WASHINGTON (CNN) – Liberal groups are sending supporters detailed instructions on strategies to counter what they call organized disruptions of congressional town halls - events that have become new front lines in the fight over President Obama's health care proposal.
Conservative groups critical of the overhaul headed into the August recess with their own battle plans for the events, sending opponents of the Democratic approach to health care reform information like links to search engines and lists that relayed the locations of upcoming town halls; confrontational questions to ask members of Congress; and chants and slogans to use in and around the venues.
The increasingly tense face-offs have grabbed headlines, and national Democrats have spent the week highlighting reports of everything from rowdy crowds to physical assaults and death threats directed at lawmakers who are current or prospective backers of the president's plan.
Over the past few days, groups like Health Care for America Now, the AFL-CIO - which is describing the town halls as the "principal battleground" in the health care fight - and Organizing for America, the president's campaign arm at the Democratic National Committee, have sent supporters logistical tips for dealing with any hostile conservative presence at the town halls, and for organizing lobbying efforts to neutralize their impact.
OFA sent its e-mail list a message Thursday that pointed to the protests as a fresh hurdle that called for a concerted push to contact members of Congress in response. "The goal of these disruptions is for a few people to get a lot a media attention and hijack the entire public discourse," wrote executive director Mitch Stewart. The message identifies the lawmaker who represents the specific congressional district of the e-mail recipient, and provides contact information.
A new campaign by the group also asks supporters to make their presence felt at town hall meetings. "Our congressional representatives are back home this month, and they’re facing more and more pressure from special interests on health insurance reform. It’s critical that we get out there and show them where we stand," says an OFA e-mail.
HCAN – the massive umbrella organization that represents the lobbying effort on behalf of major progressive groups and unions like MoveOn, the NAACP, and the SEIU – has given its supporters instructions on their own set of defensive town hall tactics.
The group advises them to coordinate event-day strategy in advance with congressional aides; arrive far earlier than opponents and gather "in the front to create a wall around the Member"; and to assign individuals to shadow reporters and "be assertive in shaping the narrative." It provides suggested questions and possible chants to use in drowning out raucous opponents.
The instructions also offer "precautions to make sure that you can keep meetings you organize under control." Those guidelines include making sure attendees are "easily identifiable"; establishing a strictly-controlled question-asking protocol; and banning and collecting any signs and leaflets that they have not issued themselves.
"Plan for disturbances and assign marshals," say the guidelines. "Make sure that you assign marshals to take care of moving the crowd, keeping people organized and orderly, and acting as security should any need arise to ask noisy or disruptive protesters to leave. If you have cause to think that you will need more back-up, notify the police ahead of time."
Opponents of the Obama plan have taken note of the new efforts. Thursday afternoon, conservative blog RedState noted that a Democratic Florida congresswoman had scheduled a "last-minute town hall" in an effort to "avoid middle class workers opposed to Obamacare."
"She'll be surrounded by union goons from the SEIU to feed middle class voters to alligators if they dare criticize Obamacare," said the blog, which advised readers who lived in the area that "you should show up. Just remember, the union goons are going to do their best to pick fights with you so they can get video for TV a proof that you guys are a mob. Don't let them win, but get your questions asked."
Moderate Democrats and fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats in particular are being targeted with lobbying campaigns, millions of dollars in radio and television ads, and grassroots pressure from both parties and groups across the political spectrum over the August recess, as Congress continues to weigh the president's proposed overhaul of the nation's health care system.