hardline political news and analysis

Pelosi Proxy Wars

Let me stipulate at the outset I am probably not the most objective person to comment on the actions of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, having spent eight years as her chief of staff during For this reason, I generally leave the Pelosi analysis to others and respect, as should all staff people, the confidentiality and confidence entrusted by a political employer.

However, from time to time, assertions concerning the former Speaker are made that are so egregious or misinformed that simply raging at the television or iPhone is inadequate. This week was one of those times.

Twice this week, the issue of the “proxy” arose with respect to Mrs. Pelosi, and in both cases, much of the commentary banter has been so inaccurate that I am rising to the bait and offering a counter opinion. I am prepared for the accusations of being an apologist.

One of these “proxy wars” involved the contest between Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) for the position of Ranking Member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That position, as well as the chairmanship of the panel during the days of the Democratic majority, has been held by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose 40 years of congressional service end with the new year. Both Pallone and Eshoo have been reliable, progressive members of the Committee and the Caucus; both have served in the House since 1993; both have substantial expertise in the complex areas of legislation that fall under Commerce’s jurisdiction.

In the long-passed era in which seniority ruled, Pallone would have been the unquestioned choice. He is, despite their equivalence in House service, senior to Eshoo on the Committee. Pallone’s background, expertise and ability to manage the sprawling committee would not have been in question. The only qualification, it has been said, was a pulse. But those days of unchallenged seniority ended forty years ago, when the incoming members of the 94th Congress rejected three sitting chairmen for reasons of both ideology and competence. Since then, there have been numerous instances when the senior most member of a committee has not been selected for the chairmanship or ranking member role. As it has been noted: your constituents choose you to be a Member, but the Caucus chooses you to be a chair or ranking member.

The Pallone-Eshoo contest purportedly became a proxy war because of the public support given Eshoo by her California colleague and close friend, Nancy Pelosi. Allegedly, as numerous news reports asserted this week, there was discontent and grumbling within the Democratic Caucus about Pelosi’s decision to seek another term as Democratic Leader (a position she won by acclamation), and voting against her favorite in the secret balloting for the Commerce slot was a proxy means for expressing that discontent. This interpretation was given greater currency by reports that Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), whom the press endlessly portrays as dancing a perpetual pas de deux with Pelosi over the leadership of House Democrats, was promoting Pallone’s candidacy. Voting for Pallone, therefore, became a proxy for supporting Hoyer and indirectly rebuking Pelosi.

That’s an intriguing analysis, and makes for good commentary, but it is highly unlikely. Members vote for leaders because they have a vested interest in the outcome of the selection, not to send private messages. Those reasons may include friendship, respect, return of past favors, or how the outcome affects one’s own prospects. It would be surprising if the outcome signaled anything significant about Pelosi’s enduring strength within the Caucus, as some have asserted. After all, Pelosi ‘s candidate for Majority Leader was rejected overwhelmingly by the Caucus in 2006, and she went on to enjoy one of the most successful speakerships in history and another decade as leader of the Party.

Sure, there may have been a vote here or there in which Pelosi or Hoyer’s involvement played a part, and in a close contest, every vote matters. But understanding the actual motivations behind votes requires much more analysis and work than most reporters or so-called “analysts” are prepared to do. Even a New Jersey colleague of Pallone rejected the idea that the decision represented a proxy rejection of Pelosi.

The closeness of the vote, however, raised the issue of the second “proxy” battle that emerged this week involving Pelosi: her decision to reject a request from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to cast an absentee Caucus ballot in the Pallone-Eshoo race. Numerous commentators criticized Pelosi’s refusal to waive House and Caucus rules to allow such a proxy vote to be cast, including Jon Stewart whose anti-Pelosi rant on Tuesday night served to remind us that however entertaining and incisive he is (and I am a faithful and admiring viewer), he is not a substantive analyst of congressional procedure, which is what he was criticizing.

Proxy voting was the fashion in the House for decades, and became widely used after the expansion of subcommittees in the 1970s, which meant that many Members would routinely confront overlapping subcommittee and committee mark-ups on their schedules. Since absences cast doubt over the fate of amendments and bills, and no one wants to be counted as “absent” lest an opponent hint it was due to dereliction of duty, the rules allowed Members to give written proxies to committee members (usually the chairman and ranking member) to cast in their absence. It was not unusual for one of these senior members to have a fistful of proxies that were used to pass or defeat amendments or bills in the absence of most members of the panel.

Proxies were banned in 1995, complicating the mark-up procedure but enhancing the legitimacy of the legislative process. Duckworth sought to circumvent the rules, and for an understandable reason – she is over eight months pregnant and her doctors advised her against traveling to Washington. Duckworth is also a veteran, a double amputee, and a woman, all noted by Stewart and others, but none of which are relevant to the proxy request. Stewart went even further to accuse Pelosi of hypocrisy for effusively advocating the rights of women in the workplace only to rule against Duckworth’s pregnancy-related request, supposedly because the Illinois legislator was a Pallone partisan.

Leaders have to say “no” to members all the time, and the worst mistake a leader can make is to allow an exception to the rule, because doing so ensures that others will also seek waivers, requiring the leader to choose between appropriate and inappropriate excuses – an inherently subjective choice. Yes, Duckworth had a genuine medical excuse, but so do many Members who routinely miss votes. Are waivers to be allowed only for medical excuses? Any medical excuse? Do they require a note from the doctor? What about other demands that require a legislator’s absence from Washington: a funeral, the illness of a spouse or child, a graduation, a wedding, an unspecified “personal problem.” All of these requests, and more, are routinely cited by Members seeking approval to miss floor sessions, and Pelosi has consistently refused to grant her permission. To respond otherwise would open the floodgates and impose on herself the impossible responsibility of separating the justifiable from the frivolous.

So, why single out the Duckworth request? To suggest that her denial of the proxy to Duckworth is at odds with her advocacy of women’s rights in the workplace is without merit. Rights such as paid family leave, equal wages and non-discrimination are unrelated to the Duckworth case. Duckworth’s job security and pay are in no way affected by Pelosi’s decision. There is nothing unique about a medical excuse preventing a Member from attending a meeting or a floor session. When all cases are treated equitably, it is impossible to assert unfairness. If Pelosi had granted Duckworth a waiver but denied one to another Member who required hospitalization or home rest, a charge of inequitable treatment would have been warranted, by the other Member.

So instead Pelosi made the controversial call and, as is so often the case, the press decided to excoriate her without examining the merit of her decision. Give her credit for standing on her principles and being willing to take the heat. Incidentally, that is what leadership is really about.

