Among Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings are his “Freedom of Speech” series. One of them depicts an average citizen standing up at a town hall meeting to express his views. These days there are many town hall meetings in the news, and for obvious reasons, members of the Trump administration, like others before them, don’t like what they’re hearing.
For as long as I can remember, public officials have subjected themselves to meeting with their constituents to hear their complaints and, perhaps, some words of praise. Back in 2009, members of the Tea Party attended hundreds of meetings with members of Congress to heap scorn on the Obama health care proposal. The reaction of White House representative at the time was that many of the protesters were “organized” by outsiders.
Fast forward to 2017, and President Donald Trump is now being vilified for his pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, used almost identical words in describing the town hall protesters as some kind of “organized group determined to hijack the meetings.” Freedom of speech is what distinguishes America from most countries around the world, but some politicians aren’t very receptive to the truth.
When President Obama took office, people who had strong views on his health care plan dominated many congressional town halls. Many of those who spoke hadn’t voted for him, but the vast majority were concerned about losing coverage or the cost of care. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin claimed that Obama’s law would create “death panels” that would decide which people were entitled to end-of-life coverage and which were not. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the Republicans and the president are getting their fair share of public blowback.
Candidate Trump got rousing applause at his rallies when he pledged to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” His supporters loved it. But Trump never used the words “Affordable Care Act.” And, that’s the difference. Today’s town hall attendees are worried about losing their health care, and they’re finding out that Obamacare and the Affordable Health Care Act are one and the same.
The current town hall meetings are virtual carbon copies of the ones in 2009, except they’re now attended by people who voted for Hillary Clinton and many Trump supporters who are frightened by a president who turned out to be not such a bargain after all. It’s interesting to watch snippets of the meetings, at which Republican incumbents are taking the heat for not standing up to the president and appear clueless about what to do about the health care crisis.
As I’ve mentioned previously, it was easy for Republicans to vote to repeal Obamacare 61 times when they knew that President Obama would veto it. Now that they control both houses of Congress and the White House, tough solutions are required, along with a heavy dose of backbone, and many members of the congressional leadership are afraid to face this and a number of other issues.
Watching portions of last week’s raucous town hall meetings, I was impressed by the fact that the vast majority of the speakers were not left-wing bomb throwers. They were Americans who are troubled by a president who threatens mass deportations, attacks the press and insults many of our longstanding allies around the world. It’s too early to claim that all or even a majority of Trump supporters are suffering from buyer’s remorse, but six months from now, many of them may be doing exactly that.
If I were a Republican member of Congress, I would race to the history books to get the details of how the party made enormous gains during the Obama years. The current town halls are a reminder that an unpopular president can have a major effect on midterm congressional elections, and this time around that would spell bad news for the party of Lincoln.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.