August 12, 2009

Isn't the story here not that by a 34-21% margin, the public is more, rather than less, sympathetic to the cause of the "Town Hell" protestors, but that 45% of the public is unmoved? To put it another way, according to Gallup, 66% of the public, or nearly 2 out of 3 people, aren't sympathetic at all to the opinions or tactics of the anti-reform brigades.

Such an interpretation is consistent with other polling numbers, which show a majority of Americans support the health care proposals backed by the President and Democrats. The only thing that's changed has been the numbers who believe Obama has handled the issue well, which really goes without saying; the only interpretation that seems to be consistent with the inept strategy the White House has pursued on this issue is that the President has little passion or interest in the notion that health care should be available and affordable for everyone, and is therefore disengaged. But the public, at least so far, hasn't held that against its backers in Congress.

There is an historical precedent for the seeming disconnect between the public attitudes towards the President's handling of the issue, their general lack of sympathy to the Town Hall Demonstrators, and their widespread support for the actual reforms being debated in Congress. In Rick Perlstein's masterful account of the late-60's, Nixonland, the book's protagonist masterfully (for a time) rode the waves of a similar cultural disconnect over the Vietnam War. Opinion polls consistently showed a majority believing that US involvement in Southeast Asia was a mistake, and that it would better for the US to withdraw sooner rather than later. Nixon shared those sentiments, and admitted to confidants back in the mid-60's that the US could not win in Vietnam.

Those same polls also showed that the most unpopular group in America was the long-haired hippies demonstrating against the war. And in spite of a policy which encompassed a dramatic increase in bombing, particularly civilian, non-military targets in North Vietnam, as well as an escallation of the war into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, Nixon overwhelmingly won a second term, and consistently received public backing for his policies in Southeast Asia. He did it by shifting the terms of the debate, from whether we should be in Vietnam, to the best way of ending the conflict. And his perfect foil in that debate was the anti-war demonstrators.

Similarly, in the health care reform debate, the public may not think Obama has done an effective job on the issue, but it is also clear that it supports the specific policies he's backing. As in the late-60's, the loud, boorish demonstrators offer an effective foil to the President, in counterpoint to the vast majority in the Gallup Poll, who can be described thusly as
...another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non shouters, the non demonstrators. They're not racists or sick; they're not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they're native born and foreign born; they're young and they're old.

They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America.

They're good people. They're decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.
A Silent Majority, if you will....