Could Republican Town Hall Protests Backfire?

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The emerging narrative in a lot of the major press coverage of heatlh care reform is that President Barack Obama has lost control of his message, which is why he was out on the hustings today at a town hall meeting. But now The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder writes that he now senses a slight relief at the White House.

Why? Because, according to Ambinder, there’s a growing feeling that the Republicans may have lost control of their message and that GOPers at Town Halls have provided a picture of some of the party’s most extreme, angry elements — which won’t convince the Blue Dog Democrats to panic and not support the plan and could well scare off independent swing voters.

Here are key portions of what he says in a post titled “How Conservatives Are Blowing Their Chance.” He notes that the mood at the White House has changed from one week ago:

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.

Ambinder suggests that conservatives had a window of opportunity to make their case seriously which “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.”

And what about the media? Ambinder contends media reports were not helpful to the GOP because reports were done in either two ways: “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.”

The Blue Dog Democrats’ swing constitutes aren’t angry,” he writes, “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.”

In short, he argues, the right has lost control of its message, much as the left did under Bush. Lawmakers of both parties:

…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.

This has been the problem with the GOP in recent years: most of its pitches, when the rubber meets the road, eventually boil down to arguments that seem aimed at wavering Republicans and the style and tone of the rhetoric is — as we have called it here — the confrontional, angry and demonizing talk radio political culture. That works fine with Republicans, but it can only cause a counter reaction in wavering liberal Democrats who began to sour on Obama and independent voters wanting to follow a debate don’t get much substance hearing people yell about socialism, Marxism, Nazi Germany or Obama death panels.

In the end, this may come down to which side discredits itself first. Getting media coverage isn’t always positive if the images that come out are unpleasing to others who are not just not on your side but on the fence deciding which is the side worth joining.

So does this mean that Obama is on the descent as Ambinder suggests due to the images the meetings are emitting?

Not necessarily. Political veteran David Gergen has a different take on it and can foresee health care reform being defanged or even derailed due to the angry protests, which he notes don’t just involve talk radio and special interest group types but other Americans who distrust the change:

In this week’s issue of the National Journal, correspondents Brian Friel and Richard E. Cohen provide a valuable insight into possible endgames. They report that there are four possible outcomes:

(1) A major bipartisan reform bill is passed;
(2) A major Democratic reform bill is passed over nearly united Republican opposition;
(3) The Democrats cannot agree among themselves and pass Health Care Lite, a very watered down version of reform;
(4) Failure

Looking at the chances today, in the midst of all this brouhaha, one would have to say that the odds for outcomes one and two are going down. It is hard to see how a lot of Republicans will sign up for a bipartisan bill in the teeth of this opposition; similarly, it may be tougher for moderate Democrats, especially new members from Republican-leaning districts, to sign on to a Democratic-only bill. That means the odds are going up for outcomes three and, yes, four.

Does this mean that reform is dying? Not at all. It is still possible that if the protests continue at a high decibel level, more people in the middle will grow disgusted and rally to the President. And given his political and rhetorical talents, it is more than possible that Barack Obama himself can turn this around. But for the moment, the raucous clips coming out of Senator Specter’s session with his constituents along with other clips from other town halls — as offensive as they are to many (including me) — are also presenting a growing threat to reform.

So pick the theory of your choice — and come September, see which proved to be correct.

The cartoon by David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star, is copyrighted and licensed to appear on TMV.