It’s beginning to look a lot like August 2009 in reverse.
In that summer of the Tea Party, conservative activists packed the town-hall meetings of Democratic congressmen and peppered them with hostile questions. It was an early sign of the abiding opposition that Obamacare would encounter, and the prelude to Democratic defeats in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
Now, progressive activists are tearing a page from that playbook. The scenes are highly reminiscent of 2009, with Republican officeholders struggling to control unruly forums and leaving their town-hall meetings early or not holding them in the first place.
The partisan temptation in this circumstance is always to dismiss the passion of the other side, which is what Democrats did to their detriment in 2009 and Republicans are doing now.
It’s not often that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sounds like his Obama predecessor Robert Gibbs, but on this, he might as well be reading leftover talking points. Gibbs dismissed the Tea Party town-hall agitation eight years ago as “manufactured anger” reflecting “the Astro-turf nature of grassroots lobbying.” Spicer says of the town-hall protests, “It’s not these organic uprisings that we’ve seen through the last several decades — the Tea Party was a very organic movement — this has become a very paid, Astro-turf-type movement.”
What was true in 2009 is true today: In the normal course of things, it’s not easy even for a well-funded and -organized group to get people to spend an evening at a school auditorium hooting at their congressman. If these demonstrations are happening in districts around the country, attention must be paid.
This is not to condone the more rancid elements of the Left’s ferment (blocking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from entering a Washington, D.C., school was petty thuggishness), nor is it to consider what is happening as nearly as significant as the Tea Party — yet. To become the Left’s equivalent of the Tea Party, the protestors will have to persist despite the inevitable legislative defeats on the horizon; organize at the grass-roots level; play in Democratic primaries; make their own party’s establishment miserable; and pick off a significant Republican seat in what seems like impossible territory the way Scott Brown did in the Massachusetts special election after the death of Ted Kennedy.
None of this is certain, or necessarily likely. But Democrats deluded themselves in 2009 by disregarding the early signs of fierce resistance to their agenda, and paid the price over and over again for their heedless high-handedness. Republicans shouldn’t make the same mistake.
There is nothing to suggest that the Left’s town-hall protestors represent anything like a majority of the country. Even an impassioned plurality can make a big impact, though. And if we have learned anything from the Obamacare debate, it is that disturbing the status quo in American health care carries significant downside political risk. Democrats were in that position in 2009; Republicans are now.
The GOP can’t and shouldn’t back off their promise to repeal Obamacare. But the party should re-double its commitment to do as much as it can to replace the law simultaneously with its repeal. At the prodding of President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans have been moving in this direction. It behooves the party as a policy and political matter to show that its legislation won’t lead to millions of people losing their insurance and won’t return to the pre-Obamacare status quo for people with pre-existing conditions.
With a consensus on replacement, Republicans would be much better equipped to push back at contentious town halls, and to potentially defuse at least some of the fear and anger engendered by their health-care agenda. The alternative is to look the other way, avoid town halls, and hope that after the repeal passes everything calms down. This was essentially the Democratic tack in 2009, and how did that work out?
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.