Politics & Policy

What Happens When a Party Wakes Up

A voter speaks at a townhall meeting for Rep. Scott Taylor in Virginia Beach, Va., February 21, 2017. (Reuters photo: Darryl Smith)
Arguing about paid protesters at town halls is a distraction for both parties.

So it turns out that Karl Marx was right about history’s repeating itself as farce. That axiom was validated last week when White House spokesman Sean Spicer sought to dismiss the crowds showing up to protest at town-hall meetings for Republican members of Congress this past week. He characterized them as a “professional protestor manufactured base,” distinctly echoing the contempt that the Obama administration showed in 2009 and 2010 when tea-party activists showed up at town halls to hound Democrats over stimulus spending and Obamacare.

It’s true that eight years ago many of the current GOP House and Senate members weren’t yet in Washington, and no one outside of Trump Tower could imagine a Trump presidency. But most Republicans must surely remember the way liberals derided the Tea Party as a fraud, insisting that the grassroots movement was bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers. Worse than that, Democrats believed their talking points and continued to insist that the mass movement of conservative opponents was a figment of GOP public relations. That’s why they were caught by surprise in the 2010 midterm elections. So when the Trump White House as well as some congressional Republicans (including those who have decided to stay away from town halls for the moment, discretion apparently being the better part of valor) treat the turnout of hostile liberal protestors as merely a PR event staged by Democratic paymasters, they’re making a huge mistake.

The point isn’t that there is no organized aspect of the Democratic protests. Of course the demonstrations are orchestrated to some extent, and some Democratic money is helping the left-wing organizers. The same was true of the Tea Party. The point is that the ability to manufacture an effective protest is itself a sign of political life. Democrats learned too late that the tea-party movement was the engine of a GOP comeback in 2010.

Is there really a grassroots movement arising to save Obamacare? Hard as it may be for Republicans who have spent the last several years pointing to the law’s unpopularity, the answer is “maybe.” The ACA might be on the verge of collapse, but millions of Americans who benefited from Obamacare are facing the possibility that the program could end. It would be obtuse of the GOP to imagine that they — and the liberal interest groups that pander to this constituency — are going to accept the “repeal” part of the Republican platform lying down.

Social Security and other major entitlements created no losers; Obama never grasped that this was not the case with the health-care plan he rammed down the country’s throat in 2010. Despite Obama’s many promises, millions of Americans lost their coverage or doctors or found that they were paying much more for plans that didn’t suit their needs. But now that they are in a position to reverse it, Republicans need to acknowledge that those who did benefit from Obamacare will be making their views heard, loud and clear. House Speaker Paul Ryan is seeking a solution that will largely preserve the extension of coverage to those who didn’t previously have it, but fitting this into a bill that the fractious GOP caucus will pass is easier said than done. It’s one thing to protest the expansion of federal power and the creation of a chaotic program that wrecked havoc on the health-care system. It’s quite another to take away an entitlement that benefitted up to 20 million Americans. No one has ever reaped political profit from that.

Moreover, the ability of liberal activists to turn out their base to hound Republicans is also a function of a potentially bigger problem for the GOP — a problem named Donald Trump. The GOP knows that its fate in 2018 and beyond will be linked to whether public disapproval for Trump’s behavior and statements becomes so great that it overwhelms the advantages that ought to preserve their power in the next midterm. If Ryan fails on Obamacare and Trump’s antics become too great a liability, we might look back at the protests in the first month of the administration as the turning point that led to eventual Democratic victories.

But Democrats shouldn’t be too cocky at the sight of liberal crowds shouting down Republicans. First of all, some of these demonstrations are obviously political fool’s gold. Representative Jason Chaffetz and Senator Tom Cotton may have been given a talking-to by opponents at their town-hall meetings, but does anyone seriously believe that support for Obamacare or even enmity for Trump is such that it will flip Utah or Arkansas from the red to blue in a coming election? Trump may put some wind in Democratic sails next year. But the GOP retains its edge in the House because of the way districts are drawn, which is a result of both gerrymandering and districts’ coming into compliance with the Voting Rights Act: Black voters are channeled into majority-minority districts rather than dispersing them to help Democrats win competitive seats, of which there are very few in any case. In the Senate, the Democrats are defending twice as many seats as Republicans are, with many of them in red states; Democrats will have a tough fight to avoid losses, let alone win back the majority.

Republicans would be mad to think its impossible for the Democrats to ride a grassroots movement back to power.

Democrats could also find, as Republicans did in 2010, that unleashing their activist base has its costs as well as its benefits. The GOP lost winnable races that year because of the primary victories of Tea Partiers such as Kristine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharon Angle in Nevada — candidates who were certain general-election losers. The Democrats’ liberal base is equally capable of nominating leftists who could pull defeat from the jaws of victory.

So while Republicans would be mad to think it’s impossible for the Democrats to ride a grassroots movement back to power, liberals would be equally foolish to assume they will repeat the success of the Tea Party. A lot will depend on the GOP’s ability to govern effectively and how far off the rails Trump’s unconventional style pulls his party. It’s also not a given that Democrats are really listening to the voters who abandoned them in 2016, or that they can keep their left-wing base sufficiently in check. All this means another wave election is a possibility, but at this point, it is by no means certain or even likely.

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