GOP's risky delusion about town hall protests

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: White house kidding itself that town hall protests are cooked up by activists; there is genuine constituent anger
  • But no question, Democratic strategists may be hoping to ride wave of activism into a majority in House in midterms, he says

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)White House spokesman Sean Spicer is kidding himself if he truly thinks the wave of protesters swarming Republican congressional town hall meetings from coast to coast represent a flash in the pan, or some less-than-authentic paid lobbyist campaign.

"Protesting has become a profession now," Spicer said on Fox News. "They have every right to do that. Don't get me wrong, but I think that we need to call it what it is. It's not these organic uprisings that we've seen through the last several decades. You know, the tea party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, Astroturf-type movement."
Wrong, Mr. Spicer. The town hall protests appear to be driven by an authentic concern about the future of health care reform and troubling reports about Russian meddling in the November elections. Reporters who investigated allegations that paid protesters disrupted a recent town hall in Utah found none, and even some Republican lawmakers targeted by protesters in Iowa and upstate New York acknowledge the anxiety of their constituents is real.
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In the words of Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review: "In the normal course of things, it's not easy even for a well-funded and -organized group to get people to spend an evening at a school auditorium hooting at their congressman. If these demonstrations are happening in districts around the country, attention must be paid."
That's putting it mildly. Confronted by journalists, Spicer later hedged a bit: "I think some people are clearly upset. But there is a bit of professional protester, manufactured base in there," he said at a recent briefing -- no doubt reflecting what his boss, President Trump tweeted: "The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists."
There's no question that activists have been busy: A group of Democratic staff member and volunteers operating under the title Indivisible started an online campaign to encourage citizens to attend town hall meetings. The short how-to guide explaining town hall activism, which quickly went viral, was clearly modeled on a similar document that conservative tea party activists used in the run-up to the 2010 elections.
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And now, as in 2010, the prairie fire of grass-roots activism has attracted mainstream money, manpower and strategy: specifically, Democratic strategists who hope to ride the current wave of discontent into a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
It's not a crazy idea. Republicans control the House by 24 votes, and there are 23 Republican House members whose districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in November, providing a tempting target for Dems.
"History is on the Democrats' side," says Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. "The President's party has lost ground in the House in 36 of 39 midterms since the Civil War. The average loss is 33 seats, a shift in seats that would flip the House next year."
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That's easier said than done: The Democratic Party is still smarting from last year's shellacking, and is engaged in a low-key but intense battle for the future of the party that will play out as leaders select a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee this week.
Trump and Republican leaders run a political risk in pretending millions of people aren't worried about losing their health care, and are ready to punish lawmakers who seem hostile or indifferent to their concerns. That leaves little room for Trump's dismissive attitude.
"Democrats deluded themselves in 2009 by disregarding the early signs of fierce resistance to their agenda, and paid the price over and over again for their heedless high-handedness," Lowry writes. "Republicans shouldn't make the same mistake."
All the more reason for GOP leaders to stop pretending that tampering with the health care of 17 million Americans was ever going to be a quick or quiet process.