Culture Wars Give Way to "Policy Wars" at Massa Town Hall

Tim Ellis reported from Victor, NY, as part of HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Town Hall Watch.

Victor, NY, August 26th -- Congressman Eric Massa makes a point of connecting with his constituents and addressing their concerns with patience and reason. That patience was on full display Thursday evening, as well over a thousand voters piled into (and around) the Victor High School auditorium and overflow gymnasium to bombard the Congressman with questions about the latest incarnation of health care reform.

As with many town halls around the nation, emotions were running high. Though there were several signs, both for and against reform, there were fewer than ten out-and-out protesters marching around in front of the building. By and large, people waited in orderly lines to get into the auditorium, with many spontaneous debates and conversations flaring up among those stuck outside the main area.

Prevalent among the talking points put forth by some of the folks waiting outside were complete fabrications about Canadian health care. Given that I spend about a quarter of my time with my Canadian fiance at her home in Toronto, I debunked several of these, only to be told to "Google it." This was a trend that would be repeated even after we finally got in to the auditorium proper -- while most people were generally civil (with some aggressive exceptions), almost no convincing was going on, on either side. Plenty of mouths were open -- but no minds.

Once inside the main auditorium, it quickly became apparent that both supporters and detractors of reform were out in force. Massa maintained order fairly well, and was not afraid to use sarcasm when the situation warranted it. However, it was Massa's command of the Constitution that really shined -- he answered several questions about government intervention (including a few clever retreads of the same question, over and over) with straight verbatim readings from the Constitution itself.

The highlight of the evening for the conservative side was when an older gentleman with a pre-printed sheet of questions asked Congressman Massa a question. He (like every questioner that night, on both sides) began with a fairly long build-up expressing his own points, and then led into his question. Referencing specific pages in the bill under discussion, he claimed that page fifty-nine of the bill included a segment giving "direct government access to every person's bank account." He also claimed that page sixty-five of the bill called for "subsidies for unions such as the SEIU, community organization groups, and ACORN," among others. There was a fireworks-finale style "oooh!" as he made his points, and when he completed the question about half the crowd erupted into a standing ovation, as Massa scrambled to mark down the pages being referenced.

The highlight for the progressives was not two minutes later, as Massa completed his hunt and said "alright -- let's read those pages together." And we did -- every word in every line on every referenced page. Nothing about the SEIU. Nothing about ACORN. Nothing about subsidies. Nothing about government intrusion into bank accounts. These questions -- pure Glenn Beck talking points -- referred to completely fictional topics. Following up on this, Massa suggested we jump ahead to page 425 and talk about "death panels," while we were on the topic. And we did. Every word, on every line. Nothing about death panels, either. And around half the room -- the other half -- erupted into thunderous applause here, too.

Number of minds changed by this devastating exchange? Roughly zero.

Despite an impressive showing by Congressman Massa and activists on both sides, I walked away from this event convinced that the town halls are nothing more than sideshow theatre. Nobody is being convinced, nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is learning anything other than which tactics work best to attack the other side. The culture wars have morphed into the policy wars, and these town hall skirmishes are going to have little further effect on the real battle, no matter how satisfying it may be to get involved. New tactics -- of the sort being pioneered by FireDogLake -- are going to be the deciding factor in the conflict over the course of America's future.

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