By Michael O’Brien and Molly K. Hooper - 08/05/09 08:22 PM EDT
The showdowns between lawmakers and constituents have not only fueled the high-stakes battle over healthcare reform but also started a debate over the authenticity of the interruptions.
The Speaker has advised her rank and file to do what they deem appropriate. She said scheduled town hall meetings should go ahead as planned.There are other ways to get the message out, including tele-town halls, interviews, one-on-one meetings with constituents and news conferences, leadership aides said.
Above-the-fold headlines of the disruptive protests caused the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to accuse Republicans of fueling the anti-Democratic healthcare activists in an attempt to institute “mob rule.”
But Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele denied on Wednesday that the GOP somehow coordinated the protests.
“To sit back and say this is some sort of Republican cabal is some baloney,” Steele said on a conference call with reporters. “And you can substitute [baloney] with something else if you want.”
And Steele argued the protesters have raised questions that the Obama administration deems beneath it to answer.
“This administration has the arrogance to look down their nose” at the protesters, Steele said.
The authenticity of the town hall protests, and whether or not they represent real dissatisfaction with Democrats’ healthcare reform proposals, has become a key element of the early August battle.
The White House questioned the authenticity of the rabble-rousers earlier this week.
“I hope people will take a jaundiced eye to what is clearly the AstroTurf nature of so-called grassroots lobbying,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Gibbs and the DNC have taken aim at groups like FreedomWorks, the activist group founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), for allegedly facilitating the protests at the behest of corporate interests.
FreedomWorks spokesman Max Pappas said in an interview with CBS that his group simply provides talking points to town hall attendees to engage in “civil” dialogues with lawmakers.
Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are encouraging their own activist groups to participate as well.
On Wednesday, Obama used his political arm, Organizing for America, to ask supporters to commit to attending at least one town hall in their local area during August.
“Home is where we’re strongest,” the president said. “That’s why Organizing for America is putting together thousands of events this month where you can reach out to neighbors, show your support and make certain your members of Congress know that you’re counting on them to act.”
The public is more interested in hearing about the issue than in engaging in aggressive political tactics, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
“I find it hard to believe that that kind of yelling and screaming and theatrics will have the effect that they intend it to in a country that is desperate for, I think, serious conversation about healthcare,” he said.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) disagreed, complaining that constituents need to hear from their representatives about healthcare reform but are “precluded from doing so by these types of tactics.”
“It disrupts the message,” Rockefeller said. “The story becomes the disruption, not the message.”
And there are concerns the hostile crowds could lead to incidents beyond verbal confrontations. Some lawmakers have considered hiring security guards for future meetings.
A Democratic leadership memo also advised lawmakers to coordinate with various interest groups to bolster support. To that end, groups like the Service Employees International Union have coordinated events to bolster support for the healthcare bills.
In a release last week, the union touted 400 planned events across the country to organize on behalf of reform legislation, including plans to attend the town hall meetings of Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), one of the key Republican negotiators on a bipartisan bill in the Senate.
The highly coordinated battle shows public opinion on healthcare reform has not materialized in the manner the White House might have hoped.
Fifty-two percent of Americans disapprove of the way Obama has handled healthcare, as opposed to 39 percent who approve, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday.
A plurality said they believe the plan would hurt the quality of healthcare they receive, and 41 percent said they think Obama’s initiatives would hurt the quality of healthcare nationwide.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll also released Wednesday painted a slightly more optimistic picture, though still with less-than-heartening numbers.
Fifty percent of those surveyed said they favored the president’s healthcare plan, while 45 percent said they opposed it.
“Americans’ views on the push for healthcare reform are in a state of flux, perhaps mirroring the back and forth debate in Congress on this contentious issue,” Gallup poll Editor in Chief Frank Newport wrote in an analysis late last week of his organization’s own polling on healthcare.
Still, Republicans appear content to encourage confrontations in the coming weeks, though they maintain they prefer civil and less angry exchanges.
“They’re American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t know of any reason to try to demonize them.”
Reid Wilson and Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.