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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, March 3, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 28, 2017

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are now learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate how nice and simple life was when Barack Obama was pres­id­ent. They could at­tack, in­vest­ig­ate, and pass the buck, blam­ing him for any com­plaint con­stitu­ents might have. They could vote to re­peal Obama­care without of­fer­ing a re­place­ment. It was so easy that they did it 60 times. Few people even no­ticed, and they did it so they could say that they did.

But now life is much more com­plic­ated. If Re­pub­lic­ans call town meet­ings, they are far more likely to be pummeled than praised. If they don’t hold them, they risk seem­ing out of touch, ar­rog­ant, or afraid. Many law­makers have chosen to con­duct town meet­ings by tele­phone, avoid­ing tele­vi­sion foot­age of them in a room with jeer­ing, fist-shak­ing con­stitu­ents hold­ing protest signs. But most voters don’t think these dis­em­bod­ied ex­er­cises are really town meet­ings. They see them as cop-outs or pathet­ic bids for polit­ic­al cov­er.

We hear the re­frain that the town-meet­ing protests are less grass­roots and more As­tro­turf. Sure, there’s no doubt that lib­er­al groups are hard at work build­ing crowds. But while blam­ing the demon­stra­tions on polit­ic­al agit­at­ors is a use­ful talk­ing point for Re­pub­lic­ans, the truth is that these gath­er­ings re­flect genu­ine dis­gruntle­ment and, as Wall Street Journ­al re­port­ers found last week, they are “more or­gan­ic than or­gan­ized.”

There’s no ques­tion there is con­sid­er­able an­ger, con­cern, pas­sion, and en­ergy among those up­set with Pres­id­ent Trump and Re­pub­lic­ans over the pro­spect of re­peal­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and the im­mig­ra­tion crack­down. The hue and cry is apt to get louder as people be­gin pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s budget pro­pos­als. They call for high­er de­fense spend­ing and re­duc­tions in do­mest­ic dis­cre­tion­ary out­lays, which ac­count for only 16 per­cent of the fed­er­al budget.

Judging by the marches in cit­ies across the coun­try last month and the town meet­ings last week, it’s clear that a lot of people are torqued up. Some of those march­ing, protest­ing, and grilling their rep­res­ent­at­ives prob­ably feel guilty about not vot­ing last year, or not join­ing the act­iv­ists who tried to stop Trump, or wast­ing their votes on Green Party nom­in­ee Jill Stein or Liber­tari­an Gary John­son. Hil­lary Clin­ton has to be shak­ing her head and won­der­ing, “Where in the hell were all these people last fall?” It’s a le­git­im­ate ques­tion, at least for her. But let’s face it: She was a very prob­lem­at­ic can­did­ate. She was the one Demo­crat for whom many voters could not get ex­cited or give their vote.

Re­pub­lic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing a mir­ror im­age of the out­rage that Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of Con­gress faced back in 2009 and 2010. The people and nature of their com­plaints are dif­fer­ent, but what we are see­ing looks like what we saw from the Tea Party folks from the oth­er end of the polit­ic­al spec­trum. The polit­ic­al class re­mem­bers all too well what happened next.

But while Re­pub­lic­ans should tread very care­fully, Demo­crats should too. The vit­ri­ol that powered Re­pub­lic­ans to ma­jor­it­ies in the House in 2010 and the Sen­ate in 2014 went on to con­sume the GOP in 2016, cata­pult­ing the reneg­ade Don­ald Trump to the White House. That’s one pos­sible out­come for Demo­crats — a can­did­ate from far out­side the main­stream emer­ging as their party’s nom­in­ee in 2020. A more im­me­di­ate con­cern might be wheth­er all of this an­ger, en­ergy, and pas­sion res­ults in Demo­crat­ic primary voters nom­in­at­ing con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates next year who re­flect the emo­tions of the pro­gress­ive base but who may not play well in dis­tricts that aren’t par­tic­u­larly lib­er­al, or that only nar­rowly went for Clin­ton or Trump in Novem­ber. For that mat­ter, while there won’t be a single face on the Demo­crat­ic Party un­til the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion pro­cess con­cludes in the spring or sum­mer of 2020, will the most vis­ible fig­ures in the mean­time be politi­cians whose rhet­or­ic and po­s­i­tions drag down Sen­ate Demo­crats des­per­ately try­ing to hang on in deeply red states, like Joe Manchin in West Vir­gin­ia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Test­er in Montana, Claire Mc­Caskill in Mis­souri, and Joe Don­nelly in In­di­ana.

An­oth­er thing Demo­crats have to con­sider is where all of this an­ger will takes the party? The Tea Party re­shaped the Re­pub­lic­an Party, com­pletely upend­ing its es­tab­lish­ment char­ac­ter. Will the Demo­crat­ic Party turn in­to the next it­er­a­tion of the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment? Just as law­yers are ad­vised not to ask a wit­ness a ques­tion un­less they already know the an­swer, it’s risky to em­bark on a path that leads who knows where.

So what’s a Re­pub­lic­an to do? Pro­ceed with cau­tion and take ser­i­ously the un­ease at the grass­roots. Take very meas­ured steps. Don’t fol­low the old play­book be­cause everything is dif­fer­ent now. For Demo­crats, use your brains not your guts, be­have like a party that de­serves to gov­ern rather than one that one that just en­joys throw­ing rocks and cre­at­ing mis­chief.