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How the healthcare debate has changed US politics

Mark Mardell | 04:36 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Protesters in Washington. Photo: 16 March 2010
"Kill that bill" chant the crowd outside the Capitol, carrying banners proclaiming the president a liar and his plans socialism.

"That bill" gave them life. The conservative Tea Party movement was formed to fight big government and tax rises but it shot to prominence last summer loudly opposing the president's healthcare plans.

As the fight has dragged on and on (and on) their movement has grown. It has become a focus for opposition to the president. The people with the placards outside America's seat of legislation seem to have far more power and vigour than the men in suits from the Republican National Congress who stand at the edge of the crowd and try to hand their glossy printed posters to protesters who are quite happy with their home-made, hand-scrawled ones.

It is a rallying point for those like Jim Heath who oppose the president and all his works. He tells me: "It's totally outrageous what he wants to do, he wants to transform the country into a socialist nation."

I remark on his banner showing Obama climbing into a coffin marked "healthcare" and ask what this whole business has done for the president's authority.

"I couldn't care less what it does to his authority, authority belongs to us, to the people, we elected him." He raises his voice to a yell: "11/6/12 the day I am waiting for [the date of the next presidential election]... he will be gone in 2012".

A man with a guitar plays God Bless America, and others join in before chanting "USA, USA!" A recurrent theme at these events is that somehow these people's country has been captured from them.

Linsy Heiner has her baby boy Beau strapped to her front, holding a poster, and she says: "I believe that Obama's approach to reform in healthcare will actually harm patients' ability to make choices for themselves. We don't need to have a strong government intervention in our healthcare, that's not American."

As importantly, she goes on: "I read Obama's book, I read how he felt that this needed to be an open discussion, we need to have a lot of discussion in order to make those hard decisions.

"And yet we are not doing that. It's been closed doors and I think the reason they didn't open the doors is because if they saw the process people would be disgusted with what is going on. So it is breeding distrust and the process has been frankly just as bad as the bill."

The theme that Obama is not governing as he said he would is common. I ask several people if they are not simply sore losers, people who never liked the president, never liked his plans, and never will. Most say something on the lines that he hasn't lived up to his own promises.

One protester, Cindy Seamans, surprises me saying that she did vote for Obama but doesn't like the health care proposals. "I think we can't afford it, we can't afford the interest we are paying on out debt now and healthcare hasn't even started."

I put it to her that Obama was quite clear he wanted a healthcare reform, and many of the proposals at the time of the election were considerably more left-wing that the one now on the table.

"But he did promise transparency, to reduce the amount of lobbying in DC and trying to open up what the federal government does to the American people, and I don't think he's come through on any of those promises, and I don't think he's made any of them a priority either," she says.

The vote has yet to take place but it seems clear to me the way this has been done and the utter lack of discipline within the Democratic Party has hugely damaged them, and probably the president.

It took months of arguments between proponents of rival plans to get anywhere near a vote. Then it took backroom deals and a huge dollop of pork-barrel politics (special favours for individual states to win the votes of their senators) to get what looked like victory in the Senate on Christmas Eve.

By then many liberals felt the plan was so watered down as to be nearly worthless, even though all the concessions hadn't earned a single Republican vote. Doubts about the plan itself and even more disgust at the deals helped Republican Scott Brown win a vital Senate seat, and scupper the bill.

So after months more wrangling we are now back in the House, where Democratic leaders are still trying to win the votes of their colleagues, many of whom are frightened that associating themselves with what they see as a toxic measure will poison their chances for election in November.

Some still hope victory will bring its own rewards. In a phone bank in Silver Spring, Organising for America, which sprang out of Obama's election campaign, is trying for one last push.

They're using their superb data base to call people urging them to ring their Democratic congressmen and tell them to back the bill. Allisa Webber seems sad the mood at the time of the presidential election has so dissipated.

"I still feel that hope and optimism, and I wish that other people can find it somewhere instead of being so pessimistic. He's our president and I know that he's working as hard as he can, and so are the rest of us. You know things are hard right now and we are doing the best we can."

Another volunteer, Dr Michael Griffiths is disappointed with his party: "It's not the president's fault at all, it's the Democratic Party.

"We have a dysfunctional party and the Democrats have not been able to come together and just do it. I feel disappointed with the party, I feel the president is trying to deliver on what the party should be trying to deliver on and that's sad. I dont know what the party's there for if it doesn't stand for anything. It's very disappointing to me as a Democrat, lifelong Democrat."

Healthcare has dominated Obama's domestic agenda at the expense of allowing him to be heard on the economy. Win or lose this weekend, it will continue to haunt him and define the fault lines in American politics.

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