Fake Grassroots Outrage Over Health Care? What's New?

If there’s one thing clear about the battle over health-care reform, it’s this: Washington never changes. As Katie blogged yesterday, one of the big White House talking points this week is going after “fake” grassroots groups who are rallying their supporters to show up and cause commotions at town halls sponsored by members of Congress. Their goal is to defeat some of the proposals included in the health-care bill being debated in Congress, including a President Obama-endorsed, government-run insurance option.

Among the coalitions working against the plan: FreedomWorks, a conservative group aligned with former GOP majority leader Dick Armey. This group is hardly new to the Washington game of ginning up what some would describe as fake grassroots momentum. Your Gaggler profiled the group four years ago when they were on the other side of the argument, working in tandem with the Bush White House to push Social Security reform through. Back then, President Bush hit the road to stir up, you guessed it, grassroots momentum in hopes of pressing Congress to reform Social Security by adding so-called private accounts. He held rallies and did question-and-answer sessions at town-hall meetings, all to give the appearance that the public with him. But it wasn’t quite so. The deal was, as we discovered, that the White House had been stacking its panels of “ordinary people” with FreedomWorks members and other pro-reform activists. Meanwhile, the White House controlled access to who could attend the town-hall meetings. Only people with tickets could attend, and as we wrote back in April 2005, one of Bush’s town halls was stacked with FreedomWorks members.
There’s no shortage of irony that Bush’s Social Security push was defeated, in part, by liberal “grassroots” groups that mobilized to push back against his efforts. (To be fair, plenty of GOP-leaning groups were skeptical too, because of the costs.) One of the bigger groups was Americans United for Change, which got its funding partly through labor unions. That group is now part of the umbrella of groups lobbying for President Obama’s health-care plan. In terms of policy, health care and Social Security are two different beasts, but the structure of the debates isn't much different. They are two big issues that affect just about everybody, which in turn prompts virtually every lobby in Washington to get involved in pressing their particular interest. All the players are the same—ditto for their so-called grassroots techniques that tend to overwhelm and take over an entire debate. It’s enough to make you wonder: What do real people actually think and want? It’s hard to tell these days.

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