Lance’s Political Tightrope

BRIDGEWATER  – President Trump isn’t making things easy for Republican congressman in blue states.

Rep. Leonard Lance on Saturday rediscovered what he likely already knew while holding a town hall meeting at a township elementary school. Lance, whose 7th District includes Trump’s Bedminster golf club, was asked some questions on such policy issues as DACA, technology and even the Electoral College.  

But many of the queries in a 75-minute public session attended by more than 200 people directly related to the president, his personality and the Russian investigation.

One questioner wanted to know if Lance was “appalled” by White House behavior. Another asked if Lance would try to stop the president’s proposed “ridiculous” military parade. Still another demanded to know exactly what Lance thought of the president. 

This was basically an anti-Trump crowd so the congressman probably knew what he was getting into. Unlike some of the state’s other GOP congressman, most notably the now retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen in the neighboring 11th District, Lance has not shied from public engagement. This was his 46th town hall meeting since arriving in Congress in 2009.

Still, Lance must walk a political tightrope, balancing his standing in the conservative House Republican caucus and his more moderate district. Originally a moderate, or what was once called a “Rockefeller Republican,” Lance recently had swung a bit to the right in deference to the landscape in Washington. 

But now, he seems to be trying hard to emphasize his moderate stripes. For example, Lance talked about his support for the so-called Dreamers – individuals brought to the country illegally as children – and his opposition to the Republican tax reform bill, which was passed, and the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which failed.

He answered the question about whether he is appalled by the White House  by saying he’s been unhappy with a number of things Trump has said. He mentioned the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about assaulting women and the president’s response to last summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.  Trump said there were decent people on both sides. Lance disagreed, saying there was no “moral equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters.

The often congenial Lance hesitated a bit in giving his candid opinion of Trump. Finally, he said in what was an understatement that he and the president have far different personalities.

“He tweets too much,” Lance said. “And on occasion, he tweets inappropriately.” 

The congressman did not accept his questioner’s description of a military parade as “ridiculous.”

But he referenced Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about “walking softly and carrying a big stick.”  Lance suggested he prefers that philosophy to a public display of America’s military might. Even if Trump’s July 4 military parade comes off, it’s unlikely Lance will be there. He said he normally spends Independence Day marching in a parade in Lebanon Borough. 

Political logic supports what Lance is doing.

Democrats in the district seem more organized and energized than they have been in years, if not decades. There are now six Democrats seeking the party’s nod to challenge Lance this November. Months before an actual election, Democratic forums and debates continue to draw large crowds. That seems likely to increase Democratic turnout in the mid-term election. 

Lance can afford to adopt what are basically Democratic positions on some issues because as of now at least, his right flank is protected. Lance had to fight off primary challengers from the right the last three election cycles. But as of now, no such challenger has emerged, although Craig Heard of Roxbury, who ran against Lance two years ago, has not ruled it out.

Nonetheless, with no primary challenge yet a reality, Lance could afford to be anything but an unabashed Trump supporter.

That gave the town hall the feel of a love-fest, but then we came to Russia. 

Lance agreed that the ongoing investigation of special prosecutor Robert Mueller must continue.

“We believe that Russia is a bad actor,:” he said, adding that Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, has warned that Russia may seek to interfere in the midterm election. 

But Lance angered some in the crowd by saying formal congressional action to “protect Mueller” from being fired by Trump probably would be unconstitutional. He supported that point by referencing an 1867 law that sought to curb the power of then-President Andrew Johnson to remove cabinet officials. That law was eventually ruled invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court about 60 years later. 

Many in the crowd were not fazed by the history lesson and urged Lance to do more to protect Mueller.

Some shouted out their displeasure, proving that walking a political tightrope is never easy.

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