hardline political news and analysis

A Tribute to Don Edwards

One of the unfortunate realities about the reputations of great men and women who serve in Congress is that, among the vast majority of Americans outside their districts (and unfortunately, many within their districts), their good works – even their great works – rarely are recognized beyond their own lifetimes, if then. Former congressman George Miller’s father, the state senator of the 1960s, used to advise officeholders with exaggerated senses of self-importance, “Anytime you think you’re a big deal, drive 10 miles down the road and see who ever heard of you.”

Partly that anonymity is a factor of the public’s disinterest and disengagement in real political activity, as opposed to the pontificating that passes for “politics” by many these days. Partly it is because there are so many legislators that it would be challenge for the press to educate people about their contributions, if the press were even remotely interested in doing so. So the task falls to historians and political scientists, most of whom prefer to focus on the more manageable presidential level of political studies.

Don Edwards reminds us of the extraordinary contributions one member of the House can make to the Nation, as well as of the effective role the Congress itself can play in the life of the Nation. For twenty years, Don passed up opportunities to move to positions that might have accorded him great power or profile, choosing instead to remain as the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Civil and Constitutional Rights, a conscientious gatekeeper who ensured that no topical obsession of the Right or Left maneuvered its way into Nation’s governing code. It is source of constant amazement that this low-key but resolute legislator could engage in some of the most controversial and discordant debates of the 20th century without raising his voice or losing his equanimity. Perhaps it was his evenhandedness that so exasperated his opponents as much as his intelligence and resoluteness.

Don wasn’t a doctrinaire left-winger, as some might have thought from his record in the House; he actually began life as a Republican and served as chairman of California’s Young Republican organization during the rise of Richard Nixon. Of course, he also had that singular, if brief, career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation which he unfailingly cited as evidence that he was no do-gooder pushover, although if J. Edgar Hoover could have excised his tenure from the FBI’s records, Don would have been hard-pressed to prove he had served there.

I first became aware of Don Edwards in college when he had become recognized as one of the earliest opponents of America’s growing involvement in Vietnam and, as National Chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, helped sponsor the early anti-war march in 1965. (In 1965, Edwards declined a plea by anti-war activist (and future congressman) Allard Lowenstein to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, a role eventually assumed by Gene McCarthy.) I didn’t know anything about him or his district, I wasn’t aware if this was a particularly courageous stance for him to take politically or a response to constituent pressure; all I knew was that at a time when virtually everyone in the House of Representatives seemed utterly tone-deaf to the protests from the campuses and the warnings of the doubters, Don Edwards’ name kept popping up on key votes to end funding for the war that provided rare evidence that all hope was not lost in finding courage in Congress. Being introduced to him when I came to work in the House in 1975 was like meeting a prophet of peace.

No tribute to Don would be complete without mentioning his beloved wife, Edie Wilkie, a person as warm, friendly and deeply committed to compassionate public policy and peace as Don himself. Edie ran the influential Members of Congress for Peace Through Law which provided information and analysis on issues from Central America to weapons systems to military reform and the campaign against nuclear weapons. In an institution where many viewed her as an invaluable intellectual asset and, I presume, many others dismissed her as a hopelessly idealistic pacifist, Edie was always a dependable source of vital, complex data while maintaining an unparalleled sense of humor and even-handedness. You couldn’t have created a more perfect companion for Don, and Edie’s untimely passing could not have upset her friends and colleagues more deeply.

Hopefully, the insult of anonymity will not befall Don Edwards, who died last week at the age of 100, more than two decades after leaving the House where he presided like a resurrection of the Founding Fathers over the preservation of the United States Constitution. But eventually, it probably will, as those who served and worked with him, whom he knew as constituents and friends, who covered and admired him during his long career themselves shuffle off the stage. We are indeed fortunate to have shared that stage in one fashion or another with a man who should be remembered by history as the embodiment of devotion to the Constitution and an exemplar of dedicated public service.

The Tan Man Fades

Decades ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker portrayed two women waving goodbye  as a train pulled out of a small town station. One says to the other something like, “First the rain stopped, then the crops dried up, then the cow died, so John says, ‘Dammit, I’m going to run for Congress!’” That is sort of how John Boehner arrived in Washington: one of 12 kids in a Democratic family, sweeps out his dad’s bar, goes to a local Ohio university, goes into plastics (how perfect for a child of “The Graduate era”), gets aggravated by regulations and taxes and goes into politics to get government off his back and out of his pocket.

Boehner’s spent most of his adult life pursuing that elusive dream, rising to the top of the party whose single purpose, it generally seems, is to lower taxes on rich people, with a secondary goal of dismantling a century of bipartisan regulatory action. There is a certain consistency to Boehner: his anti-spending obsession extended to congressional sacred cows like farm subsidies. But despite his predictably conservative record – 100% from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, zero from NARAL – Boehner never was a zealot. Sure, he cowered before the Tea Party, refusing to bring up the Senate’s immigration bill and withdrawing his own halfway reasonable compromise after his party’s nativist wing attacked him; yes, he let the No Caucus shut down the government to demonstrate it was not the elixir that would make all their loony dreams come true, just like he let them vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act several dozen times, to no particular end.

Moreover, he rarely decided to stand up to his Republican House critics, recognizing that in doing so, he would jeopardize his tenuous hold on the speakership. In his resignation announcement, he pointed to slashing spending as the great achievement of 5 years in the Speaker’s chair; not much of a legacy. He could have achieved the elusive Grand Bargain (including major entitlement reform) back in 2011 when Obama, Reid and Pelosi were all set to sign off on one, but Boehner reneged when his Caucus balked at $800 billion in taxes.

Boehner came to Washington, it is my impression, not so much to promote the broad conservative social agenda as to fulfill the reliable, four word GOP message theme which has worked so effectively for close to 40 years: Less Government, Lower Taxes. And Republicans have largely won that debate among much of the electorate since the Reagan years.

It is amazing how the motive for his resignation has been misread by so much of the press. In account after account, analysts have asserted that he sacrificed his speakership so that a deal to keep the government open could be reached.

No, that is wrong. He isn’t stepping down to allow a bargain to be reached. He is stepping down precisely because he intends to cut a deal with Democrats to keep the government open while he is still Speaker, and then get out of Dodge before all hell breaks loose. He recognizes it would be infinitely more difficult for the coterie of inexperienced, dogmatic, backbench second raters he leaves in charge in his wake to cut a deal by October 1, so he will do it and leave them to figure out how to avoid calamity in three months when the CR expires.

Boehner’s departure and the coming conservative chaos is a blessing for congressional Democrats and Hillary Clinton on many levels. The three-ring circus that will have the untested Kevin McCarthy as ringleader should help Democrats in the House and Senate to make the case that one party in Washington is incapable of making government function, and it isn’t the Democrats. The Republicans might even get that shutdown they are praying mightily for. Democrats don’t have to do much to establish themselves as the “reasonable alternative” except behave halfway reasonably and plead for cooperation and reconciliation, even if they loathe the thought of working with the Republicans.

Hillary Clinton benefits as well because she can portray herself as the beacon of reasonableness in contrast to a Congress that is led (and could be again, we won’t know until after the election) by manifestly incompetent and uncooperative adolescents. Maturity will start to look like a highly desirable attribute. If the irascible Republicans are going to be in charge of Congress, many voters will rightly conclude we need a President who can counteract or balance them, not more of the same in the White House. That’s a tough case for the Republican presidential candidates to make; none of them want to look like they are chastising their own legislative allies, but it is a simple argument for Clinton. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? She’s the ticket.

