In the old days (I’m thinking 2005 or so), Representative Ed Case, D–2nd District, would hold town hall meetings every 26 minutes or so. I remember one at King Kamehameha III Elementary School in Lahaina. A couple dozen people showed up and a few asked questions of Case, who stood at the front of the room and handed out bottled water. The meetings were boring, but were straight-up meet-your-congressional representative gatherings. Anyone could walk in and just ask Case a question (or give him what-for, which happened a lot, too).
Case is of course long gone, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard–the Democrat who has his job now–does these things very differently. Her town halls are rare but spectacular affairs–more like a carefully choreographed convention (TulsiCon 2017!) than any kind of open exchange with constituents.
Her latest, which took place at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center last night, was by far the largest of her recent town hall tour through Hawaii’s 2nd District. Where other town halls attracted crowds numbered in the hundreds, the MACC gathering brought in “more than 1,000,” according to a news release Gabbard’s office released a few hours after it ended (though this morning, Gabbard’s personal Instagram account put the headcount at “Nearly 1,000”).
Anyone walking in expecting one of those angry town halls where legions of pissed-off constituents shout angry questions at some exasperated legislator would have walked out disappointed. This was a love-fest for Gabbard, full of stirring applause and effortless answers. Those wanting to ask a question had to sign up and explain it ahead of time. Gabbard’s staff then decided who would get to ask questions (the nice moderator very nicely explained ahead of time that they probably wouldn’t get to everyone), virtually guaranteeing that Gabbard wouldn’t face any inquiries about her refusal to denounce Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s white supremacist chief strategist, why she thinks the U.S. can “defeat” terrorist groups like ISIS with conventional military means or whether she’ll step down in 2018 to challenge fellow Democratic U.S Senator Mazie Hirono. And, of course, no one took issue with Gabbard’s explanation that she met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to “further the cause of peace and understanding.”
Make no mistake: Gabbard is extremely popular. Many of her positions are solidly liberal–decriminalize marijuana, Medicare for all, oppose the repealing of the Affordable Care Act. But her focus remains foreign policy–specifically, what she calls America’s “counterproductive regime-change wars” (a clumsy bit of jargon she has endlessly repeated throughout her April town hall gatherings). Hers is a narrow, binary view of the war: you either support her stance that we let Assad remain Syrian dictator, or you think the U.S. should be the world’s policeman and support endless wars to topple regimes we don’t like. You listen to her denounce the civil war in Syria as a “counterproductive regime-change war” enough and it’s easy to think the U.S. started the war.
“The Syrian people are not sitting around having ideological debates about what’s going on in their country,” she said at one point (which is of course nonsense–”ideological debates” are precisely what led to the Syrian war in the first place).
A long time ago, when faced with war, Democrats used to advocate stuff like international sanctions, multilateral coalitions and alliances, appeals to the United Nations and efforts to strengthen the International Criminal Court (recently, Gabbard seemed to think the ICC held the power to execute those it convicted, which is bizarrely incorrect). Guess that’s all in the past. These days, Democrats like Gabbard are far more hawkish–her Stop Arming Terrorists Act (which is not supported by any other of Hawaii’s federal legislators) isn’t an attempt to stop the United States from unilaterally making war, but rather a way to reorient it to only starting Gabbard-approved wars against groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
But the best part of the town hall–the very best part–happened near the end, when a resident tossed Gabbard the softest softball question I’ve ever heard: something about how she’s “bringing aloha” to the savagely partisan U.S. House of Representatives. Gabbard smiled, the told a story about her first days in congress, when she asked her mother (that would be Carol Gabbard, wife of Hawaii State Senator Mike Gabbard) to make 434 small boxes of her “dangerously tasty macadamia toffee” for each representative, and then another 435 larger boxes for their staffers. It was a charming little tale about the importance of “small, sincere gestures” that elicited at least one audible “awww” from the audience, but Gabbard left out one tiny detail: Carol and Mike Gabbard own a business that produces toffee for sale to the general public (use the Google to find out the name if you’re curious–they can look elsewhere for free advertising).
The whole thing wrapped up shortly after 9pm. Though Gabbard then made herself available a meet-and-greet with constituents at the stage, most everyone filed out into the rainy, muggy evening.
Photo courtesy Rep. Gabbard’s office