The meme of the morning appears to be that the left is failing to gin up anywhere near the level of public outrage about Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals that the Tea Party managed to stoke against health reform during the town halls of 2009. But I’d caution against drawing any immediate conclusions from this comparison.
Dave Weigel got the discussion going with a well-argued piece making the case that the failure to gin up 2009-level public outrage about Ryan’s plan could bode badly for Dem efforts to make it into a central political issue:
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.
Weigel’s piece is well worth reading and discussing, but for now, I’m not too concerned about the comparison it draws. The differences between the two situations are more significant than the similarities. For one thing, it has only been several weeks since Ryan rolled out his “path to prosperity” plan in early April. By contrast, Dems first began debating health reform in early 2009, and months passed before public outrage really heated up. As Matthew Yglesias notes, Dems dithered endlessly over the proposal, making it easier for the right to turn the public against the process, and by extension, the product it yielded.
What’s more, the rise of the Tea Party was not merely a reaction to Obama’s health reform proposal. It was also a reaction to the stimulus, a far-reaching, big-spending, ideologically charged initiative that had already been signed into law months before the town halls got hot.
Finally, Ryan’s Medicare proposal, as written, has no chance of ever passing, because Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. By contrast, in 2009, the Tea Partyers were reacting to proposals that had a very real chance of passing — and mostly did pass in the end — because they were being debated by leaders from the party that completely controlled the government. The Tea Party’s rage was not just an expression of anger at Obama’s health policies. It was an expression of the broader helplessness voters on the right felt at a moment when it remained unclear whether their representatives in government — i.e., Republicans — had any prayer of acting as a meaningful check on Obama’s entire agenda. The two situations just aren’t all that comparable.
I do agree with Weigel’s larger point — that the right tends to be far better than the left at organizing and manufacturing sustained expressions of public outrage, and that more organizing against the Ryan proposal is in order. But I really hope folks don’t see the left’s failure to rapidly manufacture Tea Party-level expressions of rage as proof that Ryan’s proposals aren’t all that unpopular. That has the potential to become the narrative, and it really shouldn’t.
UPDATE: Another very important difference between today’s moment and the town halls of 2009.