Loud enough to be heard

LOUD ENOUGH TO BE HEARD…. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R) town-hall meeting in his Wisconsin district this week turned out to be one of the more interesting developments. The House Budget Committee chairman defended tax breaks for the wealthy, and was, surprisingly, roundly booed by his constituents.

Jason Linkins noted yesterday that we’ve seen a few similar examples pop up this week, with other GOP lawmakers facing unhappy voters in their districts, due entirely to the right-wing budget plan approved by the House last week. Linkins specifically pointed to exchanges involving Reps. Robert Bold (R-Ill.), Lou Barletta, (R-Pa.), and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.). Eliminating Medicare, and replacing it with a privatized voucher system, seemed especially controversial.

That’s a good start, but four mildly contentious town-hall gatherings does not a major pushback make. Dave Weigel argues, persuasively, that the left will have to do far more to shake up the debate in Washington.

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. […]

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…. 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.

The 2009 example sets a certain standard, but it’s likely to prove difficult for the left to copy. After all, two years ago, the right had a remarkably well organized campaign underway, with major far-right financiers investing in lobbying organizations, which in turn brought/created grassroots activism. There was also a certain cable news network that, in conjunction with talk radio, effectively acted as a cosponsor for the right-wing pushback, literally airing the names, dates, and locations of public meetings so enraged Republicans knew when and where to throw tantrums.

Will Dems be able to duplicate this in 2011? It’s highly unlikely.

But as we saw in Madison, the left doesn’t necessarily need well-financed lobbying groups and media outlets to tell them what to do — they just need to be outraged and willing to show up. There’s some evidence that labor organizations are gearing up for broader activism.

Here’s hoping it’s successful. After the summer of 2009, Republicans returned to Capitol Hill feeling emboldened, and Democrats felt shell-shocked. It didn’t derail health care reform, but it left Dems in an almost permanent state of defensiveness and encouraged timidity.

GOP officials can see polls showing how unpopular their agenda is, but until they see angry constituents telling them the Republican vision is unacceptable, the trajectory in Washington will remain the same.