The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican town halls are getting very, very nasty

Republican town halls across the country hit by protests (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

In November, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) won reelection to one of the most Republican districts in the nation, with 73 percent of the vote.

On Thursday night, he found himself facing a very different picture. Thousands of people crowded in and outside of what was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill town hall in Utah to boo him and chant, “You work for us” and “Do your job!” Reporters heard those who couldn't get into the 1,080-person auditorium yelling: “Bring him out!”

An equally passionate — if not quite as boisterous — scene played out Thursday at a health-care town hall across the country in Murfreesboro, Tenn., — Republican territory through and through.

In Tennessee, Knoxville-area Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R) refused to hold a town hall given amid all the tension. " I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them," he said in a letter. "I have never seen so many sore losers as there are today."

That's one way to classify what's happening. Another way: Republicans are getting an unexpected jolt from both the left and their own anxious base at these town halls — and it's a moment that looks like a mirror image of the national mood almost a decade ago. The common thread between then and now: One party in control of Washington undertaking a massive change to Americans' health care. When Democrats were in Republicans' situation in 2010, they lost control of Congress and haven't regained it since.

Let's back up. In 2009, Democrats had large majorities in Congress and controlled the White House. They quickly drew on their political capital to pursue one of the biggest changes to the American health-care system in decades.

That summer, before Obamacare became law, Democrats across the nation went home to their districts and were caught off guard by passionately angry constituents — mostly conservative — at town halls, fearful of how Obamacare might take away their rights.

NPR recalled one particularly poignant moment that epitomized the fear and fury of these town halls:

Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat, was confronted by a man who pushed his disabled son's wheelchair up to the podium.
“You are a fraud, and you're sentencing this person to death under the Obama plan,” the man said.

Obamacare became law without a single Republican vote. The passion helped launch the tea party and gave Republicans their biggest victories since the Great Depression.

In 2017, the initial script appears to be the same, only the players are flipped.

Republicans are fully in control of Washington for the first time in a decade, and they haven't forgotten the motivating issue for their base in 2009. Repealing Obamacare — and replacing it with something else — is their top priority. Republicans took procedural steps on their first week back in Congress this January to make that happen.

But in the absence of an agreed-upon plan to replace it — and the very real threat of millions of people losing their health-care coverage in the process — Republicans' confident, steady march toward health-care reform has stalled. Lawmakers themselves are anxious about how to smoothly pull out health care from millions of people and quickly slip something better in its place.

During a retreat in Philadelphia, Republican lawmakers discussed national security, defense and foreign policy. Contributors included Sens. John Barasso (Wyo.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Reps. Greg Walden (Ore.), Kevin Brady (Tex.), Virginia Foxx (N.C.) and Andrew Bremberg, a top domestic policy adviser to President Trump. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

Enter a united, fired-up left, which has taken to streets across the nation not once but twice in President Trump's first few weeks in office. These protesters didn't just come out in Washington and Los Angeles, but in Wichita, rural Virginia and Anchorage. It has all the appearance, as my colleague James Hohmann wrote recently, of the liberal answer to the tea party movement.

The question Republicans in Congress must ask themselves is where the parallels between 2009 and 2017 end. Are Thursday's town halls early warning signs of a historically major loss to come for Republicans in the 2018 midterms? (Not likely in the Senate, given the map is so favorable for Republicans.) Is this a movement that will give rise to new liberal leaders in a party that many believe desperately needs them? Or will moments like Thursday's events pull the Democratic Party further to the left in a way that hurts its electoral chances? Will these people even vote in 2018, given they expressed their frustration after the election?

At the very least, Thursday's town halls are broadcasting to Republicans in Congress what most of them already know: If you're going to repeal Obamacare, you better make sure you replace it with a plan that truly is, in Trump's words, “something terrific.” Because health care has proven to be an issue that gets people into town halls and out to voting booths.