DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

An Inauspicious Start

With an incoming president compromised by conflict-of-interest business dealings (and still refusing to release his income taxes) and a Cabinet composed of a Team of Tycoons whose financial scandals are waiting to erupt, House Republicans demonstrated impressive timing in their decision to eviscerate the House’s independent ethics office. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in the wake of the 2006 Abramoff corruption scandal, a key component of her “6 for ‘06” pledge to “drain the swamp” of corrupt influence peddling on the Hill.

The Republicans’ quick decision to reverse course after the widespread negative reaction, including a Twitter-lashing from the President-elect, should not diminish attention to the significance of Republicans’ abortive frolic. Even though the attack on the OCE had a half-life of a half-day, there are important lessons to be learned from this comic misadventure. In politics as in medicine, the first rule is “do no harm,” but with its unprovoked, unwarranted and contradictory actions on opening day, House Republicans self-inflicted an avoidable injury that could well become emblematic of the newborn 115th Congress.

Not that the short-lived decision to repeal and replace the OCE is the lone example of GOP hubris and folly. Shortly after the election, the chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee proposed legislation to reduce benefits to the elderly, and the party leadership resurrected plans to privatize Medicare. Not to be outdone, a senior Republican in the House proposed eliminating the Appropriations Committee, trasferring its authority to the famously free-spending authorizing committees. (Both the appropriators and the Senate Republicans were astonished at this unworkable and utterly unachievable proposal).

But the OCE misadventure deserves special recognition. Admittedly, the OCE is not the most popular institution in the House; Democrats as well as Republicans have chaffed at its inquiries into potential official misconduct, and the ability of the public to file allegations with the OCE against officeholders has fueled its unpopularity on the Hill. For all the complaints, neither Speaker John Boehner nor Paul Ryan were willing to undo Pelosi’s post-Abramoff reform, recognizing the reluctance of the formal Ethics Committee to take action against colleagues except in the most egregious and indefensible of circumstances.

The attempted coup against the OCE was opposed by Ryan (and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy), but the GOP Conference members voted 119-74 to ignore their own leadership. This was no symbolic vote of protest, like the insignificant handful cast against Ryan (and Pelosi) in the speakership election, but defiant support for a substantive change to House rules that inadvertently confirmed the fears of many that the House (and perhaps the Senate) majority may be prepared to look the other way with respect not only to their own ethical violations, but to those of the incoming Administration. What does the anti-OCE effort say about the inclination of GOP hotheads to blow past their leadership on policy matters down the road?

The other startling aspect of the Republicans’ rapid retreat was the swift criticism the proposal elicited from President-elect Donald Trump. Those in Congress would seem to have “so many other things of greater importance” to do, Trump Tweeted, “do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog,” which he acknowledged might well be “unfair,” as their “number one act and priority?” The surprise decision by the GOP Conference also drew vigorous opposition from the conservative group Judicial Watch whose president observed it was a “poor way to begin draining the swamp.” What does the swift reversal say about the willingness of Republican stalwarts to defy the unpredictable Trump?

Anti-OCE proponent Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, had railed against the OCE’s alleged indifference to the legal rights of Members of Congress, an interesting observation from a chairman who refused to lift a finger to protect the rights of millions of our fellow citizens by repairing the severe damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. Goodlatte asserted that his proposed amendment “does nothing to impede” the independent office’s operation, an absurd and inaccurate description of the provision’s impact.

The aborted effort to cripple the independent ethics office raises questions about the willingness of key GOP legislators like Goodlatte to defy their own leadership. How will the Republican troops react when Speaker Ryan gives them direction on issues like the budget, tax reform, appropriations or the upcoming debt ceiling confrontation? If chairmen like Goodlatte are prepared to flout the Speaker’s will on a rule change, how will they act when confronted with real policy questions that have substantial policy and political implications? And how significant a role did President-elect Trump’s critical Tweet play in persuading rebellious Republicans to settle down and not ruin the day’s message of unity and strength with an avoidable error like weakening the effort to “drain the swamp?”

