When Americans for Prosperity announced that their latest bus tour, the “Obama’s Failing Agenda Tour”, would make a stop in Madison with special guest star Ann Coulter I knew I had to go. I thought it was interesting that they would stop in liberal Madison. Perhaps they were hoping for some kind of confrontation that would make the left look bad that they could use in the last couple days of the campaign. Personally, I was hoping to see a small gathering of supporters and a mass of protesters. I was right about the first part.
I arrived and parked at Law Park and then walked the short distance along the lake to the Monona Terrace Convention Center. At the Frank Lloyd Wright designed building the tour bus was parked just outside the building on the lowest level. It was a gaudy green, festooned with messages such as, “$1.7 trillion health care takeover,” “42 straight months of unemployment over 8%,” “$16 trillion national debt,” and “Billions wasted on Solyndra & Green Energy Scams”.
There was no big surprise there. The bus signalled the tired talking points of the Mitt Romney campaign and the far right. Let’s look at those talking points.
Americans of both parties have wanted health care reform for years because no one can afford to get sick and insurance companies keep maneuvering to pay less out in claims. Bill Clinton couldn’t do anything with it despite promising he would. His first election focused on that promise. Still, he faced too much resistance from the right and could not get anything passed. Nothing happened with health care under the two terms of George W. Bush either. Then along came Barack Obama who, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, got a bill through. It wasn’t perfect. What passed wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been, but it was a start. It is definitely not a health care takeover. It is a program that keeps insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, allows children to stay on their parents’ policies until the age of 26, and aims to make sure no one is uninsured while eventually reducing rates.
The second talking point was unemployment, which has been an issue for years. Unemployment has been high for quite some time, though in the last couple months it has dipped below the 8% mark for the first time in years. It was about the same rate when George W. Bush left office as it is now, though in the interim it went up several points before coming back down to the 7.9% it is at now. While nobody would deny it needs to drop more the reality is that Obama was saddled with a dismal economy when he was elected and has worked hard to bring us out of the recession while being obstructed by Republicans in Congress. Those Republicans vowed to make him a one-term President if they did nothing else. They pretty much didn’t do anything else, and based on the latest polling results it appears they may have failed at preventing his second term as well.
The national debt is at $16 trillion dollars and does need to be reduced. That sign on the bus was about the only piece of truth from the entire day. If Democrats deny the debt they are lying. It is there and it is real. The argument is over how to reduce the debt. Romney and his supporters want to give more tax breaks to “job creators” and seriously believe it will trickle down despite two decades showing that trickle down doesn’t work.
Finally, the last panel on the bus windows was about Solyndra. For years conservatives have used the Solyndra example as proof of wasteful government spending. While this one company that received a guaranteed loan from the federal government did ultimately fall into bankruptcy dozens of other companies that were given funds under the program seem to be doing well. Solyndra was the first and it was a start up, so when it failed just over two years later it seemingly provided evidence to the Republicans who voted against the program (the entire House contingent and all but a few of the Senate) that their no votes were the right votes. They have used it ever since to show that Obama’s recovery program has been a failure. Overall economic indicators would suggest that while it has been slow the economy is recovering.
I was surprised to find nobody near the bus–neither supporters or opponents. It was about twenty minutes before the event was to start, so I figured it must be inside the convention center. I found it and went in and was surprised that so close to the event start time so few people were there–perhaps 100 to 150 at that time. I didn’t see any protesters, so I decided to go look elsewhere. I stepped outside into the hall where there were tables set up to sell Ann Coulter’s books and I thought, “This is why she is here.” There were stacks of her new book, Mugged, a bizarre look at the history of race relations in this country. In addition to her books there were a couple tables of give-away materials and tee-shirts from Americans for Prosperity.
Americans for Prosperity really sounds like a great group. Who could be against prosperity? But whose prosperity? If it were a group that I was founding I might call it Prosperity for Americans, and mean that for all of my brothers and sisters. But despite its relentless claims of being a grass roots organization the group was initially founded and funded by the Koch Brothers, billionaires who are behind much of the conservative agenda of the last couple decades. People like them don’t invest in companies or organizations unless they get something back. A purported grass roots organization that fights for tax benefits for them, less regulation for their companies, and the like, is certainly a winner for their bottom line. Calling Americans for Prosperity grass roots is absurdity at its best. Is it a grass roots organization when, according to its own website, it is “committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process?” To my mind grass roots means it comes from the people, not from some political organization. It means bottom up, not top down.
Already I wasn’t feeling good about the day. I stepped outside to the Martin Luther King, Jr. entrance to see if anyone was there, to make sure I wasn’t the only one left of center in the vicinity. There I found three protesters with signs greeting people as they came to the building. Two of them who were sisters had brought signs with them. One put hers under her coat. The other had one under her shirt and carried another that said, “Welcome AFP”. She said the website noted that no signs were allowed so she figured they would take that one from her and not check her further to find the one she had hidden. Rather brilliant, and it worked. Her sister, however, had been noticed putting the sign under her coat and wasn’t allowed in with it.
By that time it was getting close to noon, so the three of us went back into the venue. I maneuvered my way up to the front and sat on the floor next to the end of the chairs in the front row so I could get good photographs. My friend had moved to the opposite side of the small room and I wanted to make sure to get one of her when she pulled her sign out. As a photographer I also just wanted to document the event as well as I could.
