Virtual Town Halls Change How Politicians Sell The Stimulus 1

The summer of 2009 was not a good one for Democrats.

They had just passed the Affordable Care Act, the party’s most ambitious bill in a generation, and while congressional Democrats were ecstatic, the voters were indignant.

When Democrats returned to their districts in August to hold town halls, lawmakers were greeted with white-hot rage and widespread opposition to a health-care bill that Republicans had already branded as toxic. Dozens of those Democrats who were accosted that August would go on to lose their jobs in the “shellacking,” as then-President Barack Obama called it, of 2010.

Those memories still sting now, a decade later. But as Democrats sell their most sweeping legislation since the ACA—a $1.9 trillion bill to counter the COVID crisis that will have impacts that outlast the pandemic—history is not repeating itself.

In town halls hosted by members of Congress last week, Democrats were not accosted. No personal threats were levied. In fact, Democrats hardly got any critical questions about the stimulus.

Instead, they were treated like glorified customer service representatives for a dramatic expansion in the American social safety net. The most common questions were these: When will I receive my stimulus check? Am I going to get vaccinated any quicker? When will I get my child tax credits?

The absence of vitriol at town halls is partially due to some constraints of the pandemic era. Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who withstood some brutal town halls after the passage of the 2009 stimulus bill and the ACA, specifically pointed to the different venues. During COVID, members have largely held telephone or virtual town halls, cutting the chances for heated in-person confrontations.

But there’s another key point. “It also helps to have a bill that is incredibly popular,” Perriello said, “that people can feel and see the impact.”

Indeed, polls show the bill is broadly popular with the public. A March 17 poll from POLITICO/Morning Consult found 72 percent of voters approve of it. And unlike the ACA, whose benefits took years to kick in, direct checks of $1,400 or more landed in millions of Americans’ bank accounts less than a week after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law.

Only one lawmaker in six town halls observed by The Daily Beast was asked a confrontational question about the legislation—and it was a Republican being challenged for not supporting it.

“There wasn’t a single Republican that supported the bailout for the pandemic,” said a constituent of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s (R-WA) during a telephone town hall. “So that’s super -frustrating to hear.”

Republicans, who have openly acknowledged their difficulty in messaging against the package, have sought to change the subject entirely. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that voters care more about the “crisis at the border” and claimed that immigration issues deflect attention away from the nearly $2 trillion bill.

The GOP’s inability to negatively define the COVID legislation was clear during these town halls, none of which took place in a particularly partisan district. Awkwardly, Republican lawmakers found themselves helping their constituents navigate the programs of a bill they themselves did not support. At her Thursday event, Herrera Beutler—who voted against the package and said it was a “failing” on Biden’s part not to work with Republicans on it—took a call from a disabled Vietnam War veteran who was facing eviction and desperately needed his $1,400 stimulus check, which he hadn’t yet received. “Who’s going to have accountability for this?” the man asked.

His Republican representative had little choice but to give the answer she did. “Let me see if I can do something about that,” Herrera Beutler told him. “See if we can’t help you run down some of these challenges.”

In a Wednesday tele-town hall, Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) leaned on the GOP branding that has failed to break through—that the COVID relief plan is a liberal wishlist disguised as a COVID relief plan.

“It’s an awful lot of money to add to the debt,” said Garcia, who represents a southern California district that Biden carried by 10 points. “We now have three-quarters of a trillion dollars left over from previous COVID packages that already had been approved.”

But then Garcia attempted to take credit for the legislation’s most popular plank. He claimed he was one of just a few Republicans who supported a $2,000 total, arguing the initial payment of $600 was a “slap in the face.” His constituents were left to themselves to appreciate the upshot of the fact that Garcia did not vote for the vehicle that actually sent those checks out.

For the Democrats, these town halls were largely a victory lap intended to solidify support for a bill that, though passed on party lines, they believe is an unequivocal political winner.

“Help is on the way,” declared Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) at a Monday event.

“There are so many helpful provisions,” said Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA), one of seven total Trump-district Democrats, “if I ran through the whole bill, we’d be here all night.”

The Democrats tended to open by emphasizing three core elements of the COVID bill: the billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, the stimulus checks, and the expansion of the child tax credit. Popular topics, too, were funds for school reopening, state and local governments, and a proposal to make up to $10,000 unemployment benefits received in 2020 tax-free.

Nearly all constituent questions centered on how and when they might access benefits under the legislation, or benefits that have been in place since the pandemic began last year. There were even questions already over the fate of some just-passed programs: one constituent asked Stevens about the new child benefit, which is set to expire in a year. “Are you going to continue that?” this person asked. “Or is that going to be a one-time shot?”

Stevens affirmed her support for making the benefit permanent out of a need to “support the kiddos.”

Congressional offices insist they do not screen out confrontational callers in tele-town halls, and strive to achieve a balance of issues, as well as a mix of positive and critical comments. Rep. Josh Harder (D-CA), for one, was pressed about what he was doing to counter plans to slash service at the U.S. Postal Service. Another man asked him about two nearby Republicans, “Devin Nunes and Paul McCartney”—seemingly a reference to the House GOP leader from Bakersfield, rather than one of the key members of The Beatles—and challenged the Democrat about them.

“What are you doing to get rid of these assholes?” the constituent asked. Harder politely brushed off the question.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a progressive who represents a historically Republican district in California’s Orange County, nodded to criticisms of the bill during her opening remarks at a Wednesday town hall. Acknowledging that there was “a lot of talk” about the price tag of the bill, Porter said “it’s a big-dollar figure because we had a big problem in this country.”

“The goal of the American Rescue Plan is to provide that relief,” she said. “The bill is not perfect, but it has many things in it that are already improving people’s lives.”

Despite garnering some criticism for her vote against the COVID bill, Herrera Beutler’s constituents generally praised her work. One man noted her vote to impeach Trump, and her subsequent willingness to testify to the ex-president’s apparent indifference to the violence unfolding on Jan. 6. “I appreciate you having the backbone to stand up after the insurrection when so many of your colleagues didn’t have any backbone,” a man named Doug said. “It made me think of you in an entirely different way.”

The GOP push to refocus national attention to immigration, by spotlighting a surge of migrants on the southern border, did not seem to break through during Democrats’ events—though Harder, who represents central California, was asked if vaccines would be going to undocumented immigrants.

Still, Republicans like Cramer remain confident that the public will not only focus on other issues but also gradually believe that the bill was misguided. “Oftentimes in a bill this massive, this complex, with this much stuff in it, people always like the goodies upfront, but when the goodies run out, then they start paying the price and they start wondering, you know, what’s going on,” said Cramer. “We have never viewed this as a short term marketing war, but rather a long, long game of education and awareness.”

But Democrats feel totally differently. Perriello, who later attributed his 2010 defeat to his support for the ACA, said Democrats are learning and doing better at messaging their economic legislation than they did in 2009 and 2010. A key mistake from that era, he said, was the reluctance of President Obama and his aides to embrace big-spending but popular ideas.

“One of the moments I already knew we were losing the health care fight was when people said, ‘why are you focusing on this first instead of the economy?’” Perriello recalled. “Uh, did you not see that thing we did? We did such a poor job communicating the impacts of the stimulus.”

Perriello said the only thing people really knew about Obamacare was the price tag. “This time,” he said, “people are hearing the price tag, and are hearing, ‘I’m going to get these checks.’”