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Mike Pence blames ‘liberal activists’ for town hall protests

People react to a question posed to New Jersey Republican Congressman Leonard Lance during a town hall meeting on February 22, 2017 in Branchburg, New Jersey. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

‘So-called angry crowds’ are ‘liberal activists’

Vice President Mike Pence blamed “liberal activists” on Wednesday for the recent, heated protests that have taken place at Republican legislators’ town halls across the United States.

Frustrated constituents have cornered GOP lawmakers at public forums and events in the last few weeks, demanding answers to tough questions on subjects ranging from the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the White House’s rumored relationship with Russia.

“The nightmare of Obamacare is about to end,” Pence said Wednesday after a visit to a factory in Fenton, Missouri. “Despite the best efforts of liberal activists at town halls around the country, Obamacare has failed and it has got to go.”

The vice president’s remarks are in lockstep with those of President Donald Trump and the White House. In a tweet Tuesday, Trump suggested the “so-called angry crowds” were planted by “liberal activists.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer furthered this theory during Wednesday’s White House press briefing, saying “professional protestors” had “manufactured” the outrage.

“There are people who are upset, but I also think that when you look at some of these districts and some of these things, it is not a representation of a member’s district or an incident,” Spicer said. “It is a loud, small group of people disrupting something in many cases for media attention.”

“Just because they’re loud doesn’t necessarily mean that they are many,” he added.

‘No town hall, no problem’

Despite the seemingly coordinated White House decision to downplay the much-publicized backlash happening at GOP events nationwide, enraged and impassioned constituents continue to pop up at town halls and other sites from Montana to Arkansas, Iowa, among other states.

The angry confrontations have picked up for weeks, but received notable attention this week as Congress took its first week-long recess. The pushback that has roiled meetings at home has prompted some GOP lawmakers to outright cancel events and appearances.

But for activists working to organize around these events, this is all part of the plan.

Indivisible, a group formed by former Democratic congressional staffers, published an online guide to holding effective town hall protests, and developed a Missing Member Action Plan that urges local groups and “angelic troublemakers” to be creative in their efforts to access their members of Congress. Part of their “reclaim recess” strategies include going to local press, gathering outside district offices, and organizing town halls and inviting the “missing” officials.

“No town hall, no problem,” the group said of this approach.

Congressional Republicans will continue dodging these public events, the group has said, because they “do not want to look weak or unpopular — and they know that Trump’s agenda is very, very unpopular.”

“Some [members of Congress] have clearly made the calculation that they can lay low, avoid their constituents, and hope the current storm blows over,” organizers added. “It’s your job to change that calculus.”

Town halls will never be the same

Much, if not all, of Indivisible’s strategy is borrowed from the Tea Party playbook. That conservative movement first gained national attention in 2009 through the same kind of rowdy disruptions of town hall events after the election of Barack Obama and proposal of the ACA.

Though both groups disagree on principles and policies, even Tea Party activists have pointed out the similarities in tactic, and how successful it has been in furthering civic participation.

“I think town halls will never be the same,” said conservative organizer Bob MacGuffie. In 2009, MacGuffie wrote the famed “Rocking the Town Halls” memo, a primer for conservative activists who wanted to corner their elected officials at local forums. The memo, first shared with other Tea Party members soon leaked, and MacGuffie’s “stand up, shout out, sit down” approach to getting officials to answer tough questions went viral, and was later adopted by groups elsewhere.

MacGuffie never envisioned that the scheme would later be used by liberal organizers like Indivisible, which linked to the memo on their website. He believes they have “mischaracterized” his original approach. He’s reached out to Indivisible, but said he has received no response.

“It’s a caricature of what I wrote,” MacGuffie said of the Indivisible plan. “What I wrote was a little edgy, but I did not tell people to take down the town halls.”

MacGuffie also insists that the original Tea Party protests had a different, more intentional character.

“We stood up on principle,” he said. “We went in, spread out in the hall, and asked the tough questions. That rallied people, but we also listened to answers.”