If the Ryan budget is so unpopular, where are the town-hall meltdowns?

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April 21 2011 7:43 PM

Wanted: Angry Liberals

If the Ryan budget is so unpopular, where are the town-hall meltdowns?

Paul Ryan. Click image to expand.
Paul Ryan

These are good days to be a member of Congress. Your job is not popular, per se, and neither is the institution you work for. But at least you're not getting yelled at. A controversial Republican budget just passed the House, you're home in your district, and the anger that curdled town hall meetings for members of the last Congress is really nowhere to be seen.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Take the case of Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa. He's a freshman who won an open Democratic seat last year—a seat that John Kerry won by six percentage points and that Barack Obama carried by 13. He's the subject of a muckraking blog, The Meehan Report, which has video from before the election of the congressman being asked about Rep. Paul Ryan's plans to privatize Medicare. "That's the agenda I'm not voting for," said Meehan. He proceeded to vote for it.

Yet the reaction at home has not been ugly. Today, Meehan held a widely publicized town hall in the town of Radnor. Twenty people showed up. They were not all happy, and there was one constituent annoyed that Meehan "never answered the question" about the budget. But there was no reaction worthy of YouTube, nothing for cable news.

That, for liberals who enjoy nailing Republicans to the wall about their votes, was an opportunity missed. The town halls of 2009—dry runs in June, and really volcanic ones in August—changed the way that Washington talked about the law that would become the Affordable Care Act. And there was a science to them. Democrats took a long, lumbering time to figure that science out. But they haven't copied it. Not yet.

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Have there been town halls with a little more anger and vigor than Meehan's? Of course. On Thursday, the Huffington Post's Jason Linkins pointed to four local stories about gruff congressional meet-and-greets. Three of the four were held by new members who'd won districts that had been Kerry/Obama turf before. At his town hall, Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., took question after question about his vote for the Ryan budget from a voter who'd voted for Obama, then voted for Bass.

These are nice stories for Democrats, but they don't endanger Ryan's budget. The lack of anger on display leaves an impression: Perhaps Ryan's Medicare plan isn't inducing mass panic as the Democrats' Medicare plans did. (That would be something, because the Medicare spending cuts in "ObamaCare" and the reforms in Ryan's bill are not worlds apart.) If that impression sticks, Republicans will return to Washington in May with the knowledge that the polls are a little overheated and Ryan's budget is a go.

Where are the liberal protesters? Is there a brilliant rope-a-dope strategy in place, some plan to get Republicans even further out on a limb before hammering them in the August recess? Possibly. Labor strategists say that there'll be a much bigger focus on generating turnout at town halls come August; Ben Smith has been reporting on their plans to nationalize the actions they pulled off in Wisconsin. There really is no larger plan in effect for now. "We're focused on educating our members [on] the budget," a spokesman for the AFL-CIO told me, "and not showing up at Republican town halls." Democratic strategists say there is no larger strategy at work right now. Linda Christman, a Pennsylvania activist who started one of the only videotaped arguments with a member of Congress, was basically an independent operator. Meanwhile, the American Action Network, the think tank and campaign shop run by former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, is making Ryan budget talking points and questions available for conservatives who want to buck up their members.

How did Republicans get so much better at this stuff? In 2009, after all, they were basically copying the Democrats—or what they thought were Democratic tactics. That was the year when sales of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals surged. FreedomWorks, Dick Armey's Tea Party group, handed out the book to new employees, who went on to train activists. Bob MacGuffie, a Rhode Island Tea Partier, wrote a two-sided tip sheet for his peers that called for them to "use the Alinsky playbook of which the left is so fond: Freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it."

Obviously, not everyone who made life painful for a soon-to-be-defeated Democrat was trained in Dick Armey's living room. The town halls were overflowing; Republicans returned to Washington after recesses claiming to have survived the biggest crowds they'd ever seen. And that was because all of this was going viral. Talk radio told people where to show up. The town-hall partisans used smartphone cameras and inexpensive video setups to record the damage.

If Democrats actually did invent that strategy, they've since managed to forget it. The immediate reaction to the protests was dismissive. Nancy Pelosi called the disruptions "un-American." White House spinmasters were convinced they would backfire. They didn't backfire.

So Democrats need some hot video of real, live Americans getting angry about Paul Ryan. How are they doing so far? For two days, a ThinkProgress video reporter tailed Paul Ryan in his district. The chairman of the budget committee talked to constituents. The reporter taped it. He talked to more constituents. The reporter taped it. It was at only one event, in the town of Milton, that one of Ryan's constituents grilled Ryan about taxes and ThinkProgress' reporter Scott Keyes got the video; according to ThinkProgress' editor-in-chief, Faiz Shakir, it was the best clip from two days' reporting.

"You have to lower spending," said one constituent. "But it's a matter of there's nothing wrong with taxing the top because it does not trickle down."

"We do tax the top," said Ryan as he is drowned out by boos.

It's hardly incendiary. But for Democratic activists looking for some anger, it's a start.

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