09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Party Madness to Sweep the Nation?

Aside from the issue of whether the congressional "town hall" has outlived its usefulness as a way for politicians and the public to interact, there's an important underlying question in those confrontations over health care reform now playing out. Do they represent an incipient 1994- or 1980-style backlash against Obama?

To most of us on the outside, the town-halls-gone-wild appear to reflect the intense feelings of a relatively small group of people who are very badly misinformed about what's actually happening in Washington. They're angry at Obama for all kinds of things the government isn't doing and has no plans to do. In the broadest sense, some of their suspicions are legitimate -- if government does have more power over health care, it will screw it up somehow. But the health care system is very badly screwed up already, and there appears to be no awareness of that fact in those rude, angry outbursts.

But is this the start of a good, old-fashioned right-wing populist prairie fire? The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder argued yesterday that, strictly in terms of the health care issue, the protestors and their organizers have overplayed their hand -- that they are alienating the independents who want a real political debate, not a shouting match, i.e., the voters who matter most to centrist Democrats who will make or break any health care bill.

Patrick Ruffini shot back, saying Ambinder is misreading things. His post, titled "Energy at the edges moves the center," cites the left's at-times over-the-top Iraq protests, ca. 2003 and 2004, as an example of something that seemed politically marginal at the time, with polls showing broad support for the war effort, but later became the majority view.

Nobody knows what's going to happen in politics. And there are signs of serious discontent with Democrats in the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races. But the circumstances here seem very different from 1980, 1994 - or 2003, for that matter. Ruffini's argument likens health care reform to Iraq. But it took several years of disastrous mismanagement and dysfunctional leadership from the White House to turn the public against the war -- and George W. Bush.

Obama has been in office six months. Assuming some kind of health care reform passes, it's unlikely to turn into an Iraq-like disaster. Most people will be only marginally affected, if at all. Many people will see their situations improve. There will be problems, no doubt. But "death panels" won't be killing grannies every day like IEDs were in Baghdad ca. 2006. And remember, unlike his predecessor Obama actually seems to know some things about making government institutions work. If some kind of health care reform doesn't pass (which I think is unlikely given the stakes), it will damage Obama. But it will also be over quickly.

In 1980, there was broad anger at, and structural problems within, the government and the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, those problems lingered: Bill Clinton was never elected with more than 50 percent of the vote. Obama won with 53 percent of the vote. Some of those Obama voters are no doubt disillusioned with what they've seen so far. But "government" is always a proxy for other things -- in this case, widespread economic distress, wrenching social change, etc. The town hall craziness is channeling some of that -- it is unfocused rage coming from a narrow segment of the population. But the circumstances in which we find ourselves are fluid: if the economy improves and health care reform passes, and America doesn't turn into Nazi Germany, that anger is unlikely to result in a huge anti-Obama backlash. In part because there just aren't any good alternatives right now.