Could Threats to Democrats Start Scaring Independent Voters Away from the GOP? (UPDATED)

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Could some particularly extremist members of the Republican party’s talk radio political culture scare away crucial swing voters who appear to be poised to swing th GOP’s way come November? If the pattern of independent voter behavior and preferences in the past is any indication, the answer is yes.

The news that some House members voted for health care reform now find themselves and their families threatened (verbal threats, emails, phone calls, a blatantly racist fax and bricks through windows are among some of the reports so far) and that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer estimates it involves some 10 members was eyebrow raising enough. Then came details that House members were offered more security and talking with local police and the FBI since these threats are being taken seriously. CBS even posted this audio of a threatening call to Bart Stupak.

You listen to that video and you think: so THIS is what democracy has come to mean to some people? Vote our way the we want or someone will bump you off you piece of $*&! and there are millions of us.. (With language like that who does she think she is? Joe Biden?)

Democracy at work? Hardly.

(UPDATE: See Update below. Two GOPers now say they have been targetted as well)

In past eras leaders the media, the partisan and ideological punditry, and leaders of both parties would move on a dime to unify and to denounce it in no uncertain terms — particularly if this had occured during the late 60s, when Americans saw left-right confrontations in the streets, huge demonstrations on campuses, and the assassinations of a host of political and African American leaders. Those of us who lived in that era in both parties often asked:”What is HAPPENING to our politics and our democracy?”

This was particularly asked by people in the middle. The danger for the GOP now is: this question could start coming up again. And it’s most likely to be asked by the independent voters who now seem to be leaning the GOP’s.

The reason: the bottom lines are this:

1. Our political debate has gotten more personal and more angry and the pattern is that it will continue in this direction.

2. A whole industry (talk radio and cable political shows) and a new part of the media that is essentially op-ed writing, in many cases by outright partisans (cyberspace), has a vested interest in appealing to specific segments of society, in effect sawing them off, and trying to keep and expand upon getting their attention. Some in this industry simply state their views; some others may seek to increase audience share by significantly pushing the envelope since to be noticed over the others means you have to be more and more outrageous. The common factor in attracting such an audience is often tapping into resentment and rage by articulating it and providing a gathering point. This does not lend itself to talk about common ground or criticizing one’s own side strongly.

3. The “yes but” brigade is out in force. It’s the “yes, but under Clinton” or “yes, but under Bush.” Earth to apologists: there is NO YES BUT when elected officials homes and families are being threatened and bricks are being thrown through windows.

3. It is CLEAR where this is HEADING if the trend continues. If this escalates, someone could be seriously hurt, injured or assassinated. And then it’ll be defense-position time for whatever side’s person was responsible for it.

Just as health care reform proponents’ image was not helped by one on their side biting off the finger of a HCR opponent some months ago, those opposed to it are not helped by these stories.
This does NOT mean that the few in the Twlight Zone reflect the larger group. But there should be concern due to the societal context:

In the past few years we’ve had students killing students and teachers in schools, drivers dying or being injured in road rage incidents, and even reports of shopping cart rage at supermarkets.

Don’t expect to hear a no-conditions, no-politics inserted denunciation of this behavior on some talk radio stations. A scan of some talk show yesterday and a quick surf of the Internet already showed that some (callers or hosts) were arguing that the reports of threats showed how Democrats can whine, how the mainstream media will work with the Dems to seize on something and exaggerate it to discredit the GOP, that it’s really probably just one or two members and the numbers are inflated (let’s get this straight: so the FBI and local police officials were meeting with Dems to sign them up for Amway?) and how people only complain when Democrats are threatened (so exactly when did it occur that more than a half a dozen Republican elected officials were threatened, were told their families could be at risk and had bricks thrown through their windows?).

