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Town Halls, Tele-Town Halls, Trump and 2018

When I was a congressional chief of staff I was always pleased when a constituent came up to me after a contentious meeting or town hall and told me “I disagree with your boss on issue X but I appreciate his thoughtful consideration and his willingness to come out and talk to his constituents about it.” It told me we were doing something right. This seems to be almost entirely missing from today’s public debate over Trump, the repeal of Obamacare and a host of other issues that are driving people to protest and show up at town hall meetings at a rate we haven’t seen since the early days of the Obama Administration. The result of that angst was a near perfect storm in the 2010 mid-term election with democrats losing 63 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate and changing the Obama legacy forever.

Who would have thought that after only two years of the Obama Presidency and a return to one party control of the Washington that the voters would make such a complete 180 degree turn? Definitely not the democratic leadership. Was there anger on the ground throughout much of 2009 and 2010? Yes, but it was dismissed as “astroturf”, as opposed to grassroots or deemed organized protests by right wing factions upset with Obama’s election. The voter anger in 2010 was real, the democrats completely missed it and they paid a huge price. Plus, voters like divided government.

Fast forward to today and you have angry constituents flooding town hall meetings around the country. Millions upon millions of voters protested the day after the inauguration and millions more converged on airports the following weekend in protest of the travel ban. A weekend hasn’t gone by since the inauguration when there haven’t been protests around the country. The voter anger now is real. Ignore it at your own peril.

Why? People are concerned about losing their healthcare or the threat their neighbors will be deported or the how a border tax might impact their quality of life. Surely republicans won’t make the same mistake the democrats made in 2010 and ignore the voter anxiety, right? Surely they remember what happened, right? Well, no.

It was only 6 years ago, yet we are seeing republicans falling into the same trap -- dismissing the protests as “organized” or “paid” or some other variation of the democrats astroturf comments from 2010. Ignore it if you want but chances are you’ll be looking up at CNN or Fox on election night 2018 and wondering how you possibly could have lost that many seats in the House and Senate saying out loud to yourself “the protests were organized and the protestors were paid, where’d all these voters come from?”

Voters like divided government. In 1994 following the debacle of Hillary Clinton’s universal healthcare proposal and voter’s fears of what may lie ahead, voters took matters into their own hands and “threw the bums out” – a 54-seat swing to republicans who took control of the House for the first time in 42 years. The Speaker of the House, Tom Foley of Washington State, not only lost his speaker’s gavel but his seat altogether. Did he see it coming? I doubt it. I was part of the “Republican Revolution”, my boss former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia beat a one-term incumbent in the competitive 11th congressional district in northern Virginia. I always felt like we were going to win that race but I will never forget watching the results in the wee hours of the morning of the November 1994 election as race after race fell to republicans. We never expected to be in the majority. 2006 and 2010 were similar elections, a reaction to one-party control and a fear of what lies ahead. Voters like divided government.

I sense the same voter angst is brewing today. What concerns me more than anything is that republicans seem to be ready, willing and able to ignore it. Story after story has come out about republican members of Congress canceling town hall meetings or opting for tele-town halls as a way of avoiding having to face their constituents and some very real questions about what lies ahead. There are more than 20 House seats held by republicans in congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won – these are prime democrat pick-ups in a bad year. There are effectively 241 Republicans in the House today (238 plus 3 formerly republican held vacancies), if republicans lose 24 seats, the democrats regain control. It baffles me that particularly those 20+ in seats Clinton won are not shouting from the rooftops to respond to their constituent’s concerns, but they’re not. Ignore it at your own peril.

Trump is wildly unpopular. has predictive modeling that shows if Trump stays at or around the 40 percent approval rating he currently enjoys, democrats could gain as few as 7 or as many as 73 seats in the House in 2018. If things get worse, and they usually do, the numbers go higher. That’s dangerous territory for republicans and the democratic base and non-voters are energized. Non-voters are the largest voting group in America today - nearly 30 percent of the voting population didn't vote in the 2016 Presidential election. If I were the Republican leadership, I’d be looking for ways to create distance between myself, my members and the White House.

Congress is and will always be a co-equal branch of government as explained in Article 1 of the Constitution. It has a job to do as a Constitutional check on the Executive Branch. The founders anticipated a Trump-like entity ascending to the Presidency, and they expected Congress to be more than a bystander when he or she came to power. Congress has a job to do and so far they seem unwilling to do it.

So here’s my advice: ditch the tele-town halls, get out and face your constituents in person, hear them out, understand their concerns, oppose the administration when it crosses the line and remember your oath is to the Constitution of the United States of America and not the GOP. Ignore it if you want but remember that’s what your former colleagues did in 1994, 2006 and 2010. How’d that work out?

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