The Silver Lining

It is admittedly difficult to put much of a positive spin for Democrats on last week’s midterm election. In both the House and Senate outcomes, one sees a continued winnowing of the large Democratic majorities achieved in the mid-2000s as a result of voter disaffection with pro-war/scandal-ridden/Social Security privatizing George W. Bush congressional Republicans. As with the inflated Democratic majorities of the post-Watergate era, those big Democratic margins of the mis-2000’s – inflated further by the outpouring of young and minority voters enthused by the 2008 Obama candidacy – have frayed considerably in marginal districts that briefly fell under the spell of Democrats, or where Democratic incumbents retired and the districts elected conservatives of the Republican, rather than Democratic, stripe.

The size of the GOP margins in the House and Senate are worrisome enough that even the hoped-for (though far from certain) election of a Democratic president, with expanded voter turnout, in 2016 simply may not be sufficient to dislodge the new Republican majorities. While it will be the Republicans’ turn to defend a disproportionate number of incumbents in 2016, as Democrats were forced to do last Tuesday, the odds against Democrats rose last week because so many Senate seats were won by Republicans, inflating the number needed to regain the majority.

There are certainly opportunities. Five GOP winners in 2010, a very good year for Republicans, fall into the category of “marginal” by having secured less than 53% of the vote including Ron Johnson (WI, 52%), Mark Kirk (IL, 48%), Pat Toomey (PA, 51%), Marco Rubio (FL, 49%), and Lisa Murkowski (AK, 39%). The last two ran in three-way races and may be less vulnerable if they avoid such a multi-candidate race again.   Additionally, both John McCain (AZ) and Charles Grassley (IA), 80 and 83 respectively in 2016, could opt to retire, potentially creating competitive non-incumbent races, but both are going to enjoy being major committee chairmen in the next two years and may well choose to go one more round.

Democrats have some vulnerabilities of their own in 2016, including soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV), who will be 77 in 2016 and only received 50.2% of the vote in his last race, and Colorado’s Michael Bennett, originally an appointed senator who won only 47% in 2010.

The House faces even a steeper cliff given the gains of last Tuesday which created the largest House GOP majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House. The task is made more difficult for Democrats by the combination of numerous gerrymandered seats that artificially favor Republicans, and by the concentration of large Democratic voting blocks in urban districts. Disseminating some of those voters into adjacent districts during the next reapportionment would enhance the competitiveness of many seats currently held by Republicans without jeopardizing the probable victory of a Democrats in the current safe seat (although the certainty of that Democrat’s being a minority may diminish).  But Republicans are hardly inclined to agree to such a balancing of districts, and most of the Democratic incumbents are happy with winning victories by 70% and more, if not being uncontested, even though doing so means that neighboring districts that used to be competitive and frequently represented by Democrats remain safely Republican.

So, you may be wondering, where is that “silver lining” mentioned in the title?

The answer lies in the governorships. Yes, it is true, Republicans won reelection in many of the blue-to-purple states of the Mid-West (a major exception being Pennsylvania), so how, you might ask, is that “good” news?

Many of the Republican governors elected in traditionally Democratic states will be termed out in 2018, leaving the state with a non-incumbent gubernatorial contest. In a number of those states – Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan – current GOP governors replaced Democrats, and one might reasonable anticipated a swing back to the majority party is highly possible in the next round of elections. In Georgia, Nathan Deal will be out of office after two terms, and though he replaced a Republican four years ago, Sonny Perdue was the first Republican governor of the Peach State since Reconstruction. In addition, New Jersey’s Chris Christie will be leaving the governor’s mansion in Trenton in 2017, and there is a fair chance a Democrat will be highly competitive (Christie having beaten two extremely weak Democratic nominees in this reliably blue state).

Democrats will be challenged to win the governorships in Texas, Florida, and Virginia in 2017 (the latter after a narrow win in 2013 and successive Democratic governors), but at least the latter two are possibilities, as is the case for a Democratic victory in Colorado where Gov. John Hickenlooper barely eked out re-election this year. Even in Illinois and Maryland, where Democrats lost governorships they might well have won this year, there are possibilities of a strong Democratic candidacy in 2016.

This potential for Democrats winning governorships in 2017 and 2018 is highly significant because doing so will put them in charge during the crucial reapportionment process following the 2020 census. And in each of these states, the drawing of lines for the House of Representatives (as well as state legislatures) can figure prominently in whether Democrats have a fair opportunity to win the House majority during the decade of the 2020’s.

Reversing, or correcting, the Republicans’ gerrymandering of 2012 – made possible by the big GOP victories in 2010 that gave them control in states during the reapportionment process – may not be sufficient if Democratic incumbents insist upon districts that are so stocked with Democratic voters that adjacent district lose any competitive standing.

Years ago, the Svengali of reapportionment, Congressman Phillip Burton, delivered Democrats a district they could win if they were diligent in paying attention to their constituents, not one they were guaranteed to win regardless of their actions, votes or efforts. Members who desired 65% or 70% Democratic districts were given 56% districts, and if savvy, won re-election easily while other districts were also designed to provide Democratic opportunities. That discipline did not always survive Burton for long. Following Burton’s death in 1983, I was in a room where a Democratic incumbent stalked out because their proposed district was less than 80% Democratic. If that avaricious attitude prevails, should Democrats be fortunate enough to dominate the reapportionment process in 2021-2022, the road back to the majority could be blocked until 2032.

The House Majority and the Governors

Much of the focus about control of Congress is centered on the close battle for the Senate and the challenges facing House Democrats in 2014. But the key to future House control may well rest with the outcome of key gubernatorial races next Tuesday, races that could impact, in multiple ways, the prospects for a Democratic House majority in years to come.

Three major structural problems confront Democrats who yearn to return soon to the House majority, restore Nancy Pelosi to a productive speakership, and provide President Hillary Clinton with a Congress that favorably responds to the policy initiatives on which she may well be elected in 2016.

  • Gerrymandering: A fact of political life that may be susceptible to minimization, but has defied various reform efforts for over two hundred years, since the creation of the nefarious “dragon district” in 1812.
  • Population concentration: Democrats tend to pack themselves into cities, providing massive majorities for districts crammed with likeminded voters, but starving the suburbs and rural areas of enough Democrats to be competitive. As a result, Democrats tend to win overwhelming margins in elections with votes they don’t need; whether you win with 55% or 70% of the vote, you still get a House voting card. These disproportionate districts are terrific for incumbents but do not reflect the distribution of House seats state-wide. Overall, Democrats outpolled Republicans in 2012 House races by 1.5 million votes, but remained a minority in the lower chamber. It is not unusual for Democrats in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan to win a clear majority of votes cast for President only to fall far short in the individual districts.
  • Voting Rights Act Uncertainties: Since the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA last year, it may be increasingly difficult to ensure that fair districts are created and minority voters fairly participate. In addition, as a result of the VRA, in part, many minority Democratic voters since the 1990s have been packed into districts that ensure the election of black and Latino legislators by wide margins, but which leave the remaining districts in the state with too few Democrats to be competitive. Disseminating the minority voters more equitably would result in many more competitive House districts, but may well reduce the chance that minority candidates would represent them since it is still the rare majority white district that elects a minority candidate.

