Eight years after the tea party turned town hall meetings on Obamacare into hands-on melees, liberals furious with President Trump are flipping the script by shouting down Republicans who have struggled to outline better health care plans.
Police escorted Rep. Tom McClintock out of a recent event in which protesters fumed over the Californian’s support for Obamacare repeal and Mr. Trump’s travel limitations involving several Muslim-majority nations.
In Florida, Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis stood quietly as a speaker in bluejeans clutched the microphone and told him how to deal with the health care law: “keep it” and “fix it.”
And a Tennessee woman became a Twitter sensation after she tied her Christian duty to “pull up” the less fortunate to Obamacare’s mandate requiring even healthy Americans to get insured.
“The healthy people pull up the sick,” she told a panel that included Rep. Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican tasked with crafting Obamacare repeal legislation under fast-track budget rules this spring.
It’s a stark turnaround from 2009, when conservative protesters tried to shove their way into packed meetings and shouted “Tyranny!” at Democrats advocating for the Affordable Care Act, saying it amounted to a federal takeover of the health care system.
A Pennsylvania man told then-Sen. Arlen Specter that he would be judged by God. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat in Congress at the time, rebuked a woman for comparing President Obama’s overhaul to “Nazi policy,” saying he might as well debate a dining room table.
The protests demonized Mr. Obama’s plan, which led to a rout for House Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, taking control of the chamber for the first time since 2006.
While today’s protests offer a 180-degree turn on policy, the amplitude is eerily similar, as Republican lawmakers struggle to explain why they have taken steps toward repeal without a firm plan for what comes next.
“Republicans are making the same mistakes Democrats made in 2009. They are moving so quickly that they are creating needless anxiety and opposition,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “They have to be careful not to turn 2018 into a wave election for Democrats.”
Liberals who feel cheated by Mr. Trump’s victory — he swept the Rust Belt but lost the popular vote — are riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment after a caustic election featuring pejorative nicknames, chants of “Lock her up” against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and hot-mic talk about grabbing women’s genitals.
Grass-roots activists have channeled their anger into an organized campaign to flood the town hall meetups that Republican lawmakers hold to stay connected with voters.
They’re using spreadsheets from Town Hall Project 2018 and other websites to keep track of when and where House and Senate lawmakers will face their constituents. The resulting standoffs are then shot across cyberspace, thanks to ubiquitous camera phones and the magic of YouTube and Twitter.
A huge Utah crowd greeted Rep. Jason Chaffetz with boos late Thursday, even as he touted his criticism of Kellyanne Conway, the White House adviser who may have flouted ethics rules by endorsing the fashion line of presidential daughter Ivanka Trump.
The crowd wasn’t satisfied, saying the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman needed to probe Mr. Trump’s business ties and coziness with Russia.
Some Republicans are avoiding town halls altogether, saying the political climate is too poisonous.
“Unfortunately, there is more anger in politics today than ever before. And we are receiving many very hateful, very angry emails and phone calls from some on the liberal-left side of the political spectrum,” Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican, said in a letter to groups requesting a town hall.
“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” he said.
While Mr. Trump’s brash style feels brand new, the health care fight is steeped in deja vu, even if the two sides have switched.
Mr. Obama relied on Democratic majorities to brush aside protests and pass the Affordable Care Act in early 2010, though it failed to drive down premiums or increase choices — as he had repeatedly promised — in its first three years of full implementation.
It has, however, driven the uninsured rate to historic lows by doling out taxpayer-funded subsidies on its insurance exchanges, expanding Medicaid in 31 states and allowing adults to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26.
“Big programs have constituencies that are being helped,” Mr. West said. “Unwinding them always is going to be contentious.”
Republicans who railed against Obamacare for seven years are now realizing that. While blueprints and draft bills abound, Republicans are struggling to coalesce around a replacement plan that can be vetted by budget scorekeepers to see how it stacks up against Obamacare.
Ms. Black confronted questions about their plans Thursday at an event hosted by the Middle Tennessee State University College Republicans outside of her district.
Responding to the woman whose stand went viral, she said Obamacare’s individual mandate simply “didn’t work.” It failed to attract the types of young people needed to keep rates down for everyone in the marketplace, as millions claimed an exemption from the mandate or just paid the tax penalty for remaining uninsured.
“While there were strong feelings at this forum, there is no mistaking the clear message Tennesseans sent last November at the ballot box when they sent [Rep.] Black and President Trump to Washington to repeal Obamacare and put patients back in control of their health care choices,” said Ms. Black’s spokesman, Jonathan Frank.
House Republicans insist they will produce an effective plan this year alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who assumed office Friday after the Senate confirmed him on a 52-47 vote along party lines.
“When the left doesn’t get its way at the ballot box, the next step it to intimidate everyone around them until they do,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “And that is what we are seeing. Once the GOP coalesces around a plan to replace Obamacare, that is when I expect the real fireworks to start on the left.”