“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests

[cross-posted at Daily Kos]

Has anyone besides us found it kind of odd that there’s been so much “fire and brimstone” about the health care reform bill compared to Bush’s Iraq War?

The first thing we’ll say about the violence and threats following Congress’s passage of health care reform—officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—is that right-wing politicians and radio/TV “hate-spewers” have stoked outrage among their followers and are still fueling the flames. They thrive on conflict; it boosts ratings and fund-raising. The second observation, which we find more intriguing, is that there is a shocking disparity between the opponents of Obama’s health care reform and the anti-war protesters who opposed Bush’s drive to invade Iraq. Both presidential “initiatives” have been controversial, but the temperament and character of the public protests of each are different in the extreme. It is more than a little disconcerting that a push to expand public access to health care is more violently opposed than a determined march to a war of choice. Look at the aims, the purposes underlying the two initiatives, and think about which warrants the more passionate support, and which the stronger opposition.

Maybe the different responses are not so surprising, though, when you consider the traditional American readiness to wage war (as long as we personally don’t have to fight it, or have our taxes raised to fund it), and our reluctance to spend money on (rather, to be taxed for) public health, education, or other social programs. The Pentagon has the credit card.

“Break Their Windows. Break Them Now.”

In recent weeks millions of Americans have been alarmed by the death threats and bricks through office windows of Democratic members of Congress, the spitting and ugly slurs at the Capitol when the House of Representatives was debating the health care bill. Americans have been troubled, too, by the silence of the Republican leadership, who have opened their mouths only to say that “the American people have a right to be angry”—then to claim the Democrats are to blame for the threats and violence against Democrats. (This is akin to Iowa Rep. Steve King’s combining a near-justification of Joseph Stack’s flying his plane into a Texas federal building in Austin in February with self-promotion of his own calls to abolish the IRS. If only we’d listened!)

As the health care reform bill neared a vote on the weekend of March 20–21, GOP House members stood on the Capitol building porches waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and egging on the Tea Party protesters down below as they shouted “kill the bill!”, spit on Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), and used racial slurs against civil rights hero John Lewis (D-Ga.) and similar hateful language against openly gay Barney Frank (D.-Mass.), chair of the House Banking Committee. When protesters in the visitors’ gallery of the House chamber caused an uproar during Sunday’s debate, Republicans cheered their disruptive behavior as the protesters were escorted out by Capitol police. Later that evening Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) shouted “baby killer!” at Bart Stupak (D-Minn.) in the House chamber shortly before the House voted to approve the bill.

More recently a man has been arrested by the FBI for making repeated and obscene death threats against Senator Patty Murray of Washington; there have been threats against other members of Congress, too, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Capitol’s sergeant-at-arms says lawmakers reported 42 threats in the first quarter of 2010, compared to 15 in the last quarter of 2009. (Not all threats have been against Democrats: one Norman Leboon was arrested for threatening, in YouTube videos, to kill Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia; Leboon has since been declared psychologically unfit to stand trial.) Then, adding more creepiness to the already anxious atmosphere (like sprinklings of anthrax in the weeks after 9/11), in Michigan on the weekend of March 27–28 the FBI arrested a strange band of “Christian militia” calling themselves the Hutaree. These events, along with the alarming threefold increase of hate groups since 2008, are of a piece with Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric, the rifle crosshair symbols on her Facebook page indicating office locations of Democratic members of Congress, and the always unhinged rhetoric of Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann (“I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back”). Where are the responsible, adultlike Republican leaders when such things are said and done?

Some of the brick-throwers were incited to violence by a government-hating blogger in Pinson, Alabama named Mike Vanderboegh, a former militiaman and self-described “Christian libertarian” living on Supplemental Security Income checks issued by the government that he professes to despise, paid for by the income taxes of his fellow citizens, presumably not all of whom share his anti-government views. But, he urges readers of his blog, Sipsey Street Irregulars, “To all modern Sons of Liberty: THIS is your time. Break their windows. Break them NOW.” (See “Anti-Government Hypocrisy” below.)

Brick-Throwers, Too, Will Be Covered by Health Care Reform

What strikes us is the extreme contrast in behavior between protesters of a health reform bill designed to extend protection in case of illness to some 32 million people—including the very people throwing bricks—and the reaction of another segment of the population when George W. Bush was pushing the nation to war in 2002 and 2003 against the popular will (including international opinion), and at a velocity that troubled such seasoned Republican stalwarts as Chuck Hagel, Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell, who for their pains were derided in a Weekly Standard editorial as “The Axis of Appeasement.” (Going to war in Afghanistan was logical and widely supported, but what was the sudden fixation on Iraq? Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill claimed that discussions about invading Iraq—not whether to but when and how—were commonplace in the administration’s first months, well before 9/11. Former counter-terrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke told 60 Minutes that on 9/12 Bush directed him to find a link between 9/11 and Saddam, even though it was known that the attack came from al Qaeda.)

