Thursday, February 23, 2017

COMPARING POLITICAL TOWN HALLS TODAY AND 2009

By Dominique Paul Noth

Moore speaking at a rally in 2006.
Rep. Gwen Moore as long as I can remember doesn’t duck town halls – in fact, she revels in them, with a usually supportive base but a friendly and quiet way of deflecting criticism with facts and experts when needed.

I recall her in full flower in late 2009 at the height of the Tea Party activity.  The event was her town hall in a huge auditorium at North Division High School, with union laborers serving as ushers and  with the Tea Party enthusiasts free to wave inflammatory signs.  They were poised to holler but it wasn’t the brawny laborers who stopped them. It was a panel of health experts answering every question from the crowd. 

That was a big difference from current events.  Today’s Republicans are being  poleaxed at town halls around the nation  because they have no “replacement” to defend and no way to defend Trump’s first month in office except to claim it’s early days, give him a chance.  Some will,  but given what others have seen so far, the people are more than anxious. They are angry.

Obama as he looked in 2009
In late 2009 Obama had months in office and a clear direction and law to discuss. By that time an outline of an Affordable Care Act was available. It was untested but explainable, and a panel of health experts pledged something practical. What didn’t work would be changed (just as there had been many changes to Social Security and Medicare as they evolved) and what would work would improve the United States health system but keep the familiar  private health companies. They would just run according to best practices and rules and key changes everyone would like, particularly keeping students on family coverage through age 26, no denial for pre-existing conditions, no lifetime caps on what an illness cost you. (The last, incidentally, is on the chopping block of some GOP revisions.)

No one at that time envisioned a GOP that would refuse any adjustments based on evidence.   Or health providers that would drop or refuse to improve plans.  That made  Obama the  liar of the year in 2013. Perhaps he should have but he had not anticipated how insurance companies would cancel plans and change policies so that  “you can keep your doctor and your plan” did turn out to be a lie.

None of that  was perceivable in 2009 when there were high expectations by the creators of the Affordable Care Act that  the nation’s politicians would pull together to improve it. 

I  don’t agree that the people of today are the left version of the Tea Party, though they borrow some methods. The Tea Party started quite legitimately, almost in partnership for awhile with the Occupy movement. Then in funding and organization, in payments for signs and busses and the running of headquarters,  it  was co-opted by Koch Brothers groups. Today, no longer active on the streets, the Tea Party has reshaped  a weighty segment of House Republicans who have been a thorn for House leadership and may do the same pricking action with  Trump.

By the time of Gwen’s town hall, the Tea Party, funded and not, was there in force. But so were her traditional voters and total strangers. They all shared a lot of fear.  Should they believe the signs that said “Government Takeover.”  Should they laugh at the sign that said “Hands Off My Medicare,” which assumed that was not a government-run system (and quite successful and low-cost at that).

People were not even yelling “Obamacare” a lot in 2009, according to memory.  Years ago the Atlantic did a fun piece on when Obamacare was coined, tracing it back to 2007  before Obama was elected and the GOP was using it interchangeably with Hillary-care  (they thought she might win).  By 2011, the Democrats didn’t want the phrase used because it was a pejorative.  Obama said what the heck – he  was so positive about ACA’s eventual acceptance that he didn’t care what it was called.

Now the irony has landed full force.  It was easy to pick on  the ACA, insisting on repeal, as House Republicans did some 60 times, knowing Obama wouldn’t advance it.  Now the Republicans own any change – the old Pottery Barn rule, break it you own it.

And the public is letting them know full throttle that there will be hell to pay if they repeal without replacing. And they have not yet decided how to replace it, so they have no defense when confronted at town halls.

Milwaukee was first city in nation to stage
a massive Day Without Immigrants
(photo by Joe Brusky)
And they’ve been clobbered – not by the Tea Party of the left. Not by paid Democrats as Trump has claimed.  Not by disgruntled Hillary voters, though they are a sizable portion.  But this is mainly about the sense of confusion over what will come, confusion that Trump  has generated among those who voted for him, those who voted against and those who didn’t vote. And all manner of groups have come out in protest.

