The congressman acknowledged his point. “Your question shows that you really understand the issue. You’ve nailed the issue,” MacArthur told him. He explained that the Republican proposal included $138 billion to help that class of people, who could face steep rates in high-risk pools in states that received waivers from the federal government. Health policy analysts have warned that pot of money won’t be nearly sufficient, and by the end of the evening, MacArthur conceded that might be the case. “If it turns out it’s not enough,” he said, “I will be the first on line to make sure it is enough.”
After hours of back-and-forth, that seemed about as far as anyone had moved. MacArthur listened intently to the emotional pleas and angry lashings of his constituents, but he voiced no regrets about his handling of health care or his support for the AHCA. When someone would vociferously defend Obamacare or denounce Trump, MacArthur would point back to the Republican voters across the Pine Barrens: “I hear you, but there are loads of other people who don’t see it that way.” It was a polite way of pointing to the scoreboard, and the 59 percent of 3rd district voters who sided with him in November.
There are indications, however, that MacArthur’s position isn’t as safe as he might assume. Political forecasters have moved his district a notch toward Democrats after the Republicans voted for their unpopular bill last week, making it the kind of House seat that could flip parties in a wave election. A former national-security staffer who coordinated anti-ISIS strategy for the Obama White House, Andy Kim, has already started raising money to challenge him and could make a stronger opponent than the Democratic nominee last year, who was haunted by legal troubles. And while there didn’t appear to be any Trump voters in attendance on Wednesday night, there were Democrats and independents who had voted for MacArthur. “I told everyone you were the best thing since cream cheese,” Ellen Bertuglia, 73, told the congressman. “I see something that’s happened to you, and it scares me.” She said MacArthur had become too close to Trump and hadn’t kept his commitment to work with Democrats. “He zonked you,” Bertuglia said of the president.
In an interview later, Bertuglia said she was worried about the health-care bill (“I got pre-existing stuff all over”) and probably wouldn’t vote for MacArthur again. But she added a caveat: “If he stands up and does something about Trump, I might change my mind.”
“It’s a show,” Nmawa Toe, a 40-year-old computer repairman, told me after many in the crowd had left. “He wants to show that he’s not afraid, but he’s not answering any questions.”
Earlier in the evening, Toe had confronted MacArthur directly. “You’ve been talking a lot about your constituents on the other side of the Pine Barrens and how they affect your policy decisions,” he said. “If you want to come back here, if you want another term, you might want to listen to what these people have to say, too.”
MacArthur said it was a great question. “I’m always trying to find the intersection of what I believe and what my constituents believe,” he replied. The congressman seemed genuinely to believe he had found that sweet spot, notwithstanding the hundreds of people who disagreed, and who on Wednesday night tried so desperately to make him see that he had not.