So I'm back. Not much seems to have changed since I've been away -- Pennsylvania still doesn't have a state budget, for one thing. The birther nonsense has died down, but only to be replaced by a new laughable conspiracy theory -- the notion that President Obama's healthcare reform involves "death panels" of government bureaucrats deciding when to pull the plug on grandma.
After being outside the country for 10 days, I can tell you that the picture we present of ourselves in these debates isn't pretty. For example, I actually got to see our very own Arlen Specter being shouted down by one of his mad-as-hell constituents, Katy Abram of Lebanon, Pa.
"This is about the systematic dismantling of this country," she insisted to Specter. "I am only 35 years old, I've never been interested in politics ... I don't like this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country. My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our fathers created according to the Constitution?"
Abram was just one of many Americans shouting down their elected officials at these gatherings. Abram, however, set herself apart by actually agreeing to an an interview on MSNBC's Hardball afterwards.
Fair warning: Even for those of us who disagree with Abram, this is painful viewing. It hurts to watch, much like it hurts to see a comedian bomb.
To be honest, after seeing the town-hall shoutfests on TV, my first thought was that these folks might be GOP operatives, fanning out into the countryside. I've argued before that the Republican strategy seems to be not so much opposing Democratic ideas, but opposing the idea of ideas themselves -- opposing logic and reason. Shouting at your elected officials so they can't get a word in edgewise, obviously, would be a perfect tactic for such a strategy.
But after watching the Hardball interview, conducted by fill-in host Lawrence O'Donnell, I've decided that my theory is too simplistic. If people like Katy Abram WERE Republican operatives, they'd be a lot better prepared for interviews like this one. And anyway, the GOP doesn't have to carry out a campaign to make Americans like Abrams ill-informed: We're already there.
In the interview, it quickly becomes obvious that once Mrs. Abram voices her bromides against socialism, she doesn't have anything left to say. On Hardball, she says that one concern she has about healthcare is the cost. Her family owns their own business, she says, and "The amount of taxes we pay out on that, it's ridiculous."
O'Donnell points out, though, that the President has pledged only to raise taxes on people who make $250,000 a year. Does her family qualify?
"Honestly, I'd rather not say," Abram says. "I don't even know. My husband takes care of the bills and everything. He takes care of us, and that's all that matters."
So while Abram doesn't know how much income her family earned, she's sure the taxes on that income are "ridiculous." Ohhhhhkaaaaay.
It develops that the Abrams family has a Health Savings Account, a delightful device championed by our very own Rick Santorum. Their HSA is structured such that the first $5,000 of health expenses a year -- prescriptions, doctor's visits, etc. -- are paid for right out of the family's pocket. This year, their son may need repeated surgery -- but on the bright side, Abram says, they may now reach the $5,000 threshhold when the HSA kicks in, "so that's a good thing."
It won't surprise you that Abram hasn't thought through her GOP talking points. Asked if she wants her parents to not use Medicare -- which is a government-funded single-payer health plan -- she says "We don't talk politics."
Would she favor repealing Social Security?
"I hate to say yes or no."
"I hate to have words put in my mouth," she adds. But by this point, it's clear that she doesn't have many words of her own.
For me, the key moment in the interview comes when O'Donnell asks why it took THIS issue for Abram to get interested in politics. O'Donnell pointed out that in recent years, the United states has been through 9/11 and two different wars, among other things.
"How could those things pass through your life like this and not spark any interest in politics, prior to Washington saying 'we think we want to help out some people can't afford insurance the way you can'?" he asks. "Why would this be the thing that wakes you up ...?"
"I always seemed to have faith in the government, and honestly, I didn't really care. I had other things going on -- getting married, having children. It wasn't a priority in my life ... Maybe I'm just not that smart, but it seems like ... we're [always] having some kind of conflict. I don't know, that just seems commonplace now, I think everybody's just so used to it."
So there you have it. Katy Abram is a perfectly pleasant woman living in Lebanon, Pa. And it troubles her conscience not a whit that her country seems constantly at war. What really pisses her off isn't the fact that her government is constantly killing people in other countries -- it's that her government might want to do something to help her own neighbors.
But I feel guilty picking on Katy Abram. The thing is ... the person in that interview (as distinct from the person yelling at poor Arlen Specter) seems genuinely likeable. She's self-effacing, modest, charming. I'll bet she's a great mom, and a nice neighbor. I'd like to have her living next door.
More than that: I wouldn't mind paying a bit more in taxes so the Abrams family could have a decent healthcare plan. It seems sad and mean that there are people in my state who are actually hoping their kid's operation will cost more than $5,000, just so someone ELSE can pay the bill for a change. If you believe in universal health coverage -- as I do -- then that means you want everyone to have a good insurance plan, even people you don't like or, as in this case, people whose obvious silliness is deeply unsettling.
You could argue that any sympathy for Mrs. Abram is misplaced. Nobody forced her to show up at a public meeting and denounce a Senator, or to accept the invitation from Hardball. She chose to put her own ignorance on display, and if letting her do so on a national cable TV show seems cruel, well ... tough shit.
But hey, I'm a liberal -- blaming society for people's mistakes is what I do. And in fairness, can you fault Abram for thinking she could just come on the air, spout Republican talking points, not look stupid? That's how everyone ELSE does it. Abram appears no more ill-informed than Sarah Palin or Pat Buchanan ... and if Palin could be the GOP's nominee for vice-president, why shouldn't Abram have 15 minutes of fame? Or even a spot on a Sunday morning talk-show panel? Why not make her the next Joe the Plumber?
The irony of all this, of course, is that of all the dubious government spending that goes on, the program that turns Abram into a raving lunatic at a town-hall forum is the one program that might actually do her some good. She says she opposed bank bailouts too ... but she apparently didn't REALLY get upset until somebody offers a government program that could help HER family. That's how bollixed up our political discourse is these days.
Maybe this shouldn't be surprising: The whole premise of conservatives -- especially the sort that would invest in a Health Savings Account -- is "We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much." I'm sure seeing your tax dollars go to help bankers, or people on welfare, is a constant irritant. But for Abram, it's only when a program threatens to help YOU that it becomes oppressive ... because those programs are the ones that attack your self-image as a self-reliant American, somebody who doesn't rely on anyone else.
So maybe Abram got exactly what she wanted. She didn't want the world to do her any favors ... and the folks at Hardball certainly weren't guilty of that. I hope she's happy, wherever she is. And that her kid's operation is REALLY expensive. She deserves a break.