U.S. Sen Cory Gardner denounced white supremacism, but he did not denounce President Donald Trump. Gardner did not turn away from his long-held promise to replace Obamacare — and he brought charts to try to make a case his audience had little interest in indulging. And he defended Trump’s authority to launch a unilateral nuclear strike.
Only one of these things — the first one — went over well.
You’ve heard about the shouting that dogged Colorado’s Republican senator through town halls in Colorado Springs, Greeley and Lakewood, his first open events with constituents in the era of Trump and the resistance.
Let me tell you about the existential dread.
“I am afraid.”
Questions about North Korea opened and closed the Lakewood town hall, but this exchange captured the fear now hanging over many Americans after Trump promised “fire and fury” if North Korea does not abandon its nuclear ambitions.
The question: “What can you do to ensure this is not a unilateral decision by Trump?”
The answer: “We can make sure there is peaceful denuclearization of North Korea.” Gardner said the U.S. needs to apply political and economic leverage to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. “That will avoid war and bring us to a point where we can have a peaceful resolution.”
From the roar that erupted at this point, the crowd did not like that answer, and neither did the person who posed the question.
“That does not comfort me,” she said, pausing with each word as if to make sure she was understood. “I am afraid. I am afraid that he will take unilateral steps, and he has advisors that I believe are thinking more logically. It will be a comfort to me to know that he cannot act unilaterally.”
Gardner said that’s within the president’s authority.
“I understand what you want me to say,” he said. “You want me to agree that we don’t let the commander-in-chief be the commander-in-chief. I cannot do that.”
Denouncing white supremacy was Gardner’s most consistent applause line.
“Anyone who believes in KKK or neo-Nazi ideology should go back to the cave they came from.”
Gardner said several variations of this at all of his town halls. A number of people who are no fans of the senator said they were pleasantly surprised when he became one of the first Republican senators to label the protests and attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, as domestic terrorism and manifestations of white supremacy.
But the answer to the follow-up questions reliably disappointed. Several people asked him to call for the firing of advisors close to the president who are seen as having ties to white nationalism: Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller. Gardner wouldn’t go there.
“The president has control over his staff, but what I’m saying is this: there is no room for racism, hatred or KKK,” Gardner said.
Gardner promised that law enforcement will have the resources to go after domestic terrorism, and he rejected the idea that racist ideology infects the Republican Party.
“I hope that you don’t honestly believe all Republicans are racist,” he said. “That is a dangerous thing to think.”
Health care remains the big issue, even in the face of nuclear death and Nazis.
“A lot of my friends have sat outside your office; some of them have sat inside your office,” said Joe Beaver of Lakewood, a member of ADAPT, the same disability rights organization that staged a 58-hour sit-in of Gardner’s Denver office.
Medicaid provides the home-based care that allows Beaver to be independent. If Medicaid is turned into a block grant and federal funding reduced, as many Republicans support, states won’t be able to replace lost funding, Beaver said, particularly TABOR-restricted Colorado.
“I can go out and work and have my freedom and be part of the community,” he said. “There is no way Colorado can make up the difference.”
Gardner stuck to his position that major changes are needed to Medicaid to save it.
“What I’m very worried about — and I said months and months ago — we have to make sure Medicaid is sustainable,” he said. “It’s gobbling up more and more resources. I’m going to make sure we don’t create a situation where we have so much spending it puts pressure on those who need help the most.”
Gardner asked how many people in the room support a single-payer system, and a sea of hands went up.
“Single-payer was on the ballot last year in Colorado, and it was defeated 80 percent to 20 percent,” he said.
“I’m going to remind you of who put you in office”
Joan Poston was one of just a few Republicans who asked a question of Gardner at the town hall. Well, it was more of a comment: “When I voted for you, you promised you would repeal and replace. I know the majority of people here feel they have the right to say we should keep the ACA. I am going to remind you of who put you in office.”
In an interview after the town hall, Poston said she thinks Gardner is “great.”
“I spent all weekend defending him for what he said about the supremacists,” she said. “I was on a blog where a lot of people were upset that he was stepping on the president.”
A district captain with the Jefferson County Republican Party, Poston lives in a world where plenty of people are happy with Trump. She described going into Lowe’s wearing a Trump hat and having construction workers come up and hug her. And she’s frustrated with her party’s inaction on health care.
“They, the Senate, put a repeal-and-replace bill on Obama’s desk three times. They did that when they knew he wouldn’t sign it. This, in my definition, is gas lighting. They ran on repeal-and-replace, and we put them in office on repeal-and-replace. They said, ‘Give us the House, give us the Senate, give us the president — and I’m going to tell you there are times Trump says things that are like, ‘oh my God, where is the toilet? I’m going to barf.’ But these are the choices we have. And now we’re looking at 2018, and it’s give us eight more senators? Or maybe 10 because three of them fluctuate?”
Gardner voted yes on all the Republican health care bills, despite initially saying he wanted to protect people covered by the Medicaid expansion. He did what Poston wanted.
Is she concerned all this opposition will cause him to waver?
“I actually wanted to say that to the crowd,” she said. “He knows.”