hardline political news and analysis

The Trap Trump is Laying

Subtlety has never been one of Donald Trump’s strong suits, and I must confess, I have been loathe to attribute great strategic skills to this most incoherent and incompetent of presidents. Yet increasingly, one must begrudgingly acknowledge Trump’s strategy for countering the enhanced congressional oversight resulting from last November’s election. 

There are significant ideological cleavages within the Democratic party over the wisdom of pursuing impeachment in the House versus conducting vigorous oversight and issuing reports or perhaps a contempt resolution. Yet as many as 70 percent of Democrats, according to some polls, favor inquiries that are tied to a vote to impeach Trump, about double the percentage of all voters favoring such an action.

Trump understands that it is to his advantage to agitate that irritation within the Democratic ranks. Several of the presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris – have already endorsed impeachment, a consequence-free option for senators who do not face re-election concerns, as do a few dozen marginal House members forced to choose between the party’s inflamed base and the moderates and independents whose votes they must have for re-election. It is, of course, this latter cohort of representatives whom Democrats need to hold their seats and, therefore, retain their House majority.

Some of the newly elected Democratic House freshmen have similarly embraced the impeachment route, as have some veterans like Maxine Waters. Without exception, all of them, like the Senate proponents, represent secure Democratic districts where their only electoral uncertainly lies in a primary challenge from the Left. In such districts, a vote for impeachment is without risk. Many would not even care if investigations or hearings were first conducted.

Those clinging tenuously to seats that only months ago were held by Republicans – and very often, conservative Republicans – are more skeptical of impeachment although just as avid about using aggressive oversight to probe the Mueller Report, the Justice Department, and other aspects of the scandal swirling around Trump and his administration.

In the center of the maelstrom are Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the leadership (including the relevant committee chairs Jerry Nadler, Elijah Cummings and Adam Schiff) who are wary of prejudging the outcome of their investigations by prematurely advocating impeachment. The leaders, who know their hopes for preserving the majority lie in retaining those marginal seats, are urging that members be circumspect in advocating removal of the president from office, pointing out that obligatory investigations will consume months that move the nation closer and closer to voters making the ultimate judgment on whether Trump should remain in office.

Assuring the continuation of this intra-party roiling is very much in Donald Trump’s interest.  To the extent that he can foment tension among the presidential hopefuls or within the Democratic Caucus, the better for him to make the case to voters against entrusting the White House (or the House itself) to a divided and self-flagellating party. It is all well and good for pundits and hardliners to pontificate about the need to impeach, damn the consequences to Congress; but if those consequences include a GOP majority that can rescind health care coverage for millions, walk away from climate change obligations, and run the deficit to nose-bleed levels while preaching the false gospel of balanced budgets, Democrats need to measure their responses very carefully.

Trump has hit on a simple strategy for ensuring that the Democratic turmoil grows: absolute opposition to allowing current or former administration officials to testify before congressional committees. He knows such defiance is certain to heighten calls for impeachment, especially since stonewalling Congress was one of the articles of impeachment approved by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon in 1974. 

Trump is taking legal action to prevent former officials like ex-White House attorney Don McGahn from appearing before House panels. His myrmidon Attorney General William Barr has stiff-armed the Democratic House (after appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by the sycophantic Lindsay Graham). Apparently, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, yet another toady willing to sacrifice his reputation for Trump, is refusing to turn over the president’s tax returns as subpoenaed by Congress, which has the legal authority to check for conflicts of interest and personal enrichment. And the president has opined that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller should not testify before the House, as he may be negotiating for May 15. 

Trump doubtless delights in provoking such a constitutional confrontation, knowing that it consumes valuable time, casts Democrats as obsessed inquisitors, and fosters division within the party’s ranks while costing him absolutely nothing. He may also suspect that the courts will be loath to jump into an internecine battle between the Legislative and Executive branches, preferring to let them settle their disputes without judicial interference. Chaos, a divided opposition, and delay all work for Trump and make it more difficult for Democrats to unify and offer a coherent appeal to independent voters who will undoubtedly have enormous influence in next year’s election.

Defer, deflect and delay; it has been Donald Trump’s operational strategy for decades. In the end, he might face a judicial reprimand on executive privilege or a few censure resolutions against his staff, his family or even himself. Reprimands and resolutions don’t end presidencies, and Trump has Graham and McConnell to make sure the heavier  weaponry never comes near the White House. It will take enormous skill and discipline for House Democrats to avoid falling into Trump’s trap, especially if they are goaded on by presidential hopefuls and an animated base who would rather have the fight than the majority.


Modernization of Congress

On March 27, I joined several other scholars who write about Congress in testifying before the Testimony before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Drawing from my research for”The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and my 38 years on the Hill, I offered the committee some thoughts about the history of and lessons learned from past reform efforts while also offering a few ideas about steps the committee might consider to improve the efficiency, collegiality and performance of “The Peoples’ House.” Here’s that testimony.

Thank you for your invitation to appear today at this hearing, my first from this side of the dais.

I want to offer four observations that, along with the advice from these distinguished congressional scholars, may help guide the work of this Select Committee.

