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Some thoughts on hyping the fringes

Ben Smith makes some very good points about how Democrats are hyping the death threats and vandals and extremists in order to define conservative opposition to the bill as nuts. This is in sharp contrast, he argues, to the Obama campaign's strategy of playing down these forces and their relevance in order to cool the debate.

You can run in either direction with this. Perhaps the Obama campaign's decision to give Republicans a pass for appearing on radio shows that made racist remarks and trafficked in dark conspiracies was good politics at the expense of an important form of accountability. But there's certainly an element of the current Democratic strategy that's trying to marginalize conservative opponents by elevating their least credible members.

To take this down a couple of levels from death threats to simple punditry, do you point at Mark Steyn's lunacy or engage with the more reasoned critiques coming from Ramesh Ponnuru and Stephen Spruiell?

The difficulty is that the marginal critiques are not truly marginal. Conservative politicians, at least on the night of the House's final debate, sounded at least as much like Steyn as like Spruiell. You don't want to only engage the elevated wonkery you find appealing when the debate is really being driven by the cheap populism you prefer to ignore. And what do you do with the fact that the overheated rhetoric, and even the wonkish critiques, give no credit to the fact that Obama's plan reads like it was written by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2003? How do you have an argument when the goal posts change so quickly? Do you engage with the political debate based on where it is, or where you'd like it to be?

Reading back over this, it's not a terribly coherent post, and I don't have a firm conclusion. These are just things I struggle with.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 25, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
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I agree that hyperventilating about a few lunatics and racists is just giving them a moment in the spotlight that they crave. I don't really think anybody who marched across that bridge in Selma is scared of a few shouting halfwits. When things escalate to the level of criminal acts they should be reported to the police and taken seriously as crimes, but to blather on about them on the talk shows is just adding a shred of legitimacy they don't deserve.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | March 25, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

So basically the Republicans wrote most of the subastance in the healthcare bill, and the Democrats get all the credit for passing it. Sounds like the Republicans won the battle but lost the war.

Posted by: Quant | March 25, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

"But there's certainly an element of the current Democratic strategy that's trying to marginalize conservative opponents by elevating their least credible members."

Well that is because there are no responsible conservative critics being heard. It all death panels, socialism/fascism, government takeover of health care, all the time 24/7.

And the death panel govt takeover rhetoric is not just coming from the fringe, it is from the minority party's most important figures, Boehner and McConnell, and scores of lesser republicans, as well as, right wingers inhabiting glenbeckistan and its surrounding areas.

Seriously, what kind of substantive criticisms on this entirely centrist incrementalist bill have we heard from the republicans....crickets.

Posted by: srw3 | March 25, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

"Reading back over this, it's not a terribly coherent post, and I don't have a firm conclusion. These are just things I struggle with."

Ezra, if someone spat on you, called you the "N" word, or faxed you images of nooses, it might be less of a struggle.

This stuff really is ugly and dangerous, and the Republican leadership ought to speak out against it in the most unqualified terms.

The fact that you get a politician like Orrin Hatch, who long supported an individual mandate, now calling the individual mandate an example of "totalitarianism" is an example of how Republican leaders consistently describe a moderate piece of legislation in the most extreme terms.

By doing so, they incite the most irrational, paranoid, and hostile persons in our society.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 25, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

While reasonable conservatives might be the people you'd like to engage with, those just aren't the people leading the republican party today. It would be one thing if a few lunatics slashed gas lines and yelled slurs at rallies while David Brooks was inside negotiating a bill with Ezra Klein. But when minority leaders in both houses of congress refer to the health bill as totalitarianism, and the leading voices of conservatism incite people with images of gun targets on democratic district maps, those stoking the flames have to be held accountable.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | March 25, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Thing is, the crazy stuff worked when this thing was still up in the air. Now, it's law. Absent some kooky arguments about modern interstate commerce in the state AG cases, the crazy-right will have a tough time actually *accomplishing* anything. Sure Palin's bullseyes and bricks through windows are extreme, but the political salience of this stuff is decreasing by the minute ... there's just zero political oxygen left on this issue; the public is exhausted.

