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First thoughts: Town halls gone wild

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Towns halls gone wild: After going on for several days now, who looks worse in this town-halls-gone-wild story? An Obama administration that promised a new era of American politics, but that isn't delivering on it? A Republican Party/conservative movement -- less than seven months removed from the White House -- stoking this anger and hoping it returns them to power? American citizens who can't treat their neighbors or elected officials with respect, even when they disagree? Or a media covering the story but also amplifying the exaggerations and outright lies being told at these town halls? Ah, the classic political story … nobody wins, we're all losers in these eyes of the true silent majority: the radical middle? To look at this debate through the prism of campaign politics, has anyone raised their POSITIVE ratings or simply succeeded in raising the NEGATIVE ratings of an opponent? 

*** Rampant misinformation: As it turns out, one of the most striking things watching the town halls yesterday -- Obama's, Specter's, and McCaskill's -- was how misinformed the public was about the health-care debate. It's no wonder that Obama spent much of his time yesterday explaining what his plans WOULDN'T do versus what they WOULD do. Here's one question that Specter received: "President Obama has stated more than once that his goal is to have a single-payer system. Are you for a single-payer system? (While Obama expressed support for a single-payer system before becoming a U.S. senator, he campaigned against it during the presidential contest, and every bill that has cleared a congressional committee doesn't establish a single-payer system.) Here's another: "I reviewed [H.R.] 3200 the best I could. To me it was obviously written with the assumption that government has the right to control our lives from pre-birth to death." (As PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and the AP have written, there is nothing in any piece of legislation that has a say in end-of-life decisions. The provision that has caused the uproar authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes.)

Video: Craig Miller, who confronted Sen. Arlen Specter at a town hall meeting, talks about the incident on MSNBC.

*** More fact-checking: Another question: "I do not want to pay on my health care plan that includes the right for a woman to kill her unborn baby. Is it true that this plan is in the health care bill?" (In the House legislation, no federal funds would be used to pay for abortions; if a woman wants an abortion under her plan, the money would come from her insurance premiums. Also, Americans would have the choice of choosing an insurance plan that covers abortion and one that does not.) And here was this question Specter received: "I have a question on page 58 and 59 of this bill, which gives the government access to private individual bank accounts at their free will." (What?) As McCaskill noted on TODAY, "There are just so many people who are hearing things that aren't just true." Still, McCaskill said she was proud of the people who showed up at her town hall. "They don't trust government right now… I get that distrust."

*** And fact-checking Obama: But the president also made some misleading statements of his own at his town hall yesterday. "I have not said that I was a single-payer supporter because, frankly, we historically have had an employer-based system in this country with private insurers, and for us to transition to a system like that I believe would be too disruptive." But Obama did advocate a single-payer system back in 2003, although since then he has a said a single-payer wouldn't work. Obama also repeated this line: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan." However, there is nothing in any bill moving through Congress that would enforce that. (In fact, it's surprising the White House continues to push this line -- there is NO way the government can guarantee that a business won't change health care providers. They just can't.) And then Obama said, "We have the AARP on board because they know this is a good deal for our seniors." But AARP put out a statement yesterday saying that it hasn't officially endorsed any of the bills moving through Congress, although it has said some encouraging words about them.

*** On Obama's performance: As for the president's overall message yesterday, he spent as much time talking about what his health care plan was NOT than he did in talking about what the bill would do. It's clear the White House knows they are on the defensive. There were some strong moments for him on the defensive, as he gave an interesting answer to those worried the government will destroy the private insurance industry when he said the private sector has THRIVED in the mail industry, noting both UPS and FedEx are out-performing the Postal Service. We're guessing there are a few letter carriers around the country who aren't thrilled with THAT comparison this morning. He seemed to deal with the "death panel" rumor well (and invoked Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson's name, which seemed to rattle Isakson politically. (Check out the tone of Isakson's release, which does NOT refute the specific points the president made). The president reiterated his no-tax pledge on the middle class, and he said the pharmaceutical companies have cut a deal worth at least $80 billion in cost cuts but left open the possibility he'd ask for MORE money from them (cue Billy Tauzin's anger?)

