GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- Six hours before President Obama was due to arrive here last Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people were already gathered in a grassy downtown park under a cloudless canopy of brilliant blue sky. Their sentiments weren't nearly as serene as the setting.
The mood at the Western Slope Conservative Alliance rally was captured by the hand-lettered signs that dozens waved to the beat of the raucous country and classic rock pounding from a makeshift stage. "Hands Off My Health Care, My Money, My Life," read one. "Freedom not socialism," insisted another. A third capitalized each letter in the president's name to write "One Big Ass Mistake America."
While support for Democratic health reform plans is measured and diffuse, opposition is impassioned and unrelenting.
Those signs bobbing in the breeze might better be understood as straws in the wind. The conservative grassroots movement, which was demoralized and divided during President George W. Bush's second term, is reviving with a ferocity not seen since Democrats last controlled both the White House and Congress. That was during President Clinton's first two years.
Gesturing toward Washington, local activist Todd Braley told the Grand Junction crowd: "You have awakened a sleeping giant. And we are coming to get you."
Obama's push to overhaul health care sparked this uprising, but the movement's real fuel is the conservative recoil from his overall agenda. That quickly became clear from conversations with protesters in Grand Junction and at town meetings across the state held the day before by newly-minted Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed when Obama selected Ken Salazar as Interior secretary. "We're all aghast at what's happening to our constitution, our government, our deficits, our freedom," said Dennis White, who helped organize the Grand Junction rally.
Grand Junction is one of America's most conservative places. And probably few, if any, who joined White in the park voted for Obama last year. But the fervor displayed there, fanned tirelessly by the conservative transmission belt of talk radio and Fox News Channel, nevertheless threatens Democrats in 2010.
It was exactly such a wave of conservative discontent that swept the GOP to control of both the House and Senate in 1994. Conservatives surged to the polls that year. (Exit polls found their share of the electorate jumped to 36 percent, from only 30 percent in 1992.) And they gave four-fifths of their votes to Republicans, even more than usual. The last boulders were piled on the landslide by independents who viewed Clinton as ineffective and Democrats dispirited by his compromises.
Some similar conditions may be gathering again. Democrats have closed the attendance gap at this month's town meetings by recruiting more of their own supporters. But, judging by Colorado, there remains a substantial intensity gap between the parties: While support for Democratic health reform plans is measured and diffuse, opposition is impassioned and unrelenting. The fear among Democratic strategists is that this pattern will extend to November 2010, with turnout dropping among young people and minorities central to Obama's coalition while increasing among older white conservatives. "Interest is exploding on the other side," said one worried Democratic pollster. Compounding the Democrats' problem, Obama, like Clinton in 1994, is eroding in the center: His approval rating among independents now consistently runs just below 50 percent.
But the differences from 1994 are considerable, too. Although Obama's base of support is contracting, it remains broader and more committed than Clinton's during his first years. And in the health care fight Obama has attracted more potent allies, including a big-spending, odd-couple coalition led by the Service Employees International Union as well as doctors and drug manufacturers, two groups traditionally antagonistic to Democrats. Far fewer Democratic House seats than in 1994 are likely to be vacant heading into Election Day, and fewer of the party's Senate seats look vulnerable.
The key remaining variable is how congressional Democrats respond to the rising conservative challenge. In 1994, many Democrats from right-leaning places fled from Clinton, dooming his health care initiative. This time, most party leaders from all regions believe that failure on health care would only strengthen their opponents for further assaults. In his town meetings, for instance, Bennet unwaveringly insisted that Congress must act to reshape an unsustainable health care status quo. While Democrats must respond "to legitimate objections," he said, "I don't think we have a choice but to fight through" the resistance from ideological opponents.
Even if other Democrats accept that conclusion, to pass health care reform they still must bridge their internal differences on issues like creation of a public insurance plan. This month's thunder on the right may have unexpectedly increased their incentive to do so. After this uprising, it seems inevitable that conservative voters will be very mobilized in next year's election -- with all the risks to Democrats that entails. What Democrats must decide is whether they will do more to energize their own side and to reassure independents by retreating on health care or by following Bennet's advice to "fight through" to an agreement. For Democrats confronting an emboldened conservative base, an aggressive offense may be the only line of defense left.
CLARIFICATION: SEIU is part of the "big-spending, odd-couple coalition" with doctors and drug manufacturers.