Brendan Steinhauser, the director of campaigns for FreedomWorks, helped put together two days of rallies against health care legislation on Capitol Hill. Much of the coverage of those rallies focused on alleged incidents of racial and sexual slurs against Democratic members of Congress who were walking into the building for negotiations over the vote. And that, to Steinhauser, was ridiculous.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people out there were good, patriotic Americans,” Steinhauser said. “Those are our people. But what we heard about were these very few incidents of alleged racial slurs which I haven’t seen evidence of. I’d like to see the video if it’s out there.”
Steinhauser was not alone. On March 21, Missouri-based blogger Jim Hoft posted “video proof that these horrible leftists are liars” in the form of a noisy, 48-second clip of several black members of Congress being heckled, with no racial slurs audible amid the din. “These radical liars with stop at nothing to ram their socialist agenda down America’s throat,” wrote Hoft. And across Washington, many conservatives shared doubts about a story that had damaged and embarrassed Republicans, prompting catch-all apologies from Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). One hot rumor was that Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) had excitedly hyped and sold the “slurs” story to reporters; another was that police wanted to debunk the story, but had to stay off the record. (Reports on the event were based on the personal accounts of the congressmen and of a criminal complaint filed by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D- Mo., that Cleaver then dropped, without explanation.)
Over the long, angry week since the health care care vote, as more than a dozen members of Congress reported threats or attacks to their homes and offices, Tea Party leaders and Republicans have put out condemnations and apologies. That doesn’t quite reflect the sentiment inside the movement — a belief that the media and the Democratic Party are hyping, and possibly fabricating, racist or violent attacks to tar their opposition.
“The American people,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) in a Thursday floor speech, “have every right to oppose this government takeover of health care without being lumped in with bigots and vandals by liberals in Congress and in the mainstream press.”
This isn’t the first time Tea Party activists have been accused by Democrats of slurs, violence, and anti-democratic threats — or the first time Republicans have been accused of indulging them. In August 2009, stories and video of angry activists at congressional town hall meetings polarized Washington. Democrats accused Tea Partiers of organizing “un-American” mob scenes. Republicans embraced the activists, and credited their rowdiness with keeping the health care bill on ice.
“Since last July,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) at Saturday’s rally, before the reported slur incidents, “you have put the brakes on this health care bill! The other day, the president, who was planning a trip to Southeast Asia, canceled his trip! You have grounded Air Force One!”
But it took several days for Tea Partiers and Republicans to start fighting back against was they saw as a concerted effort to disqualify their arguments about the health care bill. By Thursday, all leading Tea Party groups and Republicans had issued condemnations of the reported attacks. (”ResistNet Does NOT ADVOCATE Violence!” read one banner on the website of a leading grassroots group.) Those condemnations gave conservatives the space to blame Democrats for pushing so many stories of threats to members of Congress.
“I have deep concerns,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a Thursday press conference on a mysterious bullet hole fired at an office he sometimes uses, “that some – DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine in particular – are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon. Security threats against members of Congress is not a partisan issue and they should never be treated that way.”
Cantor, like Pence, spoke to conservative irritation at an aggressive campaign by official Democratic committees and by organizations like Media Matters Action to publicize — and get Republicans on the record about — reports of violence. That subject occupied Rush Limbaugh for more than half of his Thursday broadcast, during which the conservative host told listeners that they “need to stop being defensive about this and turn it right back” onto Democrats.
“When we have a terrorist attack,” said Limbaugh, “the Democrats always ask: What did we do to deserve this? Have you heard any of the Democrats ask this about something they imposed on us?” At multiple points, he called the health care bill “the real death threat” and intimated that Democrats had faked both the Saturday slurs and the week of attacks on Democrats. “They have to invent this narrative of violence against them for their own well-being.”
Limbaugh echoed some of the “give me a break” criticism of other conservatives, who had refused to accept the framing of the event provided by the mainstream media. Cantor’s press conference provided an opening for some to go after the tactics of Democrats, blaming them for hype.
“‘I’m getting death threats’ has become a tired meme in the American media,” wrote blogger Ed Morrissey at HotAir.com, “and a handy way for politicians to avoid the responsible accountability that mainstream Americans demand. And it’s not just Democrats who have indulged in that avoidance strategy in the past, although they’re certainly the culprits of the moment.”
“When,” joked blogger Jim Treacher at the Daily Caller website, “will the Democrats stand up and condemn this act of violence they caused?”
But other conservatives went beyond the Republican line, arguing that the Democrats got what was coming to them. In an e-mail to his America’s Values supporters, Gary Bauer soft-peddled the Saturday slur story by noting that “these liberals chose to walk through the upset protestors in the hopes, I suspect, of provoking an incident.”
“After years of falsely characterizing former President Bush as a tyrant,” wrote blogger Dan Riehl, “they’ve let slip the mask and America can see with their own eyes who the real tyrants are… [D]on’t expect us to feel sorry for you, or respect you for the wrath you’re now faced with confronting. That may be the only thing you actually deserve for the unjust and un-democratic way in which you’ve comported yourselves throughout this entire charade.”
Conservative anger at the coverage extended to the perceived double standard. Once again, they argued, attacks on Democrats were taken as gospel before rigorous fact-checking; once again, alleged attacks by conservatives were taken more seriously than attacks by the left.
“I wonder,” asked Limbaugh, “if all of those AIG executives whose mansions were surrounded by ACORN and SEIU activists — bussed in activists — got any death threats?”
Steinhauser, who appeared on Fox News Thursday to discuss the double standard, said that it was fair to question why the media didn’t flood the zone on coverage of a September 11, 2009 bomb threat received by FreedomWorks, or by attacks from unions.
“There wasn’t this sort of outcry about what the SEIU was doing at town halls,” said Steinhauser. “If you want to take it back to the 20th century, the left has more to condemn than the right does. My goodness, look at what happened with the 1968 Democratic National Convention! Look at the radical elements of the environmental movement. Look at Bill Ayers — this guy was a member of radical group who said and did awful things. He helped launch Barack Obama’s political career, he’s part of the mainstream Left again, and there’s barely a word about it.”