Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 14th, 2009
I agree with Julian Sanchez about the alleged astroturfing behind the angry town hall crowds:
Manifestly, there are groups like FreedomWorks trying to catalyze or corral opposition to Obama’s policies, but it hardly sounds as though they’re in control—at most, it seems like they’re providing focal points for the kind of genuine, strong sentiment you can’t fake… and that I’d think few political operatives would want to fake.
You can certainly shake your head about Dick Armey, Rupert Murdoch, and Howard Phillips — a report in Alternet by Adele Stan illuminates their roles well. But I think it’s a false sense of superiority to call the right wing participants in these events “fringe” or “astroturf.” No more so than Obama supporters turning out by the hundreds and more for campaign rallies — called there by e-mail, text message, and spiffy web sites. Sanchez continues:
That said, I think the sharp line between “grassroots” and “astroturf” will probably make less and less sense in the emerging media environment. The Platonic form of a grassroots campaign is, say, a bunch of ordinary parents in Peoria, largely unconnected with and certainly undirected by any larger political entity, banding together to agitate for some change or other. And the Platonic form of astroturf is when Peoria Parents for a Brighter Future turns out to be three bachelors in a K Street office with some letterhead and a fat check from McDonalds or something. But the lines between local and national politics are much blurrier when all the organizing and reporting are taking place online.
In a comment, he concedes a reader’s point that “the “genuine, strong sentiment ” you [applaud] is authored by deceit,” and so do I — see Re: Fw: SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS below. But it does no one any good to bemoan that. Freedomworks et al have been out-organizing Obama’s people, and by a considerable margin. Why is that? I have a few theories.
First, while it was possibly a justified legislative strategy, Obama’s laissez-faire approach to the Congressional health care debate wasn’t an effective campaign strategy: it made it hard to know what people were supposed to rally around. Katha Pollitt of The Nation:
Every day I get e-mails from Health Care for America Now, Organizing for America, MoveOn.org and similar groups urging me to write my Congressman, attend a town-hall meeting, host a gathering. But how can I speak knowledgeably about a plan that does not yet exist and in which the parameters keep shifting?
Second, that approach went hand in hand with shying away from moral arguments (e.g., health care is a right, 47 million uninsured Americans is a wrong) and — the flip side of the same coin — obsessively seeking bi-partisan, “post partisan” common ground with Republican leaders.
Third, and with all due respect, there was always more than a bit of a starry-eyed celebrity worship going on with Obama’s “grassroots” – hopeandchange, shepardfaireyposter, obamagirl, all that — and also more than a bit of utopianism about how the Internet would inevitably unleash the better angels of our nature. Given FreeRepublic and Michelle Malkin, I don’t know why anyone ever thought that, but after the town hall ambushes of 2009, maybe we’ll all be disabused of those illusions for good, and high time too.
Now Obama finds himself facing an energized anti health care reform/anti-Obama movement — and like it or not, the thing has the look of a movement — with a moribund “Organizing for America” base of his own. A New York Times report today (“Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grass Roots“) supplies some examples from Iowa; here in Maryland, after the right overran town halls and even conducted one hanging in effigy, I finally got a message from OFA (Organizing for America) on August 19 all but admitting that:
Organizing for America (OFA) has officially landed in Maryland! OFA will be touring every part of Maryland to re-engage and mobilize the grassroots movement in support of President Obama!
Honestly — what grassroots movement? Given Obama’s skills and intelligence, it would be unwise to count him out, but maybe we can stop pretending he and his team are infallible political geniuses, and start analyzing where they lost momentum.
Unfortunately, I’d say it was in their political genes all along. Obama has always preferred to believe his ascendancy was due to his post-partisan stances, and many people have believed it with him. But the fact was that it was successful partisanship that knocked the GOP out of House and Senate leadership in 2006. And even that partisanship came from below, not from above: from Pelosi to Van Hollen, from Clinton to Obama, Democratic Party leadership seemed to think that people’s preferences for almost any Democratic nominee over almost any Republican one was an endorsement of their timid politics rather than a rejection of a disastrous Republican administration.
Even as they benefited from a mobilizing base and increasing momentum, leading Democrats often blunted those developments. Indeed, one of my big strikes against Obama was the way he favored Lieberman over Lamont in Connecticut. In what was potentially a watershed election, Obama came down on the side of the Incumbent Party, not anything progressive or even all that Democratic. As I noted at the time, David Sirota’s 2006 analysis nailed it:
Obama is … not opposed to structural changes at all. However, he appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. [...]
Obama will often be a reliable liberal vote, and he can give one hell of a speech. But we should believe him when he downplays our expectations.
Thus, one of the main reasons a galvanizing (and sensible) program like universal single payer health care was never in the cards wasn’t that there would be opposition to it — of course there would be; as we’ve seen, there’d be opposition to a ham sandwich if someone called it “health reform.” No, it was that by the time Obama was running for president, he didn’t support it. Even before that, judging by the Sirota interview, where Obama noted:
“Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”
Gee, maybe if they went out and broke 1 million, 2 million, 3 million windows they’d be even more valuable to the economy.
Truth to tell, that ought to be us at those meetings, but also truth to tell I don’t feel like I was invited to or welcome at the party. I suspect that no matter what I go to bat for, it’ll get yanked from contention in the opaque legislative process I’m seeing — one where a Baucus takes single payer off the table at the outset, then fritters away the summer with snakes like Grassley, and snakes like Grassley who are proud of themselves for fooling a confederacy of dunces like Reid, Baucus, and Obama into doing that. As was no doubt obvious from the prior post, I just can’t get worked up for what I’m hearing so far, even if Ezra Klein tells me it’s likely to be better than Howard Dean’s proposal from his 2004 campaign. And Ezra’s new rallying cry — let’s win this one for Begala! — doesn’t quite do it for me either.
That leaves the facts on the ground. And those remain compelling and heartbreaking. On Thursday, the health services charity Remote Area Medical visited yet another third world health disaster area — this time, Inglewood, California. It’s interesting that Obama said insurance companies were “holding America hostage” yesterday. Inglewood this week and Wise, VA before that gave us all a look at those hostages. If they, at least a good number of them, will be helped by even incremental change, then that remains worth doing. (And if that seems inconsistent with the last post so be it; I feel I was counting the huge cost of holding out for what looks like a slim victory, but I know I’m going back and forth on this issue as well.)
These are Hurricane Katrinas, happening every month of every year. If Obama and his advisors had a lick of sense, they’d be at those Remote Area Medical events in a heartbeat — or they’d be organizing ones themselves. And holding stadium sized rallies with the clients, their families, and supporters of sweeping health care reform. And winning.
“The promise of free health care attracted thousands to the Los Angeles Forum in Inglewood, Calif., for the second day
in a row Wednesday. Three rows reserved for dental care were part of the menu of services offered by Remote Area Medical,
which planned to run the event for eight days.” – Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.
From “An Outpouring of Need“; click through for a slideshow.