The summer of 2009 was a hot one for congressional Democrats. The effort to pass the Affordable Care Act was the spark, but the fire came from a loosely organized group of conservatives who called themselves the Tea Party.
Democrats were at a loss about how to deal with the anger and outrage from their constituents. They tried screening attendees at the gatherings, but that proved pointless as the demonstrators showed up anyway.
Flash-forward eight years and now the shoe is on the other foot. Republican congressmen holding town hall meetings in their districts are being besieged by liberal activists — far more organized and much better funded than the Tea Party members who protested against Democrats.
But the issue is the same: healthcare reform. GOP efforts to fix what President Obama and the Democrats broke has brought out activists angry at Republicans, angry at President Trump, and angry that they lost the election in November — and the rage may have a similar effect at the ballot box in 2018.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah is the latest Republican to feel the anger of the mob, and the intensity of feeling has some worried about the safety of lawmakers.
The crowd erupted in chants of “Do your job!” when Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was pressed on why his panel spent months investigating Clinton’s emails but has not yet launched inquiries into Trump’s taxes (Trump has declined to release his tax returns).
“You’re really not going to like this part: The President, under the law, is exempt from the conflict of interest laws,” he said.
Chaffetz received some positive reaction when he called top White House counselor Kellyanne Conway “wrong, wrong, wrong” for promoting Ivanka Trump’s business interests in a TV interview Thursday.
But for the most part, he confronted an angry Democratic base even in deep-red Utah and in a district where he was just re-elected with a margin of victory of 47 percentage points.
Chaffetz nodded several times to the political makeup of his crowd. “You’re going to disagree with this,” he said as he began a defense of the GOP pushing to block Planned Parenthood from receiving federal health care dollars.
The congresman at times seemed to relish the boisterous crowd. He cited Vice President Mike Pence — and then scoffed when the crowd booed, saying that Pence “is, like, the nicest human being.” It only earned more boos.
At one point, he cast new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — confirmed this week on a 51-50 vote — as a common enemy, touting a bill to abolish the Department of Education and hand all control over schools and their funding to states.
“I want to get rid of Betsy DeVos!” Chaffetz said.
A man in the crowd shot back: “We want to get rid of you!”
Angry people are far more likely to show up at these events to berate their congressmen than those who aren’t. This was true in 2009 and it’s true today.
But it’s also true that angry people vote. The 2016 election proved that. It’s a fact that 2018 is still a long way away and that anger of this sort can dissipate over time. But the rage that swept through blue states and led to the defeat of more than 50 sitting Democrat congressmen and a net gain for the GOP in the House of 63 seats in 2010 could be repeated on the Republican side if the hysteria being whipped up against Trump and the GOP can be maintained.
For the GOP, redistricting has given them a decisive advantage. Because they control so many state legislatures, Republicans were able to redraw their districts and make most of their majority safe. But the wild card in 2018 will be how much anger Democrats can generate to motivate these town hall demonstrators to actually vote.