So, let’s review the two administrations’ “initiatives” that aroused public protest.

Aside from the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (mainly benefiting the rich) that increased federal deficits by about $1.7 trillion between 2007 and 2008, George W. Bush’s central accomplishment was the Iraq War. His administration sold a war by cultivating public fear through rhetoric of “mushroom clouds” and weapons of mass destruction and incessant linkages of 9/11 and al Qaeda with the regime of Saddam Hussein (never mind the fact that Osama bin Laden despised Saddam as an apostate, a secular unbeliever). The Bush White House and Pentagon directed the invasion of a sovereign nation that that had not attacked the U.S. Eight years later, U.S. troops still number over 100,000, at a cost so far of some $716 billion (not counting the war in Afghanistan) and nearly 4,300 U.S. dead (plus 179 Britons dead and 139 other coalition members’ fatalities). That is some of what the Bush team accomplished.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, soon after signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill) of 2009, launched a campaign to reform America’s health care system and massively expand public access to medical care and control costs. A laudable aim, right? The president explained that the current system was leaving too many people behind; the rate of health insurance premium increases was unaffordable for individuals and businesses; and the escalating costs were making it impossible for American firms to hold their own with foreign competitors who benefited from national health systems. What turned out to be the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, although imperfect and passed only through much wrangling and deal-making, included many Republican ideas and was designed to expand access to health care for those who lack insurance and improve its performance for those with policies. Major reforms include:

  • Small business owners will receive tax credits to purchase health insurance
  • No child will be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition
  • Insurance companies will not be able to drop your coverage because you get sick (so-called rescission, or rescinding coverage)
  • Insurance companies will be required to offer free preventative care to their customers
  • No more lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits on benefits
  • Seniors “in the donut hole” will receive $250 to help them pay for drug prescriptions
  • New independent appeals process will ensure a hearing for customers when their insurance company denies a claim

Click here for the House’s improvements on the Senate bill, and here for provisions that take effect immediately.

Now, About That Splendid Little War . . .

Before March 2003, public support for war with Iraq was quite low, and varied depending on how the questions were framed. In the fall of 2002, a CNN/USA Today poll found support at 33% for a war that would incur 5,000 casualties. (To date there are nearly 4,300 U.S. dead, and 30,180 wounded.) The White House pushed hard on the WMD and nuclear threat and the falsified linkage between Baghdad and al Qaeda to frighten the public into supporting, or at least not opposing, an invasion. (The absence of a selective service draft also helped.) Pentagon officials, including assistant secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, minimized costs and downplayed the number of soldiers that would be needed. General Eric Shinseki was fired for having estimated before Congress that the invasion would require at least “several hundred thousand troops,” a comment Wolfowitz dismissed as “wildly off the mark” and publicly ridiculed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Shinseki is now Obama’s secretary of Veterans Affairs.

It is impossible to know what the public opinion would have been without the carefully orchestrated marketing of the war, but Bush Inc. was leaving nothing to chance. Explaining why the administration waited until after Labor Day 2002 to launch the war-promotion campaign, chief of staff Andrew Card, former CEO of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, explained, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Although the White House insisted the president had not yet made any decisions, The War was a product that had already been designed by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a task force whose purpose was to “educate the public” about the “gathering threat” posed by Saddam Hussein. Among WHIG’s members were Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, Condoleezza Rice, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (now in prison), and Stephen Hadley. (How many of the chicken hawks and neocons had ever served in the military? Check here.) The Selling of the Threat was handled by Vice President Dick Cheney starting in August 2002; President Bush at the U.N. (9/12/02) and in Cincinnati (10/7/02) and his infamous 2003 State of the Union address; Condoleezza Rice on the Sunday morning talk shows; and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, address to the United Nations Security Council in which he held up a simulated vial of anthrax with CIA director George Tenet sitting just behind him. (Memories of anthrax deaths and scare stories were still fresh in the public’s memory from October 2001.)

