Writings and observations

The subjects on which Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley fielded questions today: federal help for education, filibusters, the Citizens United decision, war in Afghanistan, nuclear power, job wage reporting, Guantanamo, climate change, Wikileaks (the first time, Merkley said, someone from the public had questioned him about that), gas pipelines and health care. A pretty wide range. (Plus his opening statement, most of which is in the video.)

Nothing about taxes, deficits or the shredding of the constitution – in other words, not a sign of the Tea Party or its sympathizers. That makes it similar to the town hall held about 10 miles to the south by Senator Ron Wyden last weekend, and suggests the obvious question: Where have all the Tea people gone? So visible and loud for most of the last two years, they seem to have vanished from view.

What remained at the town halls was a civil crowd, and evidently dominated now more by backers of the senators – the questions were mostly friendly.

Merkley moved a little beyond that in asking questions of the audience as well. He posed questions about whether audience members like (saw as “a step forward”) various elements of last year’s health care bill; each got a positive reaction. (The audience may not have been strictly representative of the Republican-leaning Yamhill County, but the answers do suggest that most of the pieces of the bill were more popular than a sweeping, hard-t-grasp omnibus bill.)

He also asked about how the audience felt about pulling troops from Afghanistan. His original question divided the response into “within 18 months” or “longer if necessary.” Audience members called on an extra option, which was “right now” and which got the largest vote. Only four or five in a crowd of 150 or so voted for more than 18 months. (One man called out, “Stay till we win.”)

Merkley himself didn’t seem of a mind to stay for long. After describing some of his briefings and travel to the area, he said that much of the real rationale for staying seems to come down to: “We can’t afford the embarrassment of the Taliban (not Al Quaeda as such) gaining ground.”

A little more wonkish than Wyden (though more plain-spoken than in his first meetings a couple of years ago), Merkley was nonetheless comfortable with larger-picture ideas, talking at some length, for example, about the connection between a loss of manufacturing business in the United States and the diminishment of the country’s middle class. And turn of phrase. Discussing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows corporations to spend virtually unlimited and unreported funds on political campaigns, he described it as “a stadium sound system drowning out the voices of Americans.”

One other note: This must be one of the smaller Oregon communities (in counties that have larger cities) to host one of these events. On the evidence of the interest of the crowd, it made a splash, and might be a good idea to replicate in town hall planning for the future.

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