President Obama is on his way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire at this hour for a town hall meeting on health care. At this same hour last week, several of the President's top political advisers were meeting in a White House conference room to discuss the appearance, over the first weekend in August, of a coordinated effort to scare Democratic lawmakers who planned to attend town hall meetings into a state of panic. A week later, and the Atlantic's tricorder readings are picking up much calmer electromagnetic energy from the White House. Getting Democrats to attend the town hall meetings was really an intermediate goal. But Democrats are beginning to notice that opponents of health care reform have discredited themselves. They ramped up much too quickly. When smaller, conservative groups Astroturfed, they inevitably brought to the meetings the type of Republican activist who was itching for a fight and who would use the format to vent frustrations at President Obama himself. There were plenty of activists who really wanted to know about health care, and some who were probably misinformed -- scared out of their chairs -- to some degree, but the loudest voices tended to be the craziest, the most extreme, the least sensible, and the most easy to mock.
The American people remain anxious and confused about health care reform. That is an underlying reality that Republican activists are so eager to exploit. But doing so required a certain restraint -- and a willingness to traffic in at least approximate truths -- and an ability to make distinctions within their own ranks about which tactics were valid and which tactics were venomous. It also required a sophistication about the media. The base condition here is an enthusiastic Republican base and a depressed Democratic base. A coherent, organized effort would have recognized that the moment the media began to take sides was the moment that the entire enterprise could be damaged. The media, being a collection of different megaphones, reported on the town hall meetings in one of two ways, both damaging to Republicans. Either they credulously reported the louder, angrier voices (inherently damaging to Republicans in this case) or they reported on the political architecture of the town hall meetings, which plays down the substance of the protests.
Remember, the target audience for Republicans is Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. They won't panic unless they perceive organic anxiety. The White House's goal was to prevent the Blue Dogs from panicking. The swing constituents in these congressional districts aren't angry Republicans, and the Blue Dogs know this. They're political independents for whom the sanctity of the process is important. These are the type of voters who like President Obama because he appears willing to bring people together even though they don't agree with their policies.
As usual, in a pattern that the left patented during the Bush administration, the organized right lost control of its message. Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, were being asked to respond to non-sequiturs (would you support a health care reform plan that grows the deficit? Health care grows the deficit right now, so it's a nonsense question, one that is easy for politicians to answer); ; they found their meetings full of engorged spleens. Unrestrained, these town hall meetings are going to turn off the type of voters Republicans most need to pressure Blue Dog Democrats -- independents who don't have red genes or blue genes. Both Fox and MSNBC televised Sen. Arlen Specter's raucous town hall meeting live. It was full of confrontation and protest. There were boos when Specter reaffirmed his president's Americanness.
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.