TAMPA — It's a political Rorschach test, the way people see these bitter protests of town hall meetings on health care.
Take that mass vitriol on display in Ybor City on Thursday, when more than 1,000 people — many of them chanting protesters — essentially shut down what had been planned as a discussion/pep rally for President Barack Obama's health care proposals.
One person sees liberal activists and union thugs locking the doors on hundreds of average citizens trying to speak out. Another sees unhinged right-wing zealots trying to shut down open discussion.
"It's like an abstract painting where both sides put their own interpretation to what it means,'' said Republican lobbyist Justin Sayfie.
"Most elected officials are risk-averse,'' Sayfie noted. "Most do not want to participate in a raucous meeting of any kind, and they would much rather participate in something that is scripted and planned."
Which is why the kind of pandemonium presided over Thursday night by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, is likely to become rarer and rarer.
"Most members that scheduled big town hall meetings are canceling them now,'' said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who has no plans to hold such a meeting and has long preferred smaller group meetings to discuss policy issues.
No politician relishes television images of him or her being screamed at by hundreds of angry critics. And as Castor and other participants saw, these meetings can become less about debating and more about venting and shouting.
"It's a lynch-mob mentality out there. There is an ugliness to it," U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Washington, told the Olympian in explaining why, after holding more than 300 town hall meetings in the past decade, he would hold none on health care.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has no scheduled town hall meetings in Florida during the August recess, and his office did not respond to questions about his plans.
A growing number of members of Congress are forgoing traditional face-to-face meetings in favor of "telephone town meetings" where people can call into a centralized number and punch in numbers to ask a question.
"It's great new technology,'' said Castor, who plans to hold such a meeting next week and said 4,500 people participated in one last month.
The technology also allows the host to control the event and limit surprises. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, held a recent telephone town hall meeting and drew a complaint that he took no questions from anyone supporting Obama's proposal — something Bilirakis' office denied.
As much as Democratic leaders try to cast the protests as events manufactured by political groups or the Republican Party, it's clear that, when 1,500 people show up in Ybor City on a weeknight, there is plenty of grass roots anger boiling about the health care plan and perception of expanding government.
Those sentiments are being encouraged by conservative radio hosts, bloggers and Web sites urging people to attend town halls. A group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights lists congressional town hall events across the country.
"I can't remember seeing anything like this before,'' Florida Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman, a former member of Congress, said after watching coverage of the Tampa event. "Even in 1994 when we had the tax bill under debate, there was a lot of anger, but at the meeting you could still have dialogue and have some back and forth."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]