That's where Obama's great righteous indignation rhetoric comes in handy: he can praise a substantively bipartisan bill (Amendments from the GOP, etc) while saying "really?" to the repealers who want to debate this thing forever. This cements the idea of the thing as the law of the land, puts the burden of persuasion on the crazies, and effectively makes them irrelevant -- just as they were once they decided to oppose HCR, rather than compromise.

Posted by: Chris_ | March 25, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

srw3 is correct.

It was John Bohner who claimed HCR equals Armageddon, not Rush Limbaugh. Bohner is not a complete idiot, he has to realize many of his followers are uber-religious nuts that think the world is 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve road bareback on a tyrannosaurus rex through the garden of Eden.

You can't tell people like that a bill is Armageddon and not expect them to act out. They really believe that the end times are upon us. If they think God wants them to kill Nancy Pelosi, they might well do it. Why not? The way they figure it they'll be drinking Pabst with God and watching NASCAR long before they ever see the inside of a jail cell.

Posted by: nisleib | March 25, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

@quant: So basically the Republicans wrote most of the subastance in the healthcare bill, and the Democrats get all the credit for passing it. Sounds like the Republicans won the battle but lost the war.

I think you have it backwards. Dems win the temporary battle of passing HCR, while republicans win the war by having this incrementalist, private sector solution as the starting point for further health care policy.

Posted by: srw3 | March 25, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse


do they even SELL Pabst anymore?

Pabst and NASCAR? You wouldn't be stereotyping would you?

I wonder how those on here will feel about the Eric Cantor press conference from today?

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 25, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

It is admittedly a very difficult thing to deal with. On the one hand you don't want to give the fringe element too much attention, or like belligerent children they'll continue acting out for the attention it garners. On the other hand,like a couple of others on here have stated, it's not just the pundits/talk show hosts/protesters who are espousing fringe views, it's the elected officials as well and that makes it quite a bit more complicated. Even within the legislative body, the conservatives more willing to reason or compromise are being shouted down by people like Boehner or Bachmann, or even McCain these days. At the very least the continued violence and illegal acts of the tea party protesters should be addressed in no uncertain terms by those who incited such acts to begin with. You can't go around claiming for months that a bill is Marxist/socialist/totalitarian and then say you have clean hands when gullible minds decide to act on those claims. I understand your point though, democrats putting too much emphasis on it could very well have its negative effects both ways as well. Very frustrating topic, this.

Posted by: SashaAriane | March 25, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

"Ben Smith makes some very good points about how Democrats are hyping the death threats and vandals and extremists in order to define conservative opposition to the bill as nuts"

Of course they are, but can you blame them? Exaggeration doesn't seem to be hurting the Republicans, and may in fact be helping their political fortunes. And if your opponents are constantly hyping things, when you have an opportunity to hype something, why wouldn't you?

Despite Obama's youth and inexperience, he seems to be the only adult in the room. Sad.

"Perhaps the Obama campaign's decision to give Republicans a pass for appearing on radio shows that made racist remarks and trafficked in dark conspiracies was good politics at the expense of an important form of accountability"

I think it's unrealistic to believe that the Obama campaign could have held the Republicans "accountable" and not opened up an ugly can of worms that could have easily backfired. It would have emphasized the wrong things and, once you start, you eventually hold some folks "accountable" who, upon reflection, weren't actually saying what you thought they were, and then you look thin-skinned and tone-deaf. Obama's approach was the right one.

"But there's certainly an element of the current Democratic strategy that's trying to marginalize conservative opponents by elevating their least credible members."

