There's No Escape From the GOP's Town-Hall Hell

There's No Escape From the GOP's Town-Hall Hell
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They can hire extra security, find a back door and make a run for it, but Republicans won’t be able to hide from what is taking place at their town-hall meetings. It could be a long two or four years, and unless they manage to replace Obamacare with something satisfactory soon, they should get comfortable with unrest.

President Trump’s popularity is sinking at historic rates: The RCP Average shows 49.5 percent of Americans disapproving of his three weeks in office, and a new Gallup poll puts the number at 54 percent, with only 40 percent approving. His chaotic presidency is colliding with a panic over new changes to the nation’s health care system -- and just months after a triumphant election, Republicans in Congress are suddenly taking pains to dodge their voters.

Following packed meetings back in their districts, where they have faced boos and jeers along with poignant pleas from Americans fearful about the end of Obamacare, Republicans are canceling or scaling back their appearances, or using “town calls” to take the heat over the phone.

It turns out the Democrats, defeated across the board during the presidency of Barack Obama -- largely because they passed Obamacare without a single GOP vote -- are making lemonade from their endless lemon supply. Former Democratic congressional staffers have organized Indivisible, a national movement targeting Republican members in their districts based on the tactics used by the Tea Party in their 2009/2010 protests.

With the burden of fixing the nation’s health care system now on them, Republicans seemed to have forgotten how charged the issue is. Recently, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the demonstrations as “astro-turf” protests. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who faced a crowd of more than 1,000 mostly riled up Utahns last week, told the Deseret News the response was “more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” him, though reporters covering the event never found a paid protester. While Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, was not challenged on the subject of health care, he faced repeated chants of “Do your job!” from voters wanting him to investigate President Trump’s potential conflicts of interest from his business dealings. Tennessee Rep. Jimmy Duncan released a letter explaining why he would not hold any town halls, stating: “I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them. ... I have never seen so many sore losers as there are today.”

Not surprisingly, veteran Congressman James Sensenbrenner, serving his 39th year in the House, has taken the wiser course. At a public library in Pewaukee, Wis., when a woman queried him about whether a new law would allow her daughter to remain on her insurance plan while attending law school, Sensenbrenner conceded that without a GOP health care bill he doesn’t know what to say. “If I could give you an answer today, I would, but I can’t,” he said. Sensenbrenner described the crowd to the New York Times as “organized opposition by people who were on the losing side of the election,” which could aptly describe the Republican voters who did not vote for President Obama and then protested his sweeping, partisan health care law in 2009.

Blowing off burgeoning angst over health coverage or Trump’s conduct is a mistake, and Republicans must face confrontation head on to diffuse it. Answering the difficult questions is their job, and even without answers they need to appear to be trying -- as Sensenbrenner did. The more appearances they make, the sooner their crowds will diminish. It matters little if George Soros’ money traces back to any of these efforts -- members of Congress can require every attendant to present a driver’s license to prove residence in the district and they are still likely to see packed, boisterous crowds full of people anxious about their health care and Trump’s controversies as well.

Filmmaker Andrew Matthews joined his local Indivisible chapter and plans to stay engaged. “My goal is just to keep people interested in their local representatives, keep them aware of that and keep the dialogue open with their local representatives,” he told NPR. “And then how do we sustain that level of engagement, so that it’s a way of life, rather than just something we do for two or three months because we are all freaked out about Trump.”

People like Matthews are trying to galvanize the voters that could cost Republicans dearly in the 2018 midterms. Democrats who brushed off Tea Party protests over Obamacare paid a steep price for assuming they were somehow fake and not indicative of a coming electoral storm.

Indeed, if Republicans learned anything from this election, was it not that voters are tired of politicians in Washington who won’t listen to them? Less than three years ago an economics professor came out of nowhere to blow House Majority Leader Eric Cantor out of his job as representative from Virginia’s 7th District. Focused solely on his leadership duties in the House and efforts to grow his national profile with events across the country, including speeches at Harvard, Cantor failed to sense a growing anger in his district that fueled his primary challenger’s rise, and he was blindsided by defeat.

The protests of 2017 could be worse than those of 2009 -- conservative voters angry with the Congress for stalling an Obamacare repeal could also show up at members’ events and join the voters who want to keep the law.

Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks told The Hill he plans a day of action on March 15 to push for repeal. “There will be more grassroots hand-to-hand combat than we’ve seen in Washington for a long time,” Brandon said. “The conservative [lawmakers], they need to see us out there pushing. And if they see that, they’ll be bold,” he continued. “If they don’t see grassroots there on the ground, they’ll start slipping.”

Lawmakers who can’t take the heat should pack it in and head home for good.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.

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