UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 20, 2009

BERNIE SANDERS TAKES ON THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE

Steve Early, Zspace - The Green Mountain state used to be a good place for a retired union guy to get away from it all in August. Now, thanks to "Obamacare"--with its threats to the elderly everywhere--that's not the case this year. I was sitting on the porch of Richmond's On The Rise bakery last Thursday, lazily contemplating a dip in the nearby Winooski River, when a big headline in the Burlington Free Press caught my eye: "Health-care fight comes to Vt.". . .

During the jostling for entry into the 200-seat church, one Sanders critic, wearing a blue golf shirt and tassled loafers, insists irritably that he be admitted first because he arrived at 5 a.m. Well before show time, there are several hundred of us lined up with him, waiting in the hot early morning sun for a spot inside; folding chairs have already set up on the lawn to handle the expected overflow. Two Rutland cops stand by the door to make sure we separate our signs from the sticks they are mounted on and leave the latter outside, before going in. By the time Bernie [Sanders] arrives, escorted in by his highest level of security ever--a detachment of plainclothes Vermont state troopers, whose presence was requested by the Capitol Police--the crowd is beginning to swell toward its peak of nearly 600 people. His supporters respond like fans at a prize fight when they first glimpse their champion headed for the ring, chanting "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!". . .

Inside the church, the dark wood walls are adorned with big Sanders-produced posters featuring Norman Rockwell's famous 1943 painting, "Freedom of Speech." That middle-brow masterpiece of Americana depicts an earnest Vermont farmer or mechanic, standing up and (apparently without interruption) speaking his piece in front of his neighbors, on town meeting day in Arlington, which just happens to be Bernie's next stop of the day and Rockwell's one-time home as well. In his welcoming remarks, Sanders' invokes this hallowed (if not always carefully observed) tradition of civility in small- town give-and-take about public policy. "You've all seen on TV these ruckuses that are going on and attempts to shout other people down. That is not what the state of Vermont is all about!" he declares to universal applause.


"I will try, uncharacteristically, to be as brief as I can," Bernie promises, as he lays out a batting order that includes: opening remarks from a pre-arranged panel of three friendlies, follow-up commentary by him, and then an open mike session, alternating between two-minute questions and/or statements from critics of "Obamacare," lined up on one side of the pews, and those favoring some kind of left/liberal reform on the other side. . .

Before the question period even begins, we get a vintage Sanders overview of the sorry state of national politics and the economy. While most Tea Party adherents sit on their hands and the progressives applaud, Bernie wallops Wall St. for its "greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior." He disses "Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives" alike for their "disastrous trade policies." He launches a pre-emptive strike against the mythical federal "death panel" that's allegedly going to snuff Sarah Palen's parents, plus her son with Downs Syndrome. Sanders says we should worry more about the 18,000 Americans who "die every year because they can't get to a doctor." . . .

Mike, from Rutland City, has brought with him, for dramatic effect, what he claims is all 1,017 pages of a House version of the health care bill. While his main point, based on reading this thick wad of paper three times, is that " 'advanced care planning' really means euthanasia," he also beseeches Bernie "to come up with something that's not so wicked complex." Sanders asserts that he's "not a great fan of complicated" either. When Anne from Poultney says, "I'm disgusted with both sides of the aisle " in Congress, Bernie follows up with his own insider critique "of the absurdities of the process" and the often "dysfunctional" nature of Congress. Sanders seems to agree with UE Washington Rep. Chris Townsend's recent observation on Portside that "it was the worst possible strategy in recent history to take a half-written collection of a half dozen different health care reform plans and then have lawmakers attempt to answer questions about them" back home in August. Sanders supporter Deb Richter, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, takes the mike to Bernie's left and tries to simplify things, by making the case for "Medicare for all." When Dr. Deb claims that a majority of Americans want single payer, the other line of waiting speakers erupts in a chorus of "No's!"

Sanders uses this teachable moment to do a little polling about real existing "100 percent government-controlled health care." He asks how many of us in the church, and outside, "think we should get rid of Medicare?" As The Free Press later reported, "about three hands went up." Then Bernie goes on down the list. "How many think we should get rid of the Veterans Administration? How many want to do away with the Doctor Dinosaur program here in Vermont?" Hardly anyone seems willing to ditch public coverage for vets or kids either.

By now Bernie, more than the rest of us, is mopping his brow frequently and working up a real sweat. While the crew-cut state troopers on either side of him remain impressively cool, standing at attention in their dark glasses, ties, and blazers, the Senator himself has been gesturing emphatically, as he always does, and dealing with questions at the high decibel level necessary to be heard inside the church and outside, via the PA system set up for folks on the lawn. Bernie's open-collared blue shirt is now stained with perspiration. He's starting to hunch his shoulders a bit, his khaki pants are beginning to sag, and his white hair is getting mussed. But it's time for more questions, on an equal time basis, from the pro and con lines forming outside, so he charges down the aisle, with troopers in tow, and takes up a new position, on the front steps of the church.

Wide-eyed Diane Donnolly from Essex Junction is at the right mike and she doesn't look very sympathetic. She brandishes a hand-written sign with a favorite quote from Ronald Reagan: "Never fall for the sweet talk of government- run health care. It will be the END OF FREEDOM!" She cites problems with Social Security and "lines at the DMV" as two strikes against single-payer. Says Diane, not very sweetly: "I do not want America to turn into a socialistic country...with our health care becoming, government-run bull crap!"

Bernie responds in kind, with a hint of sarcasm: "I do not believe that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or Doctor Dinosaur lead to totalitarian government." But Diane is not the only critic to reference Sanders' personal views. Several other Tea Partiers preface their remarks by declaring their opposition to Bernie's own "socialistic policies," explaining that's why they never vote for him. But one such voter, John from Pawlet, does politely thank Sanders for the staff-written replies to letters he has written to the Senator's office on various issues. In contrast, John is not pleased with the answers he has received from Bernie's two missing- in-action Capitol Hill colleagues, finding them to be insubstantial and even condescending. "That is not you and I appreciate it," he tells the crowd, before launching into a diatribe against tort lawyer malfeasance and blaming Bernie for "letting them [the lawyers] get away with it."

This unexpected sword thrust soon has Bernie off and running against a better target--Ben Bernacke and the Federal Reserve Bank. He cites the need for greater accountability and transparency in federal bail-out schemes for big financial institutions, blaming the fed for stonewalling the public in this area. Earlier he had recalled his legendary jousting, as a congressman, with Alan Greenspan in House banking committee hearings. But, for his hard-core critics, Bernie's singular track record as an inside-the-Beltway dissenter is still not their cup of tea. . .

Back at the pulpit inside, Bernie pronounces himself pleased with "the dialogue," reassuring us that he doesn't "consider anyone here an enemy." Today, he declares proudly, "We have shown America that we can disagree with each other without being disagreeable." A few minutes later, he tells a reporter that he hopes "this type of display becomes a model for the rest of the country." As Sanders drives off in a white sedan, headed for Route 7 and his next stop thirty miles away, a Tea Party stalwart, still on the sidewalk, is droning through a bullhorn about "equal distribution of misery. That's what they want-and we don't need it!" For one of hardest working (and most substantive) fellows in political show business, there won't even be time for lunch, before the bell sounds again before a crowd of 500 in a recreation park in Norman Rockwell's old hometown. An experience that has indeed been miserable for some in Congress this August has become just another town meeting day for Bernie.

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