This is politics. I'd be the first person to argue that Democrats and liberals do this, and a lot more than they'd ever admit, and very prominent, leadership Democrats and liberal pundits do it. On the other hand, Republicans and conservatives do this, as well, trying to tie some very marginal characters, conspiracy theorists, and outright nutters to mainstream liberalism.

Most reasonable liberals recognize that Birthers don't really represent mainstream conservatism--or even further right rock-ribbed conservatism (my favorite kind). Most reasonable conservatives realize that 9/11 Truthers don't represent mainstream liberalism.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 25, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

"do you point at Mark Steyn's lunacy or engage with the more reasoned critiques coming from Ramesh Ponnuru and Stephen Spruiell?"

You engage them all. You can think Mark Steyn is 1000% wrong, but he's making his argument on *something*, and it's relevant. The government takeover of 1/6th of the economy is just wrong, and he can be challenged on that. Engage Ramesh and Spruiell in honest discussion that may become a little overheated. Mark is a real standard-bearer of conservatism, and makes assertions that can be refuted. Frothing-at-the-mouth nutters who think Obama is a stealth muslim here to bring about a worldwide caliphate--it can just be acknowledged that they aren't making a real argument, that whatever problems they have, it's not about the issues at hand, and they exist, as nutters, independent of Barack Obama, HCR, or Rush Limbaugh.

"How do you have an argument when the goal posts change so quickly? "

I'm not sure you can have a good-faith debate. It's a problem inherent in a two-party system--the party out of power is so often *so close* to regaining power, debate and policy-crafting is going to be sacrificed in the name of securing power again. There was probably a lot more collegiality when it seemed that the Democrats were going to be in power forever, and Republicans were going to be the permanent minority. If Democrats were a minority party for 20 or 30 years, I think you might have a lot more in the way of good faith debates. But I think it's going to be a long time before there's one party rule in Washington again, so crafting policy is always going to take a back seat to grabbing power back.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 25, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

RE: Cantor's press conference, here's a statement released by Richmond police today...

"March 25, 2010

The Richmond Police Department is investigating an act of vandalism at the Reagan Building, 25 E. Main St., Richmond, Virginia. A first floor window was struck by a bullet at approximately 1 a.m. on Tuesday, March 23. The building, which has several tenants including an office used by Congressman Eric Cantor, was unoccupied at the time.

A Richmond Police detective was assigned to the case. A preliminary investigation shows that a bullet was fired into the air and struck the window in a downward direction, landing on the floor about a foot from the window. The round struck with enough force to break the windowpane but did not penetrate the window blinds. There was no other damage to the room, which is used occasionally for meetings by the congressman.

The Richmond Police Department is sharing information about the incident with appropriate law enforcement agencies.

At this time there are no suspects."

Cantor tries to make this stray bullet fired into the air by some Virginia drunk at 1 am into a politically-motivated attack on his offices, and at the same time blames Democratic leaders for politicizing the hate speech, threats, spitting, etc, that has been directed against them all week.

As Bubba would say: "That dog won't hunt," visionbrkr.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 25, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Vision - Apparently anytime anyone in Richmond fires a gun it is an assault on Eric Cantor. Why does Cantor hate guns so much?

I'm snarking, but really, the bullet breaks his window but lacks the force needed to get through the blinds. And he considers that a threat to his person?

Posted by: nisleib | March 25, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

"Obama campaign"

What campaign?

I thought it was the Obama Administration. Did I miss an announcement or something?

Posted by: jc263field | March 25, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

The link to the Heritage report isn't taking me anywhere. Has it been severed since Ezra posted?

Posted by: dollarwatcher | March 25, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Patrick and nisleib,

Hadn't seen all those details yet. I stand corrected.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 25, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse


Works fine for me:


That's mighty "fair and balanced" of you. :-)

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 25, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, the issue is difficult because the lines between the fringe and the mainstream right are more fluid than ever. No legitimate conservative voice has done what Buckley once did and declare what constitutes unwelcome fringe. In fact, look at how CPAC was co-sponsored by the Birchers -- who were thrown out by Buckley. Likewise, no authoritative voice on the right is calling out the racism and other hate that keeps popping up at Tea Party rallies. Of course, it would help if there actually was an authoritative voice on the right, but they're all still jockeying for that position. And in the process, they try to out do each other in appeals to the base. When someone does try to say something reasonable (for example, Sen. Graham on occasion, and Frum on healthcare), they are immediately ostracized as RINOs.

