bounced back within seconds: If these things worry you as they worry me, she said, the time to ask questions is now before this becomes law. “What Washington is doing a lot right now is saying, ‘Trust me, just trust me.’ The American people are saying, ‘We Don’t Trust You.'” 

Thunderous ovation on that one.

Next question was a minor disaster: A teacher from Blaine, who described himself as “not a racist, not a right-wing extremist, but I have conservative Christian values” (big ovation), segued into what was worrying him, acknowledging that people would think he was a nut. But he is worried that after four years, or even after eight years if Obama were to win a second term (this got a smaller ovation from the pro-Obama elements in the room), the Obama administration might use force or some other unspecified means to stay in power. (This was shouted down by the pro-Obama elements.)

Bachmann rescued the man, rather deftly, by cutting in and interpreting his question to be whether she was concerned about the loss of liberty, which is what this country is founded on. And she is concerned.

And then, even more skillfully, Bachmann steered from freedom to a talking point she has used several times recently. She says the bailouts of late ’08 (and yes, she acknowledged, it started under Bush, but she voted no) and early ’09 have left the federal government with ownership or control over 30 percent of all the private business profits in America. Health care represents another 18 percent of the economy. So if the government takes over health care, that will make 48 percent of the former private sector that is “owned or controlled” by the feds.

Bachmann challenged

The next questioner challenged Bachmann’s statement that U.S. health care is the best in the world, citing the usual talking points that it is the most expensive but not close to producing the best results by commonly used measures.

Bachmann said she and the questioner would just have to disagree and that her goal is that every American be able to “purchase the best type and quantity of health care that we want.” (Once again, this got a big ovation, and again I couldn’t picture the plan that would make this possible.)

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For what it’s worth — and I know of complaints that the liberal media won’t talk about the Republican alternatives — here is a summary of what’s described as the plan of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group.

Bachmann held up a stack of papers that she said documented the horrors of health care in Britain, and mentioned scare stories about women giving birth there. When she got heckled briefly by a man in the crowd, she fired back her biggest punch line of the day: “I’ve given birth probably more than you have, sir.” (Big reaction, laughter and applause.)

My post may not represent this very well, but pro-Obama questioners and commenters did get several turns at the microphones. There was some interesting back and forth across questions. One man, who said he was a Stillwater doctor, accused Bachmann of constantly distorting the Democratic bills and noted that many of her statements have been given a rating of “pants on fire” by the fact-checking website Politifact. (Unfortunately, when he mentioned that he had learned this from CNN, he was hooted at by the conservatives in the crowd. He began his remarks with, “Thank you, Representative Bachmann, for turning a Reagan voter into a DFL activist.”

But he was more than balanced by the woman whose question began with this prologue: “Number one, you’re my hero. I love you.” She was grateful for a recent successful knee surgery she received and wondered “how long she would have had to wait” for the surgery if it was up to government bureaucrats to decide whether she really needed it.

But that comment was balanced by one from an angry Woodbury woman who said she needed surgery, but was denied it by her private insurance company. She described her experience under American health insurance as “I pay what I pay; I get what I get; and it ain’t that great.” She also asked how Bachmann could take the side of the “thieves who deny me care.”

Well, I’ve gone on too long already and covered most of what was said. When the meeting ended, I felt numb and kinda hopeless. To paraphrase the Woodbury woman: I write what I write, and it ain’t all that great. You read what you read, and you can find a way to believe whatever it makes you feel good to believe.

I mentionied at the top that most of those I interviewed after the meeting said they had enjoyed it but hadn’t learned anything. One woman, though, wearing GOP regalia and Bachmann buttons, said she got a deeper understanding of the alternative that Bachmann and other Repubs are promoting. Really, says I, I couldn’t picture how what she wants to do would control costs much or provide access to quality health care for the 40-some million uninsured Americans. (Several people during the meeting, who mentioned the 47 million figure, were booed by the conservatives in the room. Bachmann says the number is a big exaggeration.)

Anyway, when I asked what it would do for those without insurance, the regalia lady looked at me with new suspicion and asked me if I had voted for Obama. I said yes. She exhaled with controlled derision and lost interest in the conversation.

Related: Is Bachmann worried about reelection? By Blois Olson