The interactions among the Republican leadership, the hard-edged Conference faction, between the GOP majorities in the House and Senate, and with the new Republican President will be carefully scrutinized as Congress settles down and begins addressing a litany of complex issues that may prove as challenging for unified government to resolve as they have proven for divided government over the past 6 years.

 

 

 

 

Rules for Success on Capitol Hill

Today is the opening day of the 115th Congress, and dozens of new legislators will soon raise their hand to take the oath of office for the first time, along with their more seasoned colleagues. Here is an updated version of my “Rules for Success on Capitol Hill” for freshmen as they adjust to their new responsibilities, based on my own 38 years in senior positions in the House.

  1. Assume nothing!   Many embarrassing missteps occur when novices “assume” Congress works like things did back home in city hall, private business, or the state legislature. It doesn’t. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad, so learn how Congress operates: it is not likely to prove as malleable as you might expect.
  2. Don’t confuse “advocacy” and “politics.” Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to do what you want. These are completely different skills. The campaign is over. Your job in Congress is to get work done, not simply to score rhetorical points with people who already support you. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an ongoing exercise; you rarely win or lose entirely. Your opponents are waiting for you to give up. Our political system wasn’t designed to be efficient, and that goes doubly so for the legislative branch. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with historian George Galloway who observed, “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.” Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946.
  4. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.   Don’t be so impressed with a victory that you neglect dogging its implementation. Many statutes gather dust because disapproving bureaucrats simply ignore them. Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong admitting a law needs improvements or updating once it encounters the complex real world outside Washington. That is where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.
  5.  Be dissatisfied.  If you aren’t, get dissatisfied; if you can’t, get out of the business.  Politics is about righting wrongs not managing programs or balancing numbers.  There is always something wrong to get angry about. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some disenchanted, $174,000 a year officeholder complain about what’s wrong with being a Member of Congress.
  6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.  As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”   And women. An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about ten minutes and see who knows your name.” If you work really hard and achieve some legislative victories, you might, might, make it to higher office. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing.
  7. Become the “go to” expert. Members seek out knowledgeable colleagues, so become one. Don’t try to master every issue or speak on every subject. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.” You colleagues do not want to listen to someone who is (a) trying to flaunt their expertise, (b) delaying the adjournment of a meeting, or (c) repeating the key points in a speech that has already been delivered y someone else. As Mo Udall exasperatingly once observed during an interminable meeting, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”
  8. Always have someone on your staff who can tell you that you are wrong. Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest. Have someone close to you who can challenge one of your dumb ideas (and you will assuredly have a few) without fearing for his or her job. Assemble a skilled staff and use them wisely: let your staff ask a question at a meeting. You pay them lots of money for their expertise and judgment, but too often, they stand silently like ornaments because Members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff. Your people are your team in pursuit of a common goal, not just a cheering section designed to make you look good.  And don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Select some people who know issues and how the Hill functions. They will make life a lot easier for you.
  9. Get to know your colleagues personally.   Congress worked a lot better when Members fraternized outside the legislative mosh pit.  Do some traveling with colleagues (making sure to schedule a stop at military bases or hospitals, and always get a country team briefing from the Embassy folks to prevent emails complaining that you blew off the diplomatic corps to do some site-seeing). Recounting your friendship with your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel constituents’ suspicions you’re rapidly becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the President (yes, even this President). As a successful politician once said, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, I told the President …” people listen, because you have demonstrated that you have access, which is more than 99.9% of the people with whom you are speaking.
  10. Don’t live in fear of defeat. Pay attention to your constituents’ needs and opinions, but don’t agonize over every vote. A member once advised a distraught colleague, “You can twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations.”  Few Members regret casting a vote of conscience, but a vote against your own best judgment can haunt you for a career.

Homework: Lastly, incoming Members often asked me to recommend some essential reading. I suggest Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly which recounts how well-intentioned leaders ignored evidence even when they knew doing so would yield catastrophic results. If you need advice on procedure, ask the Parliamentarian, but heed Tuchman’s findings about the misuse of power.