I think it may get better if the chaos in the GOP ever gets sorted out and they start appealing to centrists again, but until then, they seem to be caught in an endless loop. Applebaum and Dionne have both written good pieces that speak to some of these problems, by the way.

The real question is whether these are growing pains, of sorts, or a more permanent state for the right. I don't think anyone knows right now.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | March 25, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I think you are a little confused on this. First of all, it's not the fringe elements who are at the center of this controversy: it's the Republican leaders (and their media counterparts) who are egging on the crazies and behaving irresponsibly, sometimes on the floor of the House, yelling 'baby killer,' or on the balcony, waving Gadsden flags. Or issuing inflammatory, coded statements and emails. The Democrats who have come forward have been very clear about this: they want the leaders on the other side to stop inflaming their base and tell them this is not okay.

Second, I don't think it behooves the president to engage directly with these controversies. As president of all the people of the United States (even the nutters), it's not really that cool to get down in the trenches at this level in partisan battles. Policy, yeah ... but flame-throwing, no. He did make fun of the Armageddon language quite effectively today. But I don't think it's in his job description to intervene in the political fights.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | March 25, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

The tea party is nothing but an arm of the republican party, they are almost a black ops squad which has "no affiliation" with the party. The tea party allows republicans to hit by proxy, awaking its fringe in order to carry out orders, at least that is what this article says, it give good points check it out

Posted by: republicanblack | March 25, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

If you don't acknowledge the role of last year's Teabagger Summer in defining the terms of the healthcare debate ever since, you're blinkering yourself.

Boehner and Cantor either wanted Bachmann, Blackburn, Steve King and other House crazies to be the face of the party, or they were impotent to prevent it.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 25, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

You have to ask yourself how marginal the fringe Republicans (whether media, teabaggers or other) are when they are not decried, but allowed to act and speak without restriction or censure.

If my neighbour is a civilized, soft spoken man, but his dog bites and howls and pees on everything, and the man never disciplines the dog nor gets rid of it, what are we supposed to think about the man? And, whatever we think, we probably won't invite him over more than once.


Posted by: NoniMausa | March 25, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

It looks to me that, if you don't want to be Frumed, you'd better act "baby killer" crazy. Exhibit #1: Romney.

Posted by: golewso | March 25, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

On the one hand, publicizing this kind of stuff can actually encourage the behavior (e.g. this was the case with the Red Army Faction -- Baader-Meinhof Gang). Some people attract attention through excellence, extreme losers attract it through negative, anti-social behavior.

On the other hand, publicizing this kind of stuff can put provocateurs on wingnut radio and on Fox on notice that their shows are playing a part in inciting the crazy.

At the end of the day, I tend to fall in the "tell the truth and shame the devil" school.

Posted by: JPRS | March 25, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

But Mark Steyn is exactly right: this is the de facto nationalization of 1/6 of the U.S. economy and he is not the only one who knows it. Ezra Klein is a 24 year old child who is accorded the deference of someone who knows what they are talking about. That is what frightens conservatives like me.

Posted by: senor100 | March 25, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I have some thoughts on this, specifically on language and violence, from a historical perspective.

