Gop Rides Wave Of Ire

Minority Party Sees Resurgence - And Risks - In Populist Anger Over Health Care

Health Care Reform

The National Debate

August 16, 2009|By Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten | Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten,Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON - -Conservatives are calling it their August Revolt - a surprising surge of activism against President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul.

Spurred on by the success of their efforts to dominate the news at Democratic town hall meetings, conservative groups are reporting increases in membership lists and are joining forces to plan at least one mass demonstration in Washington next month.

But the conservative mobilization has also created an unusual problem for Republican leaders, who want to turn the enthusiasm into election victories next year, but find themselves the target of ire from many of the same activists.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, was booed at a "tea party" rally in July for his support for bailing out the financial services industry. And one of the party's most reliable conservatives, Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., was shouted down at a recent town hall meeting when he criticized a conservative broadcaster and tried to counter claims that children would soon be forced to receive swine flu vaccinations.

"You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible," said a frustrated Inglis, referring to the vaccine issue and other false rumors being spread by some more aggressive critics of the health bill.

"Going door to door, I found opposition tending toward hostility," added Inglis. "At town meetings, the hostility went straight through to hysteria."

Some GOP leaders, such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, have tapped into the unrest - with Palin stoking fears with blog posts on "Obama death panels," which she claims would result from the health care legislation.

Others are still trying to figure out how to balance the desires of the base with the need to appeal to moderate swing voters who might be turned off by high-volume rhetoric. Whether they find that balance could determine whether the GOP can win back independents who voted overwhelmingly for Obama last year but now, according to several polls, are questioning their commitment to him.

The GOP might take comfort in a new Gallup survey which shows that more than a third of independents who have followed the protests have gained sympathy for the protesters' views, while just 16 percent have lost sympathy for them. Just 35 percent of independents approve of Obama's handling of health care policy.

But party leaders eager to win the middle on other issues such as immigration have failed in recent years to appease the conservative base. Complicating matters now is that some activists have mounted their anti-health care overhaul effort largely outside the party machinery. Instead, they are relying on Internet social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to recruit volunteers for town hall meetings and spread YouTube videos of encounters with lawmakers.

One new group, Smart Girl Politics, has drawn about 10,000 participants using the networking site Ning.

"I don't know that anybody would want to be associated with either party at this point," said Michelle Moore, a suburban St. Louis business owner and mother of two who joined Smart Girl Politics and has helped drive activists to four town hall meetings hosted by Missouri's Democratic senators.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who for years has served as a moderator of sorts between factions of the conservative movement, called the new insurgency a "series of ganglia and nodes" that are all "fed up" with Obama but not unified around a particular leader.

"I think the Republicans need a year to put themselves in front of this parade," said Norquist.

There is some organization to the conservative agitation.

About a dozen groups, including the large and well-financed FreedomWorks, led by former GOP Rep. Dick Armey, are sponsoring a march on Washington on Sept. 12.

Another longtime conservative group, the 60 Plus Association, purchased a nearly $2 million cable TV ad buy alleging that the Obama plan would put seniors' well being in jeopardy.

Republican officials hope those efforts will dovetail with signs of a GOP resurgence. Their candidates are ahead in two closely watched governor's races this year in states won by Obama - Virginia and New Jersey. GOP fundraising, which suffered badly during the past few years, has also improved: The National Republican Senatorial Committee said its donor list has grown by 66,000.

Leaders are trying to rebrand the GOP as the party of fiscal discipline, fighting Obama on his economic stimulus plan, attacking his proposed global warming legislation as a massive tax increase and, now, portraying his health care agenda as a socialist takeover of the private sector - messages that GOP strategists had hoped might appeal nicely to the base and the middle.

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