The chances of Republicans self-correcting after exorcizing themselves of Boehner are slim to none. It is not my experience in politics that those who have just hung a trophy on the wall see any reason to alter their successful behavior. Quite the opposite. As with their general Orwellian view, the Tea Partiers believe “Failure = Success,” and if the resulting chaos alienates voters from politics, that suits them just fine. They believe they are reflecting the will of the American people, not confounding it.   “It was not an inside force that pushed the Speaker out,” said Boehner opponent Thomas Massie (R-KY), “the American people spoke.”

So I think back to that New Yorker cartoon and suspect that just as it described Boehner’s frustrated motivation for coming to Washington in 1990, it describes his exasperated departure as well. I can almost hear him saying, “First the Tea Party challenged my election as Speaker; then they shut down the government; then they blocked my Grand Bargain; then they forced me to plead with Democrats to pass all the essential bills. Dammit, I’m quitting Congress!” Who can blame him?

Thanks for all the comments on my op ed in the New York Times on September 26. JAL

Getting the Straight Story

If there is one lesson that is emerging already from Campaign 2016 it is the ability of the media – both traditional and social – to drive the discussion. A few incidents of this week bear a brief discussion in this regard.

Scott Walker, RIP: I had been predicting this exit virtually from the Wisconsin governor’s entry into the Republican race, so nothing could have been less surprising (well, given how the Republican race has been going, that may be an over-statement). Despite the media’s early focus on him as a strong contender, Walker was a supremely inept candidate, initially hoping to project a picture of Mid-West conservatism combined with the fortitude to stand up to the public unions and the radicals in Madison. For my tastes, he exuded “lightweight” from the get-go, as well as a thinness of accomplishment other than surviving in power. He could (and did) dress himself in leather and plop himself on a Harley, but he still looked and sounded like a one-trick pony.

His exit gives further weight to my observation that Trump’s continued presence is good news for the more “moderate” (I can barely type the word) of the GOP hopefuls: Bush (though he seems to be doing him damndest to drive down his own numbers), Rubio (another lightweight of no record, but with a more interesting story and more electoral appeal than Walker) and Kasich (preternaturally glum and dour, but with the most appealing story and the strongest claim to a place on the ticket). Trump is simply sucking all the oxygen out of the loony Right of the party, until he inevitably disintegrates and takes with him the nativist, racist, inexperienced, alarmist lot of them. Those left standing will be the establishment candidates.

Carly Fiorina: I watched part of the second debate, as long as I could, and was bemused by Fiorina’s transparent effort to defuse the accusation that she lacks the foreign policy/national defense chops to be President. Of course she does! She has no, as in, “zero,” experience, that would remotely suggest she should manage the nation’s security; not an hour in public service, never working on defense issues in Congress, never having published or developed any expertise of any type. Naturally, therefore, she has been merrily suggesting we throw troops and weapons into hot-spots all around the globe, a strategy that has not worked remarkably well for decades. What startled me during the debate was not her ability to regurgitate the numbers someone had worked up for her on the urgent need for “50 army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, 350 ships,” but the utter failure of either the moderator or any of the other Republicans (who apparently take unlimited military spending as an axiom) to ask her (a) what are you going to actually do with all those shiny weapons and crisp uniforms, and (b) how much is this all going to cost and where is the money coming from?” Certainly not from shutting down Planned Parenthood, her other laser-like focus.

Walter Pincus’s column in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“Fiorina’s Misleading Military Proposals”) did an excellent job of chastising Fiorina for her uninformed assertions. Her facts were wrong – the 6th fleet isn’t shrinking and doesn’t need growing; the Bush anti-ballistic missile system is being replaced with a newer and more reliable system; we have just completed joint maneuvers with the Ukranians rather than having abandoned them. And it is little wonder she avoided discussing that issue of cost: Pincus estimates at least $20 billion for the Fiorina wish list, most of which we already have or don’t need.

My point here is not to ding Fiorina on her charlatan-like efforts to appear to be well informed. She is not long for this campaign either. I won’t even criticize her for uttering inane, schoolyard taunts concerning Putin (“I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him”). If she isn’t careful, she is going to start competing with Trump for cringingly embarrassingly adolescent ravings (“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.”) My complaint here is that the press/media let Fiorina get away with nothing more than reciting some Heritage Foundation recommendations off a cheat sheet without asking any follow-up or challenging her presumed expertise. I blame the press for letting her get away with it so as not to taint her supposed rise to the first tier of GOP contenders.

A good example is a September 21 story by Jennifer Rubin in the Dallas Morning News. “She might not be experienced in government,” Rubin wrote, “but she is expert at dealing with the media, reeling off concrete foreign policy proposals, thinking on her feet and doing other tasks that for better or worse have become the skills candidates need to be elected.” With all due respect, “reeling off concrete foreign policy proposals” such as sending the 6th fleet where they already have been, is not a qualification to be president. Rubin goes on to lionize Fiorina for possessing “poise, intelligence, wit, confidence and tenacity,” which are nice in a president, as long as they have the substantive knowledge and practical political experience the job requires, and which Fiorina sorely lacks. Rubin, and others, of course are trying to make the parallel to President Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience before his election (hardly uncommon: note FDR, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush). No one disputes we elect people who aren’t yet qualified to pin on their fourth star; but that’s no basis for pretending someone is more qualified because he, or she, can reel off a few statistics and facts, most of which are false.

Hillary! What would a blog be without addressing Mrs. Clinton, whom for some reason I cannot comprehend, I find myself defending at every turn? Well, one reason is that she is so often the subject of unjustified criticism. Not that she doesn’t invite the reproaches, but on several central issues, they are simply wide of the mark. What is most aggravating to many is Clinton unwillingness or inability to defuse them; incoming attacks are nothing new to her, and should she be the nominee and elected, we will all be enduring unrelenting castigations every single day of her Administration and for decades thereafter. That’s just the way it is with Clinton, but she is right not to allow the mean-spirited attack dogs chase her out of the race.

Clinton’s alleged passion for obfuscation has been demonstrated on two key issues: Benghazi and her emails. Both lines of attack are misplaced.

Let’s be clear: there have been at least 4 congressional inquiries into Benghazi, all run by Republicans, and all concluding that Clinton did not do anything improper. This is not especially surprising since it was fairly clear at the time, to those who understood the extremely volatile situation in Libya and the marginal capabilities of U.S. ground and air forces, that the disastrous turn of events in Benghazi was not the result of any decisions or lapses of judgment by then-Secretary Clinton. It goes without saying the investigations will continue for a generation to come.

Then there is the email brouhaha. Here, too, the hysteria has far outstripped any fair reading of the facts. Clinton should have moved more aggressively to dispatch the conspiratorial allegations. She has lived with outsized speculation about her allegedly nefarious activities (e.g., murder, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, to name a few) for so long that her exasperation is understandable. We will be revisiting this debate ceaselessly over the next year and a half and there is likely no way to contain the damage now. However, I cannot help but muse that the hysteria that has flared over this story is precisely the kind of carnival feeding frenzy that likely led Clinton to decide to keep her emails as close to the vest as possible rather than on State Department servers where any of dozens of lower level Republican holdovers might selectively leak them to her disadvantage.