Another major factor, however, will be the person, and party, occupying each governorship when the next reapportionment occurs following the 2020 election. In many states, controlling the governor’s mansion will have a significant impact on the district lines drawn by Legislature that will determine the design of the House for the subsequent decade. With a sympathetic Legislature, a governor can influence reapportionment to benefit his or her party; with divided government in the state, a governor can veto a plan that is disadvantageous to his or her party.

Many states electing governors next Tuesday bear careful watching, even though a number of these governors may be termed out in 2018 and no longer in office to affect the reapportionment process in 2021-2022. A loss by an incumbent Republican governor, as may well occur in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin would result in a Democratic governor who, learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, might well realize the benefits of incumbency and win re-election in 2018, ensuring that a Democratic governor oversees reapportionment.

Other states may re-elect a Republican governor this year, such as Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, who would then be precluded from running again in 2018, depriving Republicans of the benefits of incumbency. Close races in these states this year signify a credible state Democratic party and, as in Georgia, a Democratic candidate who may well re-emerge four years hence with wide recognition and a sound campaign infrastructure. Such a retread might stand a better chance of victory when running for an open seat rather than against a Republican incumbent. Ohio is a bit of an anomaly, for while John Kasich looks to be cruising to a major victory, he has drawn a weak opponent, although Democrats in the state remain a potent force.

By contrast, several key Democratic governors will win by substantial margins this year such as Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and while they likely will probably not be in office in 2021, their states are Democratic powerhouses that likely will remain in Democratic hands after they have moved along. There are other Democratic governors who could lose, in Illinois and Colorado particularly, elevating Republicans to a key role in reapportionment should they perform well and win re-election in 2018; however these governorships will almost certainly be highly contested in 2018 since the current incumbent (and threatened) governors have unique vulnerabilities that may well not translate to the next Democratic contender.

Two key governorships are not on the ballot this year because they held off-year elections last year: New Jersey and Virginia. In the case of the former, it is highly plausible that a Democrat will succeed Chris Christie, who won against a highly flawed Democratic incumbent in this deep blue state. And while Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe cannot run for a second term, Republicans have been having a difficult time in state-wide races in the Old Dominion, a trend which may well continue

The bottom line is that in a host of states with large Democratic electorates that voted for Barack Obama twice and will likely vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 should she run, Democrats could find themselves well-positioned for 2018 and the reapportionment that will follow. In many of these states, a fair drawing of the lines will result in more competitive seats than is the case at present, yielding races that may elect those who are less beholden to the hard core base of either party which controls so much power in one-party districts where tiny turnouts by the hardest core base determines nominations and elections.

That is not to say the reapportionment process will be without political undertones; despite judges, commissions and other contrivances created to avoid the influence of party in this time-honored process. As it has often been noted, you can’t take politics out of politics. But perhaps the process could be made more balanced and districts might better reflect the true distribution of voters. Governors will play a key role in those decisions, which is why it pays to keep a sharp eye on the race for the governors’ mansions next Tuesday.

The Name of the Game Isn’t Just Money

One would have to be a fool – or apparently, a member of the Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United decision – not to be appalled by the surfeit of lucre that is poisoning America’s politics. A potentially-related issue – the tendency for high political office to revert to those with familiar names – also suggests a retooling of our democracy is worth considering.

On the question of money, there is little debate. In many of the key Senate races being contested next month, over half of the reported “independent” money has been donated by … well, we don’t know, because thanks to the Supreme Court, the names of the contributors are anonymous. So as the money pours into states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana and others, totaling tens of millions of dollars, we have no idea who is bankrolling the race to control the Senate.

What we do know is that outside spending has grown from $52 million in the 2000 cycle to over $1 billion in the 2012 cycle, and likely much more this year. Two years ago, 100 of the richest people in America anonymously gave $339 million to Super PACs. This year, reports indicate, several independent groups are shedding the pretense of “educating” the public in multiple states, and are focusing instead on supporting or opposing a single candidate – all within the Constitution as interpreted by 5 of the Court’s 9 Justices.

It is also interesting to note that in a number of those key races, while the names of the contributors are unknown, the names of the candidates are very familiar, and not simply because they currently occupy seats in the U.S. Senate. In Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and Georgia, Senate seats are held or are being sought by politicians with names made famous by their predecessors.

  • In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich, son of former at-large Congressman Nick Begich, is in a tight race to retain his seat;
  • In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor, is similarly fighting for his political life.
  • In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, son of longtime Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, is seeking a second term.
  • In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor (and HUD Secretary) Moon Landrieu, is seeking a third term. Her brother, Mitch, is the mayor of New Orleans, but her service precedes his election.
  • And in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for dad’s old Senate seat.

Nor are these the only famous offspring on the November ballots, which include such familiar names as California Gov. Jerry Brown (son of Pat), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario), and Georgia gubernatorial wannabe Jason Carter, grandson of former Governor and President Jimmy. Other famous scions serve in the Senate as well. These members of venerable political dynasties include Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, West Virginia’s Sen. John D. Rockefeller, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (daughter of former Governor and Senator Frank), and New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall (son of former Interior Secretary and Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall, and cousin of Mark).

The House of Representatives is overflowing with famous surnames, including two of my former employers whose parents were elected officials, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (father and brother) and George Miller (father and grandfather). Some came to seats that had been immediately occupied by family members, such as Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), both of whom succeeded their spouses. As recently as the 1970s, half of all women in the House had succeeded their deceased spouses, as did a number of appointed women senators including Muriel Humphrey (widow of Hubert) and Elaine Edwards (wife of Louisiana Gov., and current House candidate, Edwin Edwards). Other senators were appointed to capitalize on their family name in efforts to gain or hold a Senate seat including Jean Carnahan (whose husband, Governor Mel, of Missouri, died during the campaign which he won, though deceased).

Democrats seem to have a particular penchant for running familiar names for House seats. Today, those occupying seats previously held by a parent or spouse include Niki Tsongas (MA), Andre Carson (IN), Lacy Clay (MO), John Dingell (MI), Joe Kennedy (MA), John Sarbanes (MD), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA), and Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ). There are Republicans, too, like Bill Shuster (PA) who inherited not only the seat of his father, Bud, but his gavel as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, too.

