Long but worth it.
On the first day of August, a mob of 200 right-wing Texans stormed the parking lot of a Randalls grocery store in southwest Austin. They were united in a single goal: Disrupt the "office hours" that Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the district's congressman, had scheduled for his constituents. The protesters targeted Doggett for his role in crafting the House's bill to reform health care, brandishing signs that read "No Government Health Care" and "No Government Counselor in My Home!!!" But their anger seemed to encompass a universe of conservative fears: higher taxes, illegal immigration, socialism. The threat of violence was thinly veiled: One agitator held aloft a tombstone with the name Doggett. Screaming, "Just say no!" the mob chased Doggett through the parking lot to an aide's car — roaring with approval as he fled the scene.
Conservatives were quick to insist that the near-riot — the first of many town-hall mobs that would dominate the headlines in August — was completely spontaneous. The protesters didn't show up "because of some organized group," Rick Scott, the head of Conservatives for Patients' Rights, told reporters. "They're mad about the stimulus bill, the bailout, the economy. Now they see that their health care is about to be taken over by the government."
In fact, Scott's own group had played an integral role in mobilizing the protesters. According to internal documents obtained by Rolling Stone
, Conservatives for Patients' Rights had been working closely for weeks as a "coalition partner" with three other right-wing groups in a plot to unleash irate mobs at town-hall meetings just like Doggett's. Far from representing a spontaneous upwelling of populist rage, the protests were tightly orchestrated from the top down by corporate-funded front groups as well as top lobbyists for the health care industry. Call it the return of the Karl Rove playbook: The effort to mobilize the angriest fringe of the Republican base was guided by a conservative dream team that included the same GOP henchmen who Swift-boated John Kerry in 2004, smeared John McCain in 2000, wrote the script for Republican obstructionism on global warming, and harpooned the health care reform effort led by Hillary Clinton in 1993.
"The insurance industry is up to the same dirty tricks, using the same devious Page Ranking practices it has used for many years, to kill reform," says Wendell Potter, who stepped down last year as chief of corporate communications for health insurance giant CIGNA. "I'm certain that people showing up at these town halls feel that they're there on their own — but they don't realize they're being incited, ultimately, by the insurance industry and the other special interests."
Behind the scenes, top Republicans — including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Minority Leader John Boehner and the chairman of the GOP's Senate steering committee, Jim DeMint — worked hand-in-glove with the organizers of the town brawls. Their goal was not only to block health care reform but to bankrupt President Obama's political capital before he could move on to other key items on his agenda, including curbing climate change and expanding labor rights. As DeMint told an August teleconference of nearly 20,000 town-hall activists, "If we can stop him on this, the administration won't be able to go on to cap and trade, card check and the other things they want to do."
Pg. 2 WRITING THE SCRIPT
The campaign to mobilize the town-hall mobs began with a script written by the right's foremost fearmonger, Frank Luntz. Luntz rose to fame in 1994 as pollster for Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, and crafted the Republican playbook on global warming. In a May memo, Luntz outlined a battle plan for conservatives to block what he branded the "Washington takeover" of health care — the most terrifying buzz words conjured up in his polls and focus groups.
The logic of the language is simple, Luntz writes: "Takeovers are like coups — they both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom." For a third of all Americans, he adds, the top worry about health care reform is "being denied a procedure or medication because a Washington bureaucrat says no." Luntz concludes by telling Republicans how best to play the fear card. "It is essential that 'deny' and 'denial' enter the conservative lexicon immediately," he writes, "because it is at the core of what scares Americans most about a government takeover of health care."
Distributed widely to Republicans on Capitol Hill, the memo framed the right-wing attack on health care reform. What Luntz describes as "the best anti-Democrat message" is by now familiar to everyone in America: "No Washington bureaucrat should stand between your family and your doctor... The Democrats want to put Washington politicians in charge of your
For the archenemies of Obamacare, however, Luntz's anti-Washington script didn't go nearly far enough. To amp up the panic, they decided to spin the "takeover" fear to its most extreme conclusion: Washington bureaucrats plan to institute "death panels" that would deny life-sustaining care to the elderly. That portion of the script was drafted by Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York, who insists that her expertise as a constitutional historian enables her to decipher the 1,017 pages of legalese that comprise the House health care bill.
