March 29, 2005

An evening with Dave...

I arrived a few minutes late to the “discussion on Social Security” that Congressman Dave Reichert had arranged Tuesday evening at Bellevue High School. Fortunately, things were still settling down, so I quickly snuck up the steps of the Wolverine Room, with seats better suited for watching a basketball game than a debate, into the high and the back, and waited for the show to begin.

Like previous events of this sort throughout the country, especially when the President was present, there was more than a little control involved regarding the message. While, thankfully, no one was checking for bumper sticker loyalty in the parking lot, the folks that would respond to questions from the audience weren’t exactly a balanced assortment, given Congressman Reichert’s desire for a discussion that involved “all of the community.”

There were three panelists. To the left was Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center, fresh from a recent bit on local Christian radio about the dangers of importing foreign (read: Canadian) medications into the United States. In the center was Rob Nichols, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs, previously a press secretary for Jennifer Dunn and a communications director for Slade Gordon. And to the right, Sally Canfield, an assistant to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and previously Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security. Comment cards had to be filled out, which were, in turn, checked for trends among them. One of them would then be handed, eventually, to the moderator, James Vesely, the Editorial Page editor of the Seattle Times.

While I think Vesely has little sense of what “moderate” means when it comes to politicians (pushing for endorsing Bush in the 2000 general election and Lieberman in the 2004 state Democratic primary), he seemed to believe that part of his role, beyond trying to keep the hecklers in line, was to provide a voice for the crowd. As a result, he was usually a necessary and effective counterbalance to the panel. Doing so while being deferential to Congressman Reichert probably gave him his first broadly favorable boost in the eyes of public opinion in years.

Congressman Reichert, sadly, avoided this role, which you would have thought was more his responsibility, except near the end of the event. He tended to not want to touch the more ticklish aspects of the Social Security issue, deferring to the panel, which then went to work, spinning away to ensure their opinion was paramount.

I would say that about half of the people there were Democrats and left-leaning independents very suspicious about the vaguely-defined declarations for Social Security “reform,” about 30-40% were Republicans, and the rest were there out of a mixture of curiosity and interest.

It was tense at times – both sides had some very angry people present. It became obvious to me, with respect to the Republicans, when I went to the table where comment cards were being handed out. The white ones were for questions regarding Social Security – the blue ones about whatever else struck your fancy that you wanted to ask Congressman Reichert. And while I was running late when I arrived, almost to a one, the issue you kept overhearing around the blue cards was, “What’s Dave gonna do about Terri?” (And the vague answers from his staffers working the table weren’t cutting it.)

Those against Bush’s Social Security plans weren’t shy either. The two loudest bouts of applause were when Mr. Vesely declared, for the sake of clarity, that his newspaper had declared itself against Bush’s plan. The second was when, after some heated give-and-take between the audience and the panelists, Mr. Vesley commented, in passing, about how Bellevue was such a Republican place - he was given a chorus of catcalls, “No!”s and “Not anymore!”s.

The loudest response, however, came when Mr. Guppy overcame his periodic contemplative reverie of what life would have been like under a Forbes administration and decided to take on Ms. Canfield, who had commented that cutting social programs was a viable approach toward addressing the issue of how to fund Social Security. Mr. Guppy responded with, “So, do you want to cut school lunch programs?” The crowd responded with a cacophony of responses, the loudest being “Stop the war!” and “Yes!”

For all the interruptions, however, for the most part people could say what they wanted to say. (Even the folks that declared that it would be easier to deal with budgetary woes by ending the war in Iraq rather than “fixing” Social Security were able to heckle their way into a very brief moment of commentary.)

The general message from the panel was that Social Security was something that wasn’t sustainable over the long run, that needed fixing now, while we could still do it, and that private accounts assured that people would have their own money with which to weather the coming demographic storm. Medicare being noted by members of the audience as a bigger, real problem was pretty much swept under the rug (except when it was mentioned by Ms. Canfield that tort reform and Health Security Accounts (HSA’s) already could do much to improve that situation, which didn’t get a warm response). The idea that Chile and Great Britain had suffered under similar plans to the one promoted by President Bush was generally ignored, save for one mention of how such a plan was going great in Australia, and again, Ms. Canfield stepping in, this time with a general comment that now, and us, mattered – “…not out there.”

Few minds were changed, even as Congressman Reichert tried to unite the crowd around a couple of themes as the event came to an end. One was “Can’t we agree that it’s important to talk about this, for us and for our children?”

You better believe it, Dave.

Posted by palamedes at March 29, 2005 11:32 PM | US Politics | Technorati links |

Thanks for covering this, but did people really want to end the school lunch program?

Posted by: natasha at March 30, 2005 12:37 AM

One has to realize that there were a number of "red meat Republicans" in the place, and yes, they did say yes, quite loudly, to that.

Whether they represented the majority of Republican opinion in the room, let alone the 8th CD, is doubtful at best, but I just wrote about what I saw at that place and that moment.

Posted by: palamedes at March 30, 2005 07:52 AM

This was scripted to play in 'the belly of the beast' sort of speak. They weren't there for Dems nor Indies but for their base. The kind of crowd they got wasn't quite what they expected but it was clear they had quite a few of their own in the seats.

They weren't going to send the Goon Squad into the audience to take out the Liberals. They are well aware of what happened in Colorado and did not want that to occur here.

The GOP is vile and evil, down to the last one. This isn't an easy thing to say. The GOP of today is not the party of Lincoln or Eisenhower or even Nixon, it is the party of corruption, of greed and of the Devil himself, Tom DeLay.

Yes, they want to get rid of school lunches. They want to get rid of any social service. The GOP does not consider the poor to be American. Hell, they barely consider them human. If it were up to the Conservatives in power, there would be dozens of debtor's prisons dotting the landscape in Eastern Washington full of folks who aren't wealthy enough to be Republican.

Extreme you might say but only today... Tomorrow it may not be.

Posted by: David Aquarius at March 30, 2005 10:57 AM