Health Care Reform Was The Tea Party's First Defeat

In an excerpt from his new book, Fighting for Our Health, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch explains how supporters of health care reform turned the Tea Party’s own town hall tactics against them.

With Mitt Romney’s hold on the Republican nomination looking secure, the Tea Party will soon have to face the reality that despite pushing the Republican Party and its nominee to the right, they’ll wind up losing the fight in the end. This isn’t the first time. The Tea Party leapt to national prominence in August 2009, when its activists held angry and often ugly protests in town hall meetings held by Democratic members of Congress. But in the end, the biggest impact was to stiffen Republican resolve to refuse any compromises on health care while the legislation continued to make its way through Congress.

The public first got notice of the upcoming Tea Party storm in late July, when South Carolina’s Senator Jim DeMint warned that in August members of Congress would hear from “outraged” constituents. He promised that “Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people… If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Tea Party activists delivered on the outrage, but in the biggest story of the entire health care fight missed by the press, they met their match on the battlefield that counted the most: town hall meetings held by Democratic members of Congress. It took about a week for health care supporters to organize a push back. But by August 10, most Democratic town hall meetings were filled with as many or more boosters of reform than opponents. Democratic members of Congress saw a large crowd of friendly faces, holding pro-reform signs, insisting that the meetings be civil and telling personal stories of how the health insurance industry and system were denying them the care they needed. It wasn’t powerful TV, but it was powerful politics.

As a result, when Congress returned to Washington after Labor Day, the Tea Party was stunned to see Democrats moving ahead with health reform. Instead of being defeated, President Obama strengthened his party’s resolve by giving a rousing speech that moved Democratic conferences in both Houses of Congress forward.

The following excerpt from Fighting For Our Health describes the beginning of that turn-around after a Tea Party demonstration in Philadelphia that made the national headlines.


On Sunday, August 2, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the Philadelphia physician and president of the National Physicians Alliance, was attending a large town hall meeting held in the flag-draped auditorium of the National Constitution Center. This was a modern museum dedicated to the Constitution, located two blocks from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the home of the Liberty Bell. The Pennsylvania HCAN coalition had recruited more than half of the 350 people who filled the hall for a meeting with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Arkoosh remembers being terrified by the protestors, “I was scared. We’d had a very cursory bag check — no metal detectors. The vitriol was frightening. There were people in the room who were against the bill who had perfectly legitimate questions but they didn’t get to talk either. The tea party people would not let any factual answers to be given — if anything remotely positive was said they would start shouting. I was in awe that the two of them [Specter and Sebelius] stuck it out.”

Marc Stier, HCAN’s Pennsylvania director, was sitting next to Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah, who told Stier, “You’ve got to do something.” Stier told me, “I tried to lead chants but we were outshouted. We were back on our heels. The vehemence and rudeness. Specter’s chief of staff told me that in twenty years of politics, no one had ever treated Specter like that. People kept interrupting, kept shouting about socialism, liars, high taxes, death panels. We were just not prepared for anything like this. Press reports said that the crowd was evenly divided even though three-quarters of the people were our folks.”

Marc Stier walked out of the disastrous town hall in the Constitution Center and quickly realized what every great organizer recognizes: The opposition always presents the greatest opportunities to build power. “I realized that we needed to call Carney and Dahlkemper’s offices right away.” Christopher Carney and Kathy Dahlkemper were two Democratic members of Congress from central Pennsylvania who represented conservative districts. “Up until then they would never tell us when they were holding a town hall. But that event in Philadelphia pushed them into our arms; they needed our help.” Stier continued, “If we hadn’t been doing all this work for months, sending regular delegations to their offices, meeting with them, generating press in their districts, they would have never come to us. From that point on, we got people out to all their town halls. We pretty much outnumbered the tea partiers consistently, even in rural areas. Now we had a partnership with these members of Congress.”

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. Fighting For Our Healthis available in bookstores February 1. You can also purchase a copy here. Follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.


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