The signs over the last week have been mixed. Republicans heard their core supporters urging them to take strong stands and hold fast on the next big budget fight — the debate over raising the federal debt limit.
In Illinois, freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger was cheered for his hard-line stance on that debate. "If it came to me to raise it today, I would vote no," he told a senior center 50 miles south of Chicago.
But in many places, Democrats turned out to express their opposition, much as Republicans had done in the healthcare debate. In a Pennsylvania coal town, a man outraged by the GOP budget plan was escorted out of a town hall by police. In Wisconsin, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the architect of the Republican plan, was booed in his own district as he outlined the proposal.
Here in Hillsborough, a bedroom community in a state known for a fiscally conservative streak, Bass painted a doomsday picture, saying the country would be "basically ruined" if it did not curb the growth of government. But a group of gray-haired constituents — most later identified themselves as Democrats — quickly pushed him back on his heels. He struggled to defend the GOP plan vigorously, once mischaracterizing a key element. By the time he left, he seemed less than wedded to the details.
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.