A long piece in Sunday’s Post by Elizabeth Goitein [“Five myths about classified information”] helps explain why determining what is and isn’t “classified” is a bit more complex than critics – like the Washington Post’s headline writers and reporters – might realize, and is certainly too lengthy for use in the campaign. Clinton, however unwisely (as she has acknowledged for months) used a private server like other Cabinet officials, turned materials over to the FBI and others to review, did not wipe clean the server, and (it appears) did not receive or transmit emails containing information “classified” at that time.

Little wonder even the most political junkies seem already exasperated by the campaign season.

The Speakership Circus

Time for a little “Congressional Jeopardy.” The answer is “Speaker Boehner.” What’s the question: well, could be, “Who is the Speaker of the House.” Or, if you believe the current rumors swirling around Capitol Hill, could soon be, “Who is the most recent former Speaker of the House?”

Do the rumors of a palace coup by disgruntled Republicans have real legs, or are they more in the “end-of-summer-let’s-make-up-some-hysterical-stories” tradition? Now that Hillary Clinton has said she is “sorry,” or that she’s sorry we are sorry, we sure need a new crisis.

Enter the “Dump Boehner” movement. The Republican Conference, which whipped itself into a frenetic whirl five summers ago with the phrase “Fire Pelosi,” now may be turning its heavy guns on another Speaker: its own. Just before leaving for the August break, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows announced that he might just demand a vote on a motion to vacate the chair (i.e., to tell Boehner, as Donald Trump might tell someone on The Apprentice, “You’re fired!”). Rep. Dave Brat, who knows a thing or two about dumping Republican House leaders (he successfully primaried Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014) is skeptically watching his leadership’s handling of upcoming decisions on the continuing Resolution, Planned Parenthood, the debt ceiling and the Iran agreement, and he doesn’t sound inclined to sign up for membership in Boehnerland. “We’re fed up,” Brat bratily says. “It’s tsunami time. Throw everybody out.”

Really? Is Boehner so flawed, so inept, so disloyal that he should suffer a fate unlike that of any other modern Speaker: involuntarily tossed from the podium mid-term? To hear Boehner loyalists tell it, such an action would be wholly unjustified since, as Politico reported this week (evidently with a straight face), “Boehner insiders argue [this has been] one of the most productive sessions of Congress in a long time.” How long? Since 2011, when the Republicans took over, and since when they have done little but (a) vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act 55 times and (b) kept government open and not in default?

Actually, it is precisely those housekeeping measures that infuriate the 50-60 Tea Party zealots within the GOP conference who then intimidate a significant number of other Republicans who are not anxious to face multi-million dollar primary challenges. One is hard-pressed to find any vote of substance since the Republicans became the majority where Boehner (or Cantor, before his humiliating demise at the hands of Mr. Brat) could scare up the necessary 218 votes without begging Democrats to supply the needed votes, which enrages the Far Right.

That dissatisfaction led a record number of Republicans to oppose Boehner’s re-election as Speaker last January. Just two years earlier, he had barely cobbled together the needed number when Tea Partiers criticized him for his earlier collaboration with the hated Democrats. As that 2013 vote neared, I advised friends in the press that only 17 defections would doom Boehner’s campaign for a second term with the gavel. The reporters scoffed at my predictions, asserting Republicans would never vote for Nancy Pelosi (the Democratic nominee for Speaker), but as I pointed out, they didn’t have to vote for Pelosi, they just needed to withhold their support for Boehner, deny him a majority of those voting (the constitutional requirement), and there would be a second ballot that likely would not feature Boehner as the leading candidate.

Ted Cruz may have been the most public face of the GOP’s “shut-it-down” faction last year (an event which cratered the Republican brand, from which it has not recovered), but there are plenty of House Republicans who would view a government shut down as a welcome victory. A poor performance by Congress is nothing to be feared in the Tea Party playbook, because incompetence helps enhance a vision of Congress (and the federal government) as a failed institution. Very Orwellian: failure = success. Where’s the problem?

Boehner evidently doesn’t think there is one yet. The threat of the coming confrontation “does not make it more difficult,” he professes. “I’ve got widespread support in the Conference and I appreciate that.” Yes, but does he have 218 votes to pass key legislation, without again asking Nancy Pelosi for Democratic assistance? If not, seeking her assistance will add fuel to the simmering fire to take out Boehner before the end of the current Congress.

Democrats have some real opportunities in the likely confrontation, quite apart from whether they have a strong possibility of regaining the majority in 2016. Boehner’s need for Democratic votes empowers Pelosi and the Democrats. Add obnoxious riders to those bills (think a ban on funding Planned Parenthood), and forget about getting Democratic votes. The more Democrats in the House, the greater their leverage to keep appropriations and other urgent bills clean of the kinds of goofy riders Boehner would otherwise attach to satisfy his extreme faction.

Democrats can ramp up their demands. There has always been resentment that Republican leaders come to Democrats late in the process, after the CRs have been written with insufficient funding for Democratic priorities. Democrats have had to clench their teeth and vote for a lot of legislation they had no role in writing because they are unwilling to allow government to close down. As it becomes apparent that Boehner is stuck without a working majority, Democrats can increase their demands, if they are willing to stare down Boehner over a shutdown for which he would undoubtedly bear the blame. The Democratic leadership could make it clear to Boehner that the price for Democratic votes must include action on long-stalled legislation that enjoys widespread bipartisan public support including climate change and responsible gun measures.

It goes without saying that any capitulation by Boehner would make life with his “No Caucus” even more difficult. Well, that’s why the Speaker gets the big office and the larger salary. And yes, it may mean that come January, 2017, the votes may not be there for Speaker Boehner, but the way things seem to be trending, that might happen anyway, and sooner. Boehner needs to put the functioning of Congress ahead of his own status as Speaker of a demoralized and derelict institution.

Lastly, what would happen if a challenge to Boehner materialized in the next month or so? He might need Democratic votes to retain the speakership of a Republican Congress (the vote would not be Boehner versus Pelosi, as at the beginning of the Congress, but whether to vacate the chair). Would Democrats vote to keep Boehner in place, knowing of the torrent of abuse he will receive from his nihilist faction? Would they let him lose to promote the first-rate chaos that would ensure? Would Pelosi emerge as Speaker?

Whaaat? Well, no, she wouldn’t, of course. But the speculation about chaos in the Speaker’s chair reminds me of the greatest case of such confusion in political history. Willie Brown had been speaker of the California Assembly for a record 14 years when the Republican tidal wave of 1994 resulted in an Assembly composed of 40 Republicans, 39 Democrats and one independent. It certainly looked like the end of the Brown era: but the wily Willie had one more maneuver up his sleeve.

Brown secured the expulsion of one Republican because he had simultaneously been elected to the state Senate. Now things lined up the way Brown liked them: 39 for the Republicans, 39 for the Democrats, and one independent (though really a Republican), Paul Horcher of Whittier (birthplace of Richard Nixon; can it get better than this??). Horcher was no fan of GOP Speaker-in-waiting Jim Brulte, so he did what any troublemaker armed with such a mischievous opportunity would do: he voted for Brown!

