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Insurgency at Vancouver

Brian Baird

Brian Baird at Fort Vancouver High School

Phil, an older man with wavy hair and background as a boat captain, had known Representative Brian Baird for years; he was a long-time friend and supporter, and ordinarily a question from him at a Baird town hall would be friendly and supportive.

Not tonight.

“You’ve done some amazing good work,” he said, looking downward across the Fort Vancouver High auditorium, down toward the stage where Baird sat, looking up, a microphone in hand. “That being said, ” Phil continued, “you’ve broken my heart.”

When he paused, Baird replied, “I understand your broken heart. It was not an easy decision for me . . .” He paused. “And knowing all you folks would be mad.” He suggested that coming to this meeting wasn’t easy, either. But he was convinced he was right: “If you could meet with the people I’ve met in the region, maybe your heart will be less broken . . .”

No sale. Phil shot back that Baird had become the “poster boy” for the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, and “I don’t like that at all.”

“I don’t like it, either,” Baird said. (Both his talk and Q & A were peppered with zingers at the administration.)

Phil’s arm shot out, his finger pointing angrily at Baird: “My friend, you have screwed up, and you have to change course.” At that, the crowd erupted, cheering Phil . . .

And this was a crowd, to a big extent, of Baird’s best in-district political friends. Or, those who used to be his friends. A few speakers before Phil, a woman who was a long-time supporter dressed him down by reminding him, “We are the ones who hit the ground to get you elected. . . . We were so so proud of you and the work you did.” Now, she said: “I cannot believe your arrogance, Mr. Baird.”

The audience atmosphere was a little Pentacostal: Cries of “impeach Bush” or “end the war” and similar calls punctuated questions, answers and everything else. In the two hours we were there, not one questioner – out of perhaps 20 – expressed anything other than disgust and outrage at Baird’s new take on Iraq. To judge from audience reaction, a portion of the crowd of perhaps 400 to 500 (those that were inside – the room was filled solid and others couldn’t get in) supported him, but that portion was surely less than 10%.

Shouted one person, midway through: “You think you’re going to be re-elected?”

Baird: “It doesn’t matter to me.” Maybe, in the face of all that, it didn’t.

Outside at the meeting

Outside at Fort Vancouver High School

Backing up, a bit.

Baird is the Democratic representative from Washington’s 3rd district, the southwest part of the state, including Olympia and Vancouver; Clark County (Vancouver) is about half of the district’s population, and one of its more politically marginal areas, swinging toward either party. Baird, first elected in 1998 and solidly re-elected since, has gotten firm support there for years. He has been a generally centrist member of the Democratic caucus, but one of the relatively small group that early on opposed the Iraq invasion, voting against and proposing alternatives, and he has been a persistent critic since.

Somewhat obscured is that none of that has changed; he continues to describe the invasion as a terrible mistake, and his words about the Bush Administration are no kinder. His new contention is that some of the pieces that could lead to stability in Iraq may be falling into place, and that maintaining American troops in place could allow that stability to take hold; withdrawing troops now, he said, would certainly lead to chaos and regional instability. “If we withdraw it will be catastrophic,” he said.

His view doesn’t mesh fully with the Bush Administration’s. Baird’s take is that what’s needed may be a matter of some months, until next April or so – he gave no indication he’d be willing to stretch this out for very long. (“This is not forever,” he said.) Apart from that, Baird said that his take on the Iraq could easily change with conditions as the months go on.

You can make the case that there’s nothing very dramatic about this as a matter of practical policy. There’s little question that an American withdrawal, even if ordered right away, would take months to execute, since so many people and supplies are located there. (However, while Baird was flatly convinced that American troop withdrawal would lead to disaster, there are lines of thought that the troops’ presence there now is encouraging more insurgency.) As Baird (and many others) points out, American troop levels will be drawn down next spring by 50,000 or so regardless what the policy is: This country simply won’t have the troops available to maintain current troop levels. So an American troop scaledown likely will occur then anyway, and likely not be before then anyway, regardless what Congress does. (And many of us suspect that any congressional action on Iraq contrary to the administration’s policy would be simply ignored by the president regardless.)

So the differences on Iraq between Baird and his friends at Vancouver may be a little narrower than either think, as a practical matter. That may not matter.

Baird has exceptional political skills, and his ability to control (mostly) and survive this evening’s session put them to a serious stress test; many politicians would have been mowed under. His intelligence (he clearly had thought through his position, and articulated it clearly) and ability to relate to the audience came through; all those critics got a chance to speak fully, and Baird ducked nothing. But, in between his pleas to “hear me out,” as he explained how he came to his views, he seemed to be making no converts. (Our take? We found his rationale and viewpoint compelling but ultimately not persuasive.) And partway through, a military veteran of Iraq, who had flown in from New York, challenged him with direct counterpoints, people he knew and had worked with who saw none of the reason for optimism that Baird suggested.

Further patience wasn’t in this audience. There were repeated calls to “impeach Bush,” and Baird was challenged on that too: Would he support impeachment? Not before seeing hearings, was the reply – and, he suggested, there won’t be hearings because the votes to impeach aren’t in the Congress. (A number of audience members responded that at least the attempt should be made.) With each such response, the crowd seemed to wind up further.

One man seemed to place his finger on the feeling here when he compared protests about Iraq and other Bush Administration policy to a 9-1-1 call: The people have been calling 9-1-1 to report an emergency, but no one ever responds, including Congress. They have felt ignored, and now they’re furious about it. Many, clearly, had hoped for more change when a new majority was seated in Congress in January, only to find much less than they’d hoped for.

This was an unusual town hall meeting for Baird; one woman who had attended several of his meetings previously said the turnout for this one was much larger, and the tenor always had been a lot different.

The ground is shifting. Depending on how Iraq and Baird’s responses to it develop in the rest of this year, the congressman easily could wind up with a primary challenger – a serious one, backed by some of his own former supporters. Or maybe the play-out is something else. But we do know this: We’ve never seen a congressional town hall meeting so bitter and angry at the member of Congress, and that has to mean something.

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