Republicans and Democrats Invite Activists to Outrage Camp This August

The Atlantic Wire

In two weeks, members of Congress depart Washington for their annual August recess. Since 2009, when nascent Tea Party activists swarmed local events held by senators and representatives to oppose health care reform, the break has been seen as an opportunity for contentious debate and easy media. Since 2009, though, that hasn't really happened on any extensive scale. In large part, it's because the elected officials now try to foster outrage directed at their opponents, which sort of neuters the whole thing.

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But they keep trying. Both Organizing For Action (the newly outfitted Obama campaign organization) and the Republican Party just outlined their plans for safe, controlled, focused fury at the other side.

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The House Republican Conference dropped a 31-page plan in the laps of its members, entitled "Fighting Washington for all Americans." It's clear that the conference isn't unhappy that the plan leaked (which it did, in full). The document serves as an August roadmap for activism.

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Step one is to write an op-ed. What better way to get people excited than an opinion piece in the local newspaper? "Every day I serve in Congress," the sample text reads, "I work to fight Washington." Which is "why I will be travelling throughout the district in August on my 'Fighting Washington for You' tour." (The savvier elected officials will probably rename their own tours.)

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Stops on the tour: Constituent meetings ("Conversation with Groups Potentially Targeted by the IRS"), forums ("Millennial Health Care Forum"), issue tours ("Main Street Tour #4Jobs"), town hall meetings ("Emergency Health Care Town Hall," "Emergency Town Hall: Stopping Government Abuse"). For each stop, the guide walks through Organizing 101: email people in advance, alert the press, so on. And tips: "Include visuals in the room, such asa backdrop that includes appropriate hashtags or charts with statistics and facts." An example of a hashtag is "#4Jobs."

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The guide asks that members focus on areas in which the party is "on offense." Namely, health care, energy, jobs, and oversight.  The guide is so specific in its town hall topics for a reason: Agitators can be told that their core issue is off-topic and to swing by the district office later in the week. Any yelling at the GOP events this time, it is hoped, will be at elected officials not in the room.

We'll see how that works. That list, you'll note, omits immigration reform, which Tea Party activists earlier this month promised to raise as an issue during August events. There's almost no chance that the House will have resolved the issue before the break begins, and even if it does, there's basically zero chance that differences between a House bill and a Senate bill could be resolved. Whether or not House leadership wants it, it seems likely that immigration will come up during one of those emergency town halls.

Especially if Organizing For Action brings its plan to fruition. Last night, the organization announced to a room of supporters that it was preparing for "Action August," according to Politico.

OFA’s preparing a range of under-the-national-radar tactics in conjunction with heading for town halls. Rallies, flyering and district office demonstrations will be aimed at drawing the same sort of local attention that tea party groups managed four years ago, hoping to spook members of Congress worried about the 2014 midterms.

That campaign will begin on August 4, with events promoting healthcare reform. That's one of the focal points of OFA's push, which also includes "climate change, gay marriage, gun control, immigration reform — and, in targeted states like Texas, reproductive and women’s rights." Politico suggests that the disparate nature of those priorities — which lacks the cohesive theme of, say, "fighting Washington" — could hamper organizing efforts. For progressives, this is a tale as old as time. As is OFA's response: "Staff says they’ll avoid dictating from Chicago what shape the efforts take, instead facilitating with organizing information and best practices that will grow out of experiences they’ve had so far."

While OFA's intent is to bolster the policy priorities of the president, its priority list doesn't overlap entirely. On Wednesday, twelve days before the recess begins, the president will unveil a big push on the budget and economy — not exactly subjects conducive to energetic grass roots activism, but clearly ones that will rise in importance once elected officials return to Washington.

Prompting the question: What's the point? Even the heralded Tea Party push of 2009 failed to block healthcare reform. Where's the indication that activism on tangential issues during the doldrums of August — particularly activism undertaken with the blessing of the elected officials — will result in policy? In some ways, the detailed GOP proposal and OFA theme seem more like rival summer camps: something to do, replete with activities, that's then largely forgotten once school starts again. But you'll always have the memories.

Photo: A Tea Party rally in early 2009. (AP)

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