Republicans were dumbfounded. A month earlier, they had won the Assembly by campaigning against Speaker Brown and now, the new Speaker was … Willie Brown. Horcher, for his trouble, was promptly recalled by voters in his district. Six months later, Brown (who had yielded some of his powers to a bipartisan committee) decided it would be more fun to be mayor of San Francisco, and prepared to depart the Assembly. Again, the Republican thought they finally would capture the speakership for Brulte.

Actually … no. Brown engineered the election by a 40-38 margin of Orange County Republican Assemblywoman Doris Allen who was annoyed at the lack of GOP party support in her recent re-election campaign. Speaker Allen – elected with all Democratic votes plus her own – only served three months before she, too, was recalled. Finally, a Republican got to serve as the Speaker of the Republican Assembly, but for less than a year, because Democrats won back control in 1996. By which time, Willie Brown was Mayor of San Francisco.

Moral of the story for House Republicans: be careful, you may not be able to control the political firestorm you ignite, especially if a crafty San Franciscan is in the House.

The September Scenario

See you in September.  See you, when the summer’s through…

 Well, thank goodness this summer is through. Even by the current abysmal standards of journalism and political discourse, the summer of 2015 has marked a new low in so many ways that one can only cower in terror about what awaits us when the political season gets serious next week.

I’ve taken a little time away from DOMEocracy to work on my book on the Class of 1974 and congressional reform. So by way of catching up, here are some thoughts on three of the more immediate issues: Trump, Clinton, and the Iran nuclear agreement.

Trump. Little has occurred since my last blog (“Trump’s Tirade”) to change my mind that, when all is said and done, Trump will have been largely a flash-in-the-pan summer story. Yes, he has “surged” in several states; but he is still winning a fraction of the votes of GOP voters; in most polls, three-quarters of Republicans support other candidates and a majority of Republicans declare they will never vote for him.

Why are people surprised by Trump’s early support? Hello, have you been paying attention to Republican politics in the last 5 years? His message is hardly inconsistent with the steady stream of anti-government vitriol that has passed for political discussion from the Right since Obama took office. Trump is actually less absolutist than many Republicans on issues like taxes (endorsing an end to the “carried interest” tax break enjoyed by hedge fund managers) and health care (he embraced single payer, at least for Canada).

The racist claptrap that generates the greatest response in his speeches is little different from the loony nativism spewed in the Congress by the likes of Tom Tancredo and Steve King in recent years. At its heart, this is what the boomlet for Trump is really all about: affluent white males who fear their status is endangered by the changing demographics and politics of the country. Trump intimidates the other Republican candidates just as the Tea Party minority in the House intimidates the less extreme wing of the GOP which is loathe to cross the energized base and invite primary challenges.

Trump’s success could actually benefit the more moderate Republicans like Bush (whose performance has been inept even by Bush family standards) and Kasich (who probably has the surest likelihood of being somewhere on the Republican ticket in 2016 if he doesn’t do something incredibly stupid). Trump sucks up all the oxygen from the Far Right candidates like Paul, Carson, Cruz, and Perry who have been unable to get traction amid the Trump blitz. Others, including Graham, Christie, Walker have underimpressed. When the dust clears, these candidates may find their moment consumed by Trump who then faces off against the more establishment candidates (Bush, Kasich), one of whom will eventually get the nomination and may well, together, form the GOP ticket.

Clinton. If Trump has enjoyed a summer fling with voters, Hillary Clinton has continued to take a beating. The take on the Clinton campaign is that it is a slow-moving disaster led by a deeply flawed candidate who inspires tepid support and monumental anxiety. Well, there is a point to be made there.

On the other hand, Clinton remains dominant among Democrats in money and support; as my mother would say, any of the other hopefuls would give their eye teeth to be where she is. Still, the dichotomy that is the Clinton campaign can be found daily in the press: just a few days ago, MSNBC ran both of these headlines: “Hillary ‘Is On A Trajectory That Is Dramatically Downward’” and “Hillary Clinton Flexes Muscle As She Racks Up Endorsements.” On September 2, the Washington Post breathlessly headlined, “Clinton Wrote, Sent Classified E-mails on Private Server.” The story notes, however, that the e-mails in question were determined to contain classified information after she sent them, indeed, “after Clinton left office.” Still, that doesn’t stop the Post from concluding that this revelation “appears to contradict earlier public statements in which she denied sending or receiving e-mails containing classified information.”

No, it doesn’t. Clinton asserts she never sent classified e-mails; “government officials” – whoever they are – now postulate some of the information in her e-mails may have become classified at a later time. Clinton undercuts her assertion by repeatedly saying that she “did not send or receive classified material.” Why not simply say, “I didn’t send or receive any material that was classified at the time.” To my knowledge, no one has contradicted that statement as yet.

Of course, Clinton knows (as do we all) the charges and allegations will never stop, and it is understandable that she is loathe to let such histrionics drive her from a race she could easily win. But that determination doesn’t make us any more sanguine about the prospects of moving into a restorative phase of American politics anytime soon.

Thus the summer fling with Sanders who says all the correct things and endorses all the right policies, and has less chance of effectuating them than he does of getting elected in the first place. Democrats need to keep in mind we are electing a president, not picking a valedictorian; the goal of selecting a nominee is not to pick the person with whom we agree most often, but rather the one who has the best chance of getting elected and actually implementing what he, or she, has promised. That isn’t Sanders.

Fortunately Sanders’ supporters will likely be able to embrace Clinton and hopefully turn out in reasonable numbers, as Clinton’s supporters accepted Obama in 2008. They won’t be happy, but the serious implications of a Republican presidency will be evident, particularly given the possibility of a Republican Congress (not to mention an aging Supreme Court). You can almost hear Clinton imploring, “Compare me to the alternative, not to the Almighty.”

On the issue of Joe Biden: not happening. Biden knows that he would have to confront Clinton head on and vigorously take down her candidacy, and he will not be willing to do that, nor should he. Even if he were successful, the ramifications for the women’s vote in November would be calamitous. He carries a lot of baggage of his own, starting with hundreds of controversial votes in the Senate accumulated over a third of a century. He may not remove himself irrevocably, in the event Clinton collapses, but as to an active candidacy against her: nope.

Iran. The press spent the summer breathlessly awaiting the declarations of each Democratic senator as the number endorsing the agreement approached the 34 votes needed to sustain the presidential veto (achieved last night with Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s announcement). As usual, there has been an excess of attention to the Senate. It is quite possible the senators will never even have to vote on the override because the vote could come first in the House, where Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has spent the summer tying down and releasing the names of Member after Member who support the agreement.

This is Pelosi at her meticulous best, counting her votes, re-counting her votes, over and over, talking to her doubtful members, leaving nothing to chance. She has been the Democratic Leader and Speaker since 2003, but she has also never stopped being the inexhaustible and peerless Whip, the position in which she entered the Democratic leadership. As soon as the Republican majority agreed to require only a vote of disapproval on the agreement (which could be vetoed and sustained with just one-third of either house) rather than a vote to approve it, the scene was set for Pelosi to work her magic.

That September song sung by The Happenings’ (from Paterson NJ) warns “there is danger in the summer moon above.” As we prepare for the return of Congress and votes on Iran, the continuing resolution, the highway trust fund, the debt ceiling and who knows what other “cliffs,” as well as more presidential debates and Trump tirades, there’s plenty of danger in the September moon as well.

