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Obama foes turn to ’60s radical for tactical tips

By Edward Luce and Alexandra Ulmer in Washington

Published: August 16 2009 18:07 | Last updated: August 16 2009 18:07

Dick ArmeyOpponents of Barack Obama’s healthcare proposals are using the tactics of Saul Alinksy, the legendary leftwing activist who helped inspire the US president when he was a young community organiser, says Dick Armey, head of Freedom Works, a group fighting against universal healthcare.

Mr Armey, who was the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives for most of the 1990s, said his group, which is behind many of the “tea party” protests that have disrupted town-hall meetings in the past two weeks, draws consciously on the forms of agitation pioneered by Mr Alinsky.

Mr Obama, who worked as a community organiser among unemployed steel workers on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1980s, was heavily influenced by Mr Alinsky, who inspired a generation of radicals in the 1960s. Mr Alinsky believed that packing public meetings with highly vocal activists would sway their outcomes and give people a taste of the power they could exercise when they showed up in numbers.

“What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” said Mr Armey, who was one of the leaders of the “Contract with America” Republican landslide in 1994.

“What I think of Alinsky is that he was very good at what he did but what he did was not good,” Mr Armey said. “We don’t organise people to turn up at these town-hall meetings – we don’t provide buses to get them there. But we tell them about the meetings and we suggest good questions they could ask.”

Mr Armey, whose group works closely with the Tea Party Patriots and other conservative organisations round the country, said he thought the anti-reform protests against Mr Obama’s healthcare proposals exceeded the temperature during the August 1994 congressional recess when the Clinton administration’s healthcare plans were shot to pieces.

On Friday Mr Armey announced his resignation from DLA Piper, the Washington-based lobbying firm that he has advised since stepping down from Congress in 2002. Both DLA Piper, which has big healthcare clients including Bristol Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical company that opposes elements of Mr Obama’s health reforms, and Mr Armey said he had decided to quit in order to spare the firm any further embarrassment by association with Freedom Works.

“We are sorry to see Dick Armey leave,” said DLA Piper in a statement. “But we appreciate his taking the initiative to clear up confusion concerning Freedom Works, [which is] a separate and distinct entity from DLA Piper.”

Mr Armey, 69, predicted that the “grassroots” backlash against what he called Mr Obama’s “hostile government takeover of a sixth of the US economy” would cause the reform to fail spectacularly. But he predicted that supporters of reform would attempt to win over the “bed-wetters caucus” – a group of wavering lawmakers who spanned both parties, he said – with a fear campaign in the autumn.

“In September or October there will be a hyped up outbreak of the swine flu which they’ll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for healthcare reform,” said Mr Armey. “That is the only way they can push something on to the American people that the American people don’t want.”

Democrats have portrayed groups such as Freedom Works as demagogues out to disrupt town-hall meetings rather than enter into civil debate. Mr Armey said he doubted members of Freedom Works attended meetings to shout down people with whom they disagreed. “I know people have been doing that but that is not the tactics we recommend,” he said.

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