Others, like Sam Farr (CA) and Janice Hahn (CA), had famous parents in state legislatures or local government. And Rush Holt (NJ) had a father who served as a senator, although from West Virginia, and decades before his son won a House seat with little benefit from the family name. It also bears noting that, in all likelihood, one surname will continue to hold a House seat following the departure of a famous legislator as Deborah Dingell is running to succeed husband John, the House dean who is retiring after 60 years, having succeeded his father in 1955.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the progeny, siblings, or spouses of officeholders seeking public office themselves. Indeed, our history is filled with Adams’, Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Tydings, Longs, Harrisons, Lodges, Tafts and many more whose surnames often provided important advantages in their quests for public office. Coming from a family of officeholders often brings with it a respect for the office born of exposure to the rigors and responsibilities that elected office demands. Often, the achievements of the second generation politicians have eclipsed those of their solon ancestors.

It is worth noting, however, that the combination of relying on famous names and the availability of large amounts of money from undisclosed sources represents something other than an ideal illustration of a democracy in action. As noted, bearing a prominent name in no way suggests a lack of qualification for office or predicts underperformance in office. Often, quite the opposite. One would merely hope that voters are selecting candidates independent of familiar names that are promoted by heavy spending from anonymous sources.

There seems no end to the political name game, and even former First Lady Barbara Bush has indicated a desire to see some new names on the bumper stickers and buttons. If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (or both) seeks the presidency in 2016, they will perpetuate an astonishing record that has seen a Bush or a Clinton seeking or winning a place on every national ticket since 1980 excepting only 2012. “I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people,” Mrs. Bush noted, suggesting the nation should be able to produce “more than two or three families to run for high office.” The probability is that Mrs. Bush, and we, will likely have to wait some time for that string to be broken.

Are Democrats Sending the Right Message on the Economy?

Let’s stipulate right at the outset: there are too many unemployed Americans (particularly long-term unemployed), wages are stagnant (the typical family is earning what it took home in 1997), and that income inequality has grotesquely grown to Louis XVIth proportions. Economically, it seems fair to say, these days will not be confused with “the best of times,” at least from the standpoint of equity.

It is therefore not surprising that many Democratic politicians and message gurus continue to bemoan the state of the recovery. Their economic prescription emphasizes initiatives to address unemployment, job creation, and improved wages. Having recently spent a few days in economically depressed northern Ohio, I have no doubt the message has some appeal to the electorate.

But I am not convinced it is the right message for Democrats. Unlike the Clinton campaign of 1992 where the rhetoric could be directed against a sitting Republican president, there is currently a Democrat in the White House. Reiterating that the recovery is faltering and that millions remain economically vulnerable reinforces a message of ineffectiveness that inevitably redounds onto the President, who for better or worse, symbolizes the Democratic Party for most voters.

Democrats rightly blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a slew of recovery bills like an increase in the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and an infrastructure package. But most voters do not ascribe Congress’ failures to the Republican majority in the House; close to half don’t even know the Republicans control the House. So trashing the recovery inevitably reflects back onto the one person voters can hold accountable, and that is President Obama, and that hurts him and Democrats alike.

Now what is particularly odd is that, while less than ideal, there actually is considerable evidence the economy has been improving.  We have added over 10 million private sector jobs during 55 straight months of job growth, 248,000 in September, and over 700,000 jobs in manufacturing, the longest private sector job creation streak in U.S. history. Payrolls are expanding at the fastest pace in 15 years and unemployment dropped below 6% in September, the lowest rate in 6 years. The debt has shrunk by more than half, the investor optimism index is at its highest point in seven years, and the Dow Jones average has nearly tripled since President Obama took office, with barely a hint of inflation. As Obama summarized this week in a speech at Northwestern, “Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction.”

And yet economic anxiety remains high and approval of Obama’s economic record remains mired in the low 40%s, which is very dangerous news for Democratic candidates. As one of my students recently wrote in a research paper, “What’s up with that?”

Of course, the frozen real income of middle class families and the stubborn long-term unemployment belie all the good news, as does the outlandish inequity in wealth concentration. And the persistence of so much bad data invariably dampens the willingness of candidates to tout positive news for fear of seeming oblivious to the negative evidence.

But if no one will take credit for the good news, then one can hardly blame voters for not focusing on much but the bad. A relentless emphasis on a poor economy works to taint the record of the person in the White House, but if that person is your own party leader, and an election is five weeks away, that may not be your best strategy. Moreover, emphasizing the negative inflames voters cynicism about the ability of government to accomplish much of anything, and impugning government is the Republican refrain.

Now to his credit, the President recited favorable economic indicators at Northwestern on Thursday, and he will hopefully continue do so for much of the remaining campaign season. As Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wisely advised yesterday, “He should brag” about the economy, calling on him to “sing his own praises and boast of what he’s done.” So should House Democrats and Democratic candidates, warning that to add anti-government Republicans to congressional ranks will jeopardize the economic recovery by encouraging the obstructionism and unresponsiveness that has characterized the GOP since Obama’s inauguration.

The fact is that virtually everything that has happened policy-wise to facilitate economic recovery is the result of Obama’s executive initiatives or because Democrats in Congress stood together and passed legislation with minimal assistance from Republicans. Left to their own devices, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for no legislative response – other than further economic sacrifice by the poor and middle class — to the worst economic implosion since the Big One: no TARP stabilization (paid back with interest, thank you), no prevention of the collapse of the auto industry (one million jobs saved, you’re welcome), no stimulus, no health care reform (which has helped achieve drastic reductions in inflation-generating health care costs), no termination of Bush’s obscene upper income tax cut, no unemployment benefit extensions: no nuthin’. Zippo.

The point here is that Democrats, including Obama, need to buck up and tell the American people that while work remains, a lot has been achieved to recover the economy, and that with a Republican Congress, what has been achieved will be jeopardized. Neutering the ability of government to function is no prescription for continued economic improvement. You can’t get that message across if most of what voters heard is gloom and doom. And you can’t successfully disseminate that message through occasional speeches that most voters have no idea occurred. There must be a persistent, aggressive, definitive message that despite the obstructionism and indifference of the Republicans, progress is being made. And if your goal is to address income inequity and the disproportionate influence of mega-money in politics, voters better shake off their lethargy and get to the polls.

How “Productive” Will the Electorate Be?

It has admittedly been a while since my last blog on goings-on in Congress, and I would like to say I have been waiting for something positive (or substantive) to happen, but the inactive course of the 113th Congress was, and remains, unlikely to change. Nevertheless, the decision to recess until after the election provides a good opportunity for some timely observations.

