"Thug Life"

That's what Rachel Maddow's on-screen graphic said last night during a report on conservative boisterousness at recent Democratic town-hall meetings: meaning opponents of President Obama's health care initiative have turned into thugs.

Maddow's point was that conservative activists are engaging in a sort of political hooliganism as they shout down the likes of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as they try to talk about health care with constituents--challenging them with pre-cooked questions on health care (some disseminated by conservative groups) and then shouting over them as they try to answer.

It's an ugly scene--just watch the Specter/Sebelius and Doggett videos, and the video of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) shown in Maddow's segment--a lot like the opening one in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where the Jewish mayor of New York gets shouted down by a Harlem audience:

They love it. The insolence! The insolenc sets off another eruption....

It's no use. He can't make himself heard even with the microphone. The hate in their faces! Pure poison! It's mesmerizing...

Then it dawns on him. Reverend Bacon! They're Bacon's people. He's sure of it. The civic-minded people who come to public meetings in Harlem--the people Sheldon was supposed to make sure filled up this hall--they wouldn't be out there yelling these outrageous things. Bacon did this! Sheldon f----ed up! Bacon got his people in here!

The first seven pages of that book should be required reading for Democratic congressmen in moderate districts and Democratic senators from swing states, because that's what's happening: Bacon's got his people in. Conservatives who despise Obama's health care reforms have gotten together and are invading Democratic town-halls, and Democrats have struggled to handle it.

Maddow's point was that this is a low-blow tactic: the congressmen are there to talk about health care, but the conservatives don't want any of that. They're there to shout health care reform down and turn the event into a conservative rally. They're not interested in public debate.

"This is the organized use of intimidation," Maddow said.

"Everybody says, 'Oh, politics ain't bean bag.' Obviously this is not bean bag, but this isn't hardball either, no offense to Chris [Matthews]. This just isn't even politics. This is orchestrated mob mentality intimidation. This is called hooliganism," Maddow remarked.

But what can Democrats do about it?

It seems they only have two choices: adapt some crowd-control techniques, or engage in political gangsterism of their own and make a more concerted effort to seed the crowd with their own vocal backers.

The ground effort on the left this August will focus on holding its own rallies, lawmaker events, and door-to-door canvasses in support of health care reform--not to build a presence at town-halls, as conservatives hace sought to do. There's less focus, at the national level, on turning out liberal activists to the same public events that conservatives has been taking over. National conservative groups, meanwhile, have made that an important part of their plans for recess, collecting info on where Democratic town-halls will be held and providing it to members online, encouraging them to show up.

In other words, there hasn't been a plan in the liberal playbook to meet conservatives on this battlefield.

The Democrats who've been caught up in these situations don't look used to getting in public shouting matches. It wasn't too long ago that Chris Matthews was considering a Senate run in Pennsylvania...how would he handle this? He shouts at people regularly. It makes you wonder if  any Democrats out there are skilled enough at crowd control to encounter such a group, hung out there without backup from liberal activists or at least the Democrats in the audience, and maneuver their way out of it...to either defeat the conservatives through argument or whip up enough clamor from their own supporters to turn the mess in their favor.

As August continues, we'll probably see more of this, and maybe we'll find out if that can be done.