Republicans wary of boisterous health care reform activists; Obama calls for rational debate.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 16 2009 6:21 AM

The August Revolt

The Los Angeles Times leads with a report on the burgeoning Republican resistance to health care reform—a campaign that's energized the party's base but about which many party leaders remain deeply ambivalent. The so-called "August revolt," powered by activists' antics at Democratic town hall meetings, has helped reinvigorate conservative groups; still, some GOP lawmakers are wary of associating themselves with the campaigners' increasingly cartoonish attacks. "The hostility went straight through to hysteria," said South Carolina conservative Rep. Bob Ingliss after being booed down at one recent town hall. "You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible."

The New York Times leads with a report on the rising number of female troops gaining battle experience; while women remain barred from joining combat branches of the U.S. military, they've repeatedly been sent to the front line in Iraq. The Washington Post leads local, with a new poll giving Republican Robert McDonnell a hefty early lead in the Virginia gubernatorial race: The GOP candidate is up by seven points overall and up by 15 points among likely voters. Perhaps most troublingly for Dems, McDonnell is polling about even with his rival in vote-rich—and traditionally more liberal—northern Virginia, where he's played down his conservative credentials and focused instead on issues like land conservation.

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Opposition to health care reform makes the front page on all three papers today. The activists like to cast their protests as spontaneous displays of popular outrage; still, the Post gets decent mileage from a report eyeing the conservative groups orchestrating the protests, which in some cases are led by established conservative-movement veterans and bankrolled by industry groups and conservative billionaires. The NYT eyes the battle for the airwaves: Some $57 million has been spent on health care-related TV ads in the past six months, most of it in last six weeks. "We're looking at one of the biggest public policy ad wars ever," says one media analyst. So far, the war's being won by supporters of reform, who have outspent opponents by a ratio of about 5 to 1.

Meanwhile, President Obama held his third and final health care town hall yesterday, telling a friendly Colorado audience that while there was "no perfect, painless silver bullet," many of his plan's detractors were being disingenuous. The NYT picks up on Obama's push-back against unsubstantiated suggestions that he would implement "death panels" to deny care to the elderly: "I just lost my grandmother last year," he said. "So the notion that somehow I ran for public office, or members of Congress are in this so they can go around pulling the plug on grandma? I mean, when you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest." Still, the Post notes that the president appears to be resisting the temptation to attack his opponents, and is instead seeking to recalibrate his own message. He continues that effort on the NYT's op-ed page with a column calling for a more serious debate. "For all the scare tactics out there, what's truly scary—truly risky—is the prospect of doing nothing," he writes.

Above the fold, the NYT splashes a photo of a female U.S. soldier in full battle gear charging into combat—an increasingly common sight  in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troop shortages and shifting strategic needs are allowing more and more women to sidestep rules intended to keep them out of the line of fire. The trend has boosted women's status in the armed forces and has helped catapult female officers up the ranks: "Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds," says one former colonel. But it's also led to calls for women to be granted formal parity with their male peers—and for gays and lesbians to be given the same opportunities for military service. "They made it work with women," said one gay-rights campaigner. "Certainly integrating open service of gay and lesbians is within their capability."

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb traveled to Burma's remote administrative capital yesterday for talks with Gen. Than Shwe, chief of the country's ruling military junta, and was rewarded with the release of an American detainee and permission for a rare meeting with democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb, who the Post notes is a longtime advocate of engagement with Myanmar, drew criticism from dissident groups for the trip; still, the NYT reports, the move comes as Obama officials are reassessing their hard line toward Myanmar's military leaders and could pave the way for further U.S. engagement.

A huge car bomb rocked one of Kabul's most secure streets yesterday, killing seven people and injuring more than 90 outside NATO headquarters, barely a block from the U.S. embassy and the presidential palace. The NYT notes that the blast presumably indicates the Taliban's intent to disrupt this week's presidential election through violence; if the group manages to suppress turnout in its own southern strongholds, the election's legitimacy could be thrown into question. "It is the Taliban who are trying to deny Afghans their political rights," a senior U.S. official told the Post. "That's a lesson that ought to come home to all of us."

Meanwhile, reports the NYT, the Obama administration is to create a new counterpropaganda unit within the State Department to challenge the Taliban's dominance of local radio stations in Afghanistan and Pakistan; up to $150 million a year will be spent training journalists, establishing local radio stations and expanding cell-phone coverage across the region. "Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war," said project chief Richard Holbrooke. "We can't succeed, however you define success, if we cede the airways."

Iranian opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi yesterday announced the formation of a new grassroots political movement, dubbed the Green Way of Hope. The NYT says the move marks his continuing defiance in the face of fresh government crackdowns; still, notes the LAT, Moussavi's announcement failed to set out a specific political agenda or to give a clear strategy for rekindling the country's opposition movement. The Post reports thatAyatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, appointed a hard-line cleric as Iran's new judiciary chief; his first task will be to oversee the mass trial of more than 100 of Moussavi's supporters, who are accused of conspiring to overthrow Iran's Islamic government.

And finally, the NYT fronts a look at continuing tensions in Kashmir, where 500,000 Indian security forces remain in place despite the fact that separatist violence has ebbed to its lowest point in two decades. Local activists say that rape and extrajudicial killings by the Indian police and military are endemic, fueled by rules that shield troops deployed to the region from prosecution. "Maybe at some point in time when the militants were in the thousands it made sense to have so many soldiers here," said one opposition leader. "But at this point they are not helping in any way. Their mere presence has become a source of friction."

Ben Whitford writes for the Guardian, Mother Jones and Newsweek.

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