Bullies are usually quick to start whining when things don't go their way. With that in mind, let's take a look at the recent experience of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), who became a viral sensation the other day when he was seen scurrying out of a meeting with constituents in his district, escorted by police. Many of the hundreds of attendees had come to urge McClintock not to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, on which they depend for their healthcare.
On Tuesday, a rattled McClintock took to the House floor to plead for civil discourse. "If your love of our Constitution is greater than your hatred of our president, I implore you to engage in a civil discussion with your fellow citizens," he said in a prepared five-minute statement from the floor. "That is what true democracy looks like."
But he gave the game away with his own words. He labeled members of the district audience "the radical left" and attributed the protests at the meeting — which police said were peaceful — to "a well-organized element that came to disrupt." In an earlier interview, he described the protesters as "an anarchist element."
How very civil of you, Rep. McClintock.
This is the Tom McClintock we've come to know over the years, starting with his terms in the state Legislature, where he served from 1982 through 2008 (with a brief break in the mid-1990s). During his career, he has scourged immigrants and environmental advocates, not with civil discourse but with invective and bogus claims, prompting us in 2010 to identify him as "California's preeminent member of the don't-confuse-me-with-facts caucus."
McClintock is one of several Republican lawmakers who have been surprised in recent weeks by the intensity of voter opposition to their policies, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Some have canceled town halls in their districts to keep from being confronted by constituents. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) was videoed sneaking out the back door of his own event in mid-January.
McClintock presumably attracted protesters because he has been a dedicated opponent of Obamacare. Last month, he voted against a House budget measure aimed at repealing part of the law because it didn't go far enough. He also has expressed concern about repealing the law without having a replacement program in hand: He was heard on leaked recordings from a closed-door Republican strategy session last month warning that if the GOP enacts an incomplete repeal that leaves the healthcare market in tatters, "Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we'll be judged in the election less than two years away."
McClintock is a past master at political posturing on water policy, which is dear to his agricultural constituents. At a congressional hearing in January 2010, he blamed apportionments of scarce water that had deprived growers of some of their access to "the environmental left's pet project, the delta smelt."
He was referring to the fish that had become the symbol of environmental obstacles to the growers' desire, which was for more water for themselves. But as we pointed out, the fish were scapegoats. The real culprits, as we noted, were drought and long-term water rights in the Central Valley, some dating back a century or so. The portion of the valley suffering most from the drought was the west side, including acreage covered by the giant 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, whose farmers were leaders among those cursing the delta smelt — but whose real problem was not a minnow-sized fish, but their junior standing in the legal hierarchy of water rights.
This didn't keep McClintock from portraying the conflict over water in apocalyptic terms, citing what he called "the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages … and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water and every watt of electricity in their bleak and dimly lit homes."
This is what passes for civil discourse in McClintock's world.
In 2004, McClintock targeted immigrant college students with an op-ed, widely published by newspapers around California, containing the following assertion:
"This year, nearly 7,500 qualified California residents — who would otherwise be entering California state universities as incoming freshmen — are likely to be turned away for lack of funds. Meanwhile, approximately 7,500 illegal immigrants will receive heavily subsidized university educations at a cost of between $45 million and $65 million annually at those same universities."
We showed that these claims had no factual basis — in fact, McClintock couldn't even identify the source of his numbers.
Start with those "7,500 illegal immigrants" receiving "heavily subsidized university educations." McClintock was referring to exemptions allowing students to pay resident tuition at state universities even if their parents don't qualify as residents, often because they've moved out of state. The students themselves must have attended three years of high school in California, graduated from a California school and gained admission to one of the state universities or colleges based on their own academic achievement. Undocumented residents could receive the exemption if they certify that they've applied for legal residency or will do so as soon as they are eligible.
How many such students were there? The most reliable figures were a lot smaller than McClintock's. Cal State said during the legislative debate on the exemptions that it might apply to 500 students. UC said it had granted waivers to 719 students in the 2002-03 academic year. Of those, however, only 93 were "potentially undocumented students." The rest were permanent residents, lawful visa holders or U.S. citizens. The state's community colleges, which then served more than 1 million students, estimated that the waiver was claimed by no more than 1,500.
McClintock told me that he thought his figures came from the Office of the Legislative Analyst, Sacramento's nonpartisan analytical body. That office said it had never produced any such numbers, though it acknowledged that it had reviewed a copy of McClintock's op-ed and hadn't raised a red flag.
It's conceivable that McClintock was trying to match the 7,500 figure given by UC as the number of in-state applicants it had had to turn away that year because of enrollment cutbacks, as if every student granted an exemption was an undocumented immigrant and every one had muscled a UC spot from a citizen. None of that was true. Those cutbacks, by the way, resulted from the Legislature's failure to adequately fund the university system. McClintock was a member of the Legislature at the time.
The fundamental untruth McClintock purveyed was that a subsidy to illegal immigrants helped cause the financial crunch in California higher education. It was the old story of blaming immigrants for anything, and it's every bit as alive today as it was in 2004. But it's not "civil discourse."
Now, McClintock wants people who will face sickness and penury because of policies he champions to tell him so politely, without mussing his hair. He should start leading by example.