Is this the most “unproductive Congress” in history?

As I have written in earlier blogs, the evaluation of the success or failure of this Congress depends to a large extent on one’s sense of priorities. While Democratic critics emphasize the low productivity of the 113th Congress thus far (only 163 laws enacted, which may result in overall enactments below the modern record of 283 in the 112th), the statutory shortfall is distressing only if your preference is for pro-active legislating. And that, to be polite, has not been the objective of House Republicans. Recall Speaker John Boehner’s admonition to judge Republicans not on how many bills they enact, but on how many they repeal. OK, they haven’t delivered on the latter either, but you can hardly fault them for failing to do what they explicitly promised they would do: very little. To the extent that such inaction (or indifference) results in heightened contempt for Congress and the federal government, so much the better, since a core philosophical and strategic objective of Republicans (and especially the far Right that exercises effective control over the leadership) is to demean and diminish the stature of Washington, Congress and their own offices. So, “unproductive”? A quantifiable “yes.” A “failure?” Depends on your point of view.

Yes, but … income inequality. Climate change. Economic stimulus and jobs. Immigration reform. Minimum wage. Voting rights reauthorization. Campaign finance reform. Affordability of higher education. Well, those are all good points, and Democrats continually lash out at Republicans for inaction on these priorities (while passing, and monotonously re-passing, 29 bills that have less prospects than a Beatles reunion). As former NH Sen. John Sununu (himself not exactly an Old Yankee, Kenneth Keating Republican) has noted, “This, in the political trade, is what is politely called “messaging.’” But, as noted above, Republicans have no particular interest in enacting legislation on challenging subjects, and certainly not if crafting enactable statutes involves compromising with Democrats and he-whose-name-cannot-be-mentioned (and I don’t mean Voldemort). Government involvement in such sacrosanct areas as climate, the economy, and tax policy is problematic, not something to be encouraged. (They make an exception for voting for military engagement, even if they believe the Commander in Chief has all the strategic acumen of the designer of the Maginot Line.) Who cares about restricted voting rights or unlimited big money manipulation of campaigns if the result benefits your political self-interest? Even in areas like immigration, where House conservatives agree there are shortcomings in the status quo, engaging in the legislative process implies compromise, which is not among their hallowed traditions. This week, Speaker Boehner’s staff locked his Longworth office’s doors rather than meet with voting rights activists delivering a petition with over a half million signatures. Barring the door didn’t make the issue (or the dissatisfied voters) go away; it just refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns. How’s that for a symbolic summary of the 113th Congress?

Well, at least the government didn’t shut down, again. True, although a shutdown might have made the point about the indifference of the House leadership to urgent issues, if the point needs to be made more clearly. It is instructive to note, however, that as with past Continuing Resolutions (and debt ceilings, and tax extensions) that the House has passed since Republicans assumed the majority in 2011, must-pass bills do pass, but only because of Democratic votes. Speaker Boehner has been consistently incapable of convincing his own Conference members to produce a sufficient number of votes for essential bills, which means he must make some compromises with Democrats who are willing to vote for CRs and other nose-holding bills they detest because they know that a shutdown would be even worse. A substantial number of Tea Partiers therefore have the luxury of telling constituents they vote against spending bills and are happy to shut down the government if they do not get 100% of what they want, knowing that Democrats will provide the needed 40 or 50 votes to keep the lights on. And Speaker Boehner knows he has no choice but to rely on House Democrats, and so keeps CRs clean of nasty little policy riders the hard Right would like to attach (and then still likely vote against the bill). And if worse comes to worse and there is a shut-down, well, doesn’t that also serve the purpose of stigmatizing Congress, so where is the pressure for responsibility?

It is easy to point the finger at Congress, and at the Tea Party in particular, for the inaction of Congress on such a plethora of issues which many Americans believe merit urgent legislative action. And indeed, polling confirms a high disapproval rate of Congress in general, and of the Republicans who run the House –72% disapproval in the last poll I have seen. But politicians ultimately don’t care about polls; they care about votes, and now that Congress has departed for campaign season (on the earliest departure date since before President Obama was even born), the focus of attention should be turning to voters, not the electeds.

I hate to wag the lecturing finger in front of an indignant electorate, but nothing makes a politician breathe easier than an opponent who is too outraged to vote. All of the inaction, indifference and teeth-grinding frustration pent up by congressional critics, of any persuasion, will have no impact whatsoever if, as is broadly being predicted, six in ten eligible voters sit out the mid-term election. A politician elected is a politician who believes his or her views have been ratified by whatever subset of the constituency has bothered to cast a ballot. It is bad enough that so many people who do vote choose candidates whose track record and campaign rhetoric guarantee continued gridlock; but when those who favor a more constructive and collaborative approach inadvertently buy into the negative frame about Congress and indignantly sit out the election, well, the odds of change are pretty slim. Yes, it means voting for someone you don’t always agree with, maybe even on a big issue. But we don’t have much of a chance for electing a Congress that can fashion compromises on tough issues if we only vote for uncompromising candidates whose rhetoric is pleasing but whose legislative skills are non-existent.

Obama Acts on Discrimination

President Obama’s decision to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors is a significant step towards a broader ban than only Congress can establish. As the President noted, Congress has failed to do just that … for decades … and unless voters turn out in massive numbers this fall to cast votes reflecting their anger at Republican lawmakers, it will be a while before the Legislative Branch catches up with the Obama Executive Branch. 

Some supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) may fault Obama for some perceived weakness in the Order.  And needless to say, opponents of ENDA, including virtually the entire Republican Caucus in the House and Senate as well as their “pro-family” activists around the country who fundraise on their bigotry, will huff and puff about misuse of Executive authority. Expect Speaker John Boehner to issue an addendum to his recent (and absurd) taxpayer-funded lawsuit against President Obama for … doing his job (and, not incidentally, doing the job Republicans in Congress are spectacularly failing to do).

Here are a few observations about the Obama decision:

Most important, of course, is that blatant discrimination in employment by those profiting from federal contracts will be prohibited. It seems difficult to believe, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Right Act, that employers are still free to fire (or not hire) qualified men and women because they don’t approve of their private and personal behavior. The President’s action today should not be surprising to anyone. As he noted in his 2013 Inaugural, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”   Republicans may not like the fact that the President acted, but they can’t pretend they were not on notice that eventually, he would counteract their inaction and indifference.

