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.
“If these numbers hold, this is good news for the Republicans,” Silver observed. “Mr. Ryan’s budget — while not exactly popular on its own terms — will have accomplished some other objectives for the party, such as placating Tea Party supporters and shifting the ideological goalposts on the welfare state.”
Reports from the field have been mixed. Other GOP town halls this month have not showcased the juicy, impromptu political theater seen during the Obamacare town halls from summer 2009. Most, like Meehan’s have been slow-simmering affairs. Surviving them, more than winning the argument, is the initial hurdle.
For almost all Republicans, even for Ryan himself in Wisconsin, articulating the budget plan is a challenge. Rep. Lou Barletta, for instance, a Republican first-termer from eastern Pennsylvania, saw his town hall erupt earlier this week when one man grilled him about Medicare. Rep. Allen West of Florida, another GOP freshman, saw three hecklers tossed out from his Tuesday night meet-and-greet. Rep. Daniel Webster (R., Fla.) mediated a wild shouting match between Ryan detractors and supporters.
Those were the headlines, but not the entire story. Rep. James Lankford, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, told ABC News on Thursday that he chalks up any anger to “organized efforts” by liberal outfits like MoveOn.org. “The majority of people that I’ve talked to” support the Ryan budget, he said. “I’m not spooked about it at all.”
Rep. Bill Huizenga, a freshman from Michigan, agrees. He tells NRO that his colleagues are taking care to take the “tough conversations” in stride. “Everybody is going through some tough town hall meetings,” he says. “They should be. That is democracy.”
On Thursday, Huizenga led a raucous event at which hundreds of constituents showed up, many of them with Democratic talking points in their hands. At one point, he recalls, a man began yelling for the crowd to “get on their feet” if they opposed Ryan’s budget. About one-third of the audience stood up. “I pointed that out,” Huizenga chuckles.
Meehan, a 55-year-old former U.S. attorney, represents a collar county of Philadelphia, full of families, corporate parks, and small businesses. He may not have had any yelpers on Tuesday, but like Huizenga and others, he was ready for them. At the beginning of his presentation, in addition to calling the budget an “outline,” he said that it has little chance of passing a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Meehan’s tack is a common one. Republicans from conservative states can slice off the red meat about fiscal doom, but in suburban outposts, the language is softer. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has given members room to present a few concerns along with the pro-Ryan case, by expressing his own reservations about the budget.
In an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, Boehner said that he is “not wedded” to the Ryan plan and noted that though he is “for it,” there are “other people” who have “other ideas.”
But much of that is political posturing. When you get past the couched language, Boehner and most Republicans are standing with Ryan and his broad goals for reform, regardless of the occasional public dustup. In one sense, the united bloc is an impressive change from earlier this year, when numerous House GOP freshmen told NRO that they were unsure whether they would get behind Ryan’s proposals.
Meehan was one of those freshmen on the fence. Now he’s one of Ryan’s warriors, battling for reform in the heart of retiree housing. “You have a congressman from Wisconsin who is showing more leadership and direction than the president of the United States,” he told the crowd near the end. “That is a sad commentary on the moment.”
“But I think that the American people have enough ability, know to read, to think, to discern,” Meehan said, his voice hopeful. For Ryan and the GOP to win, Meehan must be right.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.