  • Despite the cynicism of many critics inside and outside the House, Congress has demonstrated its ability to reform its organization and operation to improve efficiency, expand participation by members, provide greater transparency and offer voters greater accountability for its decisions. Such historic actions as the bipartisan revolt in 1910, the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970, and the majority rules changes of 1889, 1974 and 1994 demonstrate the capacity for Congress to achieve these goals.
  • Second, there is an inherent tension between the desire for efficient operation of the House and the ability of a large and diverse membership to fully participate in legislative deliberations. Finding the correct balance is no simple task.
  • Third, all reforms carry with them unintended consequences, which is why it is best to proceed on a bipartisan and deliberative and to remain open to reassessing whatever innovations are adopted.
  • And lastly, we all need to be realistic in our expectations of what modernization can achieve. Organizational reform alone cannot heal the partisan discord that frustrates the members of this House and the citizens of the country. The emergence of deep-seated partisanship over the past forty years tracks the profound changes in demography, culture, communication and campaign finance. No set of rules changes, no election of a new candidate is going to be a magic pill for reducing such ingrained division and suspicion of the other party.

My book, The Class of ’74, documented the history of one era of House reform. Over time, such reform efforts have originated with impatient newcomers who often lack an appreciation for the rationale behind existing procedures, as well as with seasoned veterans who are frustrated by antiquated rules. Many efforts, like the Hansen, Bolling and Patterson committees of the mid-1970s and the Hamilton-Gradison committee in 1992 ended largely in failure.[

A crucial first step is agreement on the objective. Is it greater efficiency? The diffusion of power? The reduction is partisan division? Greater transparency? Maintaining a disciplined focus on clearly defined goals will be crucial to your success. As your former colleague Mo Udall once observed, “We tend to overkill when we get involved in some of these reform things in the House.”

Efficiency in the operation of the House is a perennial goal of reformers, yet as we know, delay is deeply woven into the American political fabric. Thomas Cronin has written, there are  “dangers in expecting efficiency from a Congress that is never going to be fast on its 1,070 feet.” Some inefficiency is desirable because it allows broader groups of legislators to invest in finding solutions. Indeed, efficiency in a large, diverse political body is often imposed by the overconcentration of power and by abrogating the rights of the minority. 

Well-intended reform can go awry. After reformers in the 1970s expanded opportunities for participation, the number of floor amendments nearly quadrupled and bills took weeks to pass. Many amendments were crafted, not to genuinely improve the legislation, but as Rep. Leo Ryan said, “to stall, to delay … to make things not happen” and to embarrass opponents by forcing them to cast controversial votes that had little chance of succeeding. As a result of this weaponization of the amendment process, Tip O’Neill declared “Congress became more difficult to control than ever.” Sen. Gary Hart put it more succinctly: the institution had become “a controlled madhouse.” 

Some reforms have inadvertently contributed to today’s polarized environment, such as the decision in the 1970s to permit live television coverage of the floor. Indiana’s David Dennis, among others, warned that TV cameras would detract from serious debate and create “prima donnas.” Tip O’Neill shared that skepticism, noting that “some of us aren’t very smart and we won’t look so good.” The use of far more accusatory and partisan rhetoric on the floor certainly has escalated in the intervening years. Thirty-five years ago, O’Neill’s words were taken down when he called a speech by Newt Gingrich “the lowest thing” he had ever seen. Today, such a comment would barely merit any notice, and the change marks a significant deterioration in the comity and collegiality of the House. 

One of the most significant reforms in the 1970s empowered Caucus members to vote to confirm chairmen rather than continuing to arbitrarily award chairmanships through strict adherence to a the seniority system, which itself was a reform established in 1910 to check to autocratic power of the speaker. But the seniority system came to disproportionately reward members from one-party districts who were increasingly out of step with the Congress as a whole. 

Other important and far-reaching reforms of that era enhanced the power of the elected leadership, expanded staffing and budgets to subcommittee chairmen and the minority, enabled a smaller number of members to demand recorded votes, and limited the ability of senior members to dominate subcommittee chairmanships. 

As we all recognize, politics is a far more partisan business today than in the 1970s, and it will be difficult to impose non-partisanship on a highly polarized institution and electorate. Reformers of every era have tried to take politics out of politics, and of course, that is a fool’s errand. So long as the parties are locked in rough parity and constant battle for control with grave consequences stemming from victory or loss, even well intended reforms may fail to achieve the goal of a more collaborative Congress. 

With that cautionary background, here are some suggestions you may wish to consider.

Tougher rules governing floor speech could help refocus floor debate on substantive issues and lower the political temperature. You might consider ending one-minutes and special orders so as to reserve the House floor for substantive legislative debate. If members want to engage in partisan fulminations, technology has afforded them the opportunity to do so on Twitter or You-Tube and on their own time.  

There is no substitute for regular order, beginning with substantive and uninterrupted committee meetings. As Woodrow Wilson famously noted, “Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.” But committees cannot work when they are infrequently scheduled and often delayed for votes. With the reduced regularity of committee meetings has come a loss of the collegiality crucial to bipartisan collaboration. I would suggest you consider minimizing the time that committee meetings and floor activity overlap, perhaps by allocating specific functions to days of the week.

A final suggestion: legislation that enjoys widespread and bipartisan public support needs to be able to find a clear path to the floor within a reasonable amount of time. An already cynical public cannot help but become even more disenchanted with the Congress when legislation that enjoys the support of 70% or 80% of voters cannot even be debated, let alone passed. While I certainly recognize the value of letting the leadership set the floor schedule, and the strategic decisions doing so entails, the House might consider allowing members to sign a discharge petition privately, with a certification from non-partisan designees like the Parliamentarian or the Comptroller General, to compel the consideration of broadly supported proposals if those measure are otherwise being kept from deliberation.  

It is true that public esteem for the Congress is dismally low, although in fairness, it must be noted that it is never particularly high. And rules changes alone cannot reverse decades of social and political evolution that has produced our deep partisan divide. 

