Not in safe districts, the New York Times reports, where town-hall meetings serve more as morale-boosters for Representatives and Senators than for serious political discussion and debate. In more competitive districts, though, members of Congress learned that town-hall meetings hold a much higher risk-to-reward ratio after the town-hall meetings in 2009 that launched the Tea Party into the stratosphere. Now, elected officials are eschewing the public meetings altogether or doing their best to keep them quiet:
Though Republicans in recent years have harnessed the political power of these open mic, face-the-music sessions, people from both parties say they are noticing a decline in the number of meetings. They also say they are seeing Congressional offices go to greater lengths to conceal when and where the meetings take place.
“The whole thing is very anti-democratic, and it’s classic behavior of entrenched insiders,” said Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group that in 2009 helped send legions of demonstrators to town halls. Now, it is trying to draw out seemingly reluctant members by staging public events like mock meet-your-lawmaker meetings with empty chairs. “We’ve lost that Rockwell image of citizen participation in democracy.”
With memories of those angry protests still vivid, it seems that one of the unintended consequences of a movement that thrived on such open, often confrontational interactions with lawmakers is that there are fewer members of Congress now willing to face their constituents.
Members of Congress and their aides were reluctant to talk about the lack of town halls on the record, mindful of the pressure from liberal and conservative groups alike. “Ninety percent of the audience will be there interested in what you have to say,” one Senate Republican aide said. “It’s the other 5 or 10 percent who aren’t. They’re there to make a point and, frankly, to hijack the meeting.”
Indeed, many who attend the meetings now seem intent on replicating clashes like one in Pennsylvania in 2009, when Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat, was shouted down by an angry constituent, a scene captured on camera and played on an endless loop on cable news.
“The reason 2009 was so successful for the grass roots was because the politicians never saw it coming,” said Jennifer Stefano, the state director for the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party group. “Now they know. And they are terrified.”
It’s not so much the meetings themselves as it is the ability to produce viral video clips from them that create an overwhelming narrative that elected officials fear. The aptly-named Baron Hill tried to put a stop to that by barring cameras from a 2009 townhall about ObamaCare, which went as well as you’d expect. Here’s a reminder:
This is my town hall meeting, and I set the rules. I’ve had these rules — [booing] — Uh, let me repeat that one more time. This is my town-hall meeting for you. And you’re not going to tell me how to run my Congressional office. Now, the reason why I don’t allow filming is because usually the films that are done end up on YouTube in a compromising position.
Not coincidentally, Hill got retired by his
subjects constituents, and Todd Young now represents IN-09. The lesson from these confrontations has been learned well: conducting open-forum events means taking a risk without much chance of controlling the outcome. While it might be frustrating to see the lessons adopted so easily, it’s not really a mystery about why we’re seeing fewer town halls, either.
One might think that Republican incumbents would be willing to take the risk, though. It’s an off year for the House, and the town halls could be used to stoke public anger over the increasing breakdowns in the ObamaCare rollout. While some of that anger might be directed at the GOP politicians for not doing the impossible in failing to repeal it, the larger story would be the anger over the program. (One answer may be that Republicans don’t want to have big public fights over immigration reform.)
However, Byron York reports that House Republicans are beginning to look at 2014 with more worry than before:
Republicans haven’t worried about losing the House because, first, having won by a landslide in 2010, they got to control the redistricting process, and they have used that power to draw districts that give them an advantage. Second, Barack Obama, having won re-election, is not particularly popular, and his ratings could slip further by November 2014. And third, history teaches that the presidential party just doesn’t gain seats in the mid-terms of a president’s second term. So, the thinking goes, Obama’s Democrats can’t win. The House will stay Republican.
Unless it doesn’t. Behind the scenes — in whispered asides, not for public consumption — some Republicans are now worried that keeping the House is not such a done deal after all. They look back to two elections, 1998 and 2006, in which Republicans seriously underperformed expectations, and they wonder if 2014 might be a little like those two unhappy years.
“The majority is at risk,” says one well-connected Republican strategist. “It should be a good year, but you need to run like you’re trying to win, and you need a good, solid strategy.”
In 1998, Republicans, with a narrow majority in the House, expected to pick up at least 20 seats. It was a weird year, with the Lewinsky scandal consuming Bill Clinton’s presidency. But Clinton wasn’t on the ballot — a fact that didn’t stop House Republicans from campaigning against him. “We were going to make the race all about Bill Clinton,” the strategist recalls.
It didn’t work. Instead of picking up 20 seats, the GOP lost five. (So much for the president’s party never picking up seats in the second term.) Republicans kept control of the House, but by a margin so small it made governing difficult.
Byron leaves out an important data point in that comparison. House Republicans were in the middle of impeaching Clinton over his perjury and obstruction of justice in a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, a move that voters didn’t exactly cheer. While the impeachment happened after the election, the pursuit of the scandal didn’t win Republicans many votes in those midterm elections, when they should have gained seats. Unless Republicans are considering a similarly suicidal strategy in 2014, the comparison probably isn’t all that apt.
That leaves us with August and the shrinking number of townhall events on the schedule. If incumbents of either or both parties don’t want to meet with voters and make themselves accountable in public for their policies, why is Congress taking a recess at all? An even better question will be why voters would plan to send them back for another session after having been snubbed in this one.