For all those insisting that Cory Gardner finally hold his first town hall meeting of the Trump era, I’ve got some partly-fake news for you.
He had one. Sort of. It was Friday afternoon in Durango.
He brought with him three friends — including the state’s top two Democrats — as cover. And though he faced a largely unfriendly audience — or at least that’s how it looked on the streaming video I watched — no one laid a glove on him. In other words, it was vintage Gardner.
He dodged questions he didn’t want to answer, which was pretty much all of them. And he insisted that this fake town hall — in a small venue, with very little public notice, with Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Scott Tipton there taking questions — was the real thing.
I don’t think anyone in the crowd bought it. As one questioner asked as the meeting was nearing a close, “When will you be back to do a real town hall?
The answer, if it came truthfully, would probably be never. Gardner, of course, didn’t say. But if Gardner showed anything Friday, it was that he has made a huge mistake ducking these crowds. Yeah, if you held a town hall anywhere near Denver, you’d get the TV cameras there showing angry constituents, and it might get some play on national cable TV news.
But you’d also get to say that you’re not afraid to do a little small-d democracy and that you’ll answer some of the tough questions that any Republican would have to face right now.
The problem is, Gardner is afraid. And you can understand why.
He can’t defend his support of Trump. He can’t defend his role in attempting to repeal Obamacare. And he’s very unlikely to explain why he can’t talk honestly about what Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has called the Republicans’ Faustian bargain with Trump.
Flake said that Republican politicians, and he included himself in his blistering assessment, have spent the last months enabling a president they know to be unfit for the job. Columnist Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter and White House aide, called Flake’s stand the “single biggest act of political bravery in the Trump era.”
Imagine Gardner taking a similar stand. OK, you can’t. Now try to imagine him saying what Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she told Trump about her vote on Obamacare repeal: “I made a statement to the President with my colleagues and with his team there that ‘I’m not voting for the Republican Party. I’m voting for the people of Alaska.'”
OK, you can’t do that either. Instead, we have the devastating photo of Gardner walking alongside Mitch McConnell as they head to the Senate floor to vote for the “skinny repeal” bill. It’s a photo you may see again. And again. It’s a photo Democrats will use to remind voters that Gardner voted for three different iterations of Obamacare repeal — one that would have robbed 16 million people of their healthcare coverage, one that would have robbed 22 million people of their coverage and one that would have, and here’s your winner, robbed 32 million people of their coverage.
So when Gardner was asked to explain “why on Earth” — as one questioner put it — he had voted to repeal Obamacare, he began his usual spiel about all the problems with Obamacare without once mentioning why any of the bills he voted for, and presumably helped to write, would improve matters. He didn’t because he couldn’t. Not with a straight face, anyway.
The crowd booed, saying they’d heard all that before. And so Gardner said one more thing they’d heard before: “Seven years ago, when I ran for Congress, I said that I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, and I’m going to continue to live up to the promise that I made. The reason is: The Affordable Care Act isn’t working.”
More boos. It turns out that a lot has changed in seven years since Gardner was waving his insurance company letter around. Trump got to be president, the Mooch happened and, along the way, Obamacare became popular. Go figure.
But Gardner, after taking a little heat, found his way back to his seat among the politicians, who had come to the meeting from a tour of the Gold King Mine with EPA Director Scott Pruitt. The mine was presumably to be the topic of the day. But the fact that Gardner was there, or anywhere, to answer questions from the crowd, or any crowd, changed the topic dramatically.
If Gardner held his own, as he seemed to, that was never really going to be his problem. Donald Trump is his problem. The Republican agenda is his problem. Taking $770 billion from Medicaid recipients in order to fund a tax cut for the rich is his problem. Standing by as Trump takes another run at the culture wars — banning transgender troops, cutting legal immigration, breaking several Boy Scout pledges — those are his problems.
The fact that Trump is polling in the high 30s — and almost certainly lower than that in Colorado — is definitely Gardner’s problem.
The cracks in Trump’s support in Washington are now plainly visible. The Senate is remaining in continuous session during the August recess so that the president can’t use the recess to fire Jeff Sessions. There are a pair of bipartisan bills being proposed that would prohibit a president (like Trump) from firing a special counsel (like Bob Mueller) without review from a panel of federal judges. In an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, Congress passed sanctions against Russia — the margin was so big that even Gardner could safely join in — that were a direct rebuke to Trump.
The thing is, at some point, Gardner may well have to dump Trump. It won’t be like Flake. It wouldn’t be bravery that does it, of course. If or when it happens, it will be purely out of self-defense.
And, in any case, you wouldn’t need a town hall to give you the news. My guess is that it would be as obvious as the writing on the Mooch’s bathroom wall.
Photo via Sen. Cory Gardner Facebook