The Netroots Nation convention this past weekend offered the progressive political community a chance to catch its breath, reassess and regroup during what has become a highly escalated health care debate. But over a four-day period in Pittsburgh, the predominant refrain was one of regret. As in: how the heck did we find ourselves in this position?
Opponents of the president's agenda for health care legislation have largely outmaneuvered the proponents. In Congress, the Democratic caucus is fractured enough to delay a bill's consideration. In the public opinion arena, the White House has watched confidence in its ability to handle the issue drop. But the most telling development has been in the grassroots. While it was once widely assumed that the President would draft his 13-million-strong campaign apparatus to health care reform's cause, so far it has been conservative groups that have dominated the dialogue.
All of which has left members of Congress feeling hamstrung and deeply frustrated.
"It is fascist. It is a fascist tactic," Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.) said of the conservative town hall protesters. "That's exactly what they did in Weimar, Germany. Let me put it this way. It is a fascist tactic not to disagree with you, or to say you are an idiot or whatever, but to try to shut you up. That's what I mean. That's a fascist tactic."
"What are your choices if you are confronted with this?" Nadler added, in an interview with the Huffington Post. "There are three choices. One, you can ignore it and surrender to it. Two, you can call the cops in advance and all you are going to get then is a big story. Three, you can call in your own muscle people and then you have Weimar, Germany with rival street gangs fighting it out. And none of those are acceptable choices. Do you really want rival gangs in [these forums]? That is how democracy breaks down."
Nevertheless, calling in your own muscle is exactly what Democrats are doing in some cases. Weeks before Netroots Nation, two major labor organizations -- the AFL-CIO and SEIU -- began dispatching members to town halls as an effort to counter-balance the largely unfavorable crowds. The groups were subsequently accused of escalating rhetoric and inciting violence. But the strategy, officials say, is only going to get more intense.
"Their whole purpose was to stop debate, was to spread lies, create fear, and hope that they could stop what the country really needs and wants and is demanding," said Richard Trumka, the Treasury-Secretary of ALF-CIO. "So us trying to stop them or balancing or preventing them from being aggressive disruptive forces is a service to democracy."
In private, Democratic strategists say labor's involvement is a big relief but may be too little too late. They warned that a critical moment in the health care reform debate may have passed. As of now, the frame is set in which a voluntary public plan for insurance coverage is seen as a vast government takeover of the private sector. The public plan was supposed to be the compromise progressives made from pushing for a single payer system.
But as reform was watered down at the behest of conservative Democrats, the howls from liberals didn't grow demonstrably louder.
"It is incumbent upon us to organize separately and draw big red lines around things like the public plan," Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign For America's Future, told the Huffington Post a few weeks ago.
As effective as the angry anti-reform town-hall protesters have been at getting media attention, that does not mean they are actually influencing members of Congress. "When a person stands up and points their finger at you like a 54-caliber automatic, and calls you a liar, you can be sure they didn't vote for you and won't vote for you under any circumstance," Rep. Jay Inslee, (D-W.A.) told the Huffington Post. "Those folks never voted for any of my colleagues on this side and wont vote for folks on my side in the next election. They are mad that they lost the last election. They didn't vote for Barack Obama. They will never vote for Barack Obama and they won't vote for Barack Obama's friend."
Moreover, there is also a sense -- or, rather, a hope -- that the protesters will overplay their hands. Certainly, insinuations that the (still popular) president is acting like Hitler and that his agenda is Nazism have the potential to turn off Independents and moderates.
"I think they will backfire," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C.) told the Huffington Post. "I certainly hope so. I'll tell you. I believe that the right to freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, all of these rights are constitutional rights to all of us, that all of us hold dear. I come out of the '60s. I demonstrated. I sat in. I marched. But I don't think I had the right to disturb other people. Even when we were trained to march, we were trained to march in single file, not to take over the streets that we marched in. We were trained to turn the other cheek, to not ever invade other people's space so to speak. All of us had the right to free speech. But all of us do owe a certain amount of respect and space."