Peaceful Protests of War, Violent Protests of Health Reform

The public’s opposition to the Iraq War was angry and distressed, to be sure, and “full of sound and fury,” but overall it was peaceful and law-abiding. The marches were far more populous—the anti-war rallies in New York, San Francisco, and Washington often drew 200,000 to 350,000 protesters—and generally more civil and certainly more culturally and demographically diverse and therefore more representative of the nation’s general population than the anti-“Obamacare” brick-throwers. We who mobilized against the war joined in massive marches, stood on street corners with signs and banners, wrote letters to editors and congressmen and assembled phone banks to urge members of Congress to stop the war. How quaint this all seems now, how gentle. The anti–Iraq War movement was genuinely grass-roots, with mass demonstrations steered by progressive groups such as the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition. It was not driven by any sympathetic cable news organization or powerful lobbying group the way the anti–health reform protests have been (see below). The generally peaceable character of the anti-war rallies must have disappointed the conflict-hungry news media, and was underreported accordingly—unlike Tea Party events that sometimes draw only hundreds but seem to get unlimited, breathless coverage on cable TV. (One of the signs we recall from a massive anti-war demonstration we joined in New York City in the spring of 2003 read “CORPORATE MEDIA LOVES A WAR.”)

If we had acted in the Bush years with anything like the ferocity shown by Tea Partiers and other anti-“Obamacare” protesters, given the “zero tolerance” of even occasional non-Republicans at Bush campaign events (search under “Denver Three, 2005” or “Republican Convention 2004 arrests”), we would have been shipped off to Guantánamo. We did not post billboards promoting “A citizens guide to REVOLUTION of a corrupt government” or advocating PREPARE FOR WAR—LIVE FREE OR DIE. You can be sure the anti-war movement would have been ten times as populous and angry had the youth of America been subject to a selective service draft as they were during the Vietnam War. Law-abiding as we were, however, opposition to the Iraq War—before and once it was launched—was denounced by the Bush administration and its supporters as treasonous. Questioning the war was vilified as anti-American (Fox News’s Hannity and O’Reilly took care of that quite firmly). Now many of the same people who denounced anti-war protesters as treasonous urge the public to not cooperate with the government and talk about secession.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you can see why it strikes us as paradoxical—upside down, even—that an effort to improve the public health system should trigger outrage and bricks through windows, while these same dissenters accepted largely without protest a war launched through deliberate deception that pulled hundreds of thousands into harm’s way—and thousands into body bags and V.A. hospitals. Just to underscore the upside-down nature of the Tea Party / Hockey Mom public’s acceptance of the Rich Man’s War fought by Ordinary Folks: Bush Inc.’s ties to industries standing to profit handsomely from a war in Iraq—oil, arms, and other war infrastructure supplies—may be too familiar to need repeating, but further details can be viewed here, here, and here.

Anti-Government Hypocrisy: Serve Us, But Don’t Expect Us to Pay for It

By the way, are these anti-government protesters outraged by the “corrupt government” also opposed to federal air safety regulations? child labor laws? food and drug inspections? Securities and Exchange Commission oversight of Wall Street? Much of what they are protesting—aside from ethnic and cultural issues we’ll address below—likely derives not from government itself but from a failure of government to work properly, starved and understaffed as it was during the Bush years, as exemplified by FEMA’s incompetence after Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, Tea Party members in a recent poll asserted that they want a smaller government but more federal help in boosting employment and expect Washington to do a better job of reining in Wall Street excesses. One of the most delicious ironies was when attendees of the 9/12 rally in 2009—Tea Partiers and other Glenn Beck fans who feel they’re “taxed enough already,” and their Republican congressional supporters—griped that the Washington, D.C., Metro “did not make a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit for them” to get them to the Tea Party rally. Just months before, Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who complained about the inadequate service on the D.C. Metro, had voted against $150 million in emergency funding for the rail service. All right, then, walk.

Anti–Health Care Fury Stoked by Same Party That Started Iraq War

For some 40 years the Republican party has been campaigning against government itself (“government is the problem”), against “Washington” (by which they usually mean onerous corporate taxes and business regulations). In a more recent twist of the same old knife, they have served the insurance and drug industry by arousing public opposition to health care reforms, namely, limits on insurance and pharmaceutical profits. Getting the public all riled up—“Get Your Gov’t Hands off My Medicare!”—has been the work of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and David Koch’s “grass-roots” FreedomWorks.org (“Less Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom”) and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which also spreads disinformation and denial about the perils of climate change. Republicans warned that if health care reform passed, it would be “Armageddon” (House minority leader John “Hell No You Can’t!” Boehner of Ohio), and we have all heard ad nauseam about other purported threats, yet all this overheated rhetoric that stirs up the beehive ends up making it impossible for the accusers to deal with the Democrats. As Obama pointed out to House Republicans in February, they demagogue themselves into a corner. How can they turn around and negotiate with an extremist socialist who (they claim) wants to kill Grandma?