McCaughey first unveiled her "findings" on July 16th, during an appearance on the radio show of former GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson. "I have just finished reading the House bill," McCaughey declared. "I hope that people listening will protect their parents from what's intended under this bill." Citing page 425 of HR 3200 — a section that outlines the same kind of optional, end-of-life counseling that Republicans have voted for in the past — McCaughey uncorked a terrifying lie. "Congress," she said, "would make it mandatory — absolutely require that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner." The Obama plan, she added, is financed by "shortening your mother or father's life."
McCaughey has run this con before. During the debate over Clinton's health care overhaul in the early 1990s, McCaughey — then an academic at the right-wing Manhattan Institute — wrote an article for The New Republic
called "No Exit," in which she claimed that Hillarycare would prevent even wealthy Americans from "going outside the system to purchase basic health coverage you think is better." Even though the bill plainly stated that "nothing in this Act" would prohibit consumers from purchasing additional care, McCaughey's claim was echoed endlessly in the press, with each repetition pounding a stake further into the heart of the reform effort.
McCaughey's lies were later debunked in a 1995 post-mortem in The Atlantic
, and The New Republic
recanted the piece in 2006. But what has not been reported until now is that McCaughey's writing was influenced by Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, as part of a secret campaign to scuttle Clinton's health care reform. (The measure would have been funded by a huge increase in tobacco taxes.) In an internal company memo from March 1994, the tobacco giant detailed its strategy to derail Hillarycare through an alliance with conservative think tanks, front groups and media outlets. Integral to the company's strategy, the memo observed, was an effort to "work on the development of favorable pieces" with "friendly contacts in the media." The memo, prepared by a Philip Morris executive, mentions only one author by name:
"Worked off-the-record with Manhattan and writer Betsy McCaughey as part of the input to the three-part exposé in The New Republic
on what the Clinton plan means to you. The first part detailed specifics of the plan."
McCaughey did not respond to Rolling Stone
's request for an interview.
Pg. 3 ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
Armed with the script prepared by McCaughey and Luntz, a tight coalition of deep-pocketed groups took the lead in mobilizing the town-hall protests. The two primary groups — Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks — actually grew out of the 2003 breakup of an outfit called Citizens for a Sound Economy that had been integral in the fight against Hillarycare. Indeed, the same "Tobacco Strategy" memo in which Philip Morris boasts of shaping McCaughey's writings also reveals that the tobacco giant paid Citizens for a Sound Economy to engineer a "grassroots" revolt against health care reform by staging demonstrations in the home districts of key congressmen. "The goal," states the memo, "is to show the Clinton plan as a government-run health care system replete with higher taxes... rationing of care and extensive bureaucracies."
Americans for Prosperity, which has taken the lead in the current fight against reform, is a front group for oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, co-owners of the world's largest private oil and gas conglomerate. The Kochs, who provide much of AFP's budget, have a strange affinity for mock uprisings: Matt Schlapp, one of the original "Brooks Brothers rioters" — the GOP activists who disrupted the Bush-Gore recount in Miami-Dade County — served as Koch's director of federal affairs until earlier this year, orchestrating the firm's political efforts in Washington, and still works closely with the company as a consultant.
To head Americans for Prosperity, the brothers tapped Tim Phillips, one of the Republican Party's most notorious dirty tricksters. Phillips served as a strategic consultant to George W. Bush in 2000 and reputedly took part in the smear campaign in South Carolina that portrayed John McCain's adopted daughter as his mulatto love child. That same year, Phillips was linked to a nearly identical smear campaign in Virginia that portrayed the primary opponent of Rep. Eric Cantor — a Jew — as the "only Christian in the contest." Under Phillips, AFP became a driving force behind the Tea Party protests against Obama's economic stimulus plan, and the group organized the Austin mob that attacked Rep. Doggett. Boosted by the mobilizing effort, AFP now boasts 700,000 members and chapters in 24 states.
