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Townhall Showdowns Are Being Caught on YouTube, But Who Comes Off Looking Good?

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, August 4 2009

If, like me, you've been watching the YouTube videos floating around of elected officials like Lloyd Doggett or Arlen Specter or Tim Bishop getting shouted down by angry, organized opponents at public events, what we're seeing isn't exactly new. (The Doggett videos is above; you can check out some of the other videos below.) But the fact that we're seeing it at all is somewhat novel. Captured in full color and audio, these videos paint a far richer pictures than a bland "Protestors Greet Representative Smith" headline suggests. But here's the open question: do omnipresent YouTube videos of agitated protestors actually help their cause? Or are will they instead turn out to be an arrow in the quiver of health reform advocates?

This weekend, the New York Times wrote up the disruptive crowds appearing at the local health care forums that members of Congress are holding during the August recess, protests that are being "organized by loose-knit coalition of conservative voters and advocacy groups." And they sound much like the 1994 health care fight that also saw passionately anti-reform, anti-Administration crowds. "The protestors were more than a match for the supporters of reform when it came to raw emotional intensity," wrote Haynes Johnson and David Broder in The System. "Hillary Clinton was accustomed to heckling; what she encountered as she spoke at that outdoor rally went far beyond. Standing at the front of the crowd were hundreds of angry men. 'They were men in their twenties, thirties, and forties,' she said not long after. 'I had not seen faces like that since the segregation battles of the sixties.'"

Like the protests we're seeing today, the crowds back then weren't just concerned with health care reform. They opposed everything the presidential administration stood for. "When loud jeers and catcalls came, some of the nurses tried to talk to the protestors," write Johnson and Broder. "They were answered with furious expressions of rage -- and not about health care alone. Exhibiting a deeper level of resentment, those protestors shouted that Bill [Clinton] and Hillary Clinton were going to destroy their way of life. They were going to ban guns, extend abortion rights, protect gays, socialize medicine."

But YouTube, of course, didn't exist back during the Clinton-era health care battles. Some of those '90s protests might have made the local news. But today we're seeing video of local townhall conflicts being uploaded to the web within minutes of them taking place, often posted and promoted by the protestors themselves.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for example, were greeted by a crescendo of angry boos at a Philadelphia event. The video was posted on the blog of Freedom Works, one of the groups helping to organize the protests, under the title "Specter Gets Schooled." Noted the blog, "Drudge had this great video of the crowd at an [sic] Sen. Specter town hall in Phillie yesterday - this is a must watch and a must emulate at town halls across the country over the next month." Video captures details news accounts might miss; in the background of this video, for example, a woman waves a copy of the New American Bible. Freedom Work's copy of the video has half a million YouTube views.

Some groups behind the protests are indeed finding plenty to emulate. Think Progress has a memo from the group Right Principles that lays out best practices for "rocking the town halls." "Use the Alinsky playbook of which the Left is so fond: freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it," it reads. "The balance of the group should applaud when the question is asked, further putting the Rep on the defensive. If the Rep tries a particularly odious diversion, someone from the group should yell out to answer the question. These tactics will clearly rattle the Rep and illustrate some degree of his ineptness to the balance of the audience."

Another example: Democratic Representative Tim Bishop, who represents the east end of Long Island, was met at a local event by protesters chanting "Bishop, Pelosi, Frank -- no difference!" After the meeting itself turned rowdy, Bishop has canceled future townhall events until further notice.

Then there's the video of Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett being shouted down at an event outside a South Austin grocery store. The video captures the crowd yelling in unison, "Just say no!" And it captures other details. Notes Politico's Jonathan Martin: "Go to about a the 2:00 minute mark and you'll find a guy carrying a kid on his shoulders and hoisting a sign with the Nazi 'SS' lettering." The vehemence of the protestors and those details of extremist elements might come to haunt anti-reform advocates in the weeks and months to come. (TPM's Rachel Slajda has a great run-down of other health care townhall confrontations.)

Expect more videos to come, as both sides focus on these local events during the congressional recess. ResistNet.com, which is organizing an "ObamaCare August Recess Health Care Blitz!," points from its website to the Tea Party Patriot's list of "Town Hall Events to Counter Protest." And the progressive blog Firedoglake has created an embeddable widget to track upcoming local health care townhalls.

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