Editor’s Note: Steve Rabinowitz is president of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm, and a veteran of the national staffs of nine US presidential campaigns. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion articles at CNN.
Two years ago, at the height of yet another national debate on the Affordable Care Act, some Republican members of Congress all but stopped engaging their constituents – and the traditional public town hall meeting took a big hit.
President Donald Trump has also eschewed the format, preferring instead to deliver large campaign-style rallies in which he seems to revel.
But now, with the 2020 presidential campaign in full swing and more than 20 Democrats jockeying for their party’s nomination, the town hall meeting is back with a vengeance.
CNN has a webpage dedicated to town hall meetings it has hosted. At last count, it featured more than a dozen candidates – some of whom have already appeared twice. MSNBC has also hosted meetings. And kudos to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar for trying to reach across the aisle by participating in town halls on FOX News. Candidates are even staging their own town hall meetings instead of counting solely on TV networks to host them.
Undoubtedly many of these candidates recognize that they are taking a page out of history. Few emblems of American democracy are as storied and historic as the New England town hall meeting of colonial times, where citizens came together to solve problems and hold their elected representatives accountable. While congressional candidates and elected officials continued to hold these meetings throughout the decades, they weren’t always the standard for presidential candidates. Sure, President Jimmy Carter held several of these meetings, which often took place in high school gymnasiums across the country, but they lacked the intimacy and exchange that truly characterizes a modern town hall.
It was Bill Clinton who made them a part of modern-day presidential campaigns back in 1992, when he stood in the middle of a tiered “bowl” of voters seated on risers and bleachers and took their questions. (Immodest disclosure: When I worked as a staffer for Clinton’s campaign, I came up with the tiered bowl format and my campaign colleague, Jeff Eller, worked with TV stations to host these town halls or broadcast them live from sister stations.) With a wireless lapel mic that allowed him to walk around the stage, Clinton engaged directly with members of the audience – both those seated around him, and viewers watching from home – making them feel as if he were addressing each of them individually.
I subsequently had the White House purchase choral risers when I served as the director of design and production in the early days of Clinton’s presidency, so as to replicate the same audience intimacy we enjoyed during the campaign. We placed the risers behind the President, which visually reinforced the support of the uniformed nurses, police, construction workers, servicemen and others standing in the crowd. For the next 27 years, presidents, members of Congress and candidates of all kinds would try to recreate these designs and images.
While this current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls – and one lone Republican challenger – are jumping at the chance to interact with real-life voters, Trump, unsurprisingly, studiously avoids these events.
He has stuck to large rallies filled with boisterous supporters who don’t ask challenging questions. And we know very well the brutality that awaits anyone who attempts to heckle or confront the President.
Much has been made of the President’s contempt for democratic norms, attacks on the press, attempts to stoke partisanship and willingness to support foreign autocrats.
While he connects to his base on Twitter, where he frequently rolls out policy proposals and unleashes attacks on his critics, he seems to avoid interacting with regular citizens in the town hall debate or forum. In this way, he does resemble a demagogue, eschewing conversations with voters for the adulation of an invited crowd.
Democratic candidates, on the other hand, are embracing voters’ questions, recognizing that the largely unscripted format of the town hall allows the public to gain insights into their values, personal experiences and policy proposals.
As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads – there are generational rifts, splits between its center and left factions, and a raging debate about the importance of race, class and other identity markers. But what unites this disparate and soon-to-be-quarreling field is a commitment to American democracy, with the town hall meeting being a historical centerpiece where ideas are challenged and debated. Democrats should take heart in that and bear in mind all that unites us as we head into this presidential election cycle.