The White House and Democratic officials, surprised by the angry words thrown at Democratic lawmakers in their first weekend of August town hall meetings, are scrambling to put together a strategy to minimize the effects of what they see as an organized campaign to disrupt the meetings and spread anxiety about health care reform and President Obama.
A key part of the developing strategy: ridicule the opposition -- and portray those who disrupt meetings with loud chants and signs as part of the same ilk of people who showed up at campaign rallies for John McCain and Sarah Palin right after the 2008 Republican National Convention. At those rallies, some supporters hurled racist remarks and displayed objectionable signs; McCain himself was forced to respond to a questioner who called Obama a "Muslim," to the applause of others in the crowd. To this day, McCain aides maintain that the media inflated the number of reactionaries in the crowd, abetted by an Obama campaign that was all too happy to point them out.
A party strategist e-mailed around a clip
from Rep. Lloyd Doggett's town hall meeting. At one point, a sign featuring Nazi lettering can be seen. Another strategist with ties to the White House made sure to point out that a popular sign at these rallies features Obama, in Shepherd Fairy-esque ink, as the Joker
(although it's not clear how many signs have been seen at actual rallies.) . A White House official pointed to press secretary Robert Gibbs's comparison to the 2000 "protest" at Miami-Dade county election headquarters organized and peopled with young conservative lawyers.
Patronizing opponents is a tried and true tradition in Washington, and Democrats have used the tactic with success. They ridiculed the hundreds of thousands of conservatives who protested the stimulus package as "tea baggers."
But Republicans are just as responsible for the perception. The folks who tend to show up at protest events tend to be to the right of the mean in the party. And, as the spread of the birther movement demonstrates, not a small chunk of these Republicans are reactionaries. The challenge for the White House and Democrats is that they find a way to separate genuinely anxious conservatives who ask good questions -- even if those questions are provided by conservative groups -- and the crazies who tend to pack town hall meetings.
The challenge for Republicans is to prevent the media from labeling everyone who attends a meeting with a Democratic lawmaker and who calls him or herself a conservative as a crazy person. Some polling suggests that the percentage of Republicans who don't know whether President Obama was born in the United States is fairly high, although it is hard to say how much of that confusion stems from ignorance or from a generally jaundiced, perhaps racist, view of the President.
A range of smaller, ideologically conservative interest groups are organizing the protests. Finding pockets of activist-oriented arch-conservatives in places like Texas, Missouri and Indiana is easy, especially if the set goal is to defeat Obama-care, which is being sold to these people as the approach of government-run health care, something that these folks have been worried about for years. Add to the mix a desire to hand the progressive President and his agenda a decisive defeat.
The more troublesome question for Democratic strategists is why the major Democratic groups, including Organizing for America, the labor unions, Health Care for America Now, seem to be flatfooted and unable to match the much smaller conservative organizing capacity in these critical districts. One answer is that the media pays attention to the loudest voices, which are coming from the right. The other is that organizing around major -- even popular -- reforms of existing institutions is tough. The Democrats don't have a single bill right now, and the elite left is worried about what's not in the cards -- a public plan -- and is therefore fairly unenthusiastic. If the liberal elite isn't enthusiastic, the liberal base -- less knowledgeable -- will be as well.
To focus minds, Democrats are coordinating TV and radio ad blitzes, including the biggest expenditures by the Democratic National Committee to date. President Obama, his cabinet and his vice president will be ubiquitous. Quickly responding to disinformation will be a key goal, an administration official said, pointing to this morning's release of a video from Linda Douglass, a former television and print reporter who serves as a key White House health care adviser, which rebutted a misleading video posted on the Drudge Report.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.