But this situation is not hopeless.

Recall that only a decade ago, this highly partisan institution – during a period of divided government and just weeks before a bitterly contested election – produced a complex, controversial and bipartisan response to the crumbling of the financial markets that averted a national economic calamity. Crisis drove that successful effort: we need to find a way to reward those who are willing to make difficult political decisions instead of turning them in targets, and to do so without waiting for the next crisis to appear.

The work of this committee gives us hope that, armed with lessons from past reform efforts, we can fashion a Congress that is efficient in operation and which recaptures the respect of the American people.

Recommit to the Dustbin?

Debating policy can be engaging, but noodling over parliamentary procedure is a snorer for most people. Suspension of the rules, cloture, previous questions: it’s all laid out in thousands of pages of rules, precedents and procedures, and for most people, it is boring. (Apologies to friends on the Rules Committee and in the Parliamentarians’ offices).

But we need to consider the wisdom of altering one House rule that may well have outlived its usefulness, at least in its current form. Instead of providing the minority a guaranteed opportunity to influence legislation on the floor, the Motion to Recommit (MTR) has morphed into a partisan weapon for punking vulnerable members of the majority and potentially cramming a poison pill into the clenched mouths of the bill’s supporters. That’s a bad way to legislate. 

Granting the minority a role in the floor debate is understandable. (There are few restrictions on minority amendments in committees.) The majority decides which bills will be the subject of hearings and mark-ups, which bills will come to the floor, which amendments will be permitted and how long debate will occur. If the majority leadership can enforce discipline, the power of the minority is very constrained.

Except at the very end of the process, when clause 2 of Rule XIX (still with me?) “give[s] the minority one chance to fully express their views so long as they are germane,” in the words of former Speaker William Gillette. The MTR allows a member of the minority who opposes the bill “in its current form” to offer an amendment with no pre-clearance from the Rules Committee. The practice evolved out of a 1909 reform by Speaker Joe Cannon whose autocratic administration of the House was generating a bipartisan rebellion. (A good history of this issue was written by former Rules Committee staffer Don Wolfensberger, now at the Wilson Center’s Congress Project.)

Like so many features of congressional operations, the MTR took on an increasingly partisan coloration as the parties and voters sorted themselves in the post 1964 period. Instead of providing a good faith opportunity to shape the bill, the MTR was effectively weaponized by the increasingly combative Republican minority of the 1980s, under the provocation of Newt Gingrich and others. The MTR became a device for forcing marginal members of the majority to choose between party loyalty by supporting the MTR, and electoral vulnerability by opposing it. 

As this partisan use of the MTR expanded in the 1980s, the majority clamped down, further legitimizing the argument of Gingrich’s conservatives that Democratic rule was tyrannical. After Republicans became the majority in 1995, the MTR guarantee was included in the GOP’s rules package and Democrats went on a tear, significantly expanding its use to target potentially vulnerable Republicans. When Democrats regained the majority in 2006, the number of Republican MTRs more than doubled in the 110thCongress. With little change, the practice has continued to the present day. 

The Republican minority has exploited the MTR in the early weeks of the 116thCongress, offering successful motions decrying anti-Semitism and restricting gun purchases by undocumented people, both of which passed. In the 2007-2010 period of the Democratic majority, several GOP MTRs also passed, but then, because Democrats controlled the Senate, the majority knew they could drop out such a provision in a conference committee. Now, with a Republican Senate, getting rid of irksome amendments might prove trickier.

Although defense of the MTR is often wrapped up in lofty language about ensuring the rights of the minority, its main objective is mischief. I well remember during Democratic days in the minority a veritable bazaar to see who could conceptualize the MTR most likely to exasperate frontline Republicans. It is hardly surprising that Republicans are drawing from the same playbook now that they are back in the minority. Moreover, the debate over whether to allow vulnerable Democrats to vote for the MTR and spare themselves providing ammunition for their opponents is apparently splitting the Democratic leadership, with Nancy Pelosi opposed to granting “passes” in hopes of maintaining Caucus unity, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer reportedly giving a wink to weaker Democrats (as Whip Jim Clyburn may be as well). 

Promoting such intra-party tension among Democrats is a fortuitous secondary benefit for the GOP. Reports indicate many first-term Democrats, elected to districts that supported Donald Trump, are ignoring the Speaker’s entreaties for unity to preserve the majority. “You can’t be unified if you’re not here,” rationalized one Democrat who has supported some MTRs. “We’re not going to make somebody walk the plank for the sake of walking the plank.” New Jersey freshman Jeff Van Drew dismisses the appeals of Pelosi (whom he opposed for speaker) for unity as “nonsense.” Such a self-centered perspective (not entirely unknown among politicians) has provoked angry rebukes from more Caucus-centered freshmen like California’s Katie Hill who responded, “Clearly you’re doing this as a ploy and not because you actually give a shit about the issue,” noting votes like Van Drew’s make “it hard for those of us who do vote against” the MTRs.

It would reasonable to consider a re-examination of the MTR as part of the work of the new select committee on the modernization of the House. Ensuring the minority an opportunity to offer responsible amendments (and I recognize the ambiguity in the concept) is reasonable, but it is counterproductive to protect a process whose only purpose is to foment partisan bickering that exhausts voters and legislators alike. Rather than an MTR that is sprung on the House at the last minute, with no vetting, cost-assessment or consultation (as with other amendments), perhaps the guaranteed minority amendment should have to pass through the Rules Committee like all other amendments, with the burden being on the minority to shape a germane and substantive amendment that can be put in order. 

