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Pay no Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Who are the people behind health-care reform opposition?

By Enrique Lopetegui | Posted 9/2/2009

Despite a fast and bold start out of the gate, it looks like whatever health-care reform plan passes, it will be a far cry from President Barack Obama's original idea: publicly funded health care for all who want it. Obama's obsession with bipartisanship, the political pressure of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and, in no small part, the borderline violent dissent at public forums has turned "change we can believe in" into "I can't believe you're changing."

Unlike bottom-up organizations such as MoveOn.org that take no corporate donations, most of the organizations behind the right-wing "grassroots" movement to derail reform are directly or indirectly related to the guys poised to lose big bucks if Obama's plan passes. Take, for example, FreedomWorks, headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Until Aug, 14, Armey was senior policy advisor for the lobbying firm DLA Piper, which, according to OpenSecrets.org, has received $830,000 this year from big-pharma corporation the Medicines Co. In 2008, it received $1.53 million.

Like many of his colleagues in the public-opinion trenches, Armey is a master of "throw the stone, hide the hand." Confronted by Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press about a video produced by a tea-party organization affiliated with FreedomWorks, in which town-hall-meeting violence is praised and encouraged, Armey laughed it off as a case of blaming FreedomWorks for others' misdeeds.

"[The Tea Party movement] is an enormously impressive uprising across the country, loosely affiliated people," he said. "These things happen . . . [and] people get blamed for what other people do."

"Other people" like Heather Blish, from Green Bay, Wisc. At an Aug. 6 town-hall meeting, Blish introduced herself as just "a mom from a few blocks away . . . not affiliated with any party." But NBC's local Channel 26 station exposed her as the vice-chair of the Republican Party in Kewaunee County from 2006 until 2008.

Grassfire is another nonprofit that supposedly grew out of "popular rage." The organization, which is modeled after MoveOn.org, was started by self-styled "internet communications specialist" Steve Elliott, according to SourceWatch and Public Citizen, and has been represented by the PR firm Shirley & Banister. The Shirley in Shirley & Banister is none other than Craig Shirley, the man behind the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad and the Stolen Honor movie that helped destroy John Kerry's 2004 presidential hopes.

The firm, whose clients include Ann Coulter and the National Rifle Association, among others, strongly denies any current relationship with Grassfire. "We haven't had any connection with Grassfire since 2004," Shirley & Banister Vice President Diana Banister says. "I don't even remember what we worked on. I think it was a few press releases when they were starting up, and something related to the Pledge of Allegiance. . . . Yes, we are a conservative firm, but we have nothing to do with the town-hall meetings."

Even Randall Terry, founder of infamous anti-abortion league Operation Rescue, is back in the so-called freedom fight with a new organization: Operation Rescue Insurrecta Nex, from which he sends e-mails to followers encouraging them to "Stir up some dust! Be 'unreasonable'!" and "be a little noisier than . . . you might normally be." At a press conference in July, Terry warned of "random acts of violence" if the Obama health-care plan passed, and violent "reprisals against those deemed guilty."

"Yes, yes, yes, absolutely," Terry says in a phone interview. "If the government of the United States forces people to pay for the murder of babies, there will be some people who will react. It's inevitable."

Never mind that the Obama health-care plan doesn't force anybody to perform or offer abortions.

Not all of the Christian Right is on board with the effort to hijack the health-care debate. Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer (both credited by many scholars as ideological founders of the Christian Right), is a vocal opponent of the recent town-hall disruptions. He left the Republican party in 2006 and is now an independent who voted for Obama.

"The Glenn Becks of this world are literally responsible for unleashing what I regard as an anti-democratic, anti-American movement in this country that is trying to shut down legitimate debate and replace it with straight-out intimidation," Schaeffer said on MSNBC. "These people are hatemongers and they're distributing their information on two levels: One, the lies about the health-care system, 'euthanasia' and all this nonsense, and on another level, leaving a loaded gun on the table, calling our president Hitler. They're shutting down these meetings and making debate impossible."

In their superb 2000 book, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons make a case that these reactionary movements are nothing new, but the present link in a long history of organized mobs determined to shut down the opposing side.

"We have to distinguish between the people that are genuinely very angry because they're misinformed, and the people who are there trained to just disrupt," Berlet says in an interview. "Anger in a democratic society is commonplace and acceptable. Disruption is not."

What about guns at rallies? The loaded gun Schaeffer was talking about is no longer at the table, but right outside of Obama's town hall meetings.

"If a whole bunch of black people or undocumented aliens showed up with guns at a meeting of white elected officials, there would be a very different response," Berlet says.

"I've been an angry protester at meetings, but I haven't tried to shout people down," Berlet adds. "I've protested outside, but I've never carried a gun. It's OK for people to be angry and ask questions, but not anger that is rage, that's bitter and nasty and vicious. Democrats and Republicans shouldn't make up information, but right now we see the Republicans and insurance companies making up information, and that's not acceptable. There is a difference between a legitimate angry question that expects an answer, and staged confrontations with people so full of rage that they stop listening. That's not what democracy is about."

A version of this story appeared in the San Antonio Current.

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