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Like Richard Nixon, Barack Obama wants to govern on the strength of a silent majority, although with a twist. Obama wants the majority that opposes or questions his policies to stay silent.
Obama’s White House and its allies have unleashed a barrage of criticism and condescension at people daring to show up at town-hall meetings and ask their elected representatives pointed questions. “Fired up and ready to go!” apparently works only one way. If engaged citizens shower Obama with adoration at stage-managed rallies, they are the very stuff of American democracy. If they boo their congressman, they are a scandalous eruption of fake or hateful sentiment.
The Democratic National Committee has called the hostile questioners and protesters at town halls a “mob.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that they represent “manufactured anger” ginned up by nefarious corporate interests, and referred to them as “the Brooks Brothers brigade.” California Sen. Barbara Boxer, too, took offense at the untoward lack of shabby dress, noting with disapproval that the protesters are “well-dressed.” It’s the attack of the haut polloi.
All of these Obama mouthpieces must forget that the president once was a community organizer. As a young man in Chicago, he got people to meetings and primed them with questions to ask city officials. By the Gibbs standard, when Obama prodded his community activists to get the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from a public-housing complex in the 1980s, it was contemptible “manufactured” outrage.
Conservative groups are publicizing the times and locations of town-hall meetings on the Internet. They are calling and e-mailing people on their membership lists and urging them to make their voices heard. No one prior to the troubled career of Obamacare thought town-hall meetings should be closely held secrets, or considered basic block-and-tackle political organizing as out of bounds.
Obama once extolled such organizing as one of the marvels of American democracy. The same DNC operative who attacked the “angry mobs of a small number of rabid right-wing extremists” ran a union-funded group in 2005 opposing Pres. George W. Bush’s Social Security reform. It organized protests and town-hall meetings, and ran TV ads. But never mind — it’s activism for me, not for thee.
The Obama team labors under the misapprehension that its sweeping, $1 trillion health-care plan is popular. Pluralities in almost every poll disapprove of the Democrats’ proposals and disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care. Polls show that opponents of Obamacare feel more intensely about the issue than supporters. It’s not surprising, then, that town-hall meetings would be uncomfortable for members of Congress plugging for Obamacare.
In politics, every action prompts a reaction. If Obama had had his way, health-care reform would have passed both houses of Congress a week ago in a pure power play. If Obama gets his maximalist version of reform through, he will depend less on persuasion than on sheer political muscle in Washington. Only a public quiescent to the point of obedience would meekly accept a rush to reorder one-sixth of the economy. And only a conservative opposition that had curled up and died wouldn’t raise holy hell.
The ultimate point of the attacks on the town-hall protesters is to define that opposition as illegitimate. Which is also why liberal opinion-makers are so obsessed with the “birther” conspiracy theorists who believe Obama was born in Kenya. The birthers have been denounced by every reputable conservative. But the Left still wants to use them to tar all Republicans as extreme in what it hopes will be a self-fulfilling narrative of conservative obsolescence.
This narrative will encounter the same difficulty as the health-care plan: reality. Obama is sinking toward a 50-percent presidency, with the public evenly divided over him. In New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races this year, Republicans are leading by 14 points in the latest polls and appealing to the center. No matter how fervently Obama may wish it to be so, his skeptics won’t be silent.