The crowd was riled up, polite but reasonable. There was heckling, but only one extended chant (for less than a minute), and Lance had plenty of time to talk. He seized every opportunity to take questions into the weeds, hiding behind policy details and congressional procedure when pressed on the extent to which he supported holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire. In over ninety minutes, faced with a crowd of his own constituents expressing their deep alarm over Trump, Lance didn’t offer a single substantial criticism of Trump. For anyone who’s followed his career, his performance was as expected. He talked much, but said little.
To his credit, he’s holding a second town hall on Saturday at the same location. Lance’s biggest weakness, the trait that I believe makes him most vulnerable in 2018, is his reluctance to speak boldly about anything in particular. He can’t and won’t operate outside of the narrow respectability politics that for years has prevailed among New Jersey’s political establishment. But Trump has killed respectability politics, and those of us who want to resist must not allow ourselves to be duped into operating in that space.
We must make sure Leonard Lance is chained to the inhumane, illiberal, anti-democratic, neo-fascistic politics of the Trump regime. He endorsed Trump, and has not challenged him in any meaningful way. Trump presides over his party. NJ 7th constituents who want to resist must press him either to move closer to Trump, or to distance himself from the administration in explicit ways— and not in the milquetoast ways represented here. In the rare occasions when he faces us, we must make him uncomfortable about his relationship to the head of his party, to his leader. He seems to think he can skate through these next two years untainted by Trumpism, but we cannot let that be the case.
Two questions seemed to rattle him a bit last night, towards the end of the evening. The first was a pointed question from Joe Girvan about Trump’s tax returns. Girvan framed the question as a yes or no question — “will you support Representative Pascrell’s efforts and those of the majority of the citizens of this country and the constituents in this room to get your president or the IRS to turn over his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.” Lance’s response to this question exemplified his weakness and ultimately his vulnerability. Lance urged Trump to release his tax returns, but argued that Pascrell’s bill goes “too far”: “I think the Ways and Means Committee shouldn’t be investigating the returns of a private individual.” The crowd erupted against Lance’s claim that our president was a private individual, and he recoiled at the reaction.
The second question was the last of the evening, from Annette Cordasco, who asked “how will you mobilize the other Republicans to push back against this man when he makes delusional statements?” The crowd erupted in chants of “push back! push back!” as Lance offered a careful statement about support for a free and unfettered press, but no commentary on the role his party has played in delegitimizing that institution as a pillar of American democracy.
I urge my fellow constituents who attend the Town Hall on Saturday to ask questions that do not have easy answers, and that either force Lance to take a stance in opposition to his party and to Trump or that reveal his unwillingness to do so. I was prepared to ask such a question, though did not have the opportunity. My question is below, if anyone wants to use it or riff of it:
Mr. Lance: thank you for holding these town halls. My question is less about policy and more about rhetoric. You made your reputation in this state as someone who was willing to challenge the orthodoxy of his own party, and who comes out of a tradition of capable, serious, professional public servants. The candidate who now presides over your party, who you endorsed, and who you have refrained from criticizing in any direct way, is on the record bragging about sexual assault. He has made fun of people with physical disabilities. He has ogled and said he was going to date a 10 year-old girl in ten years. As president he has installed an avowed white supremacist, Steve Bannon, in the White House. He has appointed an Attorney General who has expressed sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan. He has filled his cabinet with individuals who are hostile to the very notion of capable governance. He lied about voter fraud in the election, and the size of his victory. Since his election, we have seen an explosion of anti-Semitic incidents. We have seen our LGBT brothers and sisters live in increasing fear for their rights and lives, and our Muslim and Latino brothers and sisters are terrified for their future in this country, worried they will be harassed, rounded up, or deported.
My questions to you are these: given that you have endorsed President Trump and refrain from forcefully condemning anything he does, why should your constituents think you have a problem with any one of these indisputable facts? What exactly are you prepared and willing to do to oppose Trump’s rhetoric?