Congressman Leonard Lance (NJ-07) answers questions from the audience during his second town hall meeting held at Raritan Valley Community College. on Saturday, February 25, 2017. Branchburg, NJ. (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)Robert Sciarrino
Congressman Leonard Lance got a big round of applause when it was all over, and he deserved it.
Alone among his Republican colleagues, he had the decency to face voters at two town hall meetings last week, to hear their primal scream, and to pitch the need for centrist Republicans like him in Congress.
His argument boils down to this: He is in the room when decisions are made, and Democrats are not. So he is the one who can hold back the worst of the Trump storm.
He is working to preserve the Medicaid expansion as Obamacare is revamped, he said. He will insist on a vigorous investigation of Trump's ties to Russia, he promised. He believes climate change is real, and that spending $20 billion on The Wall is nuts.
"It's important to have moderately conservative Republicans in Congress," he said later.
There is a logic to it. One reason our politics is broken is that rabid conservatives have squeezed out moderates across the country, especially since the 2010 Tea Party revolt. It's hard to believe now that the 2008 Republican platform endorsed tough action on climate change and a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
But my hunch is that Lance's argument won't fly, and that he'll be replaced by a Democrat in the next election.
One reason is that voters in his district chose Hillary Clinton in November. Lance (R-7th) is one of just 23 Republicans across the country in that hot seat, and the only one in New Jersey.
When Democrats finish tending their wounds, they will open their offensive in districts like this. And if Lance's public meeting is any sign, they will have plenty of passionate volunteers to work with.
I arrived 20 minutes early for the Wednesday town hall at Raritan Valley Community College, and I wound up parking on the grass after cruising one stuffed lot after another.
The auditorium held 900, with 350 more stuffed into an overflow room. Another 250 were protesting outside, waving signs with loving messages like, "Lenny is a liar!"
"How can we could be closed out?" demanded Claudia Kennington, her sister at her side. "My hair is one fire!"
Yes, passions may cool by 2018. But Democrats have a secret weapon to keep the rage alive: His name is Donald Trump, and the latest polls show that a landslide portion of Americans feel "embarrassed" by him. That could easily get worse.
Lance has a second problem: He squandered his credibility as a moderate long ago, when he decided to play kissy face with the Tea Party.
This was heartbreaking stuff to watch. Because I always respected Lance, and it was obvious he was selling out.
An ardent environmentalist who voted in favor of the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, he flipped to join the flat-earth types and now opposes the Paris accords.
A long-time supporter of abortion rights, he now dutifully votes to defund Planned Parenthood. A principled opponent of runaway debt in Trenton, he embraced the huge Bush tax cuts that turned the small national surplus into a big deficit.
"We are certainly seeing Republicans who you don't think of temperamentally as Tea Party people getting swept up in this," Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report said of Lance at the time.
So how can voters trust Lance now?
Take Obamacare. Lance says he won't support a repeal, though he did many times, until a replacement is hammered out. He also says the GOP plan is certain to substantially cut funding for Medicaid, which has led to the biggest increases in coverage.
So would he support the repeal in that case? "I'd have to examine that," he told me.
He says he wants a tough investigation of Trump's Russia ties, but he would not force Trump to release the tax returns that could reveal those ties. "It's a matter of privacy," he said.
Asked about the nomination of Jeff Sessions, a racial retrograde, to be attorney general, he said: "I hope he will recognize he has a responsibility to protect civil rights."
Asked about the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, despite her crash-and-burn hearings that revealed her as flatly unqualified, he said: "I might have voted to confirm."
Lance can't do these straddles forever. He supported Trump for president, and now he's caught.
To me, Lance is impossible not to like, despite all this. Maybe it's because I knew him before the Tea Party did its work. But if the Trump storm winds up killing his career, I'll feel sympathy.
Especially when I think about his fellow Republicans, who didn't have the guts to show up. Special scorn goes to U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th), who won't even answer the more than 3,000 people in his district who signed a petition asking for a meeting.
Sir Rodney is a complete fake, a careerist who has moved right even harder than Lance when the Tea Party arrived. State Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) is one potentially strong challenger in 2018, and he says he has not ruled it out. Keep hope alive.
I spoke to Lance the day after his town hall, and he was philosophical. "I did my best," he said. "I hope I engaged with civility and respect."
He did indeed. And as Trump moves to exclude the New York Times from press briefings at the White House, channeling his friend Vladimir Putin, let's not forget that civility and respect can no longer be taken for granted.
More: Tom Moran columns
Tom Moran may be reached at email@example.com or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.Congressman Leonard Lance holds town hall meeting
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