[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/08/11/specter.town.hall/art.spector.twn.hall.cnn.jpg caption="Sen. Arlen Specter, left, answers questions Tuesday during a forum in Lebanon, Pennsylvania."]
David Gergen | Bio
CNN Senior Political Analyst
When a long-time voter favorite in Pennsylvania, Senator Arlen Specter, faces an hour of jeering and booing over health care reform, as he did today, the question arises: how will these raucous town halls affect the outcome in one of the central legislative battles of our time?
The answer does not appear to be encouraging for reformers. Granted, the way that opposition has been ginned up by outside forces does discount these outbursts some. The way that opponents are also disrupting these town halls, drowning out the capacity for civil discourse, is also stirring a backlash among many citizens on the sidelines.
But beneath the din it is also obvious that there is a growing bloc of voters on the right and a good many in the middle who are becoming passionately opposed to the overhaul of the health care system envisioned by liberal Democrats, especially in the House. It is the intensity of their feeling as much as the size of the crowd that may shape the voting on Capitol Hill in coming weeks.
The President’s White House team entered the August recess knowing that they had lost ground with the public during July. But they saw some evidence that opinion was stabilizing last week and with the Congress getting out of town, they thought that Obama would be able to recapture center stage and could hammer home his newly-crafted message about the consumer protections coming from reforms. If they could show opinion turning in their favor by early September, they would have a much better chance of securing major legislation.
But the way these town halls have turned noisy, and sometimes ugly, has kept much of the media focus on Congress and on disruptions. It is not yet clear whether the President can regain control of the argument.
For now, the intensity of the opposition – coming on the heels of a growing wariness in national polls – is shifting the odds for what will eventually happen with reform. In this week’s issue of the National Journal, correspondents Brian Friel and Richard E. Cohen provide a valuable insight into possible endgames. They report that there are four possible outcomes:
(1) A major bipartisan reform bill is passed;
(2) A major Democratic reform bill is passed over nearly united Republican opposition;
(3) The Democrats cannot agree among themselves and pass Health Care Lite, a very watered down version of reform;
Looking at the chances today, in the midst of all this brouhaha, one would have to say that the odds for outcomes one and two are going down. It is hard to see how a lot of Republicans will sign up for a bipartisan bill in the teeth of this opposition; similarly, it may be tougher for moderate Democrats, especially new members from Republican-leaning districts, to sign on to a Democratic-only bill. That means the odds are going up for outcomes three and, yes, four.
Does this mean that reform is dying? Not at all. It is still possible that if the protests continue at a high decibel level, more people in the middle will grow disgusted and rally to the President. And given his political and rhetorical talents, it is more than possible that Barack Obama himself can turn this around. But for the moment, the raucous clips coming out of Senator Specter’s session with his constituents along with other clips from other town halls - as offensive as they are to many (including me) - are also presenting a growing threat to reform.
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