Rep. Darrell Issa. (Charles Dharapak / AP)

OCEANSIDE, Calif.—The crowd was anxious as it waited to enter the first of two back-to-back Darrell Issa town hall meetings on March 11. Could the Junior Seau Recreation Center, the venue for the events, accommodate everyone?

The system for distributing tickets had encountered some issues. For instance, the ticket website required a ZIP code, which easily could screen out non-constituents. A 30-minute delay in the functionality of the site also raised suspicions about ticket manipulation. Many trying to get tickets said on Facebook they thought the delay was to give Issa supporters an advantage. When the ticket website went live, it took orders for tickets for less than an hour before shutting down and posting a notice that the event was sold out. As it happened, everyone with a ticket got in, and then people without tickets were admitted as well, filling the approximately 500 seats.

The master of ceremonies got off to a bad start by accusing the crowd of dishonesty when only a few of the attendees raised their hands to admit they were not constituents. Issa continued that theme when he accused the audience of being mostly professional protesters, indicating they might be paid to be there.

The reality was that Issa barely won reelection in his California district, which covers a small portion of southern Orange County and a larger portion of northern San Diego County. The auditorium held many motivated constituents who voted against the nine-term congressman and wanted to hold him accountable. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the last time Issa held a large town hall was in 2009. But in 2017, the political climate has changed, and Issa’s constituents had been protesting outside his office in Vista, Calif., for weeks, demanding he hold a town hall to address issues that had arisen in the first 50 days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The meeting was designed to address the theme of health care, but no questions were ruled out of order. Issa fielded questions on health care, immigration, Russian election interference, the environment, tax reform and other issues.

Overall, he tried to come off as a reasonable, rational Republican, unaffiliated with his more radical colleagues. He highlighted his moderate features while obscuring his conservative leanings. But, at times, he just couldn’t help himself.

On the topic of immigration, he broke his response into two parts. First, he talked about the estimated 2 million agricultural workers he wants to enroll in a farmworker program that would regulate the labor flow across the border. However—and this is where Issa couldn’t help himself—he stated the farmworkers could not bring their families and explained he does not want to “normalize” these workers. The crowd erupted in boos and moans at his use of the word “normalize” to refer to human beings. Issa didn’t stop there. He said that if you “normalize” them (meaning put them on a path to citizenship), then “we will soon need 2 million more” to replace the “normalized” workers he believes will move on to non-farm work.

In the second part of the immigration discussion, Issa unsuccessfully played a moderate role by saying, “Regarding the undocumented immigrants who have not committed any crimes, I’m sure we all know one that we would like to keep.” (This brought more moans from the crowd). Then, his other side came out: “And we all know an illegal that we would like to deport.” At this point, the crowd vociferously objected, with some shouting, “No human being is illegal.”

But Issa would not relent: “Have you been to the county jail lately? Isn’t there one illegal there that you want to deport when they get out?”

His reference to county jail inmates contradicts research that shows undocumented immigrants engage in lower rates of criminal activity than members of the general population do.

As he moved on to the next question, Issa did not explain how non-criminal, undocumented immigrants could achieve a path to citizenship.

When discussing the environment, the congressman again tried to establish his moderate credentials by saying he always has believed that our dependence on carbon makes for an unsustainable future. He claimed he opposes defunding the Environmental Protection Agency, but he also believes we have to take a balanced approach to the environment. This was his attempt to obfuscate the standard Republican orthodoxy that favors business needs over environmental needs.

On health care, he said he is in favor of Medicaid expansion, which seemed to surprise the crowd. He gave a brief tutorial on how the Medicaid program traditionally serves many disabled persons for whom the state only receives a 50 percent reimbursement from the federal government.

Then came his tricky pivot. “So how is it fair for the federal government to reimburse the state at a 90 percent rate for healthy (but poor) people through the expansion, when they only get a 50 percent reimbursement for people with disabilities in the traditional Medicaid program?” This seemed to confuse the crowd (which may have been his objective).

He then went on to “support” Medicaid expansion at the 50 percent reimbursement level, emphasizing people with disabilities. (People with disabilities can qualify as individuals, and individuals don’t qualify for non-expanded Medicaid. Only individuals under a certain percentage of the poverty who have dependent children qualify.) Many states have rejected the 90 percent subsidy as too expensive—or hard on their budgets—claiming they cannot afford to pick up the additional share of Medicaid. Most likely there would be even fewer takers at a 50 percent level. So, with this answer, Issa had his cake and ate it, too.

After winding through the subjects of high hospital costs and the costs of pre-existing conditions, he was confronted with the liberal idea of a single-payer system. Once again, he let his Republican flag fly. He asked the veterans in the crowd to stand, and after offering appropriate recognition, he proceeded to state that the Department of Veterans Affairs has a single-payer system, and “it’s a disaster.” Again, he grossly misread his crowd. One veteran shouted out, “I have the best health care in the world.”

Issa ended the scheduled 45-minute town hall after an hour of answering at least a dozen questions. He dismissed the crowd to admit attendees for the next session. As I left the auditorium, I wondered why he had resisted holding a town hall for so long. The delay only raised the intensity of resistance to his views and made his future election that much more doubtful.

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