Skeptics Surprise in Skokie

[Editor's note: Joel B. Pollak announced his candidacy against Rep. Shakowsky this morning just after 9:30 AM EDT on the Fox News Channel, to the surprise of both Megyn Kelly and me - TL. Update: Video here]

If Rep. Jan Schakowsky hoped to use Monday night's town hall meeting as a pep rally for the "public option," she failed. It wasn't for lack of trying. Her staff arrived more than three hours before the event, with boxes of literature and a marked-up version of H.R. 3200 for their boss to use as a prop during the meeting. The HCAN crowd arrived soon afterwards with their manufactured signs and rolls of stickers.

As the line grew outside the high school, HCAN organizers began handing out signs to sneak into the auditorium, and instructing supporters to block opposing views from being heard in the meeting or seen by the cameras. Inside the 1200-seat auditorium, the front rows were reserved for Schakowsky's planted speakers, who were to deliver prepared statements supporting the congresswoman and the bill.
At 5 p.m. the doors opened, and the line-already hundreds of people long-began moving into the building. Everyone was told to "sign in," despite earlier promises that Schakowsky would not be checking addresses. I was asked to sign in as a "blogger," though I was not planning to blog about the event (I wanted to attend merely as a constituent). A few brave souls refused to sign in, but most complied. The auditorium filled quickly and hundreds of disappointed constituents outside were turned away, including many who had just arrived after finishing work for the day.

After a brief speech from the high school superintendent about the need to respect everyone's views, Schakowsky entered to a rousing ovation from her supporters. She then stood at a lectern on the stage, high above her constituents, and launched into a ten-minute lecture about the need for health care reform. It was not an auspicious beginning, and the audience grew impatient and restless.

Then the questions began. Schakowsky began calling on members of the audience as her staff scuttled around the room with faulty hand-held microphones. Most of the questions came from people who were opposed to or skeptical of the bill -- somewhat surprisingly, given the number of HCAN people in the audience. Many of the questions were well-informed; all of them were passionate, on both sides.

Despite the superintendent's admonishment, there was heckling almost from the very start of the meeting, some of it ugly. A few seats over from me, some audience members were hissing loudly at each other. An 82-year-old WWII veteran behind me who had entertained us with his war stories before the meeting booed nearly everything Schakowsky said and began yelling for a chance to ask a question. (He got it.)

Schakowsky generally kept her composure. Her stock answer to strident accusations ("Our president is a socialist," and the like) was that there had been a "breakdown of trust." After hearing this several times, one man complained that the lack of trust was due to spending on pork like the John Murtha Airport. Schakowsky replied, incorrectly, that the pork problem was getting better. She told another constituent, to murmurs of disbelief in the audience, that proposed Medicare cuts would improve quality and efficiency without reducing benefits.

The one time the congresswoman became flustered was when a man asked her about Section 431(a) of the bill, which requires the IRS to give your personal tax information to federal and state health authorities. Schakowsky ruffled through her "cheat sheet" and paged through the bill itself to find what he was talking about. She was asked about the provision again a few minutes later, and could not answer.

At one point Schakowsky announced that she wanted to hear from those she had invited to speak. That drew an instant chorus of boos, and she relented -- though she said she might still call on them if they raised their hands. One did, and she called on him at the end, whereupon he stood up to offer a "thank you, Jan" story about how she had intervened helpfully in his recent medical treatment.

Schakowsky also called on a Canadian friend of hers in the audience to respond to claims about socialized medicine in Canada. In the row behind her, a woman leapt to her feet angrily and demanded to speak about her own experiences with the UK's National Health Service. Her protests went unanswered; she was one of many in the audience who would not have a chance to ask a question before time ran out.

Not once in the entire evening did Schakowsky mention tort reform, or allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines, or any of the other great ideas for lowering costs and expanding coverage that Democrats in Congress are ignoring. She spent plenty of time bashing insurance companies, however, despite the fact that they are among the largest employers in Illinois, providing thousands of jobs.

As the meeting ended, there was a general feeling of frustration. A group of high school students behind me were upset that none of them had been called on. They seemed skeptical of the bill. As we walked out, the protests continued, signs waving for the TV cameras, and I realized why the Obama administration is losing the health care debate. They may out-organize, on occasion, but they cannot out-argue.
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