An incident Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting in Fayetteville conducted by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack became a trending topic in the state liberal blogosphere, by which I mean two blogs.
As best as I have been able to reconstruct, what happened proved instructive on the dire failings of our contemporary politics.
The interaction can be seen in a video posted online, although the player can take some time to load.
A young woman named Kelly Eubanks, identifying herself as a mother who worked two jobs and attended college, rose to inquire of her freshman Republican congressman. She wanted to know why Womack favored continued subsidies for oil companies but voted, on at least one occasion, to cut Pell grants so vital to her pursuit of higher education.
It was a perfectly fair question. It represented the very kind of interaction that a congressman’s town hall meeting with constituents ought to produce.
There may be a good explanation for the congressman’s choice to favor continued levels of oil company subsidies but not to favor continued levels of constituent subsidies for education. But this young woman was not going to get that answer from this congressman.
Womack did not respond in full context. He did not wish to engage on the young woman’s terms. Politicians prefer to engage only on their own terms.
The oil company subsidy side of the query was a political loser for him, you see, so he simply proceeded as if it had not been broached.
But then he blew the part of the question that he deigned to address.
He said we need to decide in this country amid this debt and deficit what it is that we must and can pay for.
No kidding. That is precisely what the young woman was asking.
He said he worked at jobs and entered the military to pay for his own college education.
Good for him. But he essentially was saying the government paid for his college education and that his good fortune somehow justified his not wanting the federal government to help pay for someone else’s.
So the young woman kept interrupting him to say he wasn’t answering her question. So he kept talking a little louder to say he would answer if she would please consent to listen.
Someone in the audience told Eubanks to get a job, maybe at Wal-Mart, and there was laughter. But she had previously explained that she had not a job, but two. And this mindless heckling reflected the meanness and insensitivity of the chronically rude and huffy modern right wing in American politics.
Afterward Eubanks appeared shaken as she told a local television station that Womack had not answered her question and basically advised her to join the military.
She said his behavior demonstrated the utter failure of our current-day politicians who get locked into polarized views and then decline to be accountable to affected constituents. No wonder Congress has a single-digit approval rating, she said.
For his part, Womack told a local television station that he had expected a little hostile questioning because, after all, “this was in Fayetteville.”
Do you see what he did there? He played the partisan-stereotype card.
He sent a clever little signal to his prevailing conservative base that the push-back he encountered ought to be dismissed. After all, everybody in Rogers and Springdale and Bentonville and Fort Smith — places that count — knows that Fayetteville is a weird left-leaning island.
In a saner, fairer and more responsible political culture, a congressman would need to show sensitivity to a young mom with two jobs and a quest for a college education, even if she did make the mistake of challenging him in a town he seems to dismiss as irrelevant by its being different.