JEFFERSON CITY — The signs on the cafeteria walls of Lewis and Clark Middle School encourage the room's occupants to behave. "Tolerance'', "Respect," and "Positive Attitude," they urge.
The 12- and 13-year-olds who eat there no doubt do a better job than the 400 adults who heckled, interrupted and yelled throughout much of a health care forum hosted recently by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Disruption has become the norm nationwide as members of Congress host town hall forums on health care proposals backed by President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. But if the Jefferson City forum is an indication, they don't seem to be persuading participants to change their views nor are they resulting in epiphanies among politicians.
So what have these forums accomplished? "There's a lot of pent-up frustration with government on both sides of this issue," said George Connor, chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University. "The health care forums allow people to vent."
At Lewis and Clark Middle School, the venting began with the opening prayer, during which a minister made a lengthy appeal for God's guidance in adopting health care reform that ensures quality care is accessible to all. Some lifted their bowed heads and grumbled aloud that the prayer amounted to a political statement.
As McCaskill answered the first question, explaining it's unlikely Democrats would use a particular procedural move to more easily pass a health care bill, Victoria Babin began shouting at the senator.
"That is not true, that is not true," yelled Babin, a 51-year-old motel owner from the Lake of the Ozarks community of Laurie. Then she yelled what had become obvious: "I am very angry!"
McCaskill acknowledged her right to be angry, then referenced the signs: "The kids that come to this school, they are taught these things — respect and tolerance," McCaskill said, prompting applause from others.
Through continued interruptions, McCaskill answered 20 randomly selected questions. Among other things, McCaskill said:
- If the health care legislation contains a public insurance option, Congress members should have to participate in it.
- She would vote against legislation if it includes federal funding for elective abortions.
- She will not support a tax increase on people earning less than $250,000 to pay for health care legislation.
- She will not vote for a bill that is not "deficit-neutral."
That last pledge might have been expected to find favor among the audience. Instead it produced groans, and Babin again could be heard above the din, yelling: "You're lying."
Ironically, Babin calmly praised McCaskill after the forum concluded. "It was good that she came," Babin told reporters. "I've got to give Claire McCaskill a lot of credit for even attending these sessions."
The event seemed to provide a catharsis for some participants.
Freshman Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, who recently held a town hall meeting in Westphalia, said he empathizes with voters who think politicians in Washington or Jefferson City haven't been paying attention to them. In that regard, the town hall forums are as much about participation as persuasion.
"At the end of the day, they want some validation of themselves and their views from the standpoint that they want their leaders to at least listen to them and acknowledge that they have the right to have those views," Luetkemeyer said.
The heated health care forums may reflect a change in American politics, Connor said.
For the past couple of decades, political scientists have observed that government has become politically polarized while average American voters have been more centrist, he said. The health care debate may reveal that citizens are becoming more like the people they elect, Connor said.
"I think what we have seen in terms of the polarizing in politics at the national and state level has trickled down into the voters," he said.
Undeterred by disorderly crowds, McCaskill is taking her town hall tour Monday to West Plains and Springfield. She said she will continue tolerating the disruptions, respect the shouted opinions and maintain a positive attitude.
"There were clearly a lot of people here that were more interested in disrupting and showing they're angry than listening or having any kind of discourse," McCaskill said after the Jefferson City event. "But that's OK, we have this great big giant healthy First Amendment in this country."