It's right around the corner, folks. That special time of year when politicians flee the Washington summer weather for their home districts (perhaps after taking a vacation junket -- or two, or three -- to places well-stocked with sandy beaches, lovely bikini-clad women, and full bar service) for a whopping five weeks of paid time off. To minimally justify this lackadaisical attitude towards doing their actual jobs, many politicians hold "town hall" meetings during this period to "hear from their constituents" back home. Even before town halls became big news, this time of year was called (mostly by political pundits with very little in the way of actual political news to report to sustain them during the long, hot month) the "Silly Season." Because August seems to be the time of year when everyone in the political arena decides to focus on some amazingly silly "issues," through nothing more than sheer boredom.
So the question is now: what will the big 2013 Silly Season issue be? Predicting such things is almost impossible, admittedly, due to the silliness factor itself -- if these things followed some sort of logical process, then we wouldn't call it Silly Season, would we? But that doesn't mean we can't have our own kind of silly fun guessing what it'll be, right? After setting the stage a bit, I'll offer up my own silly prediction at the end, and then we can all see who can manage to out-silly it in the comments.
President Obama is trying to get out in front of this annual numbskullery, giving a speech today on the economy which he then plans on following up with more speeches proposing well-thought-out initiatives... which will all have a snowball's chance in Hell of being enacted into law. Well, you certainly can't blame him for trying, that's for sure. Republicans have already sent around their own playbook of talking points to counter constituent idiocy with some feeble-mindedness of their own -- their slogan will be "Fighting Washington!" No, no, not George himself; rather the town and the culture and the many-headed monster that is Congress. What is feeble about this thinking is that the people whipping up this anti-Washington annoyance are actually themselves a part of the Washington they decry. But then we all know what P. T. Barnum had to say about the American public's capacity to pull the wool over their own eyes, so perhaps this will indeed be a winning slogan for them. Sillier things have happened, and usually during August.
But while the politicians attempt to drive the debate, the nature of the town hall circuit is that the people themselves provide the most entertainment during Silly Season. The best example of this happened at the dawn of the Tea Party Era, when some mighty ridiculous things were said in town halls across the nation on the subject of healthcare. Town halls, after all, are absolute magnets for those who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore! In times gone by (say, five or ten years ago), blithering idiots asking inane questions (often with a big heaping side order of anger) out in the boondocks would not have been "news" in any way. What Washington reporter, after all, is going to subject themselves to sitting in some unairconditioned community center or veterans' hall -- just on the off chance that something amusing would happen? Ah, but in those dim and distant days of yore, every single person in the audience didn't have a phone capable of videotaping the entire proceedings nestling comfortably in pocket or purse.
Times have changed. These days, no politician is safe -- anywhere. Instead of "Big Brother" what we have is a nation of "Little Brothers" (and Sisters, of course), fully equipped to monitor their elected officials, and fully capable of posting the most hilarious bits to YouTube before the hapless congresscritter can even board a swift private jet for a very important conference on pork belly futures held in a swanky Caribbean resort. These days, all politicians are "in the spotlight," all the time.
But again, it's always the question-and-answer sessions that provide the juiciest clips. Because while liberals experience a frisson of joyful horror whenever a Republican politician says something revolting, and while (to be fair) conservatives bust a gut laughing at a Democratic politician's boneheaded comments, neither of these even come close to the rampant moronic behavior of the average town hall audience. Especially when provided with a live microphone to pose a question to their elected official.
When some yahoo steps up and begins to rant on [insert bizarre conspiracy theory of your choice], politicians often take on the aspect of Bambi caught in the high-beams of a Mack truck. What to do? If the wackiness is either loony enough or runs counter to the politician's own party stance, then it's a fairly easy thing to do to dismiss the crackpottery out of hand. But when the loopiness is nothing more than a reinforcement of the politician's own views, it is a lot harder to decide what to do. The politician can either agree in broad strokes with the questioner, while attempting to downplay the paranoia -- or they can disagree with the questioner on the grounds that they're just an extremist wackadoodle. This second option carries more risk, because a politician can wind up actually defending the opposing party's position. No matter which tack they take, though, politicians now know full well that they'll be recorded while answering. So they know they have to tread carefully.
What will be the big Silly Season topic this year? What will anger folks in the hinterlands the most? The Republicans rolled out their Obama scandals rather early this year, and the American public's memory is notoriously short. So while it's not completely out of the question for Benghazi or the IRS to be prime Silly Season fodder, it would seem that fresher subjects have more chance of bubbling up. The budget and the deficit are annual favorites, because while the deficit numbers are falling fast, the public hasn't yet gotten the news in any meaningful way.
Of course, the smart bet this year would be immigration. So far, a few Republicans in Congress have said some monumentally stupid things about immigrants during the ongoing debate on reform, but there have actually been fewer of these outbursts than I would have expected. This may be due to the fact that the House is dragging its feet and hasn't really even begun the official debate on the subject yet. But that certainly isn't going to stop the public from bringing the subject up -- in the worst possible way. The rightwing media echo chamber has been railing on the subject for months now, so the audience may be primed and ready to unload some truly odious thoughts during town hall question time.
That would be the smart bet, but again -- they don't call it Smart Season, they call it Silly Season. For a reason. So your guess is as good as mine what the outrage will focus on for the next few weeks. In fact, I invite everyone to chime in with your predictions in the comments -- the sillier, the better, as far as I'm concerned! To get this ball rolling, I'm going to conclude with my own guess as to what this subject will be, with two gratuitous literary references (just for the fun of it).
The first comes from Catch-22, where Joseph Heller did a pretty good job of characterizing and predicting the Tea Party strain in American politics. He does so in the form of Major Major Major's father, who made his living by not growing alfalfa and grabbing every government subsidy he could in order to not grow the most alfalfa as was humanly possible. Here is how Heller introduces the character:
He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism.
If that isn't the closest thing to the infamous Tea Party sign "Government Hands Off My Medicare!" then I don't know what is, personally. Look for him at a town hall near you next month.
And finally, my prediction of what the outrageous (in both senses of the word) subject for this year's Silly Season will be comes from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I predict that the most amusing video from the town halls this year will show someone getting righteously indignant over the fact that animals are having sex in zoos across America, in full view of the public, and why oh why won't someone think of the children?!? A four-minute rant on the subject will follow, which will be so highly entertaining that it will go viral immediately and spark others to similar moral outrage, in their own local town hall meetings. By the time Congress returns in September, the House of Representatives will drop all other business in order to pass the Protect Children From The Facts Of Life bill.
There is a reason I have chosen this outlandish scenario as my Silly Season prediction, and that reason is that I can end this column with the title of the story which foresaw such an outcome: "Welcome To The Monkey House."
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