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The Tea Party and Town Halls

Readers of today’s New York Times feature on the decline of congressional recess town hall meetings would gain much by going back about a year to the divergence of the Tea Party model and the Occupy Wall Street model of political participation. After May Day 2012, Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson broke from his self-described objectivity in covering the pseudoanarchist Occupy movement. Though he said he considered himself a reporter and not a pundit, he believed Occupy–which he greatly admired–was in desperate need of his advice. Hineni, came the response: Harkinson would tell Occupy how to succeed.

It’s unclear whether and how much Occupy was taking notes on Harkinson’s pronouncements, but the article was a telling example of a question that had dogged Occupy from the beginning: Could it be anything more than the vocalization of misdirected anger? The answer seemed to be a resounding no. But the heart of the question was really about a comparison with the Tea Party, which had channeled its outrage into constructive participation in the democratic process–something Occupy never did. Here is how Harkinson described the conundrum:

Though Occupy could support many sympathetic candidates in Democratic primaries, some pundits haven’t pushed the idea because they worry about a tea party effect on the left, with liberal Democrats losing to Republicans in the general election. Yet other than a third-party bid, with its potential for another Nader debacle, this may be the only way to command Washington’s attention.

There were always concerns within Occupy of being co-opted by the national Democratic Party, or of being suppressed by it in elections. Those same concerns were present for the Tea Party–some Tea Party candidates lost otherwise-winnable seats, others rocketed to conservative stardom after dispatching “establishment” candidates in primary contests and winning Senate and House seats.

But what Harkinson seemed to understand was that grassroots political movements don’t hang around and tread water; they sink or swim. The Tea Party and Occupy would not be permanent fixtures on the American political landscape if they never evolved beyond protest crowds. Occupy may not have wanted to “go legitimate,” so to speak (though they might say “go corporate”), but the only other option was to fade. And fade they did. Meanwhile, the Tea Party went to Washington.

Neither movement has nearly the grassroots excitement or momentum it once had, but for very different reasons. Occupy never evolved into anything concrete. The Tea Party became a major force in American politics. So when the Times reports on the relative lack of bustling town halls, the fact that Tea Partiers are no longer only on the outside of Congress looking in, and thus in need of ways to get Congress’s attention, has much to do with it.

There are other reasons as well. Conservative activists wondering where their representatives are have a point when they say some elected Republicans don’t want to face the crowds. It is a testament to the Tea Party’s effectiveness and the grassroots influence within the party that some Republicans fear any confrontation with energized and organized factions no longer consigned to the sidelines. It is also the case that on some key issues, the conservative base has already won the battle over public opinion. They and their representatives are generally on the same side when it comes to ObamaCare, which was the subject of many a town hall in the lead-up to its enactment. It’s true that there is an intramural disagreement over shutting down the government without an agreement to defund ObamaCare, but that is not the same as debating the passage of the bill itself.

The other major issue subject to town halls in recent years has been immigration. The Times story makes note of this, but with one understated twist:

Immigration groups, like Alliance for Citizenship, which supports a plan like the Senate’s that would grant citizenship to the 11 million people here illegally, are almost exclusively targeting House Republicans, who now hold the key to passing any immigration overhaul legislation. The Democratic-controlled Senate has already approved one. One of the alliance’s targets this month has been Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who has not announced any town halls but did participate in them in 2009.

Those pining for town halls on immigration are pro-immigration interest groups. They want to pressure Republicans to adopt, not oppose, immigration reform with a path to citizenship. It is only natural that the groups in support of legislation will usually be less impressive or vocal than those against. And in this instance, that’s better for Republicans than when it was the other way around in 2006.

Leading up to that year’s midterm elections Republicans held anti-immigration meetings, and the results–a dramatic drop in the GOP share of the Hispanic vote–may be nudging Republicans away from holding public meetings on immigration at all if they can help it. They could very well be reticent to open the floodgates by calling any town hall to discuss immigration, especially in deep-red districts.

Whether voters support or oppose a specific piece of immigration legislation, surely many of them understand how off-putting anti-immigration rallies can be. It’s one thing to angrily protest a bill like ObamaCare or tax cuts; but to fulminate in large public gatherings denouncing immigrants is much more personally offensive to those on the receiving end because of basic issues of identity. Republicans are wise to avoid such a spectacle. More generally, conservatives should understand that their success is a major factor in the decline of the town halls.

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