Five Things I Learned at the GOP's Summer Rallies

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, holds his town hall meeting on Aug. 26, in Onawa, Iowa Photograph by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

There are a couple more days left in August and more than a week to go before Congress returns on Sept. 9. But it’s already clear that the town hall meetings held during the summer congressional break won’t become the flashpoint they were in 2009, when anti-Obamacare activists assailed lawmakers who’d returned home and poisoned the public impression of what was then still a bill (though not enough to stop it from becoming law). Having just spent a few days on the road attending rallies and counter-rallies, I have some thoughts about why this is—and also why it may be a mistake to conclude that, just because these meetings haven’t seized headlines the way they did in 2009, they won’t have an effect on Congress.

Conservatives Are Torn Between Opposing Obamacare and Immigration Reform. One thing that made the 2009 meetings so effective was unity of purpose: Conservatives were furious about Obama’s proposed health-care law. Now they’re split. After the Senate passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, it made sense that the August town halls would become a referendum on public sentiment about the House doing likewise. Instead, such conservative pressure groups as Heritage Action have held a series of meetings to rally support to “defund” Obamacare.

Members of Congress Are Hiding. After the 2009 meetings produced a YouTube highlight reel of embarrassing confrontations with outraged constituents, most politicians wised up and stopped holding them. A constant gripe I heard from attendees at Heritage Action rallies was that their congressional representative was making himself or herself scarce.

Democratic Interest Groups Are Punching Back. In 2009, liberals didn’t anticipate the tsunami headed their way, and as a result, the town hall meetings were one-sided affairs—a fact reflected in the media coverage, much to the detriment of the liberal cause. This time Democratic groups have got their act together. Every Heritage Action rally is preceded by a liberal counter-rally, often organized by such groups as Americans United for Change. On Tuesday, in Columbus, Ohio, a whole panoply of liberal interest groups—from food banks to Planned Parenthood—held an event (at a tiki hut) in the afternoon, then marshaled dozens of supporters to protest the Heritage rally later that evening. This time, in each city, the local news outlets have covered this as a two-sided, rather than a single-sided, affair, which blunts the impression of a building wave of political momentum.

Republicans Are Going After Republicans. Democrats in Congress were the primary punching bags in 2009, made to suffer repeated blasts of conservative, Tea Party anger, and they often didn’t seem up to the task. This time around, conservative activists are mostly preoccupied with influencing Republicans—partly because Democrats have made themselves scarce (see above), but mostly because they perceive Republicans to be the only ones positioned to carry out the actions they desire, whether that’s defunding Obamacare or declining to take up immigration reform. The anger is still there, but because Republican members of Congress are hiding, too, there haven’t been the kind of clashes that make for good television footage.

The Real Action Comes Later—and Republicans Should Be Nervous. Despite the lack of fireworks and drama, I think this year’s August town halls could still affect Congress. After a few days of attending rallies, two things really stood out. The first is that the size of crowds at the Heritage events was enormous—700 or 800 in Columbus on Wednesday; 400 or 500 in Indianapolis on Tuesday; and although I didn’t attend the Dallas meeting last week with special guest Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), it reportedly drew 1,500 to 2000 people. This dwarfed the liberal counter-rallies, which generally attracted only a few dozen people and often seemed to have been organized chiefly to supply the counterpoint (and video footage) on the local news. Now it’s true that Democrats have less cause to rally, since Obamacare is the law of the land. But the conservative crowds were large and whipped into a frenzy directed at Republican lawmakers.

The second reason I think these town halls could influence Congress had to do with who showed up. The median age at liberal rallies was about 30. At the conservative rallies—despite the presence of the occasional, provocatively tattooed young person—the median age was about 65. Maybe 75. And as we all know, seniors are reliable voters. If these large, graying crowds express their displeasure in the manner in which they have been instructed—by pressuring Republican members of Congress—then the August town hall meetings could end up being the sleeper events of the political season and major factor in the fiscal and budgetary showdowns soon to come.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.