Republican members of Congress have grown increasingly wary of town hall meetings, which have become liberal rallies in districts nationwide, with hundreds of progressives denouncing conservative policies and chanting slogans like “Do Your Job!”
It’s the Tea Party in reverse.
Some GOP legislators have tried to regulate the events, with restrictions like ID checks and maximum sign sizes. Others have replaced them with sterile “electronic town halls” with pre-screened questions – and dozens have canceled them altogether.
Being a representative under fire can be uncomfortable and messy, but so is democracy. There’s no magic formula for a successful town hall, but prudent members of Congress can use calculated strategies to manage them.
The most important (and obvious) strategy is to balance the crowds with Republican voters, thus shifting the tone inside the room and in subsequent media coverage. Raucous town meetings over public disputes have been American staples since colonial days – and are thus not news. Republicans facing lopsided Democrat mobs shouting about Trump, health care, and the environment? That’s news. Most Republican voters are already aware of the high stakes. Invite them, perhaps offering T-shirts with your name emblazoned on them.
Here’s a slam-dunk: start with the Pledge of Allegiance. Before airing a single grievance, your detractors will face a stark choice: follow your voice and speak in unison under your leadership – or appear unpatriotic.
Stand in front of an overhead projector connected to a computer. You can thus communicate over slogans and mantras that would otherwise silence you. Calmly and respectfully type responses to audience slogans, continuing to control the conversation even when liberal crowds aim to quash you.
Take control as a moderator, not a punching bag. If a questioner demands single-payer health care, say “You know, I hear from a lot of Democrats who want single payer, which would set aside private health insurance and create a national government-run system. Can I see a show of hands of people who like single payer? And who has a problem with nationalized health care?” Call on one of the latter and suddenly your constituents are talking to each other while you listen – instead of yelling at you.
Display the manufactured nature of some of the anger by giving answers like: “I was wondering when someone would ask ‘Can you promise me that you will support our democratic institutions by opposing the nuclear option?’ Word-for-word, that’s question number two on this slick pamphlet from ‘Indivisible,’ a political group with ties to billionaire liberal financier George Soros. I will answer their question briefly, but I’m more concerned in YOUR ideas and concerns about the issues facing our district and our nation.”
But please, don’t take the advice in The New York Times recommending crowd control by “re-individuating” audience members, isolating them physically and asking them to share their names. That is a terrible idea.
Remember the “town hall” presidential debates? Their most memorable moments are the personal stories. Imagine a woman at your town hall who says, “My name is Minnie Bell. My daughter has Cerebral Palsy, and under the health care plan you voted for, she will lose her doctor and possibly even her wheelchair. Your office has ignored my many letters. Why won’t you help her?”
Is that really better than the “Health Care For All” chants?
One option you should rule out, though, is canceling town halls altogether or replacing them with farcical online imitations. We Republicans always claim to disdain politicians moored in Washington, so you owe it to your constituents and to our system to listen to the folks in your home districts, and to update them about our party’s successes.
If you can’t leave Washington to face a roomful of your constituents, you should just leave Washington.