In addition, the Executive Order is noteworthy as another illustration of Obama’s newfound willingness to employ Executive authority when Congress fails to act on urgent priorities. As with his initiatives under the Affordable Care Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and his DREAM initiative under current immigration law, the President is doing what he promised he would do in the 2013 State of the Union message: not allow Republicans to continue to pour sand into the gears of government, complain the transmission doesn’t work, and refuse to take it to the shop to get it repaired. Eventually, Speaker Boehner’s loony lawsuit against presidential initiatives will be heard in a court and thrown out, probably long after Barack Obama is golfing in Hawaii as the former President, but in the meantime, Obama seems intent to utilize the authority Congress regularly gives to presidents to issue regulations to enforce laws, often because legislators don’t want to make the tough implementation decisions.

Obama’s action is also noteworthy because the Order illustrates something which I observed while working with the White House, but which is often overlooked, and that is Obama’s obduracy. True, his willingness to engage in extended and often counterproductive negotiations with implacable enemies can be exasperating, and he should have developed more effective strategies for dealing with GOP nihilism some time ago. But contrary to the popular notion, including among many Democrats, Obama is no pushover. I saw that during the health care negotiations in 2009, after Ted Kennedy’s death cost us our 60 vote majority in the Senate. Some in the White House and Congress argued for abandoning the broad coverage of the proposed law – perhaps limiting it to children (what Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively termed the “namby panby” option). The popular lore is that Obama waivered and considered diluting the proposed bill to secure passage, but at least from my vantage point, and it was a pretty good one at the time, Obama was dug in and never vacillated. Similarly, he rejected those who argued, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, for a religious cutout from the new Executive Order on contracting. Obama knows his decision to keep the Order broad will result in a court challenge, but he also knows that even a weaker Order would have similarly been challenged, and he rejected the “namby pamby” approach once again.

Still, some will second-guess the precise language and scope of the Executive Order, and predictably, their criticism will be aimed at Obama and liberal Democrats whom they demand approve a tougher policy. We have seen the same syndrome among climate change activists, for example. Obama seemed to recognize this inevitability, noting “I’m going to do what I can with the authority I have to act [and] the rest of you, of course, need to keep putting pressure on Congress.” That doesn’t mean pressuring Pelosi and other ENDA backers to pass legislation they don’t have the votes to pass. It means doing the hard work of organizing the electorate and motivating turnout to punish those who prevent broader policies from being debate. Criticizing Democratic leaders in Congress is a pointless act of political self-indulgence. When progressive voters are organized and vote, the culture in Washington and the work product on Capitol Hill will become more sympathetic. Standing back and clucking that the current effort is insufficient does not contribute to greater success, which will remain elusive until the caucus of progressives is substantially increased. That work needs to be done in the communities of America (which, incidentally, agree with anti-discrimination policies).

There is one area of caution worth noting. As one who spent nearly 40 years working in the Congress – the first branch of government under the Constitution – I am predictably wary of the potential for the resurrection of the Imperial Presidency. Among the most important congressional reforms of the 1970s were those constraining the President from the unfettered exercise of authority that distorted the balance of power that is, for better or worse, the cornerstone of our constitutional system. Angered by the heavy handedness of Lyndon Johnson on foreign policy and Richard Nixon both internationally and with respect to budget and impoundment over-reach, Congress on a bipartisan basis enacted important steps to constrain an over-eager White House and re-inject itself into critical decision-making. Caution is needed to ensure that, in the desire to facilitate policy initiatives, the proper role of the Congress is not undermined by a White House that can inevitably move more quickly and decisively than a diverse legislative body. However, until Congress proves that it can move at all, its members are hard-pressed to chastise the President for employing the powers he has been given both by the Constitution and by statutes approved by the Congress.

The Port Chicago Disaster — 70th Commemoration

A ceremony was held at the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Park on July 19th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster and the ensuing events which have such great significance in the history of the U.S. military and the evolution of the struggle for civil rights in mid-20th century America.  I received the Commemorative Hero’s Award for my work on creating the Port Chicago National Memorial and my efforts to secure exoneration for the sailors wrongly charged, by a racist judicial system, with mutiny.  Below are my remarks at the ceremony:

I would like to thank the Friends of Port Chicago for honoring me with this year’s Commemorative Hero’s Award, particularly our chair, Rev. Diana McDaniel, my fellow board members, and Superintendent Tom Leatherman and his outstanding team form the National Park Service. And especially, I want to acknowledge Congressman George Miller without whose leadership and determination, there would be no Memorial, no pardon of Freddie Meeks, and far less understanding of the significance of the events of July 17, 1944 and their aftermath.

We meet here at a time of momentous milestones. Not only is 2014 the 70th anniversary of the events that led to the de-segregation of the military and helped fuel the modern civil rights movement, but also of D-Day – June 6, 1944 – that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Just 16 days ago, I walked on the beach at Normandy, and I brought back a vial of red sand that I deposited on the shore at the Port Chicago Memorial on Thursday to symbolically link these two places that share such historic significance.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, during which more than 370,000 African Americans served in combat, as well as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

These are important moments in our national history, and they require recognition and solemn celebration. They changed our country, and they changed the world.

We recall them not simply for reasons of sentimentality but because they compel us to think about something more than our own times and our own struggles. They challenge us to consider how we arrived at this place, the sacrifices that were required, and who we are as a result of these shared experiences. 

These events marking the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster are a good example of why we need memorials and commemorations.

For decades after the war ended, few knew anything about Port Chicago, or the racism that pervaded the military during the War. Apropos of our presence here today, few understood the crucial, changing role of women on the Home Front during the war – not just the Rosie the Riveters who built the Victory ships and tanks right here in Richmond, but also the unprecedented role that women began to play in the nation’s economy.

These events also serve as a reminder that it can be time-consuming and frustrating to challenge old stereotypes and erroneous records. It took an Act of Congress in 1992 to compel the Navy even to review the shameful prosecution of the sailors convicted of mutiny after the explosion. Unfortunately, the Navy refused to overturn the convictions.But as a result of the determination of Congressman Miller, with strong support from other Californians like Barbara Boxer and Ron Dellums, legislation was soon passed creating the Port Chicago Memorial.

Yet even military has begun to revise its views of the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath. It is worth noting the remarks at the memorial service on Thursday of Lt. Colonel Timothy Zetterwall, the new commanding officer in Concord, which included unprecedented recognition of the Navy’s serious shortcomings in the handling of both the Port Chicago facility and the prosecutions that followed the disaster. That acknowledgement is a very important step.

When I began researching Port Chicago back in the mid-1980s, I remember calling an African-American veteran who had served there at the time of the explosion. Like many others, he had put the memory of that terrible night far behind him. He had rarely discussed his experiences even with his own family. Yet, when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of July 17, 1944, he quietly said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this phone call.”

