With all of Congress returning from its Fourth of July recess this week, most U.S. senators were back home in their respective states.
But this year, maybe for the first time in many, few Republicans held traditional town hall meetings, with some even avoiding the obligatory — and usually very politically safe — Independence Day parades that dot the local landscape.
Many a politician has tried to avoid unnecessary constituent confrontation while still trying to appear accessible. And until now, the town hall meeting had been the safe, reliable place to go. But with tensions over commitments to reform and replace the Affordable Care Act, many a member of Congress is afraid to go out in public this summer, never mind take unscripted questions from angry constituents afraid of losing their healthcare benefits or even somewhat reasonable insurance premiums.
We witnessed a similar phenomenon when House Republicans returned home during recesses earlier this year.
Originating in colonial New England, town hall meetings have long served as an opportunity for politicians and other candidates and leaders to interact with constituents on a variety of the issues of the day. They’ve taken place not only in actual town halls but in schools, union halls, community centers and of late television studios.
Newer electronic town halls also have held forth exclusively on the radio and now online, particularly on social media. Congress is no doubt the single largest employer of these various formats.
President Jimmy Carter experimented with small-town town hall meetings in the 1970s, staying in regular folk’s homes the night before and taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves at the events to answer questions.
But with the gatherings in large filled-to-capacity high school gymnasiums and Carter on an elevated stage at the end of the room, standing at a formal podium with the presidential seal, he was so removed from his audience he just didn’t have the interaction or intimacy of those meetings of old colonial New England.
But during the Bill ClintonBill ClintonDid Trump and the GOP kill the political town hall meeting? Reefer madness: Why we need to reevaluate our approach to marijuana Former WH economists argue steel tariffs would hurt US economy, diplomatic ties MORE presidential campaign of 1992, my colleague Jeff Eller and I turned all this on its head, reshaping the old town hall meeting uniquely for Clinton and turning it into a more modern design and format that has since become the de facto standard.
Instead of having Clinton speak in front of a room of people, I placed him in the middle of a tiered “bowl” of people seated on various risers, surrounded only by faces on seemingly every side, every height and every (camera) angle. Meanwhile, Eller worked with local TV stations to host and produce the town meetings live in their studios or carry them live by satellite from sister stations in cities across the state or farther away still. All were unscripted.
Clinton did the rest. We gave up the big stage and podium and put him on a stool in the center of the “bowl,” with little more than a wireless mic on his lapel and a bottle of water near his hand.
He didn’t sit on the stool. Clinton worked the floor.
He let people ask him questions and then didn’t walk away so as to tell his entire audience the answer to his one inquisitor’s “great” question. No, he stayed and answered her question.
He didn’t care if his back was to this camera or that camera; he was answering her question. Then his question over there. Then hers. And so on.
In the one formal presidential debate that most resembled this wonderful format that year, while a questioner was asking the candidates how the national debt had affected them personally, poor President George H.W. Bush was caught checking his watch as if to wonder when the damn town meeting was going to end. He got up from his chair to answer but never seemed to really understand the question. Clinton, on the other hand, left his chair altogether, walked up to very edge of the stage and engaged in a conversation with the woman asking. He didn’t want the town meeting to ever end.
And in a way, it hasn’t.
For the next 25 years, presidents, members of Congress and candidates would nearly all try to recreate those Bill Clinton 1992 town hall meetings, in one way or another.
Only Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: ‘Many people’ would have held meeting with Russian lawyer Do we really want to give Trump a new nuke? Intel caught Russians discussing Trump before campaign announcement: report MORE, with his massive campaign rallies nearly everywhere he went last year, managed to avoid the format almost altogether.
And now, nearly all Republican U.S. Senators – and most of Congress – are following suit. ‘At least for the life of the current healthcare debate, it would seem.
Will they return?
Will they re-embrace this incredibly democratic format cherished by politicians and voters alike since colonial times?
If not, it’s our loss.
Steve Rabinowitz is the president of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington, DC public affairs firm, and a former White House press aide for President Bill Clinton.
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