The White House on Tuesday dismissed protests against President Obama’s health care reforms in multiple states over the weekend as “manufactured anger” orchestrated by right wing groups and the Republican party.
“I hope people will take a jaundiced eye to what is clearly the Astroturf nature of grass-roots lobbying,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during a morning off-camera session in his office with reporters.
“This is manufactured anger,” he said.
Mr. Gibbs implied that the Republican Party is using operatives to make it appear as if members of the administration and of Congress are encountering genuine outrage and anger over the president’s proposed health care reforms.
Comparing the protests to the recount in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Mr. Gibbs said that “the Brooks Brothers brigade … appears to have rented a similar bus and are appearing at town hall meetings throughout the country.”
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Texas Democrat, encountered an angry crowd in Austin, Texas, that shouted at him to “just say no” to the Obama reforms, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, along with Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, encountered a crowd in Philadelphia on Sunday that at times drowned them out with shouts and boos.
Other members of Congress have encountered heckling and loud crowds over the past month, throwing a wrench into Democrats’ plans to use the August recess to promote their drive to pass a major health care package this fall.
The Democratic National Committee on Monday sent out a blog post by the liberal Think Progress that accused “lobbyist-run groups” in Washington of organizing a “right wing harassment strategy” that they said has been “often marked by violence and absurdity.”
Think Progress named FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, both conservative political advocacy group in Washington, and Americans for Prosperity, as working “to create an image of mass public opposition to health care and clean energy reform.”
They pointed to protesters in Eastern Maryland who hung in effigy a representation of Rep. Frank Kratovil, Maryland Democrat, and to protesters who hounded Rep. Tim Bishop, New York Democrat, to the point that he had to be escorted by police from a town hall event.
Mr. Gibbs’ reference to a bus may have come from AFP’s “bus tour” which is in the midst of visits to 13 states. AFP spokeswoman Amy Menefee denied that her group was shipping activists to any of these events and said that the protesters at each town hall are “from those areas.”
Polls over the past two weeks have showed a decline in public support for the president’s preferred approach to health care reform, which includes a government-run insurance option and coverage for all Americans. The polls show that many Americans are concerned about the cost of such reforms and that the Republicans are gaining ground with the message that a government option will crowd out private insurers and lead to government involvement in every day decisions about care.
The Think Progress post distributed by the DNC cited a 10-page memo written by a Connecticut activist as evidence of a coordinated national campaign that makes the protests illegitimate.
The memo, written by Robert MacGuffie on letterhead that says “Right Principles,” advises activists to position themselves in the front of the room where town hall events take place, and to “watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
Max Pappas, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks, said that his group was linked with MacGuffie’s memo because the activist is affiliated with a group called the Tea Party Patriots, which FreedomWorks also is loosely connected to.
“Therefore this guy is writing memos for FreedomWorks. It doesn’t even make sense,” said Mr. Pappas.
Mr. MacGuffie did not immediately respond to a request for comment via e-mail.
But Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who visited the White House Tuesday to meet with White House director of political affairs Patrick Gaspard, said that the town hall protests are the product of “a well organized group of lobbyists who are paying people to go out.”
“They’re renting organizers. The left has done it. Now they’re doing it,” said Ms. Brazile. “This little small band of protesters are trying to stop members [of Congress] from doing their jobs. They know they can’t win the debate so they want to shut down the conversation.”
Ms. Brazile said she did not have proof of influence from Washington interests but said that she had “seen this dance before.”
“It looks like that mob scene coming out of Florida in 2000,” she said.
But Mr. Pappas said the protests are nonpartisan and are rooted in anger that began with the $700 billion bailout for banks and financial institutions last fall that was spearheaded by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
“People are saying, ‘Whoa, somebody’s going to have to pay for this and that somebody is going to be us,’” Mr. Pappas said.
“We know about grassroots and you can’t artificially generate this much outrage at this many town halls across the country,” he said. “It’s very real and the left is calling it phony at their own peril.”