While we were waiting for the event to start a couple next to me made small talk. They seemed confident about Romney winning on Tuesday and repeated the mantra that some of the speakers reiterated later of “When I wake up in a different country on Wednesday . . .” They asked if I worked for a newspaper and I told them I was a free-lancer. They seemed disappointed not to see any major media there. They also asked about my political preferences–I must have been giving out some kind of liberal vibe–and I told them honestly I’m an independent. I explained, “There was one election in which my first four votes on the ballot were for four different parties.”
The woman looked at me and noted that she would only vote Republican. There was just a hint of disdain. Fortunately I was saved by the start of the event. By this time the room had filled in a bit and there were maybe 200-250 people there. I signed onto Facebook and entered the status, “is in the front row for Ann Coulter; feels like a bunny in a fox den.”
First on stage was Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin chair Luke Hilgemann, a large imposing man who announced for all the Madison liberals in the audience that if they tried anything they would be thrown out and that nobody was going to take over their rally. The woman I had been talking to turned to her husband and said, “I hadn’t even thought of that,” then turned to me and said, “This could get really interesting.” It didn’t, unless one counts lies and distortions as something interesting.
The first speaker was Shona Holmes, a Canadian woman that Americans for Prosperity has been shuttling around the country to talk about the horrors of the Canadian socialized medical system. She talked about how she had a brain tumor and was told by her Canadian doctors that she would have to wait several months for an appointment with a specialist. Instead, at the urging of an American friend, she came to the United States to consult with a doctor who told her she needed to have an operation immediately. Her husband came to the U.S. next to consult with the doctor and they decided to go ahead with the surgery. For those who were wondering about them being wealthy enough to pay for it she noted that they had to take out a second mortgage on their house to cover the expenses. She emphasized that if not for the American doctors she would have died.
Something about her story didn’t ring true to me, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I couldn’t imagine a doctor in any system, socialized or not, failing to immediately schedule an emergency operation for a patient who truly needed it. Upon getting home I did some further digging. I found that according to FactCheck.org what she had was not a brain tumor, but a benign cyst that had about as much chance of killing her as I have of winning the Irish lottery. She is now suing the Canadian government to recover her costs for an operation that she chose to have done in the United States. When asked for more details about her illness she claims she can’t release medical records because of the lawsuit against the Canadian government.
But even if her story were exactly as she had told it she was fortunate enough to own a house that she could take a second mortgage on to pay for the visits and operation in another country. The socialized system in Canada covers those who don’t have money or a house. The Affordable Care Act is intended to make sure no one in this country is uninsured. These kinds of programs are not designed for people wealthy enough to pay for their own care, but for those who cannot afford to rack up a huge medical bill that could take a lifetime to pay off. When I had my heart attack four years ago I was fortuante to have insurance that covered it. My out-of-pocket expense was $500 for a $69,000.00 bill. Without insurance I would be in debt the rest of my life.
The second speaker was conservative radio talk show host Vicki McKenna. She hit all the right (and right-wing) talking points. While she was clearly popular with the crowd she really didn’t say anything new or meaningful and came across as little more than a talking head spewing out well-rehearsed platitudes. When she finished talking about the new day in America that we will all wake up to after the election on Wednesday morning I couldn’t help but wonder how she gets listeners and advertisers to back her show.
Ann Coulter was the main event. It was surprising so few were in attendance as well-known as she is. Just about a week ago she was in the news for tweeting after the final debate that the President was a “retard”. She not only failed to apologize for using the offensive word but defended it and accused the left of being “word police”. Over the years she has seemed to enjoy attracting attention by bullying, using mean or offensive language, or simply stating strong opinions in a blunt, screw-you-if-you-don’t-agree attitude. I really was not that excited to hear her speak.
It didn’t take her long to offend my sensibilities. A minute into her speech she talked of how nice it was to be in Madison as she made fun of liberals by making immature sex jokes, then she moved onto lauding 1950’s alcoholic Communist-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy as a hero. Even in a room full of Tea Party activists the applause was slight. Many, if not most, sat on their hands for that, though the fact that anyone applauded a man who threw civil liberties out the window for his own political gain was shocking. After all, this was supposed to be a crowd that wants government out of their lives.
She then moved onto the topic of race. It seemed clearer that she was there to sell books, not to campaign. In her new book she talks about how the Republicans battled Democrats throughout American history to ensure civil rights for African-Americans, completely turning history on its head. But, of course, she said black, not African-American, as she will not have the word police tell her how to speak. She continued with the subject in her speech, pretty much calling all Democrats racists and blaming slavery and the fight against civil rights on them.
I truly am an independent. I do not listen to Democrats who call Republicans racists or Nazis and I don’t listen to Republicans who call Democrats racists or Nazis. This is not intellectual discourse. It is mean-spirited name-calling that does not advance intelligent conversation. I seriously started feeling sick to my stomach. I kept looking across the room to see if my friend was getting ready to take her sign out and she didn’t seem to be moving, so I just decided to leave. I really just did not want to listen to lies anymore.
Apparently the sign was pulled out shortly after I left. It was grabbed and ripped apart and my friend was escorted from the room. I never did find out what was on it and I probably don’t really need to know. I was just glad to be out of the room and to step back out into the beautiful autumn day outside. Back out by the lake there was a loon diving under the water and resurfacing. I went to get a picture of it and while waiting for a good shot posted the status, “saw a loon in Lake Monona right after seeing Ann Coulter at Monona Terrace. Coincidence?”
Okay, so maybe that doesn’t advance civil discourse either, but how can one pretend that there is the possibility of conversation with someone who calls people “retard”, who rewrites history and then argues about it, who expresses extreme opinions as facts and talks over those who might disagree with her, calling them stupid and laughing at them. I’d rather watch the loons in the lake.