Trump’s Tirade

As we move into the congressional summer recess, there is less news from Capitol Hill than usual (if that is possible), which provides an opportunity for me to reflect on a few topical issues that relate to my own experiences working in the House.

As with all current political discussions, it seems, let me mention Donald Trump. Yes, I must. His hysterical xenophobia concerning those who emigrated to the United States without being invited by current residents has led me to recall the day he testified in Congress in 1993. Ironically, he was testifying (if you can call it that) about Native Americans, who have had their own concerns about uninvited émigrés.

In 1988, Congress had passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which established procedures to permit tribes to conduct gaming on their tribal lands. While many in Congress had qualms about encouraging tribes to move into gaming as a source of revenues, the fact is that other efforts to lure investment to tribal lands had failed miserably and gaming offered the prospect for addressing the crushing poverty that impacted (and still does pervade) many reservations.

The October 5, 1993 oversight hearing was intended to look into the implementation of the 1988 law, and witnesses included various officials from the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. As staff director of the Committee on Natural Resources, I was working with the subcommittee staff on the hearing when a special request was forwarded to me.

Donald Trump, who controlled the Taj Mahal and other casinos in Atlantic City, shared the concern of many in the gaming industry that competition from tribal casinos would undercut their business. Trump had requested permission to testify as a public witness, which was granted. But on the morning of the hearing, Trump’s assistant was asking that he not have to wait until all the federal officials had completed their testimony. He wanted to be included in the opening panel of departmental officials.

I did not have the impression that Mr. Trump, or his assistant, were familiar with the regular order of congressional hearings, so I explained that, no, he would have to wait until all of the federal officials had completed their testimony. It will come as no surprise that Mr. Trump’s representatives did not accept that answer cheerfully and made the request a little more emphatically. Thus, I was able to exercise one of the great pleasures of being a staff director with a supportive employer: I told Trump’s person he could testify in his designated place or not at all.

Trump also did not understand seating protocol at the hearing, and arrived very late to find all seats occupied. As a result, he had to stand for over two hours before it was finally his turn to testify. (At least he did not ask to sit on the dais with the Members, an option which I imagine briefly flitted through his orange covered head.)

I suppose the refusal on the order of his appearance and all that time standing in 1324 Longworth unhinged something in Trump’s demeanor that morning, because when his time at the witness table finally arrived, he was filled with invective and insults. “I had a long and boring speech,” Trump began. “It was politically correct and something that would have gotten me into no trouble whatsoever.” Why go there?

Instead of his seven-page script, Trump launched into a blasphemous and unsubstantiated tirade that, quite literally, left Member, staff and other mouths agape for its sheer mendacity and crudity. The essential charge Trump leveled was that Indian gaming (unlike the non-Indian style which is known for its extreme propriety) was riddled with organized crime; and if it wasn’t already, it soon would be. The infiltration of the casinos by “will be the biggest scandal ever, the biggest since Al Capone,” Trump warned. “Organized crime is rampant. People know it. People talk about it,” but no one was doing anything to stop it, certainly not Native Americans who were incapable of policing their casinos. “An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation?” Trump asked, sounding more like a character from Goodfellas than a real estate developer. “There is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob. This is gonna blow.”

Trump also challenged the legitimacy of many of the tribes setting up casinos through the labyrinthine procedures required by the law and BIA’s regulations. Commenting on Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequots, who developed the massive Foxwoods Casino, Trump confided to the legislators, “They don’t look like Indians to me. They don’t look like Indians to Indians.” Asked later what Indians look like, he employed the same dismissiveness he now shows reporters who ask tough follow-up questions, “You know,” he said. “You know.”

Lest any critic suggest Trump was more insensitive to Native Americans than he is today to Latinos and immigrants, the future candidate assured the panel, “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump.” His concern, he professed, was that “the Indians are being had by mobsters” and that the substantial profits earned by the casinos were not being shared with the tribal members. “It’s unbelievable to me,” he asserted, that Congress was unaware of the scandal.

It was also unbelievable to Connecticut State Police Lt. Col. Robert Root who claimed he was unaware of any allegations of criminal activity at Foxwoods. Laurence A. Urgenson, acting deputy assistant attorney general, said there were no data supporting the claim that the mob was infiltrating Native American casinos. And Jim Moody, section chief of the organized crime/drug operation division of the FBI, testified that his office had uncovered “no evidence of skimming, money laundering, theft or any other criminal activity in Indian gaming.”  Moreover, seven years later, additional probes by the FBI, the Justice Department Criminal Division, and the Office of Tribal Justice found no evidence of organized crime in casinos. William Johnson, an official with the Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota, dismissed Trump’s mob allegations, saying, “It is wrong; it is ludicrous, and it is based on unjustified jealousy.”

I am unaware if there have been subsequent cases of criminal activity in tribal casinos; there may well have been some.   But I do know that between 2003 and 2005, according to papers filed in federal court in March, 2015, the Internal Revenue Service has conducted four examinations of Trump Taj Mahal that identified repeated significant violations” of the Bank Secrecy Act, and that in 1998, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network “assessed a $477,000 penalty against Trump Taj Mahal for BSA violations.” The recent document concluded that between 2010 and 2012, the Trump Taj Mahal violated numerous recordkeeping and reporting acts, including requirements to report more than $10,000 cashed in or out on one day (shades of Denny Hastert!) and “failed to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering program.” The Taj also filed for bankruptcy three times since 2004.

Wow, that sounds like that “big scandal” Trump was warning the Subcommittee about! If the violations had focused on Indians instead of Trump’s organization itself, he would have been right on the money back in 1993. The proposed fine for all this hanky-panky was determined to be $10,000,000 by the Director of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The six-hour hearing ended with Members and participants incredulous at Trump’s willingness to use a formal government inquiry as a forum to spew his unsubstantiated and prejudiced opinions. “In my 19 years” in Congress, said Rep. George Miller, the committee chairman, “I don’t know that I’ve heard more irresponsible testimony. For his part, Trump professed only that he was not afraid to compete with Indians, but given tribal sovereignty and tax treatment, he wanted “to compete on an equal foot.” His first step should have been to remove his foot from his mouth. Or, considering his current ravings, just leave it there.

The New Deal

Sherlock Holmes, that nearly flawless source of dispassionate logic and reason, provided the proper perspective for consideration of the newly announced deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers that was announced today in Vienna. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” the world’s first consulting detective informed us in 1890, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Similarly, in the case of the newborn agreement, when you have pushed your way past all the rhetoric and jabbering from critics, analysts and so-called experts, the question remains: how does no deal reduce the risk of Iran’s developing a nuclear weapon, and if it does not, how does no deal promote the prospects for a reduction in the rush to nuclearization of the Middle East?

One response was provided today by Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Minister of Education, who argues that sanctions have been effective and should be continued, not lifted as the agreement would allow. Perhaps the question is what Mr. Bennett views as “effective.” The sanctions have unquestionably imposed economic hardship on the people of Iran and political pressure on Tehran’s government, but they do not appear to have been hugely successful in slowing or discouraging weapons research. Bennett and other opponents of the agreement will need a much stronger argument to explain how allowing Iran’s nuclear program to continue will enhance the prospects of peace.

