Conservatives are calling it their August Revolt -- a surprising upsurge of activism against President Obama's proposed healthcare overhaul.Well, it's a little more complicated than that. No, there aren't "death panels" per se, but the "Complete Lives System" is real, and the administration's top policy advisor on health care, Ezekiel Emanuel, distanced himself from his own writing to minimize the political damage to ObamaCare. Not only that, Sarah Palin has emerged as an even bigger star among conservative circles than ever. No one has the finger on the pulse of the right's grassroots better than the former Alaska governor. Many of the right's establishment media poobahs dismiss her, but Palin's lining up for the 2012 GOP nomination better than ever. Most of all, Palin is President Obama's worst nightmare.
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 dilemma 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 supporting the government bailout of the financial services industry.
And one of the GOP's most reliable conservatives, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, 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 more aggressive critics of the health bill.
"Going door to door, I found opposition tending toward hostility," Inglis added. "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 on her Facebook page of "Obama death panels" that would result from the healthcare legislation. That claim, too, has been widely discredited.
As for the Republicans, the House GOP caucus is now talking as though a comeback in 2012 isn't out of the question. As Byron York points out:
In recent weeks, poll after poll has shown Republicans neck-and-neck, or even ahead, of Democrats. Even a National Public Radio survey found Republicans in the lead. "There's no question that you're seeing a shift across virtually all the polling," says one GOP strategist, "with Democrats losing ground."Hook's piece at the L.A. Times shows a more ambiguous picture. Conservatives are organizing outside of the GOP's organizational structure. I know personally that all the tea-party activism I've been involved with this year has been specifically non-partisan. In the months before next year's election, the most logical home for most of these folks will be the Republican Party. But that depends on the policy positions and voting records of individual members Members of Congress. Still, our single-member district plurality vote system results in a stable two-party competition, and I doubt activists are looking to start a new third party. If anything, congressional candidates will need to adopt the Palin-model if they hope to have a credible "outsider" status for their electoral runs.
Republicans were sensing momentum earlier in the summer, but events of the August recess -- specifically, the town hall meetings in which opponents of the Democratic health care reform plan have turned out in force -- have changed their view. "This month has opened our eyes," says one plugged-in House aide. "We're seeing real people who are fired up who weren't engaged before -- the first time we've had a popular movement that could really benefit us electorally."
Other than that, a lot can happen in 15 months. The Obama administration might very well achieve some large policy successes, and the president himself might get a better knack for policy-making his second year in office.
That said, the notion that the GOP would be considering a return to power so soon after the 2008 debacle was unthinkable at the beginning of this year. The healthcare debate is indeed a turning point. Decisions on both sides of the political aisle will determine how things develop going forward, but the GOP's grassroots is massively emboldened by their successes so far, and the right's "rebels" of 2009 will undoubtedley shape the next stage of political action.
Cartoon Credit: Chris Muir, "Waiting for GOP."