And Now About the Demographic Angle

A recent University of Washington study has found a high correlation of anti-minority sentiment among members of the Tea Party supporters. The study found that “among whites, southerners are 12 percent more likely to support the tea party than whites in other parts of the U.S.” Similarly, “those who are racially resentful, who believe the U.S. government has done too much to support blacks, are 36 percent more likely to support the tea party than those who are not.” Photographs of Tea Party and anti-“Obamacare” rallies show only white faces. The racial component to the attitudes and motivations is a complex matter that’s beyond the scope of this survey; we simply call attention to this study’s findings. (There has been no black Republican member of Congress since 2003.) To be sure, much of today’s anti-government rhetoric would be the same regardless of which Democrat, of whatever color, was in the White House. Militias and hate groups swelled during the 1990s when another Democrat was president. And even if a Republican had won in 2008, there would still be enormous public outrage, understandably, at the Wall Street bailouts.

Ultimately, though, we cannot overlook the difference in the two presidents’ ethnic and religious backgrounds. A white evangelical son of a Republican president versus a darker-skinned Democratic son of a Kenyan with a Muslim name who is less ostentatious about his Christian church-going? And there’s more. As Charles M. Blow observed in a New York Times op-ed titled “Whose Country Is It?”:

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

So maybe Times columnist Frank Rich is right when he writes “The Rage Is Not About Health Care.” Rich says the right’s reaction to the health reform bill—“an unglued firestorm of homicidal rhetoric” and “a small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht”—is less like the response to the passage of the Medicare bill in 1965 than to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964. . . . The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House—topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman—would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver—none of them major Democratic players in the health care push—received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

What Is to Be Done? Work for a More Perfect Union

Well, fellow Americans, we’re all in this together, and the country would be a whole lot better off if more of us were moving in the same direction to push Congress to enact stronger financial reforms and really robust job-creation bills. (Our recommendation is to invest in some serious WPA- and CCC-like programs to put the unemployed back to work.) We’d be much better off if Republican leaders, who salivate at the prospect of harnessing Tea Party passion to help their electoral chances, would actually stand up on their hind legs and tell the people to calm down and be reasonable. But they will not do this. Never. It’s not in their interest. (And for many of them it would be a bit hypocritical, but some reversals are for the better.) Therefore, because Republican leaders will not try to calm the waters they’re busy roiling, moderates, progressives, and independents disturbed by the spread of violence and hate rhetoric must demand that Republican and Democratic leaders take a stand against intimidation (another word for terrorism). Demand that advertisers withdraw from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and other hate-spewers (many have already pulled out from Beck’s show).

We would like to see fact-checking outfits such as Media Matters for America and the Center for American Progress (Think Progress) and Organizing for America (DNC) establish rapid-response teams to challenge and correct the fresh outbursts of falsehoods—perhaps by aiming principally at the networks that give air time to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and replay the latest lies, distortions, and insults to American democracy (a Sisyphean undertaking). Bloggers should direct readers to reality-based sites such as Think Progress and Media Matters, or establish their own. Yes we can. The general public is not inclined to look things up, but folks are usually willing to listen to reason. We can help by calmly asserting the facts and disputing the lies. Keep up the pressure on Democrats and fair-minded Republicans to stand up for the truth, and call to thank them when they do. (Occasionally Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, speaks sense, against the GOP groupthink—much to Limbaugh’s outrage!—and his courage deserves commendation.)

One thing we know: No appeasement will make the ranters go away. The hard-core haters will never be satisfied. Folks, there are eliminationists out there who think Democrats and progressives should be exterminated. Limbaugh and Beck say this repeatedly. That was part of Beck’s message as the keynote speaker at the CPAC convention in February—the speech in which he said that “progressive” is a euphemism for communist. It’s on his chalkboard if you don’t believe it.

So, only by persistently challenging falsehoods, patiently correcting the record, and presenting a compelling vision of a more humane and decent America does a more progressive, inclusive, livable United States stand a chance—an America that has a place for the supporters of the health care bill as well as for those troubled by it, for those who supported the Iraq War as well as those who opposed it, for the soldiers and their families regardless of their views on the war. It’s not easy, and it may sound corny, but if we don’t work for a more perfect union we may lose what the justly honored Founding Fathers sought to establish many years ago.

A republic, if you can keep it,” said Benjamin Franklin upon leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when he was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

We’ll leave the last words to our favorite Virginian ever, Thomas Jefferson:

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.


Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

“Mistakes Were Made” flag cartoon courtesy of John Sherffius, Boulder Daily Camera





“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests