Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conservative Protests are Tricky for Democrats

Maybe the only good thing about republican control of the White House and Congress from 2002 to 2006 was that their right wing base was somewhat pacified.

Now conservative extremists are liberated from the restraint of governing.

Look out, America.

However health care reform shakes out, we now know that organized and well-funded ultra-conservatives are inserting themselves into broad national policy questions. Saturday’s “Taxpayers” march in D.C. drew headlines. Like it or not, they are part of the American spectacle.

Liberals are often caught off guard by right-wing populist revolts. Examples from the 1970s include the anti-school busing protests in Boston and other northeastern cities, the clamor to reinstate the death penalty across the country and Prop 13.

The current uprising from the right poses a very complicated dilemma for activist democrats, members of the congressional majority and the president.

Although it’s very tempting to dismiss right wing protesters as nuts, I think we have to be careful not to disparage or ridicule conservative values and attitudes. This is difficult because our opponent’s attacks on us and our president are irrational, cruel, hateful and noticed.

Nevertheless, I think the president is smart to talk, for example, about including all points of view in the health reform debate. This is especially opportune now, when Obama is explaining the difference between constructive contributions and tactics designed to obstruct progress.

By keeping even a slight distance from the congressional ideological battleground, the president continues to nourish the prospect of creating progressive policy coalitions of religious and business-oriented voters, mountain-state populists and suburban moderates. I believe one reason Obama got such a nice bump in the polls after his joint-session speech last week was the determined effort from the start of his presidency to graciously reach out to republicans, a gesture clearly intended for independents.

Many progressives disagree with the “reaching across the isle” approach, believing that Obama and congressional democrats are being snookered and bullied by republican activists and leaders; and that we should stand up for ourselves and our principles.

But politics is a subtle game. It’s possible that Obama’s stated commitment to bipartisanism - seemingly futile on health care - will be very useful in future legislative campaigns. Likewise, his calm and deliberate temperament may be blunting the sharpest attacks from right-wing extremists, namely that he is “un-American.”

Representative Joe Wilson’s “you lie’ shout out to the President showed how nimble mainstream republicans can be, denouncing this breach of protocol while stoking much scarier right wing antics like this summers town hall mob scenes.

Joe Wilson was a heroic figure at yesterday’s conservative rally with some protestors wearing “Joe Wilson for President” stickers. If that element of the conservative movement steals the show, it might play right into our hands.

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