The most important step for addressing suspicions about the effectiveness and soundness of the new deal will lie in a thorough examination of its provisions. That task is something I will not be doing; I am reasonably confident I could read every word of the 150 page document and still not reliably understand its details. That is one reason I am so impressed that people like Speaker John Boehner, Foreign Relations chairman Ed Royce, and Sen. Lindsay Graham already are so certain the deal is a dog that should be rejected. Of course, that was their opinion before it was finalized as well.

Those details and nuances will be hashed out over the next two months in hearings and floor debates, not to mention op eds, editorials, analyses and stump speeches The real question is: what is going to happen, and on that point, I am prepared to make a prediction.

Congress will not block the deal. Oh, there will be the huffing and puffing that is the ritualistic response to such complex agreements Congress is called upon to review and approve, although they had nothing to do with negotiating (see earlier blog on Trade Promotion Authority). And while some in the Obama Administration (and in any Administration) bristle at the suggestion Congress should review the products of Executive negotiations, we have learned the hard way not to allow presidents to determine foreign and military policy by fiat. Congress fought hard for a role in reviewing that policy and should not abandon it.

But when all is said and done, Congress is not likely to kill the deal, however excruciatingly tempting that is for the Republican irreconcilables.   Certainly, one can go to the bank that the GOP presidential candidates will all vote against the agreement: Cruz, Graham, Rubio and Paul are all nearly certain no’s. It would simply be too painful for them to go to the GOP base after voting to hand President Obama a massive foreign policy victory. But other Republicans in the House and Senate will have to consider the massive culpability that they will bring upon themselves by a “no” vote (although I admit many will happily do so).

If ever there was a Pottery Barn moment, this is it: the one thing you can be certain about is that something will go wrong in the Middle East over the next ten years. Defeat this agreement and you own responsibility for whatever calamity befalls the region, whether is it credibly related to Iran’s nuclear policy or not: “But for the defeat of the Iran agreement in 2015, the tragedy would not have occurred.” Republicans really do not want to have to dig themselves out of that crater for years, if not decades, to come.

One cannot help think about the parallels to the League of Nations fight a hundred years ago when that “little group of willful [Republican] men” in the Senate defeated the agreement negotiated by an outgoing American president. (Wilson’s famous quote was actually made two years earlier with respect to a proposal to arm U.S. merchant ships, but many of the same people helped sink the League agreement.) Rightly or not, for nearly a century, historians have pointed to the Senate action as crippling the League to the point of ineffectuality in preventing German rearmament and its horrific consequences.

Congress now has two months to chew over how to trash the negotiator without rejecting his work product.   I would be truly shocked if Vice President Joe Biden does not take up residence in his Senate side office to work his magic with his former colleagues, as he has so often done on behalf of the Obama Administration. If there is a tough vote required, Biden invariably shows up with his “Aw shuck, guys, I know how tough this is; been here for 34 years; I get it even if those guys down in the White House don’t” shtick. Both he and Secretary of State John Kerry served as chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will be the most powerful and well-connected Administration voices for making the case to House and Senate members.

It is possible, of course, that the House will actually pass a resolution disapproving the agreement, and given its loony record of inaction and mis-steps, as well as Boehner’s total rejection of the deal today, it just might. But there is no chance the Senate will vote against it, and even if it did, the President has already pledged to “veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.” It goes without saying that implementing the agreement through a veto of congressional legislation is not the desired path, and would not send a signal of credibility to our co-signatories, but it is a vastly more likely outcome than the success of any congressional action that kills the agreement. More likely is that no bill makes it to the President’s desk at all.

Opponents have an enormous challenge to overcome. They will not hesitate to argue that Obama is a bumbling yokel who got buffaloed by the Iranians, although it is a lot tougher to argue that case against the real negotiators, Under-secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Kerry. Critics also need to explain how the British, French, Chinese, Russians and Germans got buffaloed, since they shared the negotiating obligations.

A special challenge is presented by U.S. allies who oppose the deal, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis have complex issues at stake, of course, and already are feeling the impact of lower oil prices as a result of the anticipated deal. To suggest the Saudis have some powerful economic self-interest in maintaining the Iranian sanctions seems pretty self-evident.

The Israelis are a different matter, and as the statements from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bennett have illustrated, they will expend significant energy trying to inflame the Congress and the American Jewish community to rally against the deal. This strategy has real dangers for Israel in terms of diminishing its brand in the U.S., and with many American Jews as well (although portions of the U.S. community help inflame extreme opinions in Israel).  For all the harsh rhetoric and saber-rattling, Israel – the one country in the region that does have nuclear weapons – has failed to present a credible alternative to an enforceable deal other than a military strike at Iran that would be an ineffective disaster on political, strategic and humanitarian grounds. So the blowhards in Jerusalem, like the blowhards in the Congress, will continue to fire off rhetorical missiles against this treaty, but they are only blanks because the alternative – no treaty and continued Iranian weapon development – is untenable for Israel and the world.

As the debate proceeds, we needs to look past the speechifying and posturing and at the bottom line: the chances for this deal being rejected is virtually zero. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest Obama or Kerry pencil in the date for the next Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but they certainly deserve credit for a major advance that like all negotiations, legislation and agreements, requires clear-eyed vigilance and constant oversight.

Let us keep in mind the words of that other Ivy League, professorial president who confronted a recalcitrant Congress a century ago. “Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement,” Wilson said in September, 1919, “it will fall down like a house of cards.  There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind.  It is the power of the united moral forces of the world.” Let’s hope this time, the Congress looks beyond the pure politics and venomous dislike of the President and embraces this crucial step towards world peace.

Capital Time for a House Cleaning

Every year on the anniversary of the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a ceremony was held at his statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Incantations were uttered to the great general’s glory, and flowers were laid before the marble effigy, recalling his role in our Nation’s history. A few years ago, it was noticed that Lee’s statue was situated so as to peer over the shoulder of anyone speaking at a podium often set up in the Hall for ceremonial occasions. The next day, one of the speakers was to be Martin Luther King III.

A phone call was placed from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and Lee’s statue was relocated from its prestigious place in the Old House Chamber to a site with a lower profile (both figuratively and architecturally) within the Capitol. Whether the annual tributes continue to honor the man who led Confederate forces in rebellion against the flag he was sworn to defend, I am not sure.

The issue of the statues within the Capitol is an inevitable corollary to the current debate about the inappropriateness of flying the flag of the Confederacy over public buildings in the South. Statues in the Capitol, in general, are donated by state legislatures; each state gets two statues to represent the state’s history or the contributions of a favorite son or daughter. The statues range from pre-Independence Native Americans to modern political figures. Some states have chosen to replace dated figures with more recent natives: Presidents Ford and Reagan, Helen Keller and Apollo XIII astronaut Jack Swigert (who was elected to the House but died before being sworn in) have all been newer additions.

Occasionally Congress will decide that an individual deserves to be in the Capitol regardless of a state’s preferences. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is represented in the Rotunda, a site usually reserved for presidents; Frederick Douglass is in the Visitor’s Center representing the District of Columbia, which had been denied the statuary privileges granted to the states; Rosa Parks, a former congressional staff member in addition to her historic role in the civil rights movement, was recently added.

From time to time, like Lee, statues are moved in response to changing attitudes and preferences. A marble statue of suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, long banished to the netherworld of the Capitol’s vault, was moved up to the Rotunda in May 1997 in response to a resolution pushed by women Members.

