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Summer of Discontent

12:00 AM, Aug 13, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Can Obamacare withstand the August heat?

When House Republican leader John Boehner left Washington less than two weeks ago, he predicted Democratic lawmakers would face a long, hot summer of discontent on health care with the folks back home. His prognosis now looks like a precise political CAT scan.

Town hall protests dominate the news--not discussions about public plans, employer mandates, or bending the cost curve. Did scores of Americans add Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals to their summer reading list?

It's too early to tell if these guns of August will prove fatal for health care reform. But there are some likely political casualties: For starters, Obama and congressional Democrats' standing with independent voters. These allegiances began to fray earlier in the summer. Recent health care protests could produce further unraveling.

Independents are politically volatile. They supported Barack Obama over John McCain 52 percent-44 percent in 2008, and they broke heavily against Republican congressional candidates two years earlier, providing much of the fuel for Democrats winning the majority in Congress in 2006.

Moreover, they remained solidly behind Obama and Democrats in the first part of this year. According to NBC/Wall Street Journal polling, in April they approved of the president's job performance by a two-to-one margin (60 percent-31 percent). But by June, those same numbers among independents dipped to 46 percent-44 percent, as concerns about too much spending, too many bailouts and not enough bipartisanship grew.

Rasmussen polling demonstrates similar volatility on the generic Congressional ballot test ("If the election were held today, would you vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate?"). In March Democrats led by four points (42 percent-38 percent). Now, however, the numbers have flipped and Republicans hold a four-point lead (42 percent-38 percent). These results mask even larger shifts among independents, who now favor Republicans over Democrats on the generic ballot by a whopping 20 points, according to Rasmussen. Democrats had led among independents in most polls since the 2006 election.

This unpredictability is rooted in the way independents approach politics. Many in this bloc are less knowledgeable, less interested, and less engaged in politics than their partisan brethren. They pick up public policy information in bits and pieces, focusing more on the headline than the details of a story.

So news of loud protests and counter-protests is disconcerting to these Americans. "What's happening?" they ask. "Why is health care reform so controversial? Obama and the Democrats must be doing something that people really don't like? Should I be worried too?"

Peggy Noonan aptly described these feelings in the Wall Street Journal last week observing, "There's a new tone in the debate, and it's ugly." Independents sense this shifting mood and respond with emotions summed up in the headline of Noonan's column: "You Are Terrifying Us."

The decibel level rises further when the administration promises to fight back against town hall protests. "If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard," White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina told Senate Democrats last week, according to the New York Times.

The White House and congressional Democrats face a tough balancing act. On one hand they must marginalize the protestors, suggesting they are either "nuts" and "kooks" or "special interests." Organizing for America--the enduring political arm of the Obama presidential campaign--sent out this message to supporters last week: "Members of Congress have been home for just a few days, and they're already facing increased pressure from insurance companies, special interests, and partisan attack organizations that are spending millions to block health insurance reform." This is a tired tactic. Find a villain--ready, aim, fire!

House Democrats are fighting back as well. In a memo sent to the entire caucus, House leaders wrote: "The Leadership is working in close coordination with the White House and outside groups (including but not limited to HCAN, Families USA, AFSCME, SEIU, AARP, etc.) to ensure complementary efforts during August a list of groups supporting health reform has been provided to your offices with information on ways you can partner with them in your districts."

Sounds more like a lobbying arms race than a measured sales pitch.