Democrats Gird for Town-Hall Protests

Posted August 4, 2009 at 6:22pm

House Democratic leaders have a strategy for countering protesters attempting to disrupt Members’ town-hall meetings on health care over the August recess: Do nothing.

Armed with signs and ready to shout for hours, protesters have been crashing Democrats’ health care events ever since they returned to their districts. And the interest groups behind the efforts — including Conservatives for Patients’ Rights and FreedomWorks — have shown no sign of relenting in the coming weeks.

But House Democratic leaders are banking on the opposition buckling under its own weight and say their Members, even the most vulnerable, are ready for a partisan assault.

“We’ve talked to them before they left the Congress about how to approach these things,— said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’ve encouraged them to communicate about health care in all different ways, including press events and telephone town-hall meetings.—

Van Hollen predicted that the groups’ more dramatic tactics — which have included the display of Nazi signs, a hanging effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) and a tombstone bearing the name of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) — will “backfire in a big way— because their aim is to keep citizens from having a conversation about health care.

“When you’ve got people shouting and hanging Members of Congress in effigy, most people are going to react badly to that. I think most people want to have a civil discussion,— he said.

A senior House Democratic aide emphasized that Members were “absolutely— prepared for the disruptions and, to date, none of them has asked leadership for advice on how to handle them.

The aide pointed out that several Democrats, including Reps. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) and Peter Visclosky (Ind.), have successfully held town-hall meetings. Even Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who was up against shouting protesters, “stood his ground, took questions and answered his constituents for an hour,— the aide said.

Van Hollen criticized the “well-funded lobbyists— behind the effort, as well as Republican leaders who have been quiet about their role.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders “are actively involved in sort of fueling the fire of these disruptions,— Van Hollen said. “They’ve got to be careful what they ask for here. … If Republicans want to continue to ally themselves with these fringe groups, it will continue to discredit them.—

Republicans have openly fanned the flames of the protests, although they have denied orchestrating the chaos at Democratic town halls.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has been sending out e-mails titled “Recess Roastings— that link to news articles and video clips of protesters at local health care events.

“Democrats have gone from blaming Republican obstruction, to the insurance industry, to Matt Drudge, and now they are even blaming the voters who are registering their opposition at town halls across the country,— NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.

“At what point are they going to get the message that people simply don’t want a government takeover of health care?— Spain asked.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), president of the freshman Democratic class, warned that right-wing groups are taking things to “a dangerous level— by manufacturing anger based on false information.

“When you look at the fervor of some of these people who are all being whipped up by the right-wing talking heads on Fox, to me, you’re crossing a line,— Connolly said. “They’re inciting people to riot with just total distortions of facts. They think we’re going to euthanize Grandma and the government is going to take over.—

One Democratic leadership aide summed it up more succinctly: “These people are crazy.—

Connolly said he spoke to at least one freshman Democrat who was physically assaulted at a local event. In another instance, he said, a constituent upset about government interference in Medicare had to be reminded that Medicare is a government program.

Doggett said his staff “was a little concerned— for his safety as he was encircled by protesters “with their signs and their devil pictures and everything very close around me.— He noted the “very juvenile manner— of protesters who followed him to his car after the event and tried to block his aide’s car as she backed out.

But like Doggett, who vowed to keep holding health care discussions through the August recess, those Members being targeted by protesters seem unfazed by what they are up against.

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) faced several hecklers during a town hall Monday. Despite the event being overrun with protesters, which resulted in moving the event into a bigger room in a local church, aides said Driehaus plans to hold more town halls.

“We’re not going to say we’re no longer going to listen to constituents because of a few angry protesters. We have no intentions of changing our plan based on any extracurricular nonsense,— said a Driehaus spokesman.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said the protests are the result of real public anger at Democratic proposals. He said he encourages his members to attend town-hall meetings — and arms them with suggested questions.

“People are pissed,— Norquist said. “They’ve been lied to.—

Norquist said his group is just one of several organizations, including Americans for Prosperity and the National Conservative Union, that have encouraged members to attend town-hall meetings. But he stopped short of endorsing the raucous demonstrations that have characterized recent health care gatherings.

“The more civilly you ask the question, the more powerful it is,— Norquist said. “Nobody says go and scream. That’s the least effective thing you can do.—

Republicans have faced their fair share of protesters in recent years, namely during debates over the Iraq War and Social Security reform. “If you are going to town-hall, you understand the potential pitfalls,— according to one former GOP aide.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said he used to “psyche myself up— before town-hall meetings where he faced a potential crowd of angry people. He said he didn’t think the protesters were getting more vicious, per se, but that Democrats just aren’t accustomed to the disadvantages of being in the majority.

“Democrats are used to having the wind at their backs,— Davis said. “How Members handle that will depend on them. … Some Members will decide they are going to be better off not having [town halls].—