The decision of where in the Capitol it is appropriate to honor the sculpted images of the men and women of our past is therefore open to discussion. Specifically, it is time to remove the two highest ranking officials of the Confederacy from Statuary Hall.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue was donated by his home state of Mississippi in 1931. Granted, Davis served as a senator (twice), as well as serving as Secretary of War, and he voiced concerns about secession, as did Lee and many others who went on to mount a 4 year rebellion against the country they had taken an oath to defend. But Davis, like many southerners of that era, was not apologetic about the issue of slavery, or the appropriate role for African-Americans to play in our society. “African slavery, as it exists in the United States,” Davis famously opined, “is a moral, a social, and a political blessing. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

OK, right there, get out the dolly: that statue has to go. I’m an historian; I understand that attitudes and perspectives change, that we should not base our contemporary attitudes on the mistakes of the past, no matter how deplorable (although it is worth noting that at the time, there were plenty of Americans who were engaged in vigorous activities to end the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically described). But just because we understand the errors of the past does not mean we have to honor them, and leaving the statue of a treasonous and racist leader of a rebellion in an honored place in the U.S. Capitol is an insult that should be corrected.

Davis famously requested that the South be allowed to secede without a war, pleading, “All we ask is to be let alone.” I suggest we honor his request and leave him alone somewhere other than in one of the most honored of sites in the Capitol.

While we have the dolly in Stat Hall, it should also pick up Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ statue for relocation. Stephen’s seated statue was presented by his home state of Georgia in 1927. Like Davis, Stephens served in the Congress, and he also was the post-war governor of Georgia. Like Davis and Lee, Stephens had reservations about the wisdom of secession and he even had defended black clients as an attorney.

But Stephens’ legacy is irretrievably damaged by his vigorous defense of slavery. His most famous address, known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” helped to define the entire rationale for the Confederacy not simply as an assertion of states’ rights, but the right to sustain the institution of slavery. The Confederate government was “founded…its cornerstone rest[ed],” Stephens declared a few weeks before the war erupted at Fort Sumter in 1861, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man …[S]lavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition … This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The fight over slavery, Stephens asserted, “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Key word: “revolution.” We should not grant a place of honor to men who fomented, supported, rationalized and conducted “revolution” against the government they had sworn to defend. Americans who are understandably insulted by the views of such bigots should not be asked to acquiesce so that the statues of those who committed treason can continue to reside in the Capitol.

So far, the momentum to remove the Confederate flag from official buildings in the South does not appear to have made it to the halls of the Capitol, where these marble and bronze vestiges of the Confederacy remain ensconced in places of honor. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for his home state legislature to remove Davis’ statue from the state Capitol grounds, he has not yet offered up an opinion about the appropriateness of the statue down the Hall from his Capitol office. And senators like Lindsay Graham, Thad Cochran, Jeff Sessions and Tim Scott have all indicated they are not interested in moving, or removing the statues of the secessionists. It’s as though their feet are planted in stone.

Raisin Redux

Nearly two years ago, in one of the earlier blogs on this site, I focused attention on Marvin Horn, a California raisin farmer who had insisted on his God-given (and legally protected) right to grow grapes for raisins in unlimited quantities.

Horn had run afoul of Marketing Order 989 which gave the autocrats of the shriveled grape industry, aka the Raisin Administrative Committee, the extraordinary power to restrict how he could sell his own crop. (“The Raisin Mavens,” Aug. 21, 2013)  Horn, like Carl Pescosolido, an independent orange grower on whose behalf I had worked in Congress decades ago, was fighting back against a 1937 federal law that allows growers of certain agricultural commodities to order growers to limit sales in order to keep prices high (or, laughably, to protect consumers from unwholesome fruit).

In my blog, I noted, “So, over 30 years later, here is Marvin Horn and the raisin revolt.  According to the reports on NPR, the raisin politburo is not taking Marvin’s protest lying down; they’ve gone to war with him, hiring detectives to spy on his activities, and hauled him into federal court.”

Well, they may have hauled Horn into court for defying the raisin bran, uh, ban, but it was all in vine, I mean, in vain. In a remarkably clear and unambiguous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8-1 that the flow-to-market restrictions exercised by the raisin regulators is an unconstitutional taking of private property. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority decision, declared that the government must pay “just compensation” when it sanctions the seizure of private property, even if it is little shriveled-up fruit. (He didn’t exactly put it that way, but that was the general thrust of the decision.)

Many of those doing a happy dance over this ruling are conservatives who cheer the limitations imposed on government’s ability to take private property. But it should be remembered that the orange litigation three decades ago was promoted by progressive consumer activists including San Francisco’s Public Advocates. As a result of the battle of the oranges (which included serving the alleged “inferior quality” fruit in the House Members’ Dining Room), the quantity portions of the orange ban were terminated. Now, raisins must live in the free market world as well, unprotected by federal laws that are, in other cases, so roundly condemned by the agriculture industry. However, our nation’s farms are still not free: quantity restrictions still might apply on several remaining products including prunes, dates, and almonds from California (the latter slurping up a gallon of precious water for every nut), as well as tart cherries, walnuts and spearmint oil. We will watch carefully to see if Congress or USDA acts to end these market restrictions based on the Horn case.

Meanwhile, there was one other important feature of the Horn decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, took exception to a suggestion by his Brethren, Stephen Breyer, who called for a lower court to review whether money might have been owed to Horn. Thomas, not known for his witty sayings, or any sayings, for that matter, opined that sending the case back to a trial court would be a “fruitless exercise.” Hopefully, when the Court issues its upcoming opinions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, we will all still be inclined to smile.

Trading Insults

There have been no shortages of forced comparisons of Barack Obama to presidents of the past – Lincoln and Kennedy, in particular – but the parallel which has always struck me has been to the Democrat who served in the White House exactly one century ago: Woodrow Wilson.

Like Obama, our 28th President had moved to his new “home state” as an adult, and came to the White House with a slim political resumé (Wilson had served less than two years as governor of New Jersey, his adopted state, before his 1912 election). Like Obama, Wilson conceived of himself, in the words of biographer John Morton Blum, as “an outside force in politics.” The two men share a skeptical attitude towards the Legislative Branch, which is all the more remarkable in Wilson’s case since his Ph.D. dissertation promoted Congressional Government, a concept he hastily abandoned once ensconced in the executive’s chair.

Both men were elected on the promise of peace and found themselves involved in a radically altering international tableau that dragged the country into a war they had opposed entering. Both shared careers as university-based intellectuals and endured criticisms for arrogance and detachment from the messiness of hand-on politics. Wilson, as Blum noted, strongly identified himself with “change, with challenging entrenched corporate interests who sought to dominate the political system, ” and with modernizing the Democratic Party. And like the current occupant of the White House, Wilson viewed America as having “a special moral as well as historical basis … a predestined obligation to bring constitutionalism to the world.”

Wilson famously (and contemptuously) castigated the Senate as a “little band of willful men” after a filibuster against his effort to arm merchant ships on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. That “little band” also scuttled Wilson’s high priority second term initiative, the League of Nations treaty following World War I. We can only imagine Obama’s subliminal assessment of a hostile Congress perennially determined to undo his major legislative achievements and resist his remaining policy goals.

