Health-Care Protest Deja Vu: Welcome to 1994

In his biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein writes about the 1994 Reform Riders campaign, a nationwide bus tour designed to build support for President Clinton's health-care reform agenda. The idea was to emulate the famous 1960's Freedom Rides but the campaign was plagued with protesters. In Portland, Ore., the route was blocked by an "angry anti-Clinton mob" who had their own bus, which was covered in red tape and dragged by a tow truck with a sign reading THIS IS CLINTON CARE. A plane bearing protest signs flew overhead. Hillary Clinton met the Reform Rider activists in Seattle where she delivered a speech on health care. The result was a mob scene. Here's Bernstein:

By the time the caravan had reached Seattle the threat of violence was constant. All week, talk radio hosts, both in the Northwest and on national broadcasts, implored their listeners to confront the Reform Riders to "show Hillary" their feelings about her. This "call to arms," as she described it, attracted menacing hordes, many of whom identified themselves as militia members, tax resisters and anti-abortion militants. She estimated that at least half of the 4,500 people in the audience of her Seattle speech were protesters. She agreed for the first time to wear a bulletproof vest. Rarely had she felt endangered, but this was different. During her speech, the catcalls, screaming, and heckling drowned out much of her remarks. When she left the stage and got into a limousine, hundreds of protesters surrounded the car. They were rabid with hatred. Several arrests were made by the Secret Service, which impounded two guns and a knife.

Across the country, the Reform Riders encountered demonstrators bearing signs like IT'S SOCIALISM STUPID and pro-life campaigners worried that their tax dollars would be funneled toward abortions. The protestors were "vocal, virulent, menacing, and well organized," shouting about guns, gays, and socialized medicine. Is any of this sounding familiar? So why weren't the Democrats ready this time?

Certainly the Internet has profoundly altered grassroots activism since 1994. Information is easier to access and spreads more quickly, as does misinformation. Those on both extremes of the political spectrum peddle reckless views with abandon and find support and resonance among fellow bloggers and talk-radio audiences. Some fairly egregious misrepresentations of health-care reform have been voiced at town-hall meetings across the country over the last week. One could argue that the resistance to health-care reform this time around is even more tempestuous.

But what Bernstein's reporting helps illustrate is not just that deeply held fears of health-care reform aren't new, but that they spill outside the confines of health care. Some of the most vehement opponents of reform in these town-hall meetings are prosecuting a larger debate about cultural values and the role of government. One questioner at Arlen Specter's public meeting on health care this morning harangued the senator about restoring the Constitution. "I don't believe this is just health care. This is about the systematic dismantling of this country," she said. For this woman, and clearly many others, health-care reform is emblematic of a shift in the social fabric─a shift they are enormously uncomfortable with.

Perhaps Obama should have more carefully heeded the lessons of '94 and better anticipated the anger his push for reform would incite. Maybe he put too much faith in the power of his own civility to temper the debate. But, when viewed alongside the fiery protests of 1994, it appears that today's protestors aren't so much angry about Obama's hopes for reform as they are about shifts in political power. The loudest complaints often aren't specific to Obama's proposal, they're critiques of his philosophy of governance, access and duty of care. And no matter what bill Democrats produce, those voices won't be sated.