11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leaders Absent at Health Care Demonstration in Midtown

On the day the Senate Finance Committee discussed Montana Senator Max Baucus' latest health care bill proposal on Capitol Hill, 150 protests against health insurance industry influence and profits took place across the country. I went to a protest held in midtown Manhattan.

On a scale of political demonstrations from zip to historic, this was, well, puny. A few hundred people, at most, chanting, "The public option is what we need, to put an end to private greed!" were barricaded off the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street opposite Madison Square Garden.

The traffic noise and sirens overwhelmed the voices of the speakers, which included a few local activists, a doctor and a Queens restaurant owner. Political leaders were nowhere to be seen. A satirical theater group, called Billionaires for Wealthcare Reform, dressed in tuxes and top hats, amused bystanders with their antics. In less than a lunch hour, this political blip was over. Most of the local news outfits missed the event.

After 75,000 (or was it a half-million?) anti-health care reform Obama detractors gathered to protest big government in Washington, D.C. some ten days ago, I had daydreams of more formidable responses from the other side. As Philip Weiss in his current cover story on Obama hate for New York Magazine and Alexander Zaitchik in his recent expose of Cleon Skousen for Salon make amply clear, the moral and intellectual backbone of the Glenn Beck inspired, conservative movement is frighteningly floppy.

Sure enough, President Obama got out on the road, briefly, to shore up support for health care reform. Yet it is his opponents that have monopolized the airwaves and framed the health care reform debate to such a degree that the public option has been all but abandoned in the corridors of power (Baucus' proposal makes no mention of it), while the people are still chanting in support of a 'single payer' system in the streets of the nation's cities.

One speaker at the protest, Tim Foley, health care policy coordinator for the organization NYC for Change alluded to a New York Times article that said that the health care industry lobbyists had already won the battle and that the public option was dead. But the war was not over, Foley assured the small crowd that stretched out less than a full city block. "They have not won yet because you have a voice too," he said.

That was hard to believe, at the moment, when most New Yorkers were going about their business in the area as if nothing were happening. Foley, like the other activists there, reminded his listeners that the vast majority of Americans support health care reform with a public option (apparently that's true even in Helena, Montana). But if that is so, where was everybody?

One might have expected a larger crowd than the line of people waiting across the street to purchase tickets at an event at the Garden, with at least a local elected or appointed Democratic official in attendance. After all we've been told this is a make or break issue for the Obama administration. Didn't, one of the organizers of the protest, help put Obama in the White House? The administration had just sent local emissaries to trash Governor David Paterson. Couldn't they have been issuing marching orders to the party machine to rally the troops on health care reform instead?

At the top of a leaflet being passed out at the protests was a request that we call or email our legislators, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, urging them to advocate for health care reform. But wait a minute, wasn't that what we had to do all those years in opposition? Weren't the Democratic senators and congressmen now in the majority supposed to be already on board the program and here in the streets leading us?

It seemed suspicious. It looked like these hard-working, well-intentioned organizers were being coaxed to the frontlines only to be mowed down by indifference and lack of support. It looked like the hopes of their followers were being left to dangle in the wind.

I asked Bernadette Walker, a MoveOn organizer, if she'd been in touch with some our elected officials. Walker told me she had reached out and assured me that the Democratic senators and congressmen were "very supportive." Somehow, though, not a single Democratic politician, official or one of their minions in the entire state of New York was available to make an appearance. Could this have had something to do with the fact that the protest was targeting and being held across the street from the offices of United Healthcare, which spends, according to the protest organizers, $641,000 a day lobbying against substantive health care reform in Congress?

Never mind. Our pro-Obama, pro-health care reform New York representatives have a second chance to show that they are not in the pockets of the big insurance companies and that they really do intend to change the status quo. Next week, Healthcare Now and other national organizations are planning another march in New York City, this one to highlight the situation of New Yorkers facing life-threatening medical conditions who are being denied coverage by insurance companies. It's called "Medicare-for-All Rally and March" and it starts at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29, in front of the Bristol-Myers Squibb offices at 345 Park Avenue near 51st Street.

It's important that we the people be there, but it's at least as important that some of our elected officials stand up and show their faces. See you there.