This past Saturday, Grand Rapids area U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers held his annual “town hall” meeting at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids. About two-hundred people attended the meeting.
The meeting addressed a variety of issues including the economy, swine flu, torture, the environment, and taxes. Unlike in years past where there was always a presence from antiwar activists, there was relatively little discussion of U.S. foreign policy. Ehlers mentioned the Iraq War only in passing, a far cry from two years ago when his talk was disrupted by anti-war protestors.
Ehlers opened the town hall with his prepared remarks–lasting about twenty minutes–on issues currently before the Congress. Ehlers focuses mainly on the current economic situation, which he said was a result of a combination of ignorance on the part of consumers and greed from corporations. He said that he continues to be greatly concerned about the level of spending in Washington and said that it is a problem that needs to be addressed. He stopped short of blaming Democrats or President Obama for the spending, but said that there is a clear distinction between the two parties on how they view spending.
Dodge Everything, Don’t Commit to Anything: The Ehlers Mantra?
As has been the case at previous town hall meetings, Ehlers stayed quite vague when answering questions and giving his opening remarks. In his opening remarks, he didn’t mention any specific bills, even when touting what he said was the progress being made on cleaning up the Great Lakes.
This continued into the question period in which he often described things as “incredibly complex,” “complicated,” or both. He said that various things–health care, taxes, the deficit, the economy–were all complex issues that needed to be addressed, but he failed to offer any policy ideas. He dodged questions on torture and what Obama should look for in a Supreme Court justice. When his conservative constituents asked him about what they can do to express their opposition to current spending in Washington, Ehlers offered no ideas, saying it wasn’t a political gathering.
If there was one consistent pattern that ran through the meeting, it was Ehlers’ unwillingness to get specific about much of anything.
No Local Media Coverage
Unfortunately, Representative Ehlers’ town hall was not covered on any substantive level in the local media. Both WOOD TV 8 and WZZM 13 were there, but they did not cover much of what was said. WOOD TV focused mainly on Ehlers’ comments on swine flu, while WZZM 13 focused on a protest held outside by the Communications Workers of America. The WZZM 13 story contained no comments from Ehlers.
Resurgence of Republican, Rightwing Interest in the Meeting
In years past, much of the opposition to Ehlers’ positions and politics has come from Democrats or progressives–what is often lumped together as “the left” in mainstream political discourse. However, this year there was a strong resurgence in interest coming from the political “right.”
Many conservatives in attendance challenged Ehlers on his support of the bank bailout last fall, the Republicans’ unwillingness to pursue more aggressive policies to cut the federal debt, and what some in the audience said was his past support for “tax increases.” During the question and answer portion of the discussion, people regularly yelled out things like “No More Bank Bailouts,” “New World Order,” and “Listen To Your Constituents.” It was clear that many coming from the right were unhappy with Ehlers’ responses and his voting record.
During the meeting, conservatives also expressed opposition to things such as universal health coverage, the Rapid Silver Line transit project, and assistance to home buyers for mortgages. Some labeled current economic policies as “socialism” and decried what they perceived as the government’s leftward tilt.
However, to anyone coming from “the left”–or even a Democratic perspective–a lot of these critiques have relatively little basis. Unfortunately, there was next to no visible left presence at the meeting. Nobody challenged these observations, nobody argued against these conservative policy prescriptions, and nobody talked to those voice such theories–some of which were nothing more than Internet conspiracy theories.
In the end, this is unfortunate because it is at these kind of gatherings that the right gains power. When ideas go unchallenged and when people get together to network, they gain power. It’s a mistake if “the left” in Ehlers’ district falls into complacency because of Obama’s victory or the Democratic gains in the House and Senate–action is still needed, ideas need to be explored, and pressure needs to be applied.