The promises his voters most liked have not yet been addressed and require big  action:  Jobs, infrastructure (in the sense of more jobs), assurances to the regions and people who felt left behind, regulations they thought hurt them rather than the  regulations he has addressed that only help big businesses.

If you live in coal country, if the growth of  manufacturing has not helped you, if no one has explained how all industry is relying more on technology and needs a presidential spur to think of creating jobs for people,  you don’t much care about what has consumed his presidency so far. 

The wall (which Congress is balking big-time at paying for).   The deportation policy (Mexico is now balking at both the wall and the policy).  The immigrants (who are not the “hair on fire” problem Trump kept saying).  If a rural and disenchanted base helped him get elected, they are not finding much comfort  from his first month in office. They are leaning hard on “wait and see” – when not joining the protests.

Now they are sometimes the ones in town halls responding to a rebirth of an ancient nemesis – Russia and its interference in our election and why he has been so resistant to acknowledging it.

His hidden taxes are now a bigger issue to both liberals and conservatives. His travel ban was clearly not some technical difficulty the courts dismissed.  Trump, these voters say in interviews,  needs to get over feeling threatened by inquiries into Russia and his  taxes.

Even in 2009 it was clear the ACA was actually Obama’s second choice after universal care. He chose it  because he wanted to preserve the private health industry with its decades of existence and hundreds of thousands of workers.  The screams against it by Republicans worked in 2010 while the ACA kept rolling along anyway,  building support. And while Obama was re-elected in 2012 the screams against his policies worked again in 2014.

But now the Republicans are faced with how strategically Obama provided subsidies to health insurers and how any plan the GOP brings forward has to keep the essential aspects.  They can toy all they want with health saving accounts, maximum risk pools of maximum risk patients, age and income limits and whatnot, but the people are asking for hard details they can’t give at the town halls.

They’re also  in danger from the answers they can give. Somewhat to my surprise, town hall interest was high in Russia, Trump’s taxes and Betsy DeVos.

Sen. Cotton dressed down
at his town hall.
When Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton tried to silence the universal criticism of her choice as education secretary, he made another mistake. Perhaps you wouldn’t be so upset with her, he suggested, “if the education department had less to do.”  It was an old Republican line about the department and didn’t go over with this crowd, which had been screened to be his constituents. It sure sounded like the only way to control her ineptitude was give her less to demonstrate it with.

The audience may have been unpaid. They may have leaned Democratic.  But they were  informed.  They were also independents and Republicans --  and any hope they  will fade away in a few months, like the Tea Party street activists did, I strongly doubt.

The Indivisible movement, which has provided a guide of how to approach your issues of concern and an easy way to sign up for events and even create them, now has two chapters in every congressional district.

Its guide is not an ideological manifesto but a practical road map to what may work on a variety of issues and agendas.

The Nation is picking up readers by doing entire stories on how to get your friends and neighbors interested.

Social media is alive with ways to protest and plan events, calling people out within hours to join. The level of knowledge and ease of connection via social media is one of the notable differences of 2017 from  2009. 

Rather than being paid, volunteers are contributing to causes that concern them.

Citing multiple reasons, police departments are standing up against becoming ICE agents as Trump originally wanted.  

An Episcopal church in Seattle is suing the Trump administration for a travel ban on the refugees – saying  “help for the stranger” is a central tenet of their Christian practice. 

Emerge America almost can’t keep up with the demand of women to be trained as  political activists and candidates.

The Republicans in Congress, many back home during a recess,  are being pummeled in ways far deeper and longer than the old Tea Party did to Democrats. The DeVos issue broke out at many town halls. But hanging over it all was Trump’s dismissal of the protests as paid for or hardly genuine.

He is stepping right into keeping it alive for years.  The people at these meetings are not buying his claim that the media is “The Enemy of the People.” They fear he is.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


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