Audubon, Pa. — One mile from Valley Forge, on a balmy Tuesday, Rep. Pat Meehan strode into Shannondell, a sprawling, seniors-only apartment complex. He came as a foot soldier for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. And like many House Republicans this recess, he came armed with posters.
Meehan’s aides perched the cardboard sheets, produced by the GOP conference, around a drab, windowless room. One pie chart was ominously illustrated with the red and yellow of the Chinese flag; another displayed alarming fiscal statistics.
Grandfathers in madras sleeves, many of them with their wives, soon arrived. Before crowding into seats up front, they scribbled their names on sign-in sheets and eyed the scary-debt decorations. Meehan, his jacket off, greeted each with a handshake.
But Meehan did not work the room. Among the upbeat octogenarians, the congressman was low-key, almost cautious. Owing to the slew of friendly introductions, he likely sensed that he was not in hostile territory. These days, however, a politician never really knows — ThinkProgress, that viral-video menace, could be lurking.
A week ago, a similar town-hall event blipped onto the national political radar when a local watchdog group published a YouTube clip of Meehan being scolded by a constituent, who railed against his support for Ryan’s Medicare reforms. It was a testy little exchange, nothing more, but after being linked on various blogs, the video quickly received nearly 20,000 views.
Such is the life of a GOP freshman in a swing suburban district. Across the country, Democrats and their union allies are hungry for cable fodder, eager to highlight budget unrest. If a GOP congressman stumbles in defending Ryan, or merely is caught on camera near an irate constituent, he could become Segment A on MSNBC by nightfall.
As he began speaking, Meehan scanned the crowd. He was ready for heat. Yet over the course of the next hour, he did not get it. Sure, the congressman was peppered about a variety of topics, from the line-item veto to the nature of bipartisanship, but he was not grilled. The chief concerns of the assembled were jobs, gas prices, and American competitiveness.
If Meehan’s Tuesday appearance is any indicator, Republicans may face more questions than criticism on the budget, at least at this stage. But no bookie, nor Meehan, would bet that every town hall will be full of inquisitive, easygoing seniors. Indeed, for many members during this congressional recess, explaining the Ryan budget has been a sweat-inducing balancing act.
Heartily advocating entitlement reform, while carefully clarifying Ryan’s ideas, can be tricky. At Shannondell, Meehan reminded me of a teenager gently explaining the Grateful Dead to grandparents: The elderly know that this does not directly affect their generation, but they have heard some troubling things and want to learn more.
In fact it was Meehan, not an audience member, who brought up the Ryan budget, nearly 40 minutes into the presentation, as if he was surprised by the calm. “It is an outline,” he emphasized as he paced the soft-carpeted confines. “When Ryan did this, he did not demagogue, he is not out there pointing fingers. He is laying out his concerns.”
Meehan then acknowledged that Ryan’s plan will be a tough sell, even if the early response has been mostly lukewarm and curious. A Washington Post–ABC News poll conducted last week showed 78 percent of Americans opposed to cutting Medicare spending to lower the federal deficit, with 65 percent of respondents supportive of keeping Medicare as is.
“Many of us are going to be attacked, that we have somehow abandoned seniors,” Meehan noted, tapping his fingers on his chest. The Democrats, he predicted, will be coming out in full force this summer, using “scare tactics” and “robo-calls.”
So far, Republicans are holding steady, according to Nate Silver, a polling analyst at the New York Times. “Public opinion seems to be unmoved,” he wrote earlier this week, in response to recent Gallup data that showed 44 percent of respondents preferring President Obama’s budget, but 43 percent supportive of Ryan’s approach.