It is no secret that independent voters do not like the mega partisan atmosphere in recent years and that the perception among a chunk of the voters that Barack Obama and the Democrats had discarded reaching across the aisle was starting to hurt them. So this could be a monkey wrench thrown into what seemed to be a trend indicating future GOP gains. CNN reports:

Polls indicate that independents are increasingly worried about single-party control of Congress, as well as the current state of the economy. Because of that, independents are more likely to support Republicans come November.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Tuesday, independent voters appear to be favoring the GOP. Among registered voters who call themselves independents, 43 percent plan to vote Republican, while 32 percent plan to vote for a Democrat.

The poll, conducted March 19-21, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But Republicans could “burn the bridge” to independents if they increasingly go negative in debating health care reform and the economy, said an expert on independent voters.

“For Republicans, the bridge to independents lies in fiscal responsibility, fiscal conservatism,” said John P. Avlon, a senior political columnist for the Daily Beast and author of “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America.”

Avlon, also a CNN contributor, added: “What burns that bridge down is predominance of the extremes, the appearance that extremes will be empowered if the Republicans take Congress.”

Republicans have been deemed “obstructionists” by Democrats and other critics and are seen as having strong ties to the Tea Party movement, outspoken opponents of health care reform and what they deem big-government spending.

Opponents have also linked the GOP to some protesters who use hate-filled speech and racially insensitive posters at health care rallies.

So what’s the solution? GOP leaders have to make it clear that threatening people who don’t vote the way you want is not democratic and unwelcome among Republicans, Democrats and independent voters. Talk show hosts who seem to excuse it can NOT be given a pass (this goes for hosts on the left) — or allowed to quote a perfunctory condemnation as they also offer little loophole escape clauses to excuse the behavior and thus in effect encourage it. Politicians who seem to encourage it need to be called out by the media and taken to task in public or in private by their party bigwigs.

In the Great Minds Think Alike Department, here’s what the politically perceptive First Read team says about the threats to Dems and threat this posts to the GOP’s goals:

*** Over the line: If you’ve played organized sports, you heard many a coach say something like this: You learn a lot more about someone after they lose rather than after they win. Well, we’ve learned quite a bit from a few conservative activists, as well as the some in the GOP, during and after health care’s passage. Let’s first start with the vandalism and threats of violence against House Democrats who voted for the health-care legislation. “The pitched battle over health care has unleashed a rash of vandalism and attacks directed at politicians, with at least 10 House Democrats reporting death threats or incidents of harassment or vandalism at their district offices over the past week,” the Washington Post writes. House Minority Leader John Boehner said the incidents were unacceptable and needed to be channeled in a better way. NBC’s Luke Russert reports that Boehner will address the violence/threats at his weekly press conference today. This is a danger for Republicans right now as the skeptical middle (not happy about the health care plan but also unhappy about the tone in Washington) watches all this unfold.

If Boehner adds any “yes buts” in there it will undermine his message. It’s a NO on this kind of violence. If the goal is to reassure INDEPENDENTS that this kind of behavior is to be repudiated in a democracy, he will condemn it and say it has no place in politics — which will not cost the GOP votes except among some of the things squirrels like to harvest when they fall from trees. What the GOP loses in nuts it will make up for in keeping its growing independent voter support.

An example of a sincere take on this that will only impress partisans comes from the must-read, always meaty conservative blog Powerline. It’s an argument that will cause Republicans to nod their heads and shout yes but will sound to some independents as if it’s trying to excuse the behavior or shift the focus — even though it makes it clear at the beginning of the piece that the behavior is not condoned. This is how not to condemn it:

We condemn political violence in virtually all circumstances; certainly in all circumstances that could arise in our democracy. Threats of violence, sadly, are not uncommon in politics; let alone “harassment.” Even insignificant conservatives like us have been threatened with violence on several occasions, and the linked article notes that Jim Bunning received threats after he temporarily held up the extension of unemployment benefits a few weeks ago.