My work on Port Chicago conjures up a number of such vivid scenes for me:

  • Percy Robinson, Robert Routh and Yale Lewis telling me of having to write home for gloves to prevent their hands from being cut in the loading of weapons — because the Navy would not supply them;
  • how a trumpet, sent by a worried parent, resulted in a fortuitous assignment to the base band instead of an assignment loading the E.A. Bryan on that night 70 years ago.
  • the unapologetic testimony of the purported “ringleader,” Joe Small at a congressional hearing when we began the effort to create the National Memorial;
  • the quiet dignity of Freddie Meeks when Rep. Miller and I visited him shortly after the issuance of the pardon by President Clinton in 1999 – the aging photos of him in his Navy uniform still proudly displayed in his living room.

After the story of the pardon appeared in the newspaper, many people wrote to Mr. Meeks to share their own recollections and emotions. One told Mr. Meeks, “Your fight is not just for you, or just for black people, but for all people. The United States is still on the path to Freedom and Equality. You have helped us stay on that path.”

Out at Normandy last month, I saw a few of that Greatest Generation wearing their veterans’ caps, carrying canes and riding in wheelchairs pushed by children or grandchildren. They had brought their families back to France, to that hallowed beach, to create a personal connection to that shattering experience – to ensure that they would always remember the sacrifices that were made for future generations.   It is in that same spirit that we continue our efforts to explain the significance of Port Chicago to our children and grandchildren.

When I wasn’t working late nights in the Congress or helping my wife raise our two sons, I also composed and recorded songs, including “The Ballad of Port Chicago.” I’d like to close by reciting to you the last verse and the chorus, which seem appropriate to today’s celebration. It goes like this:

And out in California, a flag still flies today,

Right where old Port Chicago stood

Before it blew away.

It waves there to remind us brave men served there once and died

And we must fight for justice still

That’s why they gave their lives.


Oh, my, what a terrible sight

The sky blew apart with a thundering light

And all those boys were blasted right

To Kingdom Come on that terrible night.

Their legend lives on and it’s quite a tale.

Half a hundred went to jail.

They took a step down freedom’s trail

Those Port Chicago boys.

When the National Anthem was played at the Port Chicago Memorial during Thursday’s memorial service, a flock of pelicans appeared from nowhere and suddenly formed a perfect “V” for “Victory,” hovering high over the fluttering flags until the song ended, and then disappeared, as did the 320 victims of the Port Chicago explosion.

I am very grateful to you for recognizing my work for this important cause, and I salute all those committed to telling the story of Port Chicago.

The Paradox of Governing

The unexpected defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary highlights a dilemma that increasingly confronts congressional leaders of both parties. There are demanding leadership responsibilities associated with managing Congress as a co-equal branch of government, made all the more challenging by the tight margins that foster daily strategic and parliamentary combat, and the changing rules on campaign finance. Those who rise to the highest levels of national leadership in an ideologically polarized House, where the battle for control is a constant strategic concern, often must perform in ways that do not measure up to the expectations of their core partisans back in the district who send them to Washington.

Cantor, it has been noted, is the first Majority Leader ever defeated in a primary. (Speaker Tom Foley lost his seat in the 1994 Republican landslide that cost Democrats control of the House.) His loss is closely linked to his increasingly prominent role in the House and party leadership where his duties led him to act in ways that left him vulnerable to critics in the hard core base that often decides primary elections. In Cantor’s case, his complicity as Majority Leader in maneuvering the surprise voice vote passage of the Medicare “doc fix,” (which infuriated the Tea Party faction) or hinting that he might be open to a negotiated compromise on immigration, did not square well with the hard Right base he helped create and which puts little value on conciliatory behavior.

There are important historical observations to be drawn from the Cantor collapse. Over the past 40 years since Watergate and Vietnam, Congress has steadily reasserted itself as a co-equal branch of government, rejecting the deference to the the imperial presidency that often treated the First Branch as an afterthought. Members of the House and Senate have not only challenged presidents of opposing parties during frequent periods of divided government, but often have confronted executives of their own party who took Congress for granted. Republicans voiced concerns with conservative icon Ronald Reagan over such basic issues as raising taxes, and Democrats were unsparing in their anger at Bill Clinton for his triangulating compromises with Speaker Newt Gingrich on welfare reform and other issues. Many Democrats share congressional Republicans’ irritation at a perceived coolness towards Congress by President Obama, and privately express concerns about his use of signing statements, pioneered by George W. Bush, to qualify the scope of measures he signs into law.

To emphasize Congress’ equal status with the Executive Branch, leaders have increasingly promoted their own legislative agenda rather than defer to the Administration, as was often the case historically. More than any other modern Speaker to that point, Jim Wright in the late 1980s issued a legislative program distinct from the Reagan White House, whose Teflon clout had been diminished by the Iran-Contra scandal. Gingrich went several steps further with the development of the “Contract With America,” which he used to castigate long-term Democratic hegemony over Congress during the 1994 election which resulted in a Republican majority in the House. Gingrich explicitly articulated his desire to re-establish the Congress as a co-equal branch of government, asserting, “The Congress in the long run can change the country more dramatically than the President. I think that’s healthy. One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” A dozen years later, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi promoted a legislative package – “Six for ‘06” – that she pledged a Democratic House, under her speakership, would enact in its first 100 hours and that President George W. Bush would sign. She was right on both accounts.

As the Congress’ profile has risen under both parties, the demands on, and expectations of, party leaders have changed. Since 1994, there has often been a biennial contest for control of the Congress and the narrow margins between the parties make the outcome a genuine question throughout an entire Congress. Those tight margins and battles for control necessitate constant expansive fundraising, a burden that often falls to the high-profile leaders, those who can fire up the base where most of the contributions and reliable votes are found. Electorally-driven behaviors like these that play to the fervent base of voters and contributors contribute invariably to the rise in partisanship that has characterized congressional politics for a generation or more.

Leaders like Cantor, Pelosi and Speaker Boehner always need to keep a close eye on constituents who may not understand or agree with their impure actions as leaders. On the one hand, they promote party loyalty by highlighting issues of concern to their respective bases, without whose money and turnout they cannot hope to gain or maintain control. But they also face the inescapable duty to address national concerns, though only minimally under the current Republican majority.  As a result, leaders spent vast amounts of time traveling away from their districts – identifying and promoting candidates, raising money, speaking to constituency organizations, and feeding the local press. They have no choice; in an era where personality often matters more than policy, there is no substitute for a highly familiar face appearing in person at far-flung fundraisers, conventions and county fairs.

But time on the road means less attention to the home district, and when grassroots constituent groups question a Member’s primary loyalty to the district, that can spell trouble, even for a prominent national politician who can be accused of falling in love with his title, his obsequious staff, or his hyper-inflated entertainment budget.  

