Where Are the Liberal Mobs?

One by one, Democratic congressmen have watched this summer as their local town hall meetings have been overwhelmed and shut down by irate conservative activists who oppose health care reform.

The top-down nature of these protests has been noted. Nonetheless, they’re a potentially effective tool, because the pictures and video images that they generate can be compelling to casual news consumers. As a result, some Democrats have begun to grumble: Where is our mob?

After all, one of the great achievements of Barack Obama’s campaign was its ability to mobilize everyday people in historic numbers. Why isn’t someone making sure those same people turn up to counter the Republicans now?

The problem is that, when it comes to mobilizing its base, Democrats are—for now—at a decided disadvantage on health care.

Just consider how easy it’s been for the right to foment the rage we’ve been seeing at town hall meetings. Mike Huckabee, the once and probably future G.O.P. presidential candidate, offered a pitch-perfect tutorial for how it’s done in the opening monologue of his Fox News show last weekend.

He’d just returned from Canada, Huckabee told his flock, where the health care system “works O.K. if have a minor complaint, but in the event of something really serious, God help you, because the government-run system probably won’t.” This should worry Americans, he said, because the imperious, out-of-touch Congress is “hell-bent” on orchestrating a government takeover of the U.S. health care system.

He then urged viewers to show up at town hall meetings this month and to “gently—or not so gently—remind them who the boss is.”

It was a maddeningly dishonest presentation. None of the plans under consideration in Congress would impose a Canadian-style, single-payer health care system in this country. The comparison was absolutely false and baseless.

Not that this mattered. Huckabee’s audience is dominated by the right-wing base of the Republican Party—a base that is filled with voters who are reflexively hostile to anything with Obama’s fingerprints on it. So Huckabee invented a connection between his audience’s worst-nightmare concept of health care reform (socialism!) and Obama and the Democratic Congress. Factually, his presentation was bankrupt. But emotionally, it was powerful.

It’s easy to see how such a routine—and how similar routines from countless other conservative media figures, repeated over and over for months on end—would stoke the fury we’ve been seeing. The protesters aren’t really attacking a piece of legislation: They’re channeling their built-in hostility to and resentment of Obama and his party into the health care debate. And as the losers of the last two elections, they feel particularly aggrieved.

Democrats, on the other hand, have more diffuse interests at this point. Their party runs the White House and Congress and, consequently, they have long expected real health care reform to be implemented this year.

With the legislation still inching through Congress, there’s nothing—yet—for them to feel passionate about. The right can scream about evils of “the Obama plan,” but the left knows there’s no such thing. No final bill has yet been produced and decisions are still pending on the public option, a proposed surcharge on wealthy Americans, whether benefits should be taxed, and other contentious issues.

Different components of the Democratic coalition have different views on all of these issues, so the party is divided. To them, the major question of whether health care would be on the ’09 agenda was answered last November, when voters elected Obama and a Democratic Congress. Now, they are reserving their enthusiasm until they see a final plan.

This explains the passion gap. But the prominence of the G.O.P. protests could be changing the equation. The angry mobs and the media coverage they’ve spawned are, not surprisingly, infuriating to Obama’s base, which means that suddenly these voters can be riled up and mobilized just as the right has been. Now Democrats have something of their own to protest against: the G.O.P.’s effort to wipe health care reform off the national agenda.

On Wednesday, an email to Obama supporters—signed by the president—was sent asking them to attend a town hall meeting this month. A few weeks ago, this appeal would have been met mainly with indifference. Now it may be a different story. Where Are the Liberal Mobs?