Posted by: mattgabe | March 25, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse



The law primarily impacts the individual, non-group insurance market. Right now less than 20 percent of the population gets its coverage through non-group insurance -- meaning the the bill does not dramatically alter ONE-SIXTH of the economy. Never mind that the most legion consumer abuses have taken place in the wild-west of non-group insurance. Anyone who wants to defend insurers behavior in that part of the market where there are near-monopolies in many states, and where policy-holders in some states can effectively have their insurance rescinded on the flimsiest of pretexts is welcome to do so. Me personally, I think profits in some markets are not more sacred than the health and financial security of average American families. If profit was the only virtue, we wouldn't regulate any commercial activity; we would welcome the sale of tainted and dangerous and potentially lethal goods to American consumers.

Even if you don't agree with those that line of reasoning, the proper response to laws that a person doesn't like isn't to resort to acts of violence and terrorism -- the proper response in a free society is to exercise your discontent during ELECTIONS (even if your antipathy to the measure is based on misinformation, or a poor grasp of the issues). Even the ill-informed and intellectual lazy have a right to vote in this country -- their opinions count too. After all, without them, the GOP would have an even small share of the electoral map.

Posted by: JPRS | March 25, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Now that HCR is over, and the Dems will turn attention to FinReg and jobs, I guess the Republican opposition will have to figure out how to inflame the paranoid fringe (aka "base")into the belief that restraining excess risk by Wall Street bankers is socialist tyranny of the people, and that creating jobs is totalitarian bondage.

I have no doubt they will once again succeed in selling that message to the Beck&Palin wingnuts.

But I have grave doubts this is a winning Republican strategy for the mid-terms (and beyond).

So go for it Republicans! Squeeze those tea bags for all they are worth!

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 26, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

You can't have your entire caucus in Congress subscribe to these ideas and call it marginal. Their tone may be more reasoned (although not always), but what they're saying is just as inflammatory. It's really irrelevant how softly they're speaking when what they're saying is that Dems want to kill your Grandma. And many, MANY of them - Chuck Grassley, Sarah Palin, Mike Pence and really, the entire House leadership to name a few - were peddling these lies.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 26, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Eric Cantor is planning on making a run for it in 2012. Of course it goes without saying that he's never going to get the nomination. That is beyond a foregone conclusion; that is as much of a no-brainer as saying that the sun will set this evening in the west. The religious bigots that now control the Republican party - the so-called "base" - will never - EVER - nominate a Jew as their standard bearer. You can bet next month's mortgage on that. Pigs will fly, the earth will fry and David Duke will be made president of the NAACP before that ever happens.

I get a really uneasy feeling whenever I see Eric Cantor being interviewed on television. The main goal of the GOP these days is to insure that President Obama's administration is a complete and utter failure. They want to see as many Americans as possible suffer in the next three years, ensuring that they will be able to seize control of the executive branch in 2013. If the president succeeds in making life better for his countrymen and women, they fail. It's as simple as that. Mitch McConnell, to his credit, always looks quite uncomfortable when he is forced to justify policies as atrocious as those being put forward these days by that hideous party. But Cantor always has a serene, angelic smile on his face whenever he is forced to defend the morally indefensible. It sure is strange.

Tom Degan

Posted by: tomdeganfrontiernetnet | March 26, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Your use of the word "hyping" to describe Democratic reaction to the incidents at the Capitol last weekend disturbs me. This isn't merely political calculation and strategy. It's also genuine outrage not only at the racist and homophobic conduct, but also at the extreme rhetoric that Republican leadership routinely has routinely employed to defeat health care reform and to tear down the administration and the Democratic majority. There is no credible argument to me that constantly hammering away at the President as a socialist, and the Democrats as elitists who don't care about the will of the American people and whose health care legislation will mean the end of individual liberties and our nation as we have known it doesn't influence extremist perceptions out there that these " Democratic perpetrators" need to be dealt with harshly and summarily.

This isn't Beck and Breitbart ranting about "playing the race card,", etc, it's the Congressional minority leadership. Your post gives them far too much of a pass. This isn't just about strategy; it's also about principled and responsible leadership and basic decency. Would that you'd get a little more fired up about this yourself, Mr. Klein.

Posted by: nc1123 | March 26, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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