Which side are you on in the Great Town Hall Wars of ’09?
Are you on the side of the opponents of federal health care reform – Obamacare for short – who have been trying to mobilize citizens to attend congressional recess town hall meetings?
Or are you on the pro-reform side that is complaining that opponents are using intimidating tactics to disrupt meetings and challenge members of Congress who are supporting the changes?
Or maybe you don’t much care because what goes on at town hall meetings usually has little influence on the final decisions in Washington, D.C.
Regardless, it has all become the political brouhaha of the summer. Our own Rep. Brian Baird is the poster child, breaking with his tradition of holding frequent meetings with constituents (300 since 1999), because “it’s a lynch mob mentality out there.” He even told his hometown Vancouver Columbian that reform opponents are using “Brown Shirt tactics.”
You know its getting serious when someone rolls out the first Nazi Germany reference.
Indeed some of the meetings have gotten pretty rough – lots of yelling, lots of accusations, even some pushing and shoving – sort of like when the benches clear at a baseball game. One opponent sent out tips on how to disrupt meetings.
But other members of Congress have taken it in stride. Rep. Adam Smith told our D.C. correspondent Les Blumenthal that such emotional meetings come with the job.
“They aren’t protesters,” the Tacoma Democrat said. “They are constituents speaking their minds.”
But isn’t it part of an organized campaign to get citizens to attend town halls and protest the reforms? Smith was asked.
“What’s wrong with that?” he responded.
Indeed. Politics ain’t beanbag. And conservatives don’t exactly have a monopoly on confronting politicians on issues they feel passionately about.
Baird, of all people, should know that. Almost exactly two years ago, the Democratic congressman went to Iraq. When he came back he still thought the war was “an egregious foreign policy mistake.” But he said he now thought that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would be a bigger mistake. He also thought President George W. Bush’s surge strategy was working.
Oh my, you’d have thought Baird had just traded in his Prius for an Escalade. The anti-war left dubbed him a “trained monkey” who had been brainwashed during his stay in Iraq. Moveon.org sponsored TV ads urging voters to object to the change of heart.
But Baird stood his ground and took his lumps – often in angry, emotional town hall meetings throughout his district. It took guts, and Baird deserved praise for his courage.
Now, however, it seems the former college professor can take heat from his own side but not from the other side.
Democrats have begun responding by urging supporters to show up at the same town hall meetings. At a Florida meeting last week, some burly union members were accused of intimidating those who tried to intimidate a congressman. While we don’t want our politics to turn into a battle of street toughs (insert Nazi Germany reference here), it is difficult to work up tears for those who think it is their right to intimidate members of Congress but unfair to be intimidated themselves.
It is all a bit reminiscent of 1994 when equally emotional issues brought out big crowds of conservatives opposed to Democratic agendas on taxes, crime and – surprise, surprise – health care reform. When his election challenger arrived at one meeting with 100 loud and angry supporters, U.S. Rep. Mike Kreidler characterized it as thugism. Kreidler eventually lost to Republican Randy Tate, as did four other Democratic congressional incumbents from Washington state, including House Speaker Tom Foley.
So, is it better politically to condemn angry citizens, cancel forums and limit your availability to virtual meetings where citizens phone or e-mail in questions? Or is it better to show confidence in your position and stand up – perhaps with a few Teamsters in the room just in case?
Ask Adam Smith and Brian Baird next November.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657