Monday, August 10, 2009

The Audacity of Astroturf

The Democratic leadership made "astroturfing" a hot topic of conversation in the blogosphere and MSM. They've been quick to characterize vocal opponents of the current incarnation of Health Care Reform as faux protests, as examples of manufactured rage, as "astroturfing", specifically referencing scenes like this one at Michigan Congressman John Dingell's recent town hall forum:

So, what is "astroturfing? From Wikipedia:
"Astroturfing is a word in English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf."
The administration charge is not new. Lloyd Benson is credited with coining the term in 1985, and wikipedia further points to an early example in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with 'Cassius conducting what might be considered an astroturfing campaign on Brutus: he leaves letters where Brutus will find them encouraging Brutus to act against Caesar, purportedly from concerned citizens but really written by Cassius himself "in several hands".'

Unsurprisingly, the Chairman of the company that manufactures the fake grass and trademarked the name is not amused, but I digress.

Are these protests examples of astroturfing funded by the health care industry? Or is something else going on? Is it wise for the administration to slap this pejorative on their opposition? Or is it this administration that is doing the astroturfing? In this post I'll provide a selection of views from across the political spectrum about the protests, but will broaden the topic to a more general essay on the care and feeding of astroturf.

From the left:
This Kos diarist attended the Dingell Town Hall as a supporter with a "cut to the front of the line" pass, regrets being outnumbered by opponents and concludes they are all insane.

Matt Yglesias explains that the reason irrational opponents outnumber rational supporters at these meetings, is that the rational supporters are waiting to learn what is actually in the bill. Matt is certain that the supporters will outnumber opponents once the bill is out, even though he does not know what will be in the bill.

Boo Man at Booman Tribune thinks it is perfectly fine for protesters to exercise their first amendment rights, unless, of course, they don't understand what they are protesting. So I guess protesters need to be given a competence test first... or something.

From the administration:
The administration and Democratic leadership weigh in to explain exactly what the opposition is all about.

Robert Gibbs disses the "Brooks Brother Brigade" and calls the opposition "manufactured anger" all paid for by the official administration designated demon of the day (cue scary music) The Insurance Companies.

Barbara Boxer picks up on the sartorial theme, explaining that you can tell the protesters are fake, because - well- they are too well dressed.

Harry Reid waves a piece of astroturf as a prop to dismiss opposition "as phony as this grass."

Nancy Pelosi agrees that it is all phony astroturf and throws in a few nazi references to boot.

Finally, the DNC runs an ad to make sure everyone knows that the opposition to the President's healthcare plan are just an ugly angry mob that storms out on to the streets at the beck and call of (cue scary music) The Insurance Companies - or something.

Not from the left:
This kind of partisan political posturing (like astroturfing itself) is par for the course. Pretty much the same old tried and true game of demonizing opposition to rally your team and get your bill passed. Not exactly "hope and change", more like "same ol' shit", but it doesn't bother me. It can create problems though - if you don't finesse it just right.

One problem is when Democrats start believing their own BS. Then you get situations like this - where a Democratic Representative at a town hall meeting calls out one of the "manufactured", "astroturf", "hijacker", "mob" participants that is disrupting the meeting...

... only to later learn the guy asking the question is a Doctor, Democrat, constituent, and is just trying to get a question answered.

Another possible problem is when union members and other Obama supporters (not astroturf - genuine grassroots) spontaneously begin showing up in numbers at Town Hall meetings and take White House rhetoric from political strategists David Axelrod and Jim Messina to "punch back twice as hard" a little too literally.

Not all Democrats are buying into the Axelrod strategy. Claire McCaskill was quick to distance herself from the White House with this tweet:
“I disagree that the people showing concern over some healthcare proposals are “manufactured” Real folks, strong opinions.”
Not sure what she is thinking. Why wouldn't she want to get on board insulting and belittling her constituents?

The Audacity of Axelrod
This is where it gets surreal. We have the administration and leading Democrats throwing the "astroturf" pejorative at Republicans and (cue scary music) The Insurance Companies and yet - the guy who practically invented the term "astroturfing" ...The guy who is known as "The Astroturf King"... is none other than Obama's right hand man and political adviser - David Axelrod.

Recall that prior to the campaign Axelrod was a founding partner in two firms co-located in the same office. One, the political consulting firm hired by the Obama campaign, and the other ASK Public Strategies - the gold standard in astroturf consulting firms (Axelrod is the A in ASK).

The MSM mostly gave him a pass during the campaign as he claimed he was on leave from ASK (while working in the same office for the co-located political consulting firm) and said he had no intention of being part of the administration. I highlighted this relationship during the campaign, when I though it a little too cozy that ATT was a big client of ASK, and Senator Obama conveniently flip-flopped on Telecom Immunity. But nobody really cared about that, so let's move on.

How about an update now that the Astroturf King is Obama's right hand man in the White House and his bio has disappeared from ASK's website?

Per the Sun-Times, when he accepted the position with the administration in January, he "sold" his stake for $3M to be paid out out over 5 years. It was also disclosed that he received a partnership check of $151,914 from ASK in 2008. That was in 2008, when he was on "leave" from ASK. I guess it was a paid leave. So in 2008, ATT money went to ASK and ASK money went to Axelrod. Nothing to see here. Move on.

Let's walk through this buyout again. ASK Public strategies is a going concern, and will continue to have funds flow from their corporate "astroturf" clients into their coffers. Then money from the ASK coffers will flow into "Astroturf King" David Axelrod's pockets to compensate him for the buyout over the next five years, - coincidentally - exactly enough time to get past Obama's first term and election campaign. Of course, by then, he may get tired of politics, and ASK may want sell his share of the partnership right back to him. Who knows? It could happen.



Just when you think it cannot get more surreal, we move into Salvador Dali territory. Although Democratic leadership is decrying the "astroturfing" of town hall meetings, well funded Democratic non-profits are actually advertising and paying people to show up and demonstrate for Obamacare. Which is pretty much the definition of astroturfing. Or maybe to paraphrase Richard Nixon "Its not astroturfing when we do it."

has it (among many others): "Astroturfing: Make $$$ doing something you love!"

H/T - Fausta

There is nothing wrong with this activity. It is just the breathtaking hypocrisy of Democratic leadership demonizing the protesters for activity that does not hold a candle to the astroturfing efforts they have underway.

I have a couple of unemployed nephews that recently graduated from college. I'll send them this list. The administration may not be fostering the creation of many private sector jobs, but they do appear to be stimulating the market for astroturfing.

Cross-posted at Donklephant.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

No comments: