The Campaign Spot

Constituents First? No Problem

One of my readers attended Tuesday night’s town hall with Rep. Jim Moran (D., Va.) and offered a few contrary thoughts.

Once inside, I asked the people at the front desk if they could have legally denied me entry to the event if I had refused to fill out the form listing my name and address. They said that they could, for it was their event and they didn’t want anyone from outside Virginia attending. I guess my grasp of the law in this matter is a little sketchy. Was it legal for them to require this? In any case they were awfully rude about it.

First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Moran or any other lawmaker giving priority to those who actually live in the relevant congressional district. At a moment like this, with public passions raging, the number of folks interested in attending is probably going to outpace the capacity of the venues. There’s nothing wrong with event organizers trying to make sure that the attendees are citizens the lawmaker represents, or at least that those people are let in first. If there’s extra room, folks who came in from neighboring districts ought to be welcome, but I don’t see anything wrong with the prioritization.

My reader strongly objected to being asked to show ID, and I see where he’s coming from. But if you think that the priority at an event like this ought to be constituents, it’s a little tough to take pledges of residence on faith. If someone can think of a way of verifying legal residence or place of voter registration without asking to see ID, I’m all ears.

Like me, this attendee was appalled at scattered heckling of a rabbi when he made a reference to “a health care system badly in need of reform” in his prayer, and underwhelmed by many of the questions.

On reflection, while I still think the behavior of the anti-reform crowd was inexcusable, the problem with the event was the format.  It was designed to give Moran, a dedicated Democratic reform activist, the lion’s share of the time at the microphone and, Q & A notwithstanding, control the discussion. These town hall meetings really ought to be staged more like debates. The local congressman, like Moran, could be free to introduce the proceedings, but the discussion could at that point be turned over to a pair of pundits or a pair of politicians, active or retired, who could debate the issue before the audience before taking questions from the audience that both panelists could address. This would do a lot to quiet the crowd on both sides down.  Since both sides would be represented, each side might very well sit still for the opposing side’s presentation in a reciprocal spirit.

I don’t think a debate format would necessarily be an improvement. The aim of the town hall is, I think, for the lawmaker to communicate to the constituents, and for the constituents to communicate to the lawmaker. Getting a 50/50 split in time between proponents and opponents is a standard unlikely to be met; as an Obamacare opponent, I just want sufficient time to make the case. Five minutes of pointing out the inherent contradictions can be more persuasive than an hour of grandiose promises.

Two other thoughts on these town halls – don’t overestimate how many attend who are undecided, and have a little faith in people’s ability to sniff out evasive answers. I suspect even Obamacare proponents scoffed when Moran declared that about “85 percent of the public would not see any change in their health-insurance coverage”; the whole point of the legislation is to get the public seeing changes in their health-insurance coverage (in proponents’ minds, improvements). Finally, if all of the questions are softballs like, “My brother lived under socialized medicine in France and it was terrific, so why is it so hard to make that happen here?,” people will notice. A person who walks away with questions unanswered because the time was taken up by “why are you so awesome” queries is unlikely to turn into a supporter of the initiative.

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