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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Why of Town Halls

Matthew Ygelsias has a ‘Think Progress‘ post, “What’s the Point of These Health Care Town Halls?,” which can be read as a continuation of the topic Ed raised earlier today in his TDS post “Should Town Hall Meetings Matter?
Yglesias riffs on Michael Crowley’s post commending Sen. Claire McCaskill’s handling of a town hall meeting earlier today. Yglesias agrees with Crowley about McCaskill:

She was pitch-perfect: polite and responsive without being a pushover, armed with clear and compelling facts (emphasis on things any health reform bill will *not* do) and firm when necessary. She shamed one of the loudest hecklers by reminding him that “we have good manners in Missouri,” but without losing her own temper. I know the mid-day MSNBC audience is small, but I feel like almost any open-minded person who saw this performance would come away trusting McCaskill over the protesters.

Sounds like it might make a good training video on how to handle the GOP goon squads that have been showing up at some of these forums, but Yglesias provides no link. Looking at the big picture, Yglesias wonders whether the town hall meetings are worth the trouble:

…Watching McCaskill on TV what I mostly thought of was that I don’t understand why members of congress are holding these town halls. There’s been so much focus on the spectacle of the whole thing that nobody’s really stepped back and explained what the purpose of these events are other than to give us pundits something to chat about. Obviously this is not a good way of acquiring statistically valid information about your constituents’ opinions. And it doesn’t seem like a mode of endeavor likely to increase the popularity of the politician holding the town hall. The upside is extremely limited, and you’re mostly just exposing yourself to the chance that something could go wrong.

Yglesias gets an earful of answers in the comments. Nothing earth-shaking, but some thoughtful insights, such as ‘Dan’s take:

The point is to establish anti-Washington credentials. Remember when McCain was begging for Obama to do a series of town halls together last summer? Something about the format seems to jive well with the angry-white-guy populist shtick.

Adds ‘Henry B.’:

I think the reason for doing them is primarily custom and secondarily the need to generate favorable local media coverage. If you’re a member of Congress and you do a couple town-halls and don’t screw up too badly, you can count on some nice pictures on the front of the local papers. It gives people back home proof that you’re making an effort to stay in touch with your constituents.
There is, of course, an unusually large downside risk this year, and I think that’s why a lot of members of Congress have canceled their town-halls this year. Obviously the members who are going forward with their town-halls are getting more attention, but I work on the Hill and have heard of several members who aren’t doing any town-halls.

‘Ted’ shares Ygelsias’s view:

Everyone’s making good points about the value of town halls in the past. But if these things are going to be regularly astroturfed, I agree with MY that it’s hard to see the upside right now, for individual candidates.
I’m not sure what the overall effect has been on health care reform. Ambinder is saying that the right has blown it by letting their crazies run with the ball. But I haven’t seen a whole lot of effective messaging from our side, either. The net effect may be that people are convinced that the teabaggers are nuts, but remain confused & apprehensive about health policy.

A commenter named ‘Midland” explains:

…Most politicians get their start talking to people one on one and get to the top doing the same. That’s why so many of them seem so inarticulate on television: they didn’t get to where they are going to acting school, they got there by talking to a whole lot of people in small groups. About politics, about themselves, about things they believed in, for good or ill.
The saddest thing about this latest blast of meanness from the right is that town halls, for most of the last two decades, have been a refuge of intelligent, adult political debate. No matter how stupid, bombastic, trivial, or dishonest the network coverage, a politician in a honest town hall meeting usually got sincere questions from thoughtful citizens. It was always a welome contrast to the Beltway gasbags.

‘Njorl’ suggests an interesting idea:

…The Democrats best strategy would have been to hold simultaneous town halls all over the country. You’d get fewer shipped-in crazies that way.

The bottom line, simple as it sounds, may be that, with major electronic media so unwilling to give fair coverage to the case FOR Democratic health care reform proposals, proponents simply have to take every messaging opportunity available.

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