The current threats (assuming they are real, as I assume some of them are) are being played up in the press because the Democrats want to dampen the anger that has erupted over their adoption of a government medicine program through a series of legislative maneuvers that are in some respects unprecedented. It is important for the Democrats and their press minions to understand that there are many millions of Americans who regard Obamacare not just as misguided public policy, but as an illegitimate usurpation of power. I am one of the many millions who are outraged at the Left’s attempt to destroy the private health care system that has served my family so well, and who regard Obamacare as illegitimate.

As for the threats, we will take them more seriously if they result in the cancellation of a public appearance by a liberal due to security concerns. But that never happens to liberals, only to conservatives. It happened again last night. That was in Canada, of course; the home of government medicine and little regard for free speech. No coincidence, that.

In large part, the current focus on threats of violence is aimed at the tea partiers, just as they were accused, apparently falsely, of racism. It is not hard to understand the Democrats’ motives; the tea parties are the most vital force, and likely the most popular force, in American politics, so smearing them is mandatory. But anyone who has attended a tea party rally will consider laughable the idea that the movement somehow tends toward violence.

[EDITOR's NOTE: Due to an editing error this quote was not earlier put in blockquotes and due to being offline this was not corrected until several hours later. We regret the error.]

This issue isn’t that this is a smear. The issue is not all the tea parties and the many sincere and dedicated people who attend them and clamor for a smaller government and what they consider to be a more authentic democracy.

The issue is people who apparently need to re-read what democracy is because they are proving themselves to be enemies of democracy — a system where elected officials can vote their consciences without fearing that their families will be murdered, they will be assassinated or that a brick will fly through their windows.

There is no “yes but” in this except “yes” its unacceptable and “but” in the sense that “we welcome passion but denounce and repudiate those who threaten violence.”

Even in these polarized times, the vast majority of Americans — and independent voters in particular — will agree on that.

Now you can follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter.

UPDATE: Two Republicans now also report that they have been subject to intimidation as well.
1. Rep. Jean Schmidt’s office reports that it got a threatening voicemail. The Hill:
U.S. Capitol Police are investigating a threatening voicemail left in the office of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), her chief of staff said Thursday.

Schmidt’s office was left a voicemail late Wednesday night in what appears to be the first instance of a Republican lawmaker being targeted for their healthcare vote.

The voicemail features a caller who talks of wishing the congresswoman had broken her back in a 2008, according to a recording send to the media by Schmidt’s chief of staff, Barry Bennett.

The voicemail makes reference to Schmidt, as well as Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House GOP Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), calling them and the Republican Party racist.

The voicemail specifically references a 2008 incident when Schmidt was hit by a car while jogging, due to which she suffered broken ribs and a broken vertebrae.

The caller also threatens using a gun to assault Tea Party members had spat on the caller, as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said that anti-health reform protesters had done to him during weekend protests on Capitol Hill.

2. House Minority leader Eric Cantor says that his office was shot at:

House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) revealed moments ago that his Richmond, VA office was shot at, becoming one of the first Republicans to acknowledge being a victim of the harassment that has mostly targeted Democrats. “Just recently, I have been directly threatened,” he said. “A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week, and I’ve received threatening emails.” Cantor used the terror incident to attack Democrats who have raised alarms over the GOP leadership’s failure to tone down their rhetoric. “It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain,” Cantor said, standing before a media pool of reporters and cameras.

The threat is under investigation by Capitol Police, according to Bennett.

Some addition thoughts on these developments:

  • See my above post. Both parties — with no political hedges, no attempt to discredit reports about incidents at the other side, and no attempt to use this against the other side — need to condemn and repudiate this kind of behavior…which isn’t politics but thuggery.
  • Cantor is correct in announcing this. But it is NOT reckless for the Democrats to have reported that more than a half dozen members who just coincidentally voted in favor of health care reform were subject to threats to them and their families, brick throwing and racist emails. His attempt to turn characterize the reports — which were serious enough for the local police and FBI to investigate — itself suggests he’s in partisan political mode rather than focusing on the big issue: the fact that physical intimidation and violence are not welcome in politics.
  • If both sides are reporting this, it says something about how American politics is starting to veer out of control with overripe rhetoric.
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