Leaders have to govern, especially if they assert the equality of Congress in the policy-setting process. But the compromises required of effective governing rarely involve serving up the red meat that satisfies the revved-up base. Pelosi faced criticism from leftist groups because several liberal touchstones — tough restrictions on corporate pay in the TARP legislation in 2008, the Single Payer option in the Affordable Care Act in 2010 – lacked the votes to be included in the final version of urgent legislation. As a result, throughout her speakership, the hard-line Code Pink maintained a nearly constant presence outside her San Francisco home, excoriating her for passing appropriations bills that funded the troops during the Iraq War which neither they nor she supported, but which she dutifully brought to the floor to allow the House to work its will.

Boehner apparently will not give the House the same option on issues that would secure a large majority vote, like immigration; instead he allows the minority of his own Conference to stymie the House from acting on a bipartisan basis that would surely light up the Tea Party base. Boehner has come under relentless criticism for cutting deals with President Obama and House Democrats throughout his term, especially on must-pass bills like Continuing Resolutions, the raising of the debt ceiling, and the expiration of the upper income Bush tax cut in 2013. Without Democratic votes, none of these measures would have passed because of widespread Tea Party defections within the GOP conference. Yet Boehner had little choice but to reach the best agreements he could with Obama and Pelosi; when he allowed negotiations to collapse and the government shut down last year, as the hard-liners had demanded, the result was a political and public relations disaster for Boehner and Republicans from which they were rescued only by the botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

Throughout most of those battles, Cantor was a constant thorn in Boehner’s side, walking away from deficit reduction negotiations to which the Speaker had (perhaps cynically) appointed him, and undermining the Speaker’s standing with Members and the press. Ironically, Cantor’s downfall is being attributed to his own flirtation with conciliation on immigration and specifically on the question of a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally. True, Cantor may have been motivated by a recognition that absent a policy overture to the growing Latino population, Republicans face a grim electoral future. But party zealots rarely think long term, focusing instead on electing ideological loyalists, and the more hard-line, the better.

Cantor’s rejection by the constituents he long served illustrates how the practical demands of leadership can draw a leader away from the very base he creates to build political victories. Electorally, leaders play to the base while institutionally, in a Congress that seeks legitimacy as a co-equal branch of government, leaders must make the system work, if only marginally. An extreme base, inclined to become inflamed at anyone who even hints at compromise, need not be respectful or tolerant of those leadership obligations or to the responsibility of governing.

Kaddish for Cantor?

One can only imagine the guffaws and fist bumps pervading Speaker John Boehner’s office tonight with the report that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was taken out in Virginia’s Republican primary by a Tea Party hardliner named … please … David Brat. It looks like this David has truly laid low the Goliath of the House GOP, and Mr. Cantor is the one singing Kaddish.

That there is no love lost between Cantor and the House Speaker is not an especially well-kept secret. What makes tonight’s upset defeat delightfully ironic is that Cantor, who has spent the last three and a half years whipping up right wing dissatisfaction against Boehner’s alleged moderation, is himself the victim of accusations of collaboration.  In the past, I have directly heard quiet comments from those in Boehnerland whenever Cantor’s bravado and snarky style got him into trouble. Tonight, I imagine, the atmosphere in the Speaker’s Office is unadulterated glee.

It seems there are several explanations for Cantor’s collapse, most especially the widely reported suggestions that he might be willing to entertain some compromise with the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill that provides, under rigorous conditions, a potential path to citizenship. For months, I have told my classes at the University of California campus here in Washington that there was no chance House Republicans would consider action on the Senate bill until after the primaries were concluded. It was obvious that any Republican incumbent who even remotely suggested a path to anything but deportation was inviting a primary challenge. If the Senate bill was to be considered, surely it would only be after the opportunity for hardline Tea Partiers to file against vacillating incumbents had passed; and even then, I have been skeptical given the ability of grassroots Tea Party activists to launch write-in movements. Cantor’s defeat makes it clear that House Republicans will not only never agree to a compromise, but will not even take up immigration this year except, perhaps, to pass a hair-raising anti-immigrant bill.

The certain abandonment of immigration reform by Speaker Boehner (unless he is thinking about an early retirement himself) has profound implications for 2016 and perhaps even for some districts in 2014. It is extremely unlikely now that the GOP will include anything but a Tea Party-friendly immigration plank in their 2016 platform, and prospective nominees will have to hone a very anti-Latino line to be anywhere near the Convention when the platform is adopted. The impact is to further alienate the Latino vote, and especially the younger Latino vote, which might have been approachable had the GOP accepted Speaker Boehner’s immigration proposal a few months back. Boehner withdrew the plan within two days after harsh reactions.

There will be plenty of analysis of Cantor’s defeat over the next few days, but I will speculate that Mr. Brat owes some thanks to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. By raising the prospect of expanding Medicaid through Executive action rather than allow the Republican Senate to kill it, I suspect that McAuliffe helped flare up the Tea Party electorate who were looking for someone to get angry with, and they found Eric Cantor.

If there is a serious silver lining in Cantor’s defeat, it is that money does not always determine the outcome of elections. Brat reportedly spent about $200,000, although that doubtless was supplemented by lots of independent expenditures that targeted Cantor, like the PAC formed by Brat’s former strategist. Still, Cantor had more than $5 million that couldn’t defy a grassroots uprising. Somewhere, campaign reform activists must be smiling, although grimly.

Maybe Cantor will figure out a way to reappear on the November ballot and fight for his seat, but for the moment, it is satisfying to think about how entertaining Congressman Brat will be come next January. He may have a PhD (in economics, like former Majority Leader Dick Armey), but he has a lot to learn about how Washington works. He was, for example, recently quoted as speculating that a House Member would have to pay $150,000 to secure a seat on the House Ethics Committee, perhaps the most undesirable appointment one can receive!   I suspect there are many time more Members who would pay $150,000 not to be on Ethics than pay a dime for the honor.

For Boehner, the short-term satisfaction of ridding himself of the backstabbing Cantor is not likely to last long. Cantor’s loss is a further illustration of the volatility of the Republican grassroots and the uncontrollability of the GOP House Conference, all bad news for a Speaker who, at the unveiling of Rep. George Miller’s portrait last month, mused about their days as chairman of the Education Committee, when people who disagreed still were able to legislate on a bipartisan basis. Instead of trending back towards that nostalgic professionalism, the signs tonight point to his facing, at the beginning of the 114th Congress, an aptly named Brat Pack of hardline conservatives for whom inaction and gridlock are certain signs of strategic success.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers