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08.13.09

The GOP's Sex Scandal Dodge

Sen. David Vitter’s career seemed finished after his brush with the D.C. Madam, but his new ploy to provoke the Obama-hating town-hall mobs just might get him reelected.

While Democratic members of Congress confront indignant town-hall crowds opposed to President Barack Obama’s health-care policies, Republican Sen. David Vitter is enjoying a Louisiana love fest. Vitter is barnstorming through the Bayou backwoods, hosting town-halls meetings before packed houses of ferociously anti-Obama audiences. They come to praise rather than shout. Billed as public forums to discuss Obama’s health-care proposals, or what Vitter has derisively referred to as “Obamacare,” the pre-screened events appear to be functioning effectively as surrogate campaign rallies for the scandal-scarred senator’s 2010 reelection bid.

“Please know that this and any other angry mob is welcome at my town-hall meetings whenever you want to come,” David Vitter declared, bringing the audience to its feet with a raucous ovation.

On August 8, inside a chapel at conservative Louisiana Baptist College in the rural town of Pineville, an evangelical minister reportedly saluted Vitter before a packed house for “doing God’s work.” When Vitter took the stage, he mocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s concerns about those she referred to in an op-ed as “angry mobs” disrupting meetings across the country.

"Please know that this and any other angry mob is welcome at my town-hall meetings whenever you want to come,” Vitter declared, bringing the audience to its feet with a raucous ovation. In the back of the chapel, an elderly woman waved a placard reading, “Send Obama & congress back to USSR.”

Vitter earned even more enthusiastic cheers with a not-so-subtle appeal to “states’ rights.” When an audience member asked him if Louisiana could withdraw from Obama’s health-care plan if it passed, Vitter proclaimed, “The first thing we need to do is elect members of Congress who respect the Tenth Amendment.”

Invocations of the Tenth Amendment, which reserves “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” to the “states respectively, or to the people,” have become common among secessionists seeking a veneer of constitutional legitimacy. Texas Gov. Rick Perry stoked a national controversy in April when he endorsed a non-binding resolution in the state legislature supporting the Tenth Amendment’s supposed guarantee of “states’ rights,” then warned that Texans were so fed up with the federal government the state might secede. With Vitter’s recent exhortation, the far-right fringe has gained another ally within the Republican mainstream.

Unlike his Democratic colleagues who take all comers at their town halls, Vitter has sought to enforce a strict code of message control. According to a citizen journalist attending the August 8 Vitter town hall, “No one was allowed to spontaneously address the podium. There were no questions read that presented anything other than Vitter’s view and those who spoke with him. … Vitter was said to have no time to answer questions from the press.” Indeed, Vitter only responded to questions that were written on cards by audience members and screened in advance by his staffers.

Many of those attending Vitter’s town halls have been shepherded to the events by local chapters of TeaPartyPatriots.org, a supposedly grassroots network of national activists that happens to “ partner” with the health-care and insurance industry-funded lobbying firm Freedom Works, which has directed angry mobs to Democratic events. At a town-hall meeting on August 10 in Jefferson Parish, many local constituents were  reportedly turned away while Tea Party activists were allowed to enter. When the event concluded, Vitter rushed out of the back door and away from the press and his constituents, guarded by a phalanx of police officers.

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Vitter has good reason to fear public scrutiny. Had he not pre-screened his audiences, some wily constituent might have asked the senator to address his affair with Wendy Cortez, a high-priced New Orleans escort, or asked how his name showed up on the client list of Jeanne Palfrey, the so-called DC Madam, who killed herself in May 2008 after being convicted of money laundering. The constituent could have framed the question in terms of the health-care debate by asking Vitter why he reportedly wore a condom when he visited Cortez but subsequently tried to introduce an amendment barring health-care providers that offer free STD testing and contraception from receiving federal funds.

Despite his best efforts, Vitter has been unable to prevent the sex scandal from resurfacing during his 2010 re-election campaign. Vitter’s opening salvo against his Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Melancon, backfired badly when the senator’s campaign released an online ad accusing Melancon of traveling to Martha’s Vineyard to have a “liberal luvfest” with “Obama’s friends.”

Melancon’s camp immediately seized on the phrase “luvfest,” highlighting it to remind voters of the senator’s dalliance with Cortez. "In contrast to the kind of luvfest David Vitter is used to, this trip was legal, public, and no money changed hands,” Louisiana Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Franck responded in a widely publicized statement. "As we all remember, the last time David Vitter made public comments about a 'luvfest' he ended up begging for forgiveness. I am anticipating an apology from him for this Web ad in the near future.”

As the health-care debate intensifies, Vitter sees a badly needed opportunity to recover his political footing—and fill his campaign coffers. Through his Twitter account and campaign blog, the senator has introduced an online petition that enables his supporters to warn “President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and the liberal Washington establishment that [they] are not going to let them take over health care without a fight.”

As soon as supporters answer the survey’s loaded questions (“Senator Vitter believes Louisiana's families, not tax-funded bureaucrats, should choose their own health care. Do you agree?”) or sign the petition, they are promptly taken to an online form soliciting campaign donations. Mass email solicitations follow immediately afterward.

While he racks up small donations, Vitter remains in good hands with the insurance industry. Indeed, Vitter is one of the Congress’s top recipients of money from the insurance and health-care lobbies, reaping nearly $1 million in campaign donations since entering the Senate in 2004.

But in order to return to the subcommittee posts where he has advanced legislation on behalf of his industry allies, Vitter needs the “angry mob” to stay angry. “Thanks to all for speaking out at health-care town halls,” Vitter told his supporters by Twitter on August 11. “Keep up the good work and keep fighting Obamacare!”

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Fall 2009. Contact him at maxblumenthal3000@yahoo.com.