Video: While President Obama's town hall in New Hamsphire was relatively quiet, members of Congress have proven less fortunate. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Obama's town hall vs. the others: One question we're getting: Why was the president's town hall so staid compared with all the other town halls we're seeing? Our theory is the Secret Service. One of us interviewed hundreds of folks who were in the town hall and outside, looking for ANY evidence of town-hall packing -- and we couldn't find any. Perhaps the White House should have attempted to distribute tickets through some GOP groups, like the state party, or Sen. Judd Gregg's office etc. In fact, it seems as if the White House was a tad disappointed they didn't get a moment for the president to confront a critic. The closest the president got was the question from the Maine Republican, who told NBC News that he did NOT vote for Obama. But this man seemed more nervous asking his question about the public option to the president than he did speaking to reporters afterward when he said he wasn't convinced on the public option. What this suggests: How people treat a president is MUCH different than how they'll treat a senator or a member of Congress. It may be a tough reality for a member of Congress to deal with, but it's where we are. 

*** The sign war: By the way, for those wondering, it was a peaceful demonstration on the outside with the pro- and anti-side split about evenly. Interestingly, the PRO-Obama side had more pre-printed signs and we saw evidence of NEA, SEIU, and AFL-CIO organizing. On the anti-side, everything was handmade with many folks telling us they received an email from a friend or friend of a friend to show up.

*** McCaskill vs. Specter: One seems to get it (McCaskill) and one, well, seemed like a deer in headlights (Specter). McCaskill was embracing the opportunity to show off centrist credentials. And trust us, given Missouri's slightly GOP-bent, she's got to flash centrist credentials every chance she gets, even though she's not up for re-election until 2012.  Meanwhile, for a guy preparing for his first re-election as a Democrat in 2010!, Specter seemed to be out of place and behind the times. If Specter doesn't win his primary or general in 2010, many will point to yesterday's performance as one of the key turning points. Talk about a senator who looked like he was on his own island… He gave both Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak material to push their own change message.

Sen. Claire McCaskill talks to TODAY about the heated town hall meeting she held in Missouri.

*** Up close at Cardin town hall: One of us today is going to be heading out to Hagerstown, MD, for a health-care town hall with Sen. Ben Cardin (D). Here's how it will work: Cardin will make opening remarks setting the ground rules and asking for the audience to be respectful. He also will try to address some of the misinformation out there (e.g. end-of-life care). And it will be something of a civics lesson, as Cardin will explain that there are three bills currently going through Congress; that none has been voted on; and that no senator will vote on the most objectionable to some of these folks -- the House bill. Attendees will get blue cards, on which they can write questions, and a moderator from Hagerstown Community College will read some of the questions. This will be Cardin's third town hall focused on health care. But Hagerstown isn't Obama Country: While Obama won Maryland, 62%-36% Washington County (where Hagerstown is located), went for McCain, 56%-43%.

*** 'Disrupting for the sake of disrupting': Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky noted that there has been an uptick in the vocal opposition in the past couple of weeks. She said two weeks ago, the senator held a town hall in Prince George's County that she described as a "tough night, but respectful." But now, she said, the rhetoric has been stepped up and some folks are "disrupting for the sake of disrupting." It's what happened Monday night at a town hall at Towson University, outside Baltimore. Some have even sent e-mails to the local Hagerstown newspaper, Walitsky said, claiming to be from Cardin's office and giving wrong information about the event -- either that it had been canceled or moved or changed times. Cardin's office found out about them only when the paper would call their office to try and verify the fake emails. "There is a more deliberate campaign than coordinated," Walitsky said.

*** Obama's day: At 10:15 am ET, the president and the first lady host a reception for newly minted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And at 3:10 pm, the Obamas host another reception for Medal of Freedom recipients. The people who won the award include former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former tennis star Billie Jean King, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (although Kennedy won't be in attendance).

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 83 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 447 days

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