Congress members can’t hide from the voters

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

The phone rang the other night during dinner, it was a phone “town hall” for U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-7) — I happen to live in the 7th — but the timing was lousy and as a practicing journalist, I kind of feel like it is inappropriate as a journalist to participate in such events.

And to be honest — Meehan and his colleagues need to put on their big boy pants and face their constituents, in person, not via phone or some lame “social media” town hall. They need to look folks in the eye, see their anger and concern and take it seriously. They need to get out of their “safe space.” For Meehan in particular, someone needs to tweak his Google Maps to let him know his district includes Chester County.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-6) faces a similar situation with a planned event in Phoenixville on Saturday. He declined to attend (sources suggest that he was committed to a family event previously), his people saying that the event was little more than a political ambush — a partisan, liberal event designed to make him look bad — a campaign spokesperson called it a “charade.” And yes, it appears that the organizers of the event scheduled it and planned it without checking with Costello to see if he was available — an “epic fail” in the world of scheduling such things.

So yes, in fairness, Costello has every right to take a pass on the event. But he and his colleagues should be somewhere, in person, ASAP.

Costello, Meehan and Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-16) should be holding town halls or at least appearing at public, scheduled events — in person — too. Sources familiar with Costello’s thinking said that he was hoping to hold a town hall later this spring.

If you can’t show the courage of of your convictions — and calmly make your case, despite folks screaming at you — maybe it’s time for another line of work.

To be blunt, more than once Costello (and dozens of other elected officials) has called me, for an “airing of grievances.” I didn’t dodge the call, listened to his arguments — sometimes legit, sometimes kind of whiny — and either I allowed that he had a point, or agreed to disagree (and yes, this column will probably, and ironically, generate another of those calls). To be fair, I like Ryan (actually, while I disagree with him on some issues, I think he is one of the smarter and more principled folks in politics I’ve come across), but I think he’s either listening to the wrong people here, or worse, giving in to fear — as seems to be the case for many of his colleagues.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was a lousy politician — better cast as a mediocre journalist. First off, I actually said what I thought — regardless of who it offended (and it offended many, especially in my own party). Second, I never gave it a second thought to pointing out when my own party was acting like corrupt morons (which I did early and they did often, Ed-cough-cough-Rendell).

But I also never hid.

I remember in 2004 — in my run for State Representative — getting a screaming phone call on my home phone from a man in Chadds Ford, castigating me for my stance on abortion. The next day, I was on his door step, offering to talk. And we did. Neither convinced the other to change their position — but we did seem to create a mutual respect. I can cite dozens of other similar experiences (some of which didn’t go as swimmingly, mind you) where listening and taking a few lumps was the right thing to do, so I did it.

So when a mediocre journalist cum-washed up pol has more moral courage than our members of Congress, well, we have a bit of a problem.

This is one of those times where members of Congress need to take their verbal lashing, listen — disagree where appropriate — and at least give folks some sense that they’re being heard. Using the tired argument that the events are staged by professional agitators as an excuse to avoid their constituents — eerily similar to the same arguments Democrats made in 2009-10 — underlines the disconnect and just makes folks angrier. I’ll also note that reporting this week by The Wall Street Journal concludes that the vast majority of the protests are organic — just like they were in 2009.

And yes, I think some of the problem is that Republicans don’t know exactly what to say these days, as I noted in last Saturday’s Politics as Unusual column. Undoing the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — is complex and fraught with challenges. Former Speaker John Boehner underlined that Thursday by noting Republicans would only be able to make minor changes to the ACA — and that the law was likely here to stay.

While repeal sounded good on campaign literature, in practice, it is something much, much harder.

And the messaging — from President Donald Trump, who flat-out has no idea what to do, to Speaker Paul Ryan — has been awful, leaving the likes of Costello and Meehan with little to work with.

But this is where leaders come from.

Were they listening to me — and obviously, that’s not happening — I’d them to be honest and say this:

“Obamacare is a mess — if we don’t take action, it’s going to collapse of its own weight. The problem is this: how do we fix it without knocking millions off health care and not blowing up the deficit? It’s not going to be an easy task — and to be honest, we probably oversold how easy it would be to repeal, because frankly, we were just as angry about how it was enacted it as you were. So here’s what I’m asking you: tell me what you like, tell me the things you don’t like and I’ll share them with my colleagues.

“It’s not going to be a perfect process or a quick one. But we can’t afford to do nothing, or the entire healthcare system could collapse — we’re seeing insurers pull out of the exchanges, rural hospitals could close and many of you have seen steep premium increases — so we have to do something. We need a plan that maintains coverage for as many as possible, without breaking your budget or blowing up the federal deficit. It’s going to be a challenge, but with your suggestions, we’re going to be brave enough to take it on.”

Is that going to please everyone? Obviously not — but it has the value of being true and a lot of folks will see that you’re trying to reach out and be reasonable. GOP Congress members are never going to get backing from the extreme left — many of whom really won’t be happy until there is a single-payer health care system (which ironically, the insurance industry is doing its level best to force through its greed and stupidity) — so this is calibrated to appeal to the middle, without alienating the right-wing base. And again, its defensibly honest.

So if a hack like me can come up with this, why haven’t those high-dollar consultants the Republicans use come up with even better messaging? Hell if I know — but it seems pretty logical.

What isn’t logical — or smart politics — is hiding.

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