Which brings us to the subject of Friday’s vote in the House on several trade bills that Obama has characterized as crucial to America’s international security and economic competitiveness, as well as his own legacy. There are interesting parallels between the vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority last week with the 2008 effort to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) under President George W. Bush. In both cases, a President in the waning months of his presidency had to deal with a Congress in the hands of the other party, and encountered difficulties rallying his own party’s membership to support legislation he considered urgent. In the case of TARP, then-Minority Leader John Boehner, who had been an active participant in the development of the legislation to prevent the collapse of our economic system, faced a petulant, pre-Tea Party Republican Conference that had little taste for legislation promoted by their own President. Despite his pleas (and tears) on the floor on behalf of a bill he famously castigated as a necessary “crap sandwich,” Boehner was unable to produce the Republican votes needed to pass TARP, which failed on its first vote and then passed (after the Dow Jones average dropped 777 points) because the Democratic majority, under Speaker Pelosi, cranked up the necessary additional votes.

But there are a number of important differences between the TARP and TAA/TPA votes. Unlike TARP or the Bush stimulus, the Obama Administration has been negotiating the trade agreement without congressional involvement. The President has been calling upon House Democrats to sanction a complex plan, as yet not even completed, which they had had no role in designing and would have no ability to modify. Moreover, while key Republican constituencies – particularly the business community – strongly endorsed TARP as essential to the nation’s economic security, key Democratic constituencies vigorously oppose the current trade agreement. The AFL-CIO, the longtime supporter of TAA, which provides assistance to trade-displaced workers, was vigorous in its opposition to the extension of the program, which would have facilitated passage of the despised TPA bill.

Unable to persuade more than a couple dozen pro-trade Democrats to support the TPA, despite weeks of staff and personal exertions, Obama made a dubious visit to the Hill on Friday to call upon the members of the Democratic Caucus to reverse position and support the bills. His decision to cast the vote as one of support for him personally, and his unwillingness to take questions after his talk, compounded a sense by many Democrats that Obama was overly personalizing the vote and not responding to concerns about the merits of the issues at hand. The voluble Peter DeFazio pronounced himself “insulted” by the President’s tone, and it seems likely others found the lateness of the personalized message off-putting. Nor, it is likely, that those unhappy with the trade policy, many of whom feel Obama has neglected House Democrats in past campaigns, find much succor in the President’s promise to help them respond to criticism in next year’s election.

There will be, in years to come, a healthy amount written about the nature and effectiveness of Mr. Obama’s rapport with the Congress. Many who have served in the Administration are rankled by the allegations of aloofness or unwillingness to engage as exuberantly as past presidents supposedly have with legislators. If only Obama had invited more Members down for a beer or a movie; if only he had the Boehners over for dinner in the private quarters; if only he had held more frequent leadership meetings or adopted a more consultative relationship with key chairmen and ranking Members.

Maybe, but probably not. Obama is hardly the first President to be accused of a less than cuddly relationship with Congress. But frostiness or not, Democrats have generally loyally supported Obama initiatives about which many were half-hearted (the 2011 budget agreement) and Republican opposition to President Obama has little or nothing to do with the level of White House fraternizing. Many Republicans have gone to social events at the White House, eagerly sought autographs and photographs with the President, and then continued to excoriate him and his policies without surcease. And high-ranking White House aides certainly have been meeting with Democratic leaders and key committee members in recent weeks.

What cannot be doubted, however, is that many Members of both sides feel inadequately consulted by the President, and any White House needs to deal with perceptions as well as realities. There was no hesitation by Democrats, even highly vulnerable ones, when they were called upon by the President and Speaker Pelosi to cast votes on legislation they deeply cared about and had extensive hands in writing such as the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Many knew their votes could jeopardize the extended political careers they had assiduously planned, and many suffered defeat in large part because of those votes (which, incidentally, very few have said they regretted). Of course, that was all in the early glow of the Obama era, and perhaps Members thought the schmoozing and White House ice cream socials would come later.

But there was a different attitude towards the trade bills, not because Mr. Obama is in the 7th year of his presidency or even because he allegedly does not socialize enough with legislators. Democrats did not run embracing free trade agreements that would offend key constituencies, but they did run promising jobs, economic recovery and health care. When those bills came to the floor, they supported them, largely regardless of political consequences.

Moreover, the trade agreements run counter to the longstanding trend of Congress, since the mid-1970s, to look skeptically on presidential initiatives that involve legislative deference to the Executive Branch, even in the area of international affairs. When you mix the periodic need for an re-assertion of congressional equity with a politically unpopular trade policy, as well as an absence of involvement in the development of the policy itself, one can hardly be surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. No clinking of beer steins at the White House was going to impact that decision.

Much has been written about the role of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had declined to commit herself on the trade bills over the past several months. Doubtless, she instructed the White House to do what she always tells people seeking her assistance: go get the votes. She can help tweak a tight outcome, but she cannot move mountainous opposition. In the end, the President was unable to persuade Members with either substantive or personal entreaties. No one should have been surprised that Leader Pelosi stuck with the vast majority of her Members and voted “no.” Her vote was not a repudiation of the President, but an act of solidarity with the Caucus that elects her.

Suggestions that Pelosi somehow failed to deliver the votes as she did in the case of TARP or ACA miss the point: those were bills Democrats had fashioned and were invested in seeing enacted. Pelosi spared no effort to ensure passage of such Democratic priorities, and proved herself willing to take unremitting abuse from Republicans, the press and even some of her own obdurate Members to achieve her (and the President’s) goals. But Democrats have no such allegiance to enactment of trade legislation, and absent a more compelling case from the White House or a better vote count, Pelosi had little reason to urge Members to act against their deep-seated beliefs and political self-interest.

Some assert that it was cynical of Democrats, who have long supported the trade assistance program, to vote it down because they knew its passage would ease the way for the TPA, which they opposed. But their opposition was surely no more cynical than was the strategy to link the two votes in the first place, which was designed to make it all that much more difficult for Democrats to oppose TPA. What the White House and House Republicans missed was the willingness of TAA’s perennial supporters both on and off the floor to allow the program to disintegrate rather than extend it in order to ease passage of the hated trade authority bill. It may be difficult to explain the complex floor maneuvers that sunk TAA and TPA on Friday, but whatever it was, it was certainly not the “procedural snafu” described by Obama press secretary Josh Earnest.

However, my guess is that, like Mark Twain’s passing, the death of TPA is greatly exaggerated. Speaker Boehner moved to reconsider the TAA vote and has announced a revote as early as next week. TPA proponents also have the option, although it may be a thin one, to figure a way to move the House-passed clean TPA bill through the Senate, perhaps by offering senators a separate TAA vote that is not linked to TPA. Creative parliamentary minds are surely at work here; it is difficult to see the underlying bill, having been approved by both houses, wither and die because no one could figure out how to structure a rule or floor procedure to achieve the desired outcome. That is how health care ultimately became law: smart strategists figured out how to end-run the implacable opponents.

Even Pelosi hinted on Friday that a defeat of TAA could set in motion forces that might yield a better trade bill down the road, which does not sound like the funeral oration over a moribund bill. Whether an enactable trade bill can be salvaged from the wreckage remains to be seen. But if it is to enjoy greater Democratic support in an era of concern about grotesque wealth disparity, the trade bill will have to reflect not only the interests of the business community, but a greater resemblance to the same goals embodied by Woodrow Wilson’s New Nationalism a century ago, a national policy that “promote[s] the welfare of those groups which ha[ve] not as yet shared adequately in the richness of national life.”


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