All pol­i­tics is lo­cal? In the era of Pres­i­dent Trump, that doesn’t seem true any­more.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com @PKCapi­tol

These days, Tip O’Neill must be rolling over in his grave. The late House speaker fa­mously de­clared that “all pol­i­tics is lo­cal,” but that adage has been put to the test over the past decade by an in­creased level of na­tional news con­sump­tion by an elec­torate watch­ing ca­ble TV and read­ing the Face­book pages of friends across the coun­try.

In the age of Pres­i­dent Trump, surg­ing seas of ac­tivists on the left and the right are drown­ing out lo­cal is­sues and forc­ing sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to an­swer lo­cally for ev­ery na­tional con­tro­versy.

Never has that new en­vi­ron­ment been so per­fectly cap­tured than over the past week, when law­mak­ers re­turned home to their con­gres­sional districts. They dis­cov­ered, if they didn’t know al­ready, that most vot­ers were no longer pay­ing much at­ten­tion to core is­sues in their own com­mu­ni­ties.

From a high school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to the corn­fields of Iowa to a Mus­lim cen­ter out­side Wash­ing­ton, thou­sands of vot­ers headed to events hop­ing to ask their mem­bers of Congress a ques­tion or two. Again and again, rather than mimic a lo­cal civics class, the meet­ings took on the tone of a na­tional news show.

Reporters for The Wash­ing­ton Post at­tended at least 10 meet­ings in­volv­ing mem­bers of the House and Se­nate and span­ning more than 14 hours. The law­mak­ers faced more than 160 ques­tions from the pub­lic or lo­cal mod­er­a­tors. The ques­tions were of­ten thought­ful and knowl­edge­able.

Only 11 fo­cused on is­sues of purely lo­cal con­cern.

More than 93 per­cent of the ques­tions these law­mak­ers faced dealt with some na­tional or in­ter­na­tional is­sue, in­clud­ing Trump’s per­sonal and fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sia and the level of sup­port for re­peal­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act. Some law­mak­ers were asked to de­fine what “fake news” meant to them.

In Black­stone, Va., more than 60 miles south­west of Richmond, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) faced a bar­rage of ques­tions Tues­day about the health law and whether mil­lions would lose in­sur­ance if it was re­pealed. Ac­cord­ing to The Post’s Jenna Port­noy, Brat fielded three dozen ques­tions in a 70-minute ses­sion.

Just two con­stituents fo­cused on lo­cal top­ics.

One ques­tion dealt with how Brat could help ru­ral hos­pi­tals. The other ques­tion came on a piece of pa­per that didn’t in­clude a con­stituent name, sim­ply read­ing: “Ru­ral. In­ter­net. Help.”

More than 110 miles east in York­town, Va., at the same time Tues­day, Rep. Scott W. Tay­lor (RVa.) faced hos­tile ques­tions about Trump’s at­tack on na­tional news or­ga­ni­za­tions as “the en­emy.”

The re­gion’s lo­cal ship­build­ing in­dus­try as well as its many mil­i­tary bases are re­mark­ably re­liant on fed­eral fund­ing. Just one con­stituent asked Tay­lor — who serves on the sub­com­mit­tee that funds mil­i­tary con­struc­tion projects — about what he could do to boost the lo­cal econ­omy with mil­i­tary ship projects.

At 37, Tay­lor said he is not sur­prised by the lack of fo­cus on lo­cal con­cerns. He won his first race in 2013, for state del­e­gate. In a cam­paign in which he knocked on nearly 10,000 doors, he found that the fo­cus was over­whelm­ingly na­tional.

“That’s what’s in the news; that’s what’s on the so­cial me­dia,” Tay­lor said in an in­ter­view af­ter the sec­ond of three town hall meet­ings he held over the week. “There’s def­i­nitely lo­cal is­sues, as well, too, but to me they seem to be a mi­nor­ity, and they have been ever since I’ve been in­volved in pol­i­tics.”

Repub­li­can crit­ics might con­tend that these ci­ti­zens are merely mouthing the ques­tions that na­tional lib­eral ad­vo­cacy groups en­cour­age them to ask. In one in­stance, be­fore a Grand Rapids town hall event held by Rep. Justin Amash (R), a free­lancer for The Post, Steve Friess, came across fliers dis­trib­uted by the group In­di­vis­i­ble, ex­plain­ing to the pub­lic how they should ad­dress the con­gress­man and the is­sues.

But, over­whelm­ingly, these were res­i­dents of the lo­cal district, real con­stituents an­gered by the early days of Trump’s pres­i­dency. In many ways, they are mir­ror­ing the heavy fo­cus on na­tional is­sues that con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, un­der the tea party ban­ner, fo­cused on over the past seven years.

Still, the whole scene of the past week turns up­side down the orig­i­nal pur­pose of town hall meet­ings.

The point of sched­ul­ing con­gres­sional re­cesses — for­mally known as “district work pe­ri­ods” — is for sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to go home and talk to real peo­ple to dis­cover what their con­stituents really care about.

O’Neill, who was speaker from 1977 to 1987, en­cour­aged his cau­cus to fo­cus on lo­cal breadand-but­ter is­sues, help­ing to main­tain large Demo­cratic ma­jori­ties even as Ron­ald Rea­gan’s Repub­li­can pres­i­dency re­mained very pop­u­lar.

Town halls had be­come manda­tory for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the early-vot­ing states of Iowa and New Hamp­shire, whose leaders have long as­serted that their con­stituents had unique is­sues that would test the can­di­dates.

But Alex Co­nant, an ad­viser to Tim Paw­lenty’s and Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s 2012 and 2016 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, re­spec­tively, said that by 2011, he could see the tone of vot­ers in Iowa and New Hamp­shire grow­ing an­grier and shift­ing on na­tional is­sues.

In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) re­jected decades of prece­dent and op­posed fed­eral sup­port for ethanol, a crit­i­cal is­sue to Iowa’s corn grow­ers that had pre­vi­ously been seen as a cru­cial po­si­tion for pres­i­den­tial con­tenders. He won the state’s Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial cau­cus any­way. Trump held barely any town halls and won the New Hamp­shire GOP pri­mary in a blowout.

Now, seem­ingly, that sen­ti­ment has taken hold with mem­bers of the House, each of whom, on av­er­age, rep­re­sents 750,000 peo­ple.

Law­mak­ers used to be able to dole out mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of ear­marked funds each year for lo­cal projects, but that prac­tice was pro­hib­ited six years ago af­ter many fed­eral cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

That leaves rank-and-file law­mak­ers with less to talk about now in terms of their own achieve­ments. At the same time, as lo­cal me­dia bud­gets have col­lapsed, the pub­lic in­creas­ingly has turned to na­tional venues for news, whether that be 24/7 ca­ble chan­nels, web­sites or so­cial me­dia.

RANDALL HILL/REUTERS

Peo­ple who could not get into the event be­cause of space lim­its dis­play signs out­side a town hall meet­ing for con­stituents hosted by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in North Charleston, S.C., on Saturday.

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