Eight months into 2017, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who often says he’s willing to talk about anything with anybody, will host his first town hall meeting of the year on the campus of Kennesaw State University.
The question is whether the Monday event will become a spectacle or an opportunity.
Since Obamacare was discovered to be more popular than originally calculated, mass encounters with the public have become a rare thing among Republican members of Congress from Georgia.
That is, with the exception of U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter. He finished his ninth of the August recess on Thursday down on the coast. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville held his first of the year last week, too. “Yelling at me is not going to change my position,” Collins told angry members of his audience at one point.
Rather than in-person gatherings, more controllable “telephone town hall” meetings have been all the rage this year. Collins has held six. Isakson, three. (Isakson’s staff would point you to the senator’s back surgeries this year as a factor.)
All in all, this means there’s a pent-up frustration out there that on Monday might argue for spectacle. “THIS IS WHAT WE’VE BEEN TRAINING FOR!!!” was one online reaction on the Facebook page of a local anti-Trump group, to the news of Isakson’s town hall.
Moreover, Monday will be the first day of classes at KSU, so a packed house — the auditorium can seat 600 — is likely. (There’s no ticketing – it’s first come, first serve.) And at last report, C-SPAN was considering a live broadcast.
But do not assume that Isakson is walking into a chaotic lion’s den. Cobb County is his home turf. Local Republicans will do their best to fill as many seats as possible. Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Cobb GOP, is an adjunct professor of political science at KSU. His class will be wrapping up just as the town hall meeting begins.
And then there’s Sam Olens. The KSU president is likely to introduce Isakson on Monday. Olens is the former state attorney general, only recently liberated from the tyranny of Republican primaries. He’ll have a campus police force at his beck and call. If diplomacy fails to reign Monday night, it will fall to Olens to handle the situation — not Isakson.
But if tempers do hold, voters will have, over the course of an hour or more, the opportunity to sound out a U.S. senator who has been one of the most fluid Republicans in Washington when it comes to doing away with the Affordable Care Act — and what could come next.
And this is where things could actually get interesting.
In January, Isakson gave a forceful speech on what should come after Obamacare. “We must also talk about what we replace it with – because repealing it without a replacement is an unacceptable solution. It’s not a solution. It’s a conundrum,” Isakson said. “It’s wrong for us to say we’re going to repeal Obamacare without replacing it with a plan that we know works and has the opportunity [to work].”
In a July interview, Isakson shocked many Republicans when he said this: “You have do away with the individual mandate, and then define what the new individual mandate is.”
The ACA requires, through an IRS-enforced tax, that all American adults carry health insurance. Anything that replaces Obamacare, Isakson was arguing, would need to allow private insurance companies to similarly penalize Americans who don’t buy health insurance.
Because that’s what it would take to finance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions — which is now a part of America’s political DNA. “Getting rid of it ain’t going to happen,” Isakson said.
Isakson’s comments have been contradicted by his votes.
In July, he and his Georgia colleague, David Perdue, were among Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s most reliable supporters as the Kentucky Republican tried — and failed — to piece together a 50-vote majority to repeal Obamacare.
Both Isakson and Perdue have supported the “skinny” repeal that would have lifted the Obamacare mandate on individuals to purchase insurance — a last-ditch effort by McConnell that tanked when U.S. Sen. John McCain thumbed it down.
The object of that vote, his former chief of staff Heath Garrett said, was to keep the process moving — even though there was a possibility that the House would simply approve the measure, undercutting the financial logic that undergirds the coverage of those with pre-existing conditions.
Garrett explained Isakson’s flexibility on the health care issue this way: “He has specifically refused to outline the guardrails, because he wants to be in the room and be able to help forge the deal,” Garrett said.
And there are deals to be forged. The Georgia Hospital Association has argued loudly, mostly behind the scenes, that safety-net hospitals here could lose tens of millions of dollars if federal payments for indigent care, due to be phased out in October under the ACA, aren’t reinstated.
And there’s the issue of Medicaid expansion, which many Democrats assume is a lost cause in a red state. But Republicans have reframed that debate in a way that makes it politically palatable with their voters.
Obamacare left it to the states to determine if they would expand their Medicaid rolls. States that did received extra funds to extend health care coverage to more people. States that refused, didn’t. The House effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, passed in May, kept that disparity in place.
Republicans in Georgia, including Gov. Nathan Deal, now argue for “fair” treatment. In other words, if Ohio gets a pot of money, we want ours, too.
Those are all negotiations and arguments ready to break out into the open, if a dialogue can be had.
The doors open at 6 p.m. at KSU. But if you can’t get there, tune to GPB Radio (88.5FM in Atlanta) at 2 p.m. Monday. Isakson is to join host Bill Nigut and me on “Political Rewind,” where we’ll get in a first round of questions.