A serious effort to reduce gratuitous partisanship in Congress is going to take time and significantly better relations than exist at present. At a minimum, the House can dispense with one bastardized practice, written into the rules, that achieves little other than inflaming greater conflict on the floor and in our politics.

Who Blinked

At the denouement of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev confronted each other “eyeball to eyeball,” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk whispered during a crucial meeting. When, facing Kennedy’s unwavering determination to maintain a blockade of Cuban, the bellicose Russian “blinked,” in Rusk’s analysis, and the great powers backed away from the most perilous confrontation of the Cold War.

Unlike the Kennedy-Khrushchev clash, the stand-off between the pugnacious President and the new Speaker of the House does not involve the threat of using nuclear weapons, but its historical significance may similarly define the relationship between two powerful political leaders. 

Political observers have closely watched the confrontation between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi since she regained the Speaker’s gavel on January 3rd. It is likely that never before in his life, professional or personal, has Trump encountered anyone (let alone any woman) like Pelosi. The Speaker not only possesses equal Constitutional authority as the leader of the legislative branch of government, but a determined will to demonstrate to the occupant of the White House – any White House – that neither she nor the institution that she leads will countenance submission to an imperial presidency.

Trump got his first taste of Pelosi’s resolute style last December 11thwhen he attempted to undermine her demands that she submit to his only real policy goal: $5.7 billion to build what some are calling a 4thcentury solution to a 21stcentury problem. Pelosi, he asserted, was unable to make concessions because she was negotiating the votes to win the speakership. But Pelosi was having none of that false consolation. “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory,” she publically reprimanded the President.

The Trump-Pelosi second “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation seems likely to end with a similar Pelosi triumph. In a bold move, Pelosi took the unprecedented step of urging the President to delay the scheduled State of the Union address, which she had, according to longstanding tradition, invited him to give in the House chamber. Pelosi cited both security concerns and the ongoing government shutdown triggered by Trump’s demand for the border wall.

Not used to being disinvited, Trump persisted, essentially declaring that he would show up on January 29th, but again, Pelosi was having none of it. The House was her venue, not the president’s, and only she would determine when he would address the Congress. (The Constitution, of course, only requires that the president “inform” the Congress “from time to time” about the State of the Union. The Founders made no promise of speaking to a Joint Session, in the House chamber, before television cameras.) While some portrayed Pelosi’s position as petulant, one can only imagine the reaction had the Speaker appeared at the front door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and demanded access to the Oval Office.

But now, Trump has backed down, abandoning his insistence that he be allowed to speak as originally invited as well as his threats to deliver the speech in an alternate setting, perhaps a half-filled airport hanger somewhere in Ohio. Presumably, someone in the White House was able to explain to the President that the entire point of the State of the Union is the majesty (a term that has appeal to a President who gold-plates bathroom fixtures) of the setting: the assembled Congress, the Joint Chiefs, the Cabinet and diplomatic corps. No airplane hanger can compete.

His retreat on the State of the Union may well signal an upcoming retreat on the demand for a border wall.  Against an unmovable Speaker, a president is not quite so imperial as he would like. Rumors of billions of dollars for strengthened border security (but no physical wall) combined with opening the government are circulating; there remains the possibility of addressing the DACA and Dreamer issues as part of a compromise package. Both economic growth and the President’s approval rating have plummeted since he began his confrontation with Pelosi. Reports are swirling of Republicans feeling the pressure from unpaid federal employees, federal contractors, and strained businesses in their districts, and it is that pressure, not bloviating from the President, that will move votes in Congress. 

After the Oval Office confrontation with Pelosi, Trump told reporters that“I actually like [it if] we have to close down the country over border security. I think I win that every time.” He might want to think again. He just blinked.

Good for Grassroots, Bad for Business

Back in the mid-1990s, the Clinton Administration embraced a so-called “royalty holiday” for oil companies that developed leases in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The idea was pretty simple: rather than impose royalties of 12 1/2% to 16 2/3% for developing publicly-owned resources (already paltry by international royalty standards), encourage domestic exploration and production by giving oil companies the leases for little or no royalty.

Having worked on offshore oil policy since the mid-1970s, I was skeptical such inducements were needed; there was enthusiastic drilling in deeper North Sea wells absent such promotional incentives, under much more challenging conditions than anything that would be faced in the Gulf of Mexico. 

My boss, Rep. George Miller, sent me off to talk with  executives at several of the oil refineries in his California district, and every one of them told me the same thing: if you want to give me a lease for nothing, I’ll take it. But I would never make a decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on developing a deep-water lease based on a “promise” Congress could rescind.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson about the thinking of private industry executives, an area of knowledge about which my training as a labor historian had left me somewhat deficient. Business naturally favors low taxes and weak regulations, but equally important is certainty — or whatever can pass as certainty — in public policy. Give them a challenge – tougher environmental regulations, safer workplaces, higher minimum wages – and most businesses will figure out how to make it work. But sow economic chaos and they are reluctant to invest, hire or innovate.

Which brings me to the question of how long the business community in the United States can tolerate Donald Trump as president. True, some were doubtless elated that a son of the private sector had been elevated to the presidency. But Trump wasn’t the kind of businessman they really wanted: he was well known in New York as a reckless blowhard whose main product was his name and personality, and whose bankruptcy-prone track record reflected little of the training he presumably received at Wharton. 

In the waning weeks of 2018, Trump’s executive driven form of governing has created needless and dangerous chaos in the nation’s economy. Even though Trump’s “great” economic success is little but a continuation of the steady recovery from the 2008 meltdown, the economy is, by many measures, sound (if you ignore issues like record deficits, income inequality and sluggish wage growth). 

The combined impact of Trump’s unilateral decisions on trade policy, military alliances, environmental policies, and weapons limitations, combined with threats against the Fed chairman and massive high-level staff turnover in the White House and executive branch departments, have all combined to produce a hair-raising end to the year on Wall Street. The Dow Jones plummeted on Christmas Eve, then skyrocketed on the 26th, then dropped again: down 4,000 points since October. Overall, the S&P index is likely to record its largest annual percentage decline since 2008, when the nation was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

There is real loss behind these wild fluctuations: many hundreds of billions of dollars disappearing from IRAs, pension funds, college and retirement accounts, and other personal and business investments. The only volatile element provoking such losses appears to be the erratic chaos-producing gremlin in the Oval Office whose incomprehensible, self-aggrandizing antics are costing tens of millions of Americans enormous amounts of money, destabilizing markets, damaging trade relations and undermining confidence in the economy – all for no reason.

Which brings me back to the value of predictability. It seems self-evident that there is a core of fanatical Trump supporters whose loyalty is virtually unshakable regardless of the boorish behavior, the habitual mendacity, the mean-spiritedness, or even the questioning of Santa Claus’s existence to a 7-year old believer. But one must wonder how long the supposed beneficiaries of Trumpian and Republican policies – the ultra-wealthy and the corporate and financial elite – can tolerate the economic tsunamis he triggers for no apparent reason except to own the momentary news cycle.

Whether they are liberal or conservative policies, the business community needs to know the rules going forward, and with Trump, it is obvious there can be no such clarity because there is no over-arching philosophy of governance. The challenge for the boardrooms and Wall Street is what to do about the problem. A conservative challenge to Trump is pointless given his base support; a moderate business-friendly Republican (like John Kasich) stands little chance in the 2020 GOP primaries and caucuses. Instead, the business community may have to consider the unlikeliest of options: throw its considerable money and influence behind an acceptable Democratic opponent in the nominating process in hopes that a short-term alliance purges the GOP of Trump’s taint without empowering a liberal who promotes policies antithetical to the corporate world.

That’s a tough choice for conservatives, and some who have profited handsomely from the GOP-Trump deficit-inducing tax cut may prefer to sit it out on their fat wallets and purses. But for many, I suspect, the chaos is getting too chronic, too disruptive, and too expensive.

Bush Without Tears

The presidency of George H.W. Bush is enjoying a nostalgic portrayal following the death of “41” on November 30. His is being called “the most successful one term presidency in history,” and that description may well endure given the obvious fact that, by definition, one term presidencies have invariably ended in rejection by voters.

The nostalgia for Bush is certainly enhanced by the stark contrast between his Brahmin, New England absence of braggadocio and the crude narcissism of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Bush’s self-confidence in the role of statesman was doubtless influenced by his having been surrounded by powerful politicians — his father was a U.S. senator from Connecticut — his entire life. A member of Congress once described to me Bush’s comment to Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, with whom he had served in the House, as he settled into his chair in the Oval Office. “Danny!” Bush 41 reportedly exclaimed, “Can you believe I’m the [expletive deleted] president of the United States?” 

Bush had a deep appreciation for the role Congress played in the policymaking process although his service in the House was limited to just two terms. Despite subsequently holding a litany of high offices — CIA  director, ambassador to China and to the United Nations, Vice President — Bush may well have shared a sentiment I have heard from many whom moved on from the South wing of the Capitol: no job was more fun than being a member of the House.

Indeed, even as president, Bush would use his lifetime privileges in the House gym to play vigorous games of paddle ball (I think it was) with current members, understanding as some of his successors did not the enormous value of developing and nurturing personal ties with those you will need to implement your legislative agenda. Of course, with both houses of Congress in Democratic hands during his presidency (the Senate had been in Republican control for three quarters of the Reagan years), one might say Bush had little option but to find ways to cooperate with Democrats, but Bush’s efforts paid off when he needed congressional support for the war against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or for the urgent tax increase that may well have cost him his presidency.

Still, it is important not to let the testimonials accumulate without maintaining a critical eye on Bush’s overall record. As unpretentious as his demeanor could be, his legacy will have to account for some decisions that historians cannot help but view critically. He gained the presidency, many believe, thanks to a race-tinged commercial that, using grainy footage and menacing music, linked Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton, an African American murderer who had committed horrific crimes while on a weekend furlough from prison allowed by Massachusetts law. Politics, and campaigns, can certainly be ugly; this commercial, however, is often credited as being among the nastiest — and most effective.

Bush also committed a serious error by making a totally incompetent Dan Quayle his running mate. I recall seeing the headline announcing the selection and wondering, “Who on earth could that? The only Quayle I know is Dan, and no one would ever put him in line to the presidency!” Quayle would be the source of multiple embarrassments during the Bush years, as well as countless prayers offered up for the president’s continued good health.

More consequentially, Bush appointed the ultra-conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in what many viewed as a gratuitous act to replace Thurgood Marshall with another African-American justice. The impact of that 1991 appointment continues to have devastating implications more than a quarter century later. Bush would not be the first president to appoint a justice whose rulings were at odds with the ideology of the man who appointed him, but Thomas’ reactionary views were well known at the time of his controversial appointment and even more contentious confirmation, which did not move Bush to withdraw the selection despite a massive public outcry. 

Neither historians, the press or the public should attempt to define a person’s legacy based on a few incidents, even if criticism is merited, and certainly that is the case with one whose service to the country lasted nearly three quarters of a century. Bush is being remembered rightly as one who displayed political courage and personal generosity and bipartisan friendship. He may even deserve that title as the best one-term president in history.

No Shortage of Competition

A week after recapturing the majority, Democrats have a healthy competition for key leadership positions among a younger generation of House members. That election also quashed the major premise of malcontents insisting on the replacement of Nancy Pelosi as speaker: Democrats won despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Republicans in hopes of enticing Democrats to pick a less effective leader.

Despite the breadth of the Democratic wave – the largest number of seats won since the post-Watergate “Class of ’74” — – a small number of nay-sayers continue to oppose Pelosi. Lacking substantive disagreement on policy and, as of this writing, any qualified opponent (actually, no candidate at all), critics are left with one argument: Democrats need “new leaders.” Even some Pelosi sympathizers complain that she has not groomed her successor in order to provide a smooth transition.

Let’s be clear: Nancy Pelosi does not have the ability– or the right, for that matter – to select the next generation of Democratic leaders. Legislators make up their own minds about running for leadership positions, sometimes without past experience on the so-called “leadership ladder” just as Pelosi herself did in 2002. The notion that Pelosi has somehow failed to construct a clear line of succession fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the leadership selection process.

But as it turns out, just such a healthy competition for “next-gen’ leaders has emerged for multiple leadership positions, roles that will give newer members the experience they must have before being elevated to the very senior positions. Why not celebrate that competition instead of echoing Republican criticisms of Pelosi in hopes of dividing the victorious majority?

Two challengers have emerged to contest Jim Clyburn’s candidacy to regain the Whip position he held in 2007-2010. Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member in the House, was just re-elected to his 16thterm. Diana DeGette (CO), just elected to her 14thterm who serves as a chief deputy whip (and who had considered running against Clyburn in 2006) is jumping into the race, as is third termer Filemón Vela (TX), a Blue Dog moderate who once resigned in protest from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

There will also be a competitive race for Assistant Leader, a role Pelosi created in 2010 to keep Clyburn at the leadership table after Democrats lost the House. Contenders include the highly successful chairman of the campaign committee, Ben Ray Lujan (NM) and messaging co-chair David Cicilline (RI).

The contest for Caucus Chair, a position that generally serves to elevate its occupant to higher leadership slots (Tom Foley, Steny Hoyer, Dick Gephardt, Bill Gray, among others) will include two members of the Congressional Black Caucus.  Barbara Lee (CA) narrowly lost the vice chair position in 2016 to Linda Sanchez, who recently withdrew from the race for chair. Challenging Lee is 4 term Hakeem Jeffries (NY), a rising star who doubtless will argue that he represents a new generation of leadership compared to the 11-term Lee.

There is also a competition for Caucus Vice Chair that includes 4thterm Katherine Clark (MA), who gained prominence in her role recruiting viable candidates for 2018 (many of whom will be voting on this position as new members). Also running is third term Pete Aguilar (CA), who is also a member of the party and CHC whip organizations.

The race to chair the Democrats’ campaign committee will involve at least four younger members. The DCCC role has been a path to the leadership and higher office for a number of recent occupants including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Those currently in the race include Suzan DelBene  (WA), just elected to her fifth term, and four termers Denny Heck (WA), Cheri Bustos (IL) and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY). The race for DCCC communications chair is similar crowded with John Garamendi (CA) with 6 terms, and others with four terms or fewer, including Matt Cartwright (PA) (4), Debbie Dingell (MI) and Ted Lieu of CA (3), and NY’s Adriano Espaillat (2).

There is also the position created by Pelosi to ensure a junior member with 5 terms or less sits the leadership circle. Seeking that slot are three rising talents in the party, Jamie Raskin (MD), Terri Sewell (AL), and Tony Càrdenas (CA).

By any stretch, that is a lot of healthy competition among newer members for a succession of leadership positions. And it should be noted that these prospective leaders are distinguished not only by their length of service, but by their diversity, including women, LGBTQ, black, Asian-American and Latino members. And one more important distinguishing characteristic: these aspirants are marked by their service on key committees (Appropriations, Commerce, Judiciary) and their serious legislative and leadership contributions, not mainly for their gratuitous criticism of party’s leaders.

The victory on November 6thand this cohort of qualified aspirants should put to rest complaints and second-guessing about how the party should move forward when the Caucus meets to elect its leaders later this month. Experience and unity are required to fulfill promises to voters and to confront the coming assault from Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats require a strong leadership not simply to withstand that challenge, but to move their agenda forward. Fortunately, it looks like that’s exactly the kind of leadership team the Caucus will have the opportunity to select.



A Few Quick Take-Aways

A short blog on the election; it will take a little while to fully digest the results. But some results seem clear and important to note.

Obviously, the major news of the day is the Democratic resurgence in the House, with Democrats winning back the majority they lost so spectacularly in 2010. While the size of the wave will not approach the classic elections of 1974, 1994, 2006 or 2010, the significance should not be underestimated.

Not only did Democrats win an impressive majority of the popular vote for House candidates nationally (although the electoral significance is diminished by population concentration and gerrymandering which diminished the number of seats won), but also they won across the breadth of the country.  Democratic candidates picked up reliably Republican seats in states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Virginia, and there will also be Democrats representing traditionally red seats in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina.

Significant recognition for this victory needs to go to House Democratic strategists who recruited and financed many of these winners. But credit also goes to many of the candidates themselves who, like those in earlier waves, launched themselves as neophytes into the electoral battle with minimal experience, resources or expectations of victory. Certainly one of the major takeaways of the evening is the addition of a broad diversity of new members — LGBT, youth, Native Americans, veterans and, of course, a record number of women. Democrats clearly have established themselves as the party that looks like America — the third majority-minority caucus —  while Republicans shrink further into the traditionalism of white male politicians.

Now the question is what Democrats will do with this majority. The first step is to select the leadership. While I am no neutral party on the subject, it seems obvious that the new majority will pick Nancy Pelosi for speaker. With battles looming on every front with an volatile president and combative Senate, not to mention the challenges of managing an historically diverse Democratic Caucus, deposing the proven Pelosi, who just led the party to victory, for an untested replacement would be a remarkably pointless, self-inflicted wound. There is time for the next generation to learn during the coming Congress and prepare themselves to assume leadership; Pelosi herself seemed to signal a recognition of coming change by elevating newer members over the past two years and in several recent statements.

But the 116th Congress convenes in two months, and it is going to be a challenging one.  Democrats will need both discipline and strategic skills to promote a positive agenda that keeps the Caucus together, differentiates the party from Republicans, responds to the voters’ expectations for results rather than simply for retribution. The further edges of the Caucus must  recognize that to keep many of the seats won last night, the Caucus must embrace pragmatism over purity, because without the majority, all the passion in the world cannot be realized. No one can provide that experienced and steady leadership on January 3 except Pelosi, and Democrats are unlikely to come to any other conclusion when they make their leadership decisions later this month.

The Democrats’ Dilemma

Although the crucial mid-term elections are a mere two weeks away, it never takes long before most political conversations turn to the question of the 2020 Democratic nominee. So while the outcome of 2018’s contests is still very much up in the air, let’s focus on an election still two years away.

Well, of course, 2020 is not two years away, except on the calendar. It is two weeks away, because as soon as the 2018 results are known (and they may not be on November 6th because of close contests and run-offs), every pundit will scrutinize the tea leaves to assess whose White House aspirations were helped or hindered by the mid-terms.

Many people seem distressed that there is no obvious Democratic frontrunner and seem worried that such uncertainty dictates that the nominee in 2020 will be unable to pull the party together. Such unity will be needed to defeat the almost inevitable Republican nominee, Donald Trump (unless he has become tired of winning all the time and decides to retire). My two-word answer to those worries: Barack Obama. In the era of social media and cable TV, the most unknown personality can be catapulted into notoriety in a matter of days regardless of credibility or worthiness. Think: Michael Avenatti.  Yes, there will be a scrum of candidates, but it will be whittled down pretty quickly to a few credible (if not predictable) survivors.

This situation is far preferable to having a well-known, easily identified party leader who appears to be the inevitable nominee..  Such a person would certainly be the target of years of unrelenting criticism, second-guessing, background investigations, examination of years of voting records (if a legislator) and media undercutting. She or he might be the “front runner,” but would emerge badly scarred and weakened. Moreover, a spirited contest for the nomination is good training and tends to allow more talented and strategic candidates to emerge while weeding out those whose famous name or inevitability provided them temporary frontrunner status. (Admittedly, the process is not foolproof. Think: oh, never mind.)

But the caucus and primary process for selecting the eventual nominee can be very problematic in 2020.  It favors someone popular with the activist base that is over-represented in the nomination selection process. Almost invariably, that process selects someone on the left side of the Democrats’ ideological spectrum (although as the Clinton-Sanders race showed, not necessarily on the extreme left). In preparation for just such a battle, many of the prospective candidates are already lining up to support policies that appeal to the microcosm of voters who will select the nominee: Medicare for All, free college tuition, a reconstituted ICE and an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship, a massive jobs program, subsidized student loans, as well as other meritorious policies that are vulnerable to the easiest Republican attacks of irresponsibility on spending, big government and deficit creation that spells tax increases. Leftist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been notably vague on how to pay the multi-trillion dollar cost of these initiatives. That silence may work in safe Democratic congressional districts, but it will not cut it on the presidential stage.

Defeating Donald Trump in 2020 is going to depend on Democrats meeting some very basic strategic objectives:

  • don’t alienate independents and disenchanted Republicans who might be willing to entrust Democrats to reverse course on some of the dangerous wackiness of the last two years;
  • figure out how to win back some of the white, blue collar vote that swung from Obama’s “change” message to Trump’s “revenge” appeal;
  • at the same time, motivate the progressive youth and minority vote whose participation is crucial for both 2018 and 2020.

Unfortunately, these objectives may be contradictory – youth voters and alienated blue collar Democrats might have a hard time reconciling. It doesn’t take many of them to walk away from the party to cost Democrats crucial states and the 2020 election, as we all painfully know.

Selecting a nominee who has a broad appeal beyond the base will be the Democratic challenge, and it may become more difficult due to changes in the selection procedure. In the troublesome Mid-West this year, several mainstream Democrats defeated more liberal challengers in gubernatorial primaries; since those are states any Democratic nominee must win in 2020, it will be instructive to watch the outcome of the midterm races in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

The DNC’s decision to pare down the influence of super-delegates at the 2020 convention in order to eliminate checks on the popular will was, in my view, a bad idea. Professionals who understand how to win elections, not just excite crowds, should be engaged in the strategic decision of picking a nominee if it appears the caucus/primary process has gone off the rails. And with Democrats, it just might. Super-delegates should not thwart the public will as expressed in caucuses and primaries, but their engagement in the process cautions potential nominees to heed party as well as personal best interests.

California’s decision to move its primary from June to the beginning of March will benefit candidates who have appeal to the more liberal end of the spectrum, which includes a few California possibilities like Kamala Harris and Eric Garcetti. But California is a reliably Democratic state regardless of the nominee, unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to pick a few states arbitrarily. One rationale for beginning the nominating process in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is to allow unknowns a chance to show their stuff, win an early contest, and thereby compete in raising funds needed to compete in costlier states. It will be difficult for lesser-known candidates to raise the money needed in California so early in the process, which may well sink their chances before they get out of the starting gate.

So the real challenge facing Democrats for 2020 is not whether there will be a nominee, but whether the process created for selecting that nominee is capable of selecting someone with the breadth of appeal needed to compete against a wily demagogue. We will begin to be able to answer that question on November 7.



Picking Less Partisan Candidates

September is over, and with it summer, Labor Day, the celebration of National Potato Month … and the 2018 primary election season. Just two months before the November election that could decide the nation’s political course for the next two years, candidates have finally been selected in a process that began in some states all the way back in March!

This is, therefore, a good time to ask: are primaries, and in some cases, conventions, really the best way to select our candidates for public office? Or like many other kinds of reform, does voter involvement contribute to the very partisan atmosphere that many voters – although not necessarily those participating in candidate selection —  decry, promoting non-participation in the political process?

Instinctively, most people endorse the idea of voters picking their party’s candidate. The previous method, party selection, was often portrayed as occurring in the “smoke-filled back room” of some creaky party headquarters by some non-representative boss and his stooges. Progressive reformers in the early 1900s promoted the primary, like the referendum, initiative and recall, as modernizations that would take power away from presumably corrupt politicians – party leaders and legislatures – and instead empower the voters to choose candidates, permit direct voter decision-making on policies, and remove officeholders without waiting for an election.

The problem with primaries, especially in a more partisan era where voters have pretty much sorted themselves ideologically into the two major parties, is that the so-called reform has become a major contributor to the problem that discourages moderate voters from participating in politics: partisanship.

Better informed and more highly motivated people are more likely to vote than their less informed and less motivated counterparts. In a general election, the rate of participation varies from around 40% in most off-years (like 2018) to 60% in a presidential election year. So right off the bat, a substantial percentage of voters – disproportionately the less ideologically rigid – opt out of influencing selection of public officials. Moreover, there is a significant drop-off rate for down-ballot candidates, so even those who do come out to vote for president, for example, lose interest while in the voting booth (or wherever they vote) by the time they get to, say, city council or school board.

But these are impressive turn-out rates when compared to primaries. A new study by the Bipartisan Policy Center has just found that while participation in the 2018 primaries for federal office increased from the level four years ago to 46 million from 32 million, the percent of eligible voters participating rose only to 19.9% from a miserable 14.3% in 2014. (Both Democratic and Republican participation increased.) Combine this paltry turnout with the fact that only 8 states have run-offs that ensure that the party nominee has received a majority of votes, and the result is that those appearing on the fall ballot as nominees have invariably been chosen by a fraction of the eligible voters in their districts or states, and that fraction, almost without exception, tends to be more ideologically extreme than voters overall.

Politicians know who elects them, and it should come as little surprise that most, in most cases, they will appeal to that select sliver of voters whom they must satisfy. This behavior is true not only at election time, but when deciding how to cast votes in committee and on the floor, or when urging party leaders not to bring issues before the Congress at all.

It is difficult, of course, to argue for a less participatory mechanism for selecting candidates, although there is a healthy discussion underway about whether the political system might not function more effectively were there less transparency. Consider Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania last year; he won a traditionally Republican district because he veered away from the Democratic party’s position on a host of issues, enhancing his appeal to general election voters. Had the nominee been selected in a primary dominated by party activists instead of by the local organization, Lamb might well have been defeated by a more liberal rival who would have lost the special election.

A more salable strategy than arguing for a return to the smoke-filled back room might be to find ways to expand participation in primaries so that a more diverse cohort of voters selects candidates. I, for one, am no fan of open primaries where non-party registrants are given the ability to intrude into the choice of nominees; at a minimum, those selecting the candidate should demonstrate sufficient fealty to the party to register as members before assuming that power.

Boosting primary (or even general election) participation is tricky, but there are several fairly easy ways to reform primaries to produce candidates who reflect a broader swath of voter sentiment.

  • First, the no-brainer: get rid of the restrictive voting rules used to purge, intimidate and discourage voter (and especially minority voter) participation.
  • Expand opportunities for voting by mail and early voting rather than limiting voting to a single day.
  • Consolidate primaries so there is greater awareness of “Primary Day” as there is “Election Day.” Instead of stringing the process out from March to September, pick a day for national primaries that makes sense – I would argue for immediately after Labor Day so nominees are chosen based on issues as they exist in proximity to the general election, but some may argue that doesn’t leave enough time for lesser known nominees to challenge incumbents.
  • Lastly, provide for either tiered or ranked choice voting, or for runoffs, so that nominees must appeal more widely for votes to diminish the incentive to reflect only partisan and extreme positions.

It will be difficult to implement such reforms since, of course, the exisiting system works well for those currently in office, who have minimal incentive to experiment with innovation. Still, a vigorous pubic discussion about how we select candidates can help promote the changes we need to produce officeholders who embrace collaboration rather than confrontation as a way to seek office and serve voters.