August recess is the time for town hall meetings. Members head home, do the circuit, and talk about all the great cash they’ve brought back home. Of course, this year’s been different — this year, this has been happening. The surge in expressions of protest at these meetings has many ramifications, but it’s important to note the miscalculations of both sides about the nature of these protesters, and the potential political outcomes of their fomented frustration.
One can pinpoint the exact moment in Arlen Specter’s disastrous appearance that HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius realized she may have made a bad career move. The pushback against these town hall protesters has come quickly and violently, with intimidation tactics that recall the worst aspects of mob-influenced government:
The nation’s largest federation of labor organizations has promised to directly engage with boisterous conservative protesters at Democratic town halls during the August recess. In a memo sent out on Thursday, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney outlined the blueprint for how the union conglomerate would step up recess activities on health care reform and other topics pertinent to the labor community. The document makes clear that Obama allies view the town hall forums as ground zero of the health care debate. It also uses the specter of the infamous 2000 recount “Brooks Brothers” protest to rally its members to the administration’s side.
“The principal battleground in the campaign will be town hall meetings and other gatherings with members of Congress in their home districts,” reads the memo. “We want your help to organize major union participation to counter the right-wing “Tea-Party Patriots” who will try to disrupt those meetings, as they’ve been trying to do to meetings for the last month.”
Yet the assumption that these protesters are right-wingers — or as others have accused, fake grassroot anger, or “astroturf” — seems a vast oversimplification. While we hardly have data on the people who have been attending these townhalls and shouting down members attempting to sell health care insurance reform, anecdotal evidence indicates that this is hardly manufactured dissent. Obama’s plan is hardly popular, and many Americans who are not Republican or conservative are opposed to the package and nervous about its outcome.
The most nervous demographic when it comes to this reform package is the section of America’s population most likely to use the current health care system — elderly Americans. It happens that these are the same people most likely to attend a town hall meeting, and their frustration is no less legitimate than the organized anti-war protests of the past six years. Telling the false agitators from the legitimate dissenters can be a difficult task, but others have created handy guides.
Privately, Republicans in Washington admit their surprise at the degree of response they’ve seen at these town hall meetings. Unused to the outpouring of grassroots anger, they’re not sure how to respond or ensure that this expression of frustration actually has beneficial political ramifications. Indications are that these are not typical Republican supporters, but Independent voters with a strong distrust of government and a tendency toward pro-American populism. According to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who’s currently leading attempts at FreedomWorks to organize and motivate these protesters, “Those protesting high government spending under Mr. Obama are ‘the same people who turned out in 1992 for H. Ross Perot and were the new voters that showed up in 1994 when we won the majority.’”
While it’s hard to prove whether what Armey says is accurate, firsthand reports back up this perception, indicating that response to the health care package today is less an expression of the conservative base than it is about the descendants of the Perot movement in the nineties and the Tea Parties today. These protesters aren’t really fans of either party (George W. Bush is no more popular at Tea Parties than Barack Obama), but driven by a strong sense — and basic American ideas of liberty — that the government shouldn’t be intruding on their lives, taking their money and giving it to companies that don’t deserve it, telling them which doctor to go to, and generally mismanaging things.
These populist dissenters can be dismissed by the left as “angry mobs trying to destroy President Obama”, or viewed by the right as natural supporters, but both perceptions are likely to prove wrong. If Democrats think deploying union thugs will prevent protest, they’re fooling themselves — it will only embolden the opposition. And if those on the right aren’t able to present a strong, coherent alternative, they will be unable to rally these Perotistas to their side. In 1994, the Republicans were successful at this, combining a package of populist governmental reforms with outrage against irresponsible governance to attain victory — but more recently, they’ve given no signs of having this capability. Whether they can recapture it, and claim enough of the independent middle to win, will be a very challenging thing indeed.