Atta Boy, Barney

Finally, someone got in the face of the crazies and threw down the gauntlet.

An ill-informed mob tried to rattle Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) for two hours during Tuesday night’s town hall meeting in Dartmouth, MA, by following the well-rehearsed script used to disrupt other similar sessions on health care.

But this time the effort backfired. Frank, one of the brightest and most erudite legislators in Congress, flipped the script on the crowd that only wanted to heckle him. Frank heckled back.

The best part came when a woman stood up with a photo of President Barack Obama, doctored with a toothbrush moustache to resemble one popularized by Adolph Hitler, to ask why Frank was supporting a Nazi-like health care proposal.

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Frank asked her.

I’ve wondered the same thing as I’ve watched these know-nothings attend town hall meetings in Democratic districts, seeking to dominate the setting with behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in a kindergarten class.

But I’ve also wondered something else: Why have so many congressional leaders stood in the crossfire, looking like Bambi at midnight? Why haven’t they fought back with facts—and passion? There’s no reason lawmakers, especially those who are on record supporting the president’s proposal for a government-backed insurance option, shouldn’t tell the rabble rousers that they’re wrong—and out of line.

Frank did just that. “Disruption never helps your cause,” he said at one point when it was clear that half of the crowd cared only about creating anarchy. “It just looks like you’re afraid to have rational discussion.”

Disagreement is a hallmark of politics. It doesn’t have to be uncivil. In fact, it works best when it’s done with tact, diplomacy, and smarts as my friend Ernie did at a recent town hall meeting outside of Atlanta, sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA).

As he related it to me, the crowd was so large that he gave up trying to get into the auditorium after 90 minutes, settling to hang out with the anti-Obama crowd that milled outside.

“They ranted and raved and high-fived one another, declaring Obama is a socialists power monger,” Ernie told me. “They said he was trying to flush a perfectly good health system down the drain; He’s aiming to kill old people. Blah. Blah. Blah.”

Ernie didn’t say much for more than half an hour, listening and allowing the most vocal of them to get it all out in the open. His opportunity came when a kid with a clipboard wandered into their midst and asked for signatures for the public health care option.

The outraged crowd turned on him when they saw him sign the petition. “Oh, you’re one of those,” the leader of the smart-mouth brigade said.

Ernie said he asked the guy only two questions: “First, what is to become of the 45 million Americans without health insurance, whose healthcare we pay for anyway, but at a higher cost than if they were insured?”

“The guy answers by saying that was a ‘typical socialist question.’ Another said ‘I believe every person in the country should pay their way just like I did,’” Ernie said.

“OK,” Ernie continued, warming to the debate. “So let’s shoot these deadbeats and save the cost, but how about their children, who had no chance to behave responsibly? What about them?”

None of them had an answer. In fact, not a single person evinced any sign they had thought about this aspect of health care. And they seemed embarrassed. Clearly this wasn’t covered in their talking points, probably downloaded from some right-wing radio show host.

Then, Ernie asked one more question. “How many here have parents or grandparents retired and on fixed income? Several said they did.”

But none of them could describe how their elderly parents or grandparents were going to cope with ever-escalating health care costs and insurance at a time when they might need it most.

My friend feels he didn’t change the group’s mind. But he did shut them up. One guy admitted that, “well, uh, you have a point.” Another man in the crowd surreptitiously pressed a business card into his palm and asked if they might have lunch.

So it is possible to stop the mob with logic, reason, and courage.

Maybe the White House has learned this lesson, too. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times that now may be the time for Democrats to go it alone and push through health care reform without further efforts to garner GOP cooperation. What took him so long to see what was on display at the town halls of America?

Better late than never, of course. But maybe the train is late leaving the station. The dilly-dallying in a vain effort to bring Republicans into the fold has cost the White House support among conservative, Blue Dog Democrats.

The specter of another health care defeat hovers over Washington, sending the president’s popularity into a nosedive and emboldening his opponents to win at any cost. So what if the health of a nation suffers for lack of a public option to curb the abuses of a powerhouse insurance lobby.

None of this was preordained. It wouldn’t have happened if congressional proponents of health care reform had found the voice and backbone to shout down the ignorant naysayers. The legislation might have moved along—and prevented the public humiliation—if supporters embraced the challenge to the shout-down politics of the right.

Thank you, Barney, for showing the way.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.