The second group behind the town-hall mobs is FreedomWorks, headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. An ideological crusader against the safety net, Armey denounces Medicare as a form of "tyranny" and backed George Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. At a 2004 event promoting the benefits of private accounts for "regular folks," Bush appeared onstage with a "single mom" from Iowa — who, upon closer examination, turned out to be the Iowa director of FreedomWorks.The stated goal of the group, which has received funding from the archconservative Scaife family and corporations like MetLife, is to become "a grassroots juggernaut capable of going toe-to-toe with the unions, extreme enviros and the MoveOn.org's of the world." Armey, however, unabashedly compares FreedomWorks to a lynch mob. "We used to use the old saying in the West, that you got outta town just one step ahead of the hangman," he says, explaining why George Bush's budget-busting policies didn't inspire the same outrage among his 400,000 followers. "That's pretty much what happened with Bush. And poor old President Obama walked into town, y'know, just at high noon."
After FreedomWorks orchestrated the original Tea Party protests last April, it ostensibly handed over the reins of the movement to a third group, called the Tea Party Patriots. But internal correspondence from the group's private listserv obtained by Rolling Stone
makes clear that FreedomWorks is still calling the shots. In June, after activists on the list began advocating to change a Tea Party logo, a top official from FreedomWorks stepped in and shut down the discussion. "I talked to everyone here," wrote Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, "and there was consensus that we will keep the logo."
The Tea Party Patriots listserv also disseminated the playbook used to instruct the town-hall mobs in the tactics of disruption. Titled "Rocking the Town Halls — Best Practices," the guide was written by a Connecticut tea partier named Bob MacGuffie, who outlined how fewer than three dozen activists could effectively silence a U.S. congressman. "The goal is to rattle him," the memo states. "Yell out and challenge the Rep's statements... have someone else follow-up with a shout-out. Set the tone for the hall as clearly informal and free-wheeling. It will also embolden others who agree with us to call out." In a listserv posting on June 13th, an organizer with the Tea Party chapter in New Haven brought the memo to the attention of Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. "Hey folks!" the organizer wrote, attaching a copy of MacGuffie's memo. "We here in CT have developed a strategy for holding our elected officials accountable. We show up en mass at the 'town hall' meetings they have!"
Martin immediately knew she'd struck gold. "Showing up en mass at town hall meetings is very good strategy," she replied. "We want to make sure they feel the heat about these government-run health care bills that will be coming out of committees soon." Within three weeks, a July 7th e-mail from Martin reveals, the group had appointed a "Nationwide Town Hall Coordinator" to oversee the protests. The goal was straight from the Luntz script: to use the town halls "to inform American Taxpayers of what the implications are if government bureaucrats take over our health care."
The fourth group behind the town-hall protests, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, has direct connections to the health care industry. Its founder, Rick Scott, is the former CEO of Columbia/HCA, the world's largest hospital conglomerate. Scott was ousted from the company after it was caught overbilling taxpayers for Medicare treatment; it eventually pleaded guilty to criminal fraud and paid a record $1.7 billion
in penalties. Scott now runs a chain of urgent-care clinics that serve uninsured Americans fearful of being bankrupted by hospital emergency-room visits. "He is one of those people who's gotten very, very, very rich off of sick people," says Potter, the former CIGNA executive. "He doesn't want that cash cow to go away — so that's why you're seeing all his money there."
Indeed, Scott has bankrolled Conservatives for Patients' Rights with more than $5 million of his own fortune. "We have invested a lot of time, energy and resources into educating Americans over the past several months about the dangers of government-run health care," he boasted in August. "And I think we're seeing some of the fruits of that campaign." To block reform, Scott has also hired CRC Public Relations, the firm that orchestrated the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004. CRC enjoys high-ranking connections to the right-wing establishment, with a client list including the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees, the Federalist Society, the Parents Television Council and the Christian Coalition. [Excerpt From Issue 1088 — October 1, 2009] The Lie Machine : Rolling Stone