WASHINGTON -- The people showing up at town hall meetings to voice their strong disapproval of President Obama's health care plan have been called thugs, extremists, mobs, terrorists and, this week, "un-American."
Ever since Democrats headed home for the one-month August recess to hear what constituents are saying about their pending health care reform bills, White House and Democratic Party officials have been attempting to demonize opponents who are packing congressional town hall meetings to freely express their opinions.
According to reports from around the country, most opponents are civil and respectful, but in some cases many are also angry; voices are raised, fingers are pointed and names are hurled. This is American democracy at work, spelled out in the Constitution's Bill of Rights, which guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
There's a lot in these health care bills to get angry about. The House bill mandates that small businesses struggling to get by must provide health insurance to workers, and pay an extra tax. Many if not most of them will also be hit by a top income tax rate of over 50 percent.
Seniors are worried, too, because the plan will cut deeply into Medicare -- costs that they fear, with great justification, will reduce their medical benefits and their health care.
But the White House, the Democratic National Committee, Obama's campaign apparatus, and their allies have been effectively smearing the town hall protesters -- portraying them as "threatening" and "disruptive" and accusing them of being part of a political cabal organized and paid for by powerful Washington special interests.
The well-tailored Obama White House even dismissed their protests as "manufactured anger" run by a bunch of people in Brooks Brothers suits. Brad Woodhouse, the DNC's take-no-prisoners communications director, sent out a hysterical broadside written by DNC executive director Jen O'Malley Dillon that broadly attacked those who dared to show their displeasure with the administration's government-run health care takeover.
Across the country, she said, meetings hosted by Democratic members of Congress were being besieged by "organized mobs intimidating lawmakers, disrupting town halls, and silencing real discussion...."
These were not concerned Americans with legitimate complaints and fears about the big spending health care bills in Congress. These were "thuggish crowds," she said.
The White House attacks were shocking in their ugly intolerance of ordinary Americans' freely performing their civic duty, however imperfectly at times. Obama's people were attempting to intimidate dissent and protest. And some Democrats suggested that the White House had been too harsh in criticizing the town hall protesters.
But then a vicious charge by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who said protesters who disrupted town hall meetings were "un-American," was beyond the pale, even by the White House's strong-arm standards. It was time to back off from the counterattacks, which had become a distraction, and distance the president from Pelosi's McCarthyite smear job. "There's actually a pretty long tradition of people shouting at politicians in America," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters on Air Force One Monday in a sudden change in tone.
"The president thinks that if people want to come and have a spirited debate about health care, a real vigorous conversation about it, that's a part of the American tradition and he encourages that, because people do have questions and concerns," Burton said.
In fact, a number of Democrats in Congress were essentially saying the same thing, though their positive descriptions of the town meetings got little media attention.
"I don't think 'manufactured' is the right word," Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told Fox News. "It's a really bad idea not to respect the passion, the opposition they feel. This is real grassroots anger and I appreciate that. That's what this democracy is about...."
Connecticut Rep. Chris Murphy told the Hartford Courant, after one of his town meetings turned hot and heavy at the beginning, that it did not bother him and considered the exchange "productive."
"Was that out of a Norman Rockwell town meeting painting? No. But there are big issues being discussed in Washington ... and people have a right to be concerned, even angry about it," Murphy said.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey did not like specter of the White House attacking Americans for expressing their opinions, and had some words of advice for the president whose top aides apparently forgot his campaign pledge to change the tone in Washington.
"We have to be careful we don't just jump to the conclusion and label every bit of opposition above a certain decibel level as organized and contrived," Casey said.
Harry Truman, perhaps the most vilified president in modern times, said "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Some House Democrats who faced angry voters have cancelled further town meetings, but most have not. Any representative or senator who cannot face angry constituents and listen to their complaints and grievances does not belong in politics. With this year's budget deficit climbing to $1.8 trillion, they have a lot to be angry about.