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For the GOP, a Dangerous Gamble on the All-Important Town Hall

Old-school constituent connections work best, but the anger is proving tough to withstand

Police escort California Rep. Tom McClintock through a town-hall audience in Roseville, California, last Saturday. (Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee via AP)
Police escort California Rep. Tom McClintock through a town-hall audience in Roseville, California, last Saturday. (Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

Consider 10 and 19 as two more figures that help illustrate the risky congressional Republican strategies of passivity, defensiveness and avoidance during the first month of the Trump administration.

Ten is the total number of GOP lawmakers who have town hall meetings scheduled next week, the longest period Congress will be back home since the inauguration.  

Others have arranged office hours and conference calls, venues making it much easier to stay on message and limit feedback.  But only seven House members and three senators from the majority on the Hill, not to mention the president’s own party, have agreed to meet with their constituents in an open public forum where the sentiment of the crowd might become totally antagonistic and every bite of the lawmaker’s response can be preserved on tape forever.

[Town Hall Voter Anger May Force GOP to Stall Obamacare Repeal]

At fewer than 3 percent of the membership, that is an astonishingly small number, not only because of the intense public curiosity about how the first unified Republican government in a decade plans to fulfill its winning campaign promises, but also because of the country’s growing interest in learning when GOP lawmakers will countenance President Donald Trump’s unorthodox behavior and when they’ll confront him.

It’s also a notable integer given the other figure, 19, which is how many congressional Democrats — 8 percent — have open mic events planned next week, even though they’re in the minority and their antipathy toward everything Trump is a rebuttable presumption nationwide. (The numbers are from the database of the Town Hall Project 2018, a progressive advocacy group.)

The small Republican roster is a sign the party is planning to keep relying on 21st century media message discipline at the expense of making the sort of interpersonal connections that drove congressional behavior from the 18th through the 20th centuries.

That’s a dangerous gamble, for democracy over the long haul but also for the lawmakers’ own self-preservation as soon as the next campaign.

Interesting times

To be sure, the Presidents Day break in an odd-numbered year is not a customary high season for politicians interacting with constituents. The roster of town halls is usually much longer during the recesses closer to Easter, Memorial Day, July Fourth or in August.

In February, though, a certain amount of mutual burnout lingers for both members and voters, smoke from the endless campaign season still not quite dissipated. Besides, after only a few weeks, the new Congress has rarely tucked into its agenda sufficiently to merit asking for feedback from the public. And when there’s a new president, he’s hardly ever done enough to prompt members to take a gut check of voter sentiment.

But this year, of course, is no ordinary time. Trump’s presidency is off to a historically combustible beginning. Hill Republicans have adopted an acquiescent attitude to his disregard for political and governing norms. And people across the country — from the left mainly, but also some independents and even some Trump voters with buyers’ remorse — are welling up with demands to air their disdain and anxieties in front of their members of Congress.

If the Republicans want to write an insurance policy against significant losses next year, especially in the House, they could do worse than start by encouraging more members to schedule town halls as quickly as practical, and then to stoically remain in the public libraries, church halls, or hotel conference rooms as long as it takes until their constituents run out of ways to sound ticked off or worried sick.

That’s what many Democrats did not do eight years ago, when the nascent tea party started flooding public meetings but got ignored anyway, and the resulting fury fueled the GOP’s 2010 House takeover.

Not repeating their rivals’ strategic error, however, will require a 180-degree reversal from some quarters of the GOP congressional leadership. While counseling colleagues to avoid the appearance they’re crouching defensively behind their office doors, party elders are currently advising that it’s best to solicit constituent views in small, private group sessions or using the manageable remoteness of social media or teleconferencing.

They are quietly counseling against hosting open-to-the-public events where any question is fair game, the audience could get out of hand and the lawmaker might commit inarticulate candor (or experience a severe loss of temper) with a television news crew on hand.

Republican political consultants widely endorse this approach, in the view that it’s stupid to give the Democrats such an easy way to capture footage for 2018 campaign spots of congressmen getting yelled at, sounding tongue-tied or losing their cool.

Furthering the cultivation of a bunker mentality was a meeting of the House Republican Conference a week ago where Rep. Dave Reichert, a former Seattle sheriff, urged colleagues to arrange for a police presence at town halls and design emergency escape routes from every venue for such meetings.

Democracy in action?

The half-dozen or so lawmakers who have already faced their constituents this month were all landslide winners last fall in districts that went solidly for Trump. But they presented inconsistent examples of how elected officials should behave in such situations, for their own self-preservation and in furtherance of the view that the crowds at their meetings were  correct in their shouts of “This is what democracy looks like!”

At one end of the spectrum were Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who dismissed the passions of their audiences by asserting, without apparent evidence, that the crowds were stocked with out-of-towners who had been paid to show up and sow disruption.

And the other end were Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who partly won over his rowdy crow by remaining 40 minutes past his scheduled departure, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida, who calmly refuted some inaccurate vitriol spewed by one of his own county Republican chairmen.

Their town halls were all dominated by questions about the 2010 health care law. They did not go easily in large measure because the messaging in the party’s one-way-communications playbook, “Repeal and replace Obamacare!” is readily revealed as alliterative meaninglessness during any two-way with a Republican lawmaker, who will inevitably be compelled to confess the party has nothing close to a consensus view on how to legislate a do-over.

The collection of hot-button issues constituents care about will surely grow in the days ahead. The ouster of Michael Flynn as national security adviser means Republicans will get fresh pressure for more Hill oversight of the relationship between the president, his senior team and Russia. Trump will make a second effort to limit immigration from the Muslim world. Several Cabinet nominees remain in limbo, and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings are sure to span new clashes in the culture wars.

There is no better crucible for testing a member’s views than a town hall meeting, where constituents get to look their elected representatives in the eye and have their say. It’s an enervating but essential right of policy-making passage for members to endure.

Whether Republicans are brave enough to do so in the coming weeks will be a true test of their current political mettle.

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