In a put up or shut up world of unsavory politics these days, Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman put up Wednesday night at a town hall meeting on the Anschutz Campus.
Props to Coffman for breaking the trend among many Republicans in Congress to ditch these public grilling sessions that can too easily lead to unflattering footage for opponents’ future TV commercials.
Coffman faced a largely unfriendly crowd of a few hundred people who came out for a variety of reasons. He and his staff set out a list of reasonable rules to prevent the event from becoming nothing but a heyday for political opposition.
Members of the audience were allowed to ask tough questions, and they did.
Everybody got something from the event. Critics got a chance to unload jeers. Coffman got a face-full of who many of his constituents really are. His purposely created swing district is pretty much equally split among Republicans, Democrats and non-affiliated voters, but much of the electorate is moderate, leaning left.
The left was right in his face last night.
“What will it take for you to vote with your constituents” instead of the Republican agenda? one person asked.
His answer was one of the few blatant misfires he made during the night. He said that his constituents keep voting for him. The pithy comeback made him appear arrogant. What he said, however, was absolutely true. Democrats see it as one of the Earth’s greatest mysteries. Coffman doesn’t, though.
He’s no stranger to any of this. Coffman has been getting himself elected to regional and statewide offices pretty much longer than anyone in Colorado. In normal times, this would be a normal evening of wily political mish-mosh.
But these aren’t normal times. President Donald Trump isn’t a normal president. Trump isn’t a normal person. Coffman may be deluding himself to think that politics and his Aurora district will ever be the same again.
Normally, Coffman is good at playing to his audience. His instincts have served him well over many years and in many roles. That’s certainly not a bad quality to have for a politician.
Despite representing a district where the demographic odds are against him, he’s been coming out way on top for several years.
He walks a tight and unusual line in his job. He must appease the larger moderate and left-leaning voters while at the same time pay critical heed to far-right Republicans in greater Aurora. They are an unyielding and unforgiving lot who eat their own and would quickly find a primary opponent for Coffman should he stray too far left or even into the mainstream.
You have to admit it’s pretty amazing that a solid member of the House Tuesday Caucus and often aligned with far-right tea party postions represents a district also boasting a variety of black, liberal Democrat state legislators. His district demanded Bernie last year, then settled for Hillary and widely refused Trump.
In these public situations, Coffman has been artful at accentuating what he thinks the audience wants to hear when pressed against the wall for answers.
He regularly votes for the tea party agenda, which is so conservative that it abandoned the recent failed repeal-and-replace attempt in the House. Far-right lawmakers said it didn’t go far enough to reverse Medicaid spending and offered too many things that people actually liked about Obamacare. When pressed on that, he answered that he doesn’t support any replacement deal that doesn’t provide for pre-existing conditions.
That’s true. Yet he was actually one of the few members of the House that voted for Trumpcare. That plan would have ravaged Colorado’s rural health system, overloaded others and by all accounts would have made health insurance for everyone over 30 endlessly more expensive and cover far less than it already does.
When he was pressed about why he doesn’t push back against Trump’s virtually insane contradictions, comments, and patently inept White House maneuvers, he said that he does point out disagreements, but that he’s not going to do it every day. He drew the parallel to the Obama presidency where his ultra-right base angrily wanted to know why he wasn’t dissing the past-president every day, all day.
It was clever, and, for the most part, it was true. Sure, there was that flap over Obama not being an American, some birtherism and a long list of Obama fans who remember Coffman spending a great deal of time attacking No. 44. And Coffman’s campaign rarely goes a days without lashing out at his self-imposed arch-nemesis, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Coffman, like many House Republicans, invoke Pelosi in their campaigns to rile up their base and get the same reaction your kid has watching Cruella De Vil for the first or 100th time.
He oddly made national headlines before the evening was even over by siding with Pelosi in demanding that White House spokesman Sean Spicer be ousted after his “Holocaust Centers” flap. But even there, he landed on his feet with the Trump base by arguing Spicer didn’t serve the president well while flailing in gassed Jews quicksand.
So for well over an hour, Coffman expanded on questions where there was common ground, such as providing better benefits and services to military veterans, and deflecting heat from questions where he’s at odds with mainstream Aurora.
Coffman held his own against plentiful boos and jeers, which made the event seem like many of his critics were there for that purpose alone, and they probably were.
I’ve been a frequent critic of Coffman’s tendency to — what seems to me — in his heart of hearts sympathize with moderate and mainstream positions on a host of social issues, but kowtow to the bullying far-right base in the region. My theory is that there’s simply no longer room for the moderate Republican Coffman really wants to be.
So for him to take the stage like he did Wednesday night and offer to go well-past his announced one-hour time limit for serious push-back, he deserves our thanks.
Members of the audience can draw their own conclusions as to if and how Coffman really answered the numerous and provocative questions they posed, but he took those questions, something many of his cowardly peers can’t say they’ve done.
In the end, he certainly did nothing to damage his brand to tea party fans, and he at least did something to restore the vital and dissolving public discourse over the ever-widening gap in public political opinion.
He should do it again soon.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]
NOTE: An earlier version of this column stated that Mike Coffman was a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He is not. He was a member of the Tea Party caucus until it was dissolved.