On Tuesday, we posted a picture of Pennsylvania mom Katy Abram protesting outside a town hall meeting on health care. Today, the question she asked at that meeting has made her an unlikely — and perhaps unlucky — celebrity.
Abram was first snapped by a Getty photographer outside a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, carrying a sign that said "you can only pick one," universal health care or freedom. Inside that meeting, she asked Senator Arlen Specter, "what are you going to do to restore the country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution?" MSNBC broadcast this question, which led, in turn, to interviews with Abram on CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC's own Hardball — and the above clip from last night's Daily Show. Blog commenters on the left and right are comparing Abram to Joe the Plumber, and her TV appearances do reveal some of the pitfalls of elevating non-experts to sudden pundit status.
CNN's Kiran Chetry was pretty soft on Abram yesterday, but she still came off looking pretty confused. Abram's opposition to health care reform seems to come largely from her belief that America's founders would have been against it. She says, "it doesn't say in the Constitution, give out free health care to people, bail out the auto companies." It's a little hard to imagine the framers talking about "auto companies" in the Constitution (they would've needed a crystal ball), but this oversight just highlights the fact that Washington, Madison, Franklin et al knew that the Constitution could never predict all aspects of future American life — that's why there's an amendment process, and a legislative branch. But Abram isn't on CNN to discuss the finer points of American history and governance. She obviously hasn't been coached in these matters, as she doesn't really seem to understand that the Senate is part of Congress. So why is Abram on TV? Let's look at her Fox News interview with, yes, Sean Hannity.
Hannity is even easier on Abram than Chetry, and the whole segment is kind of meta, talking a lot about how it feels for Abram to be "in the national spotlight." Again, Abram shows she's no policy wonk. She's just an ex-Democrat who switched parties when she saw how much she had to pay in taxes. About health care reform, she tells Hannity,
George Washington is rolling over in his grave right now. This is not what the Constitution wrote. The people in this country are strong enough to just ... do what you need to do.
People "just doing what they need to do" is pretty vague solution to America's health care problems — are those who lose their health insurance due to layoffs, or can't get any because of a pre-existing condition, just not "strong enough?" It doesn't really matter, though, because Hannity doesn't really have Katy Abram (or her mostly mute husband Sam) on his show for their words. His comment to Abram is telling: "I'm listening to your passion."
What's striking about Abram isn't her grasp of policy — which is frankly poor — it's the real emotion with which she delivers her somewhat wrongheaded criticisms. She's obviously angry when she talks to Specter, and she gets choked up on Fox recalling the encounter. Abram is an example Hannity can use to show that the American people are riled up, that health care reform has indeed, as Abram told Specter, "awakened a sleeping giant." But anger, when it's not backed by understanding, doesn't solve anything.
On Hardball last night, Lawrence O'Donnell (filling in for Chris Matthews) was much less forgiving of Abrams's lack of expertise. The clip above shows her admitting that she doesn't know how much money her family makes in a year, and that "my husband takes care of the bills and everything." O'Donnell pointedly asks if she would tell her parents not to participate in Medicare, since it's a single-payer system — she answers, "we don't talk politics." And when he asks her for her opinion on Medicare in general, she gets a deer-in-the-headlights expression and stammers, "a lot of the programs that are in place were not supposed to be here."
But some parts of the interview are actually kind of touching. Abram does get that some people can't afford health insurance. When she says that she thinks "the goodness of the people" can take care of such problems, she admits that it sounds naïve. It does, but at least she knows it. And when O'Donnell asks why she never cared about politics before (she mentioned this to Specter at the meeting), for example, in the wake of 9/11 or after the invasion of Iraq, she says,
[...] you know, I really didn't start even watching the news at all, I think, until maybe 1991, I guess it was, when we first went to the Gulf War. I remember watching CNN with my dad and watching the — the infrared missiles going across that you could see. And I think it — to me — maybe I'm just not that smart, but, you know, it seems like we have kind of been at war for — since then.
It's not a dumb thing to say, and Abram's statement that war "just seems commonplace now" is really kind of an accurate commentary on American life. Katy Abram sounds like a lot of people in this country — a little mystified about why the government does what it does. She's not evil, and she's not stupid, and if she doesn't quite understand Obama's health care plan and its relationship to the Constitution, she's certainly not alone. Unlike most Americans, however, she's now on TV. And like Joe the Plumber, her views now have a legitimacy they may not deserve.
The problem is that the media — especially Hannity — confuse relatability with information. Hannity wants to show us someone who's not a plant, who's "not part of any organized group," who's just like us. But just like most of us, Abram doesn't really know much about health care. And if we want to resolve what's becoming an increasingly nasty national argument, we need to start listening to people who do.
Earlier: Katy Lied