Congressional Republicans are now learning to appreciate how nice and simple life was when Barack Obama was president. They could attack, investigate, and pass the buck, blaming him for any complaint constituents might have. They could vote to repeal Obamacare without offering a replacement. It was so easy that they did it 60 times. Few people even noticed, and they did it so they could say that they did.
But now life is much more complicated. If Republicans call town meetings, they are far more likely to be pummeled than praised. If they don’t hold them, they risk seeming out of touch, arrogant, or afraid. Many lawmakers have chosen to conduct town meetings by telephone, avoiding television footage of them in a room with jeering, fist-shaking constituents holding protest signs. But most voters don’t think these disembodied exercises are really town meetings. They see them as cop-outs or pathetic bids for political cover.
We hear the refrain that the town-meeting protests are less grassroots and more Astroturf. Sure, there’s no doubt that liberal groups are hard at work building crowds. But while blaming the demonstrations on political agitators is a useful talking point for Republicans, the truth is that these gatherings reflect genuine disgruntlement and, as Wall Street Journal reporters found last week, they are “more organic than organized.”
There’s no question there is considerable anger, concern, passion, and energy among those upset with President Trump and Republicans over the prospect of repealing the Affordable Care Act and the immigration crackdown. The hue and cry is apt to get louder as people begin paying close attention to the Trump administration’s budget proposals. They call for higher defense spending and reductions in domestic discretionary outlays, which account for only 16 percent of the federal budget.
Judging by the marches in cities across the country last month and the town meetings last week, it’s clear that a lot of people are torqued up. Some of those marching, protesting, and grilling their representatives probably feel guilty about not voting last year, or not joining the activists who tried to stop Trump, or wasting their votes on Green Party nominee Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson. Hillary Clinton has to be shaking her head and wondering, “Where in the hell were all these people last fall?” It’s a legitimate question, at least for her. But let’s face it: She was a very problematic candidate. She was the one Democrat for whom many voters could not get excited or give their vote.
Republicans are experiencing a mirror image of the outrage that Democratic members of Congress faced back in 2009 and 2010. The people and nature of their complaints are different, but what we are seeing looks like what we saw from the Tea Party folks from the other end of the political spectrum. The political class remembers all too well what happened next.
But while Republicans should tread very carefully, Democrats should too. The vitriol that powered Republicans to majorities in the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 went on to consume the GOP in 2016, catapulting the renegade Donald Trump to the White House. That’s one possible outcome for Democrats — a candidate from far outside the mainstream emerging as their party’s nominee in 2020. A more immediate concern might be whether all of this anger, energy, and passion results in Democratic primary voters nominating congressional candidates next year who reflect the emotions of the progressive base but who may not play well in districts that aren’t particularly liberal, or that only narrowly went for Clinton or Trump in November. For that matter, while there won’t be a single face on the Democratic Party until the presidential nomination process concludes in the spring or summer of 2020, will the most visible figures in the meantime be politicians whose rhetoric and positions drag down Senate Democrats desperately trying to hang on in deeply red states, like Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.
Another thing Democrats have to consider is where all of this anger will takes the party? The Tea Party reshaped the Republican Party, completely upending its establishment character. Will the Democratic Party turn into the next iteration of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Just as lawyers are advised not to ask a witness a question unless they already know the answer, it’s risky to embark on a path that leads who knows where.
So what’s a Republican to do? Proceed with caution and take seriously the unease at the grassroots. Take very measured steps. Don’t follow the old playbook because everything is different now. For Democrats, use your brains not your guts, behave like a party that deserves to govern rather than one that one that just enjoys throwing rocks and creating mischief.