A brave new world for local Congress members

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By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

It is a brave (cough-cough) new world for some of our elected officials — specifically the three gentlemen who hold congressional seats in Chester County and find themselves coming home to districts this week they may not recognize.

Yes — we’ll grant everything is new for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who is little more than a month in from joining the world’s most dysfunctional legislative body (after serving as a state Senator in arguably the world’s second most dysfunctional body, the Pennsylvania General Assembly) — but even for old hands U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-7) and Ryan Costello (R-6), these are strange times.

All three have been pilloried on social media and seen their district offices regularly targeted for protests. First it, was health care and now, it appears growing demand for a full investigation of Russia and its involvement with the Trump Administration/Campaign appear to be driving grass roots anger, in the wake of Monday night’s resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

And to be clear, we’ve checked, and no one – repeat no one — is getting paid to protest or send letters to the editor, at least locally. Which is, to be sure, a departure from some of the GOP corporate supported Astroturfing that went on a few years back (often the exact same letter — word for word — would come in to our email box, purportedly from various members of the community who didn’t seem to exist).

As yet — and if we missed them, we apologize — none has been brave enough to hold an local, in-person, face to face town hall with the voters (Costello is planning one way out in Lebanon — insert your baloney joke here — plus an event in Pottstown). Meehan did reach out to my home on a random basis inviting me to a phone town hall — during dinner — and I had to decline.

Ironically, after having to speak a certain language to their base in recent years, they seem almost frozen in fear in figuring out how to speak to those in the center and left of center (and the extreme partisan nature of hiring staff and consultants leaves them with little in the way of resources than can literally speak the language of these angry folks and offer counsel on how to communicate with them). Too many of the millennial GOP staffers seem to come from the “let’s kill all the liberals and let God sort them out” school of politics.

As a larger group, most of our GOP Congress members — and frankly, starting with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) who is otherwise a smart guy — really need a crash course in “speaking to Democrats in a way that doesn’t make them want to punch you in the face.” As a caucus, truthfully, I’m not sure they even understand that or much care, but they’d be well advised to consider it. So far, they’ve really failed at that sort of communication and as a result, are tightly tying their fates to that of President Donald Trump.

While the folks who have been pressing them “to get rid of Obamacare” are now home, rearranging their Donald Trump commemorative coins and hats (made in China, natch) —  the other half of the population, which likes the ACA (and really, really dislikes Trump, hates the wall and think the Russians fixed the election) have turned into a vocal, angry (did I mention angry?) group.

The dynamic is suddenly somewhat different for these representatives — obviously way different for Smucker, whose media shop has been kind of hit and miss so far on what those folks are looking for — who have have had to fear opposition from the right much more from the left in their heavily gerrymandered districts. Now, though, they face a similar scenario to what Democratic incumbents saw (many of whom are now former members) in 2010: an angry opposition bringing along just enough independents and moderate GOP voters to put their seats at risk in 2018 (you’ll remember it was a similar coalition that flipped a lot of Republican seats, including the old Seventh District in 2006).

In essence, these three are caught between a right flank that insists upon the wall, the travel ban, the end of the ACA and yet, suddenly thinks the Russian threat is no big deal, and the other vocal half of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who think all of those things are somewhere between concerning and terrifying.

Basically, if a GOP congress keeps its word to its base, a furious majority will run them out of office in the 2018 general. If they don’t, a furious base will primary them. Neither bodes well for the party in the 2018 elections, mind you.

At best — especially if the Trump Administration is unable to steady what has been the worst start of an administration arguably since John Tyler – it will be a high-wire act. At worst, we could see the kind of blood letting in 2018 we saw in 1994, 2006 and 2010, putting at least the 6th and 7th in play and maybe even the 16th.

***

Smucker spoke on the U.S. House floor the other day, offering a Commitment to Civility, as he put it — promising not to assume that his Democratic colleagues are motivated by poor motives and to show them respect.

In concept, Smucker is on to something. In reality: it’s probably not going to be adopted widely.

The problem being this: it’s Republicans who have been more aggressive in promoting the politics of anger — it’s been a key piece of their playbook since at least 1994. Until fairly recently, Democrats would get strong pushback internally on aggressive, negative campaigning — leaving the tactic pretty much to the GOP (I’ll note that Democrats for a long time just thought the logic of their positions was so superior, that there was no need to appeal to emotion — only the current situation has finally disabused them of this, allowing them to finally get past no small amount of arrogance). Ironically, the once cumbaya embracing Democratic base is demanding its candidates haul out the verbal napalm and go to town.

Civility is nice, but in the current environment, when extremism is rewarded — thanks to gerrymandering — it doesn’t reflect the reality. Fix gerrymandering and reduce the influence of money in politics and civility will return pretty quickly.

***

Chester County’s loss is Pennsylvania’s gain: New Pennsylvania GOP state chair Val DiGiorgio put together a team with a strong Chester County flavor to lead the state party.

Former Chesco GOP Executive Director Rob Brooks now takes that role up with the state party. Greg Manz, who was Donald Trump’s PA spokesperson, takes over as Communications Director. Manz also has Chesco ties, having worked for the House Republican Campaign Committee in 2012 and 2014 in Delaware and Chester counties. Laura Wagoner — who has been Chesco GOP Executive Director — is the new finance director.

It’s hard to complain about the group of new hires, although there will likely be grumbling about the lack of geographic diversity.

Coincidence? Since DiGiorgio’s election, The Times’ email box has gone dark with missives from the PA GOP, which used to come almost daily. We only got this news, and belatedly, when someone kindly forwarded it to us. Not shockingly, we probably got put on the naughty list.

Anyhow, these appointments at the state level does present something of a problem for the local Chester County GOP — stripping it of a lot of leadership and fundraising experience. It will be interesting to see who steps up to lead the local Republican Committee.

***

One last note: local politicians would be well advised to watch closely the Trump Administration’s dealings with the mainstream press. Thursday’s press conference by the president was, well, unusual. He spent a lot of time attacking the media, in a rambling, at times incoherent, performance.

Friday, he referred to us — understand that this means those of us who cover local Republicans, too — as “enemies of the people.” I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I’m taking it personally, so buckle up, buttercup.

That strategy isn’t going to get the media to back down — quite the opposite.

We’re seeing some of the most aggressive enterprise reporting in a generation now — with new reporting daily unraveling the Trump Administration — by a group now that feels like it must fight for its life. Despite Trump’s dismissal of it as “fake news,” the vast majority of it is well-sourced, carefully reported journalism. You know, facts.

Understand that there will be collateral damage for other elected officials, stories and potential scandals thought long dead and buried will start to surface. A national media that had become cliquish and celebrity-driven is getting back to its roots and finding itself, while inspiring local journalists to go the extra mile in their reporting.

That’s good news for democracy (small d) — but may be bad news, so to speak, for those who have skated by while media got fat and lazy.

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