Politics & Policy

Grassley’s ‘Come to Grandma’ Moment

In small Iowa towns, the senator mends fences over health-care reform.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Finance Committee’s senior Republican, announced on Thursday that his committee will drop consideration of the end-of-life provisions outlined in the House’s health-care legislation, due to potentially controversial interpretation and implementation issues. “Maybe others can defend a bill like the Pelosi bill that leaves major issues open to interpretation, but I can’t,” Grassley said in a statement.

Grassley, a member of the “Gang of Six” senators trying to forge compromise health-care legislation, foreshadowed the decision during his four town-hall meetings across Iowa farm country on Wednesday. His crowds, often numbering in the thousands and thick with conservatives, were predicted to be hostile — like many of the shout-fests that have dogged Grassley’s Senate colleagues this summer. Instead, by lashing out against the House bill and expressing concern about end-of-life encroachments by the federal government, Grassley earned multiple cheers. As CNN reported, “some booing and arguments occurred, but the overall tone was more orderly than similar health care meetings by Democratic politicians.”

Such goodwill from Iowa supporters critical of the Democrats’ health-care plan was hardly guaranteed. During the last couple of weeks, Grassley has done more than enough to stoke the fire. He has been heavily wooed by Democrats like Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who are scurrying to find a way to slap a bipartisan label onto their bill. On Tuesday, President Obama took the Left’s courtship of Grassley to the next level, publicly praising the Iowa senator during his health-care forum in New Hampshire.

All of this come-to-the-center chatter around Grassley irritated many of Iowa’s conservatives. Grassley, a five-term incumbent, stirred anger in late July when he chastised Obamacare critics on the right for supposedly not realizing that they had “a responsibility to the Republican party not to be seen as destroying or at least not talking about things that people believe are wrong with the present health-care system.”

“I would suggest there have been some Republicans who haven’t been looking at the polls,” Grassley said. “If we don’t do something on health-care reform, the voters are more apt to blame Republicans than Democrats.” Instead of listening to their teacher, Grassley’s fellow Iowa Republicans received his lecture about poll-watching about as warmly as they did Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign.

American Future Fund, a Des Moines–based conservative non-profit group, quickly encouraged its tens of thousands of members in Iowa to e-mail and call Senator Grassley and tell him not to “steal . . . from future generations just to score some political points.” Tim Albrecht, the organization’s spokesman, told NRO that the e-mail blasts “were sent out so he would start getting pressure from back home that he hadn’t seen for awhile.” Grassley had “not heard from conservatives — they’ve been grousing and grumbling,” he added. Concerns expressed by conservatives did not go unnoticed by Grassley, who occupies one of the Senate’s safest seats. “He has been taking the temperature to some extent,” Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, told NRO.

Before heading into the town halls, Grassley made sure to say on Monday that “if there is a continuation of the trend that set in a couple months ago, that people don’t like Obamacare, it’s going to do one of two things: bring it to a halt or change it to a more incremental approach.” So as he stood before his fellow Iowans in small towns on Wednesday, Grassley took time to walk back from his look-at-the-polls commentary and reestablish his conservative bona fides with voters. It was his “come to Grandma” moment (video here).

 

In Winterset, in central Madison County, Politico reports that Grassley said: “I won’t name people in Congress, people in Washington, but there are some people that think it’s a terrible problem that Grandma’s laying in the hospital bed with tubes in her and think that there ought to be some government policy that enters into that.

These and related comments brought applause — a rare thing for politicians at town halls these days. As Perry Bacon noted in the Washington Post, “it seems conservative Iowans are either too polite to shout at him or really like their longtime senator.” All this is unsurprising, said Goldford. “Grassley is not a bomb thrower. At the same time, he’s a pretty reliable, down-the-line conservative.”

The 75-year-old Grassley is up for reelection in 2010. Former state senator Tom Fiegen and former state representative Bob Krause, both Democrats, have already announced their intentions to run against Grassley in the general election. Collin Levy of the Wall Street Journal noted on Thursday that Grassley may face a primary challenge from the right, via GOP state representative Kent Sorenson — though Sorenson has not publicly expressed any intention of doing so. With Grassley’s shift, he’ll probably stay on the sidelines.

“You have to remember,” Goldford said, “that Grassley, in florid words, strides across the Iowa political landscape like a Colossus. He’s never been reelected with less than 65 percent of the vote. Democrats have always had trouble finding someone of statewide stature to go against him. There is no one on the Republican side who has emerged like a Pat Toomey did in Pennsylvania to challenge Arlen Specter.”

Grassley himself told NRO late on Thursday that it’s “very positive to have Iowans show up in such large numbers at my town-hall meetings to show both support and opposition to the health-care issue. It’s been like this all year, but yesterday’s meetings were even more than previous town halls. This is what representative government is all about. We had very good dialogue and most everyone was civil to each other. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Iowans.”

The turnout, said Grassley, “shows the great amount of interest that there is in the health-care issue, but I think it also shows the fear that people have. There was a more negative attitude than positive toward Congress doing anything with health care. And, of course, the reason I visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties every year and have so many town meetings is to gather these opinions and attitudes from Iowans to help me with my decision making in Washington. The impressive turnouts, plus the intensity of the feeling on both sides, means a lot to me and makes my job representing the people of Iowa much easier.”

So, will conservative critics in Iowa now stop tangling with Grassley? “Our plans depend on Senator Grassley,” Albrecht said. “We’ve been effective with e-mails and our web effort. Still, he if moves towards more government-run programs, and sides with liberals, he’ll hear from us louder than before.”

— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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