09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Town Halls: Don't Confuse Me with the Facts, My Mind Is Made Up

UPDATE: I have just listened to Obama's Town Hall in Montana. It is much more respectful than the one I attended. But the cameras keep focusing on a guy in a baseball cap who is shaking his head "no" every time Obama says something. So clearly this person is having a hard time aaccepting what Obama says, no matter what facts are presented.

I attended a health care reform town hall in my district last night. There were at least 800 people there in a rural area of California. Nine out of ten of the questions asked were straight out of the Republican playbook. Almost no matter what facts the Congressman gave, he was booed. Which made it clear that people came with their minds made up and nothing rational was going to change them.

Takeaways? There is little opportunity for a dialogue in which facts are presented if the people you are talking to have already made up their minds. BUT, if you want an effective Town Hall, do three things: 1) Be sure that you get your supporters there; 2) Sprinkle them around the room so they are sitting next to the protesters; and 3) Be sure you give long, policy-rich answers to the questions!

The audience seemed to be about 1/3 for reform and 2/3 against, although the "aginers" were much noisier and nastier. What really worked to keep the anger and hostility manageable was that the people who had come in support of reform were sprinkled, to coin a phrase, "liberally" through the crowd in no particular spot, making it harder for any individual to get completely out of line. When the woman next to me growled, "I don't want to pay for anybody else's insurance benefits," I could respond, "That's my brother you're talking about!" And when the people on the other side of me snarled, "Have you read the whole bill (miss smarty pants)?" I could answer, "Yes I have. Have you?" And when the noisiest and most obnoxious guy kept shouting out stuff, the people around him told him to be quiet and be respectful. He eventually left when it was clear he couldn't disrupt things effectively.

One other thing that really seemed to calm the crowd down was that the Congressman gave long, sometimes wonky answers to the questions. And as he earnestly gave facts, stories, and repeated things, it sort of tamped the crowd's anger down somewhat.

What questions were asked? The usual ones we have been seeing on the Internet or in other town halls. Not all of them were irrelevant, but they all got respectful answers. They just didn't like the answers they got.

How can we afford this in a recession? Won't it drive up the deficit? Isn't this socialism? Will the government tell me what to do with the end of my life? I hear you are covering abortion with my tax dollars. I love my country but I fear my government. Will illegals be covered? Have you read the whole bill? Will you vote your constituency?

That latter question was asked by someone who thought the constituency was against reform. To his surprise, the Congressman answered, "Well, at last count, my office has received over 4000 emails and letters supporting reform and only about 250 against it!" It was pretty clear this part of the District was just beginning to realize they lost the election, and they didn't like the consequences!

I was surprised that there was so little anger expressed at insurance companies. No "As Good as it Gets" response from this crowd. As much as the speakers said they were being taken advantage by their insurance companies, they did not want to criticize them or change things. Take the example of the small business owner. She said she could not afford benefits for her 8 employees. She herself had a catastrophic plan with a high deductible; her husband was a recovering alcoholic who had been dry for 3 years but still couldn't get insurance at any cost. But this same woman was against insurance reform. The Congressman pushed her as far as he could, but she would not budge. She needed it but she didn't want it. Why? Because it would expand government and somehow government would end up running her life.

The anti-government theme dominated the night. Even when the Congressman explained that Medicare was a government program, there was just a low rumbling but no specific pushback. At one point after a questioner asked about VA benefits, the Congressman got quite passionate. "You like the military, right? That's a government program! Do you hate the way the military is run?" And someone in the crowd shouted out, "But the General's run the military, not bureaucrats!" (No matter that the Generals ARE bureaucrats and that it is civilians who run the military! Don't confuse me with the facts!)

After two hours of listening to people argue against their own self-interest and boo and dismiss any of the facts being presented, we left. There were still over 500 people there and at least 20 waiting to ask their questions.

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