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The Tables Turn in Town Halls, and Maybe DC | The Nation

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The Tables Turn in Town Halls, and Maybe DC

In the summer of 2009, raucous town halls were a central turning point in the healthcare reform debate, as angry constituents bombarded legislators with furious monologues and protests over the legislation.

Many of the protests were organized by lobbyist-run groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which was busing in people to crash the meetings and providing them with guidelines on how to do so.

Over the past two weeks, town halls are once again a big political story. Ever since Republicans in the House of Representatives passed Representative Paul Ryan’s draconian budget, which cuts taxes on top earners while essentially ending Medicare, there have been widespread reports of angry voters challenging Republicans who voted for it.

This time, to the extent AFP is involved, they are mainly playing defense. The Democratic National Committee's (DNC) Hari Sevugin tweets that AFP may be busing some people to Ryan town halls to help him counter the constituents that are critical of him.

Slate’s Dave Weigel has also reported that the American Action Network, a front group for several Wall Street investment bankers, also tried to stem the tide of constituent anger by providing lists of possible softball questions for anyone interested in attending a town hall in support of Ryan’s plan.  

Signs that the tables are turning are apparent elsewhere as well—most strikingly, perhaps, in the case of freshman Representative Allen West (R-FL). Over the past year, West became a Tea Party star—and the town hall was his stage. As he mounted a campaign to represent Florida’s 22nd Congressional district, a seat then held by Democrat Ron Klein, West began holding fiery public events that became online sensations.

At one forum hosted by a Tea Party group, which got over 2 million hits on YouTube, West thundered: “We need to meet in places and start talking about restoring our liberty and fighting back against a tyrannical government. It starts right here, it starts right now, with each one of you that’s gathered here today.” The crowd went wild.

Once he beat Klein, West—a former lieutenant colonel in the Army—continued to capitalize on his commanding public presence and held town halls in which he would take on all comers. People would line up at microphones and ask West whatever they wanted. Often the questioners heaped praise on West, but not always.

On two separate occasions, representatives of the Council on American Islamic Relations showed up to challenge West on his inflammatory statements about Islam. (West has said that Islam is not a religion but rather a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.”)

The congressman was eager to fight. Without even letting him finish, West told Nezar Hamze of CAIR that “I’ve been on the battlefield my friend. Don’t try to blow sunshine up my butt.” As the crowd roared, he demanded that Hamze “put the microphone down and go home.” The confrontation was a hit, one eagerly gobbled up by Fox News, which frequently replayed the clip and invited West on air to discuss it.

However, the town hall West held this week in Fort Lauderdale was suddenly and dramatically different. For the first time, West’s staff did not allow constituents to get anywhere near a microphone. ThinkProgress’ Scott Keyes reported from the event that all of the questions were pre-screened, and the questioners couldn’t even pose their queries themselves­—event organizers read them aloud.

Some attendees were not dissuaded. “How about our Medicare that you’re stealing!” shouted one. Several people were ejected by security, and one person was arrested. So much for taking on all comers.

As Congress reconvenes this week, voter backlash during recess has dimmed already dark prospects for the Ryan budget to pass the Senate. Though she praised Ryan for his “courage,” moderate Republican Susan Collins said she will not support his plan. Most of the major Republican presidential candidates have taken the same approach—lauding Ryan but not explicitly endorsing his budget proposal.

In perhaps the most telling indication of how toxic the Ryan budget is for many Republican Senators, it’s not the Republicans who will bring up the budget for a vote but rather majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “Republicans seem to be in love with the Ryan budget,” Reid teased on a conference call with reporters yesterday.  “We’ll have an opportunity to vote on the Ryan budget, to see if [Republican Senators] like it as much as their House colleagues did.”

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