 

 

First Things First

In my first post-election DOMEocracy blog, I counseled anxious Democrats to “take a deep breath” and not overreact to the results. Nowhere is that advice more appropriate than in pausing before promoting presidential contenders for 2020.

Evidently, the editors at “The Hill” have a different perspective. http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/311436-top-15-democratic-presidential-candidates-in-2020. Nearly a month before Donald Trump has even taken the oath of office, “The Hill” is speculating about his 2020 Democratic opponent, and in doing so, the newspaper has identified exactly why such an exercise is so ill-conceived. What we need is 20-20 vision about Party priorities, not an obsession with a 2020 nominee we cannot possibly predict.

“The Hill” identifies the “top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020,” a list that is not only implausible but unlikely to contain whoever will emerge to lead the ticket. Hopefully, Democrats will waste less time on such far-fetched guessing games and more time fine-tuning the points of attack against Trump’s unsuitable “Team of Tycoons” who are qualified only to undermine the very agencies they have incomprehensibly been selected to manage.

Certainly, four of the prospective candidates can be safely crossed off the list. Michelle Obama has been a groundbreaking First Lady and is a highly effective speaker, but she undoubtedly has 100 higher priorities than plunging into politics. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden deserve tributes to their long careers articulating traditional (and still sound) Democratic themes, but neither septuagenarian is running for national office in 2020. Hillary Clinton may still have a great deal to do, but running for president a third time is certainly not one of them.

Elizabeth Warren has quickly emerged as a forceful and effective Trump critic, and her star is likely to rise as she sharpens her rhetorical knife for the upcoming confirmation hearings. Warren’s well-honed critique of Wall Street and Trump’s plutocratic resumé might well have produced a dramatically different outcome in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Clinton’s empathy for working class whites proved ineffective. But Warren will be 71 in 2020 and while admirably combative, is not emblematic of the “new generation of leadership” many believe is needed to attract millennials and other young voters.

In the wake of the fragmentation of the Obama coalition in 2016, many question if Democrats can win a national election without a woman or minority on the ticket, a perspective that undoubtedly leads “The Hill” to place Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), Gov. Deval Patrick (MA), and Oprah Winfrey on the list. Winfrey is not running for anything. Patrick has had a reasonably successful two-term tenure as governor, but projects little of the magnetism expected of a presidential contender; also, a Harvard-educated governor of Massachusetts hardly sends a message of non-coastal diversity sought by many alienated Democratic voters. Booker remains largely untested in national politics, and his record as mayor of Newark has been the subject of skepticism. But Booker, who as mayor once ran into a burning building to rescue a constituent, has the panache of a prospective president and a willingness to self-promote that in and of itself suggests he should be watched.

Building a career in the vote-heavy Congress -– historically a weak presidential launching pad — is a current preoccupation of several of the remaining long-shots on “The Hill’s” list of potential candidates. Surely, attention will fall on Tim Kaine (VA) whose performance on this year’s campaign trail seemed underwhelming, marking him as better suited for a vice presidential nomination rather than the top of the ticket. Still, a successful, Spanish-speaking Democratic senator from swing-state Virginia (Kaine or his colleague, Mark Warner, who did not make “The Hill’s” list) cannot be dismissed.

Sen. Chris Murphy (VT) has struggled to find his balance after moving over from the House. His major issue – gun control – seems unlikely to serve as an effective rallying cry for a national campaign; indeed, Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on the issue, however meritorious, likely did little to enhance her appeal to the white working class. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) have both been mentioned as future candidates, but may find it difficult to generate greater profile or achievement in the minority. Their performance in the confirmation processes may prove critical in generating greater interest from the press or attention from funders.

The inclusion of the widely anticipated, multi-ethnic, Sen.-elect Kamala Harris (CA) on a list at this point seems fanciful (although Barack Obama, it will be remembered, became the nominee after just four years in the Senate). Harris will face the formidable tasks of learning the ropes of the Congress, building national recognition, achieving something of substance in the minority, and fending off those who will be anxious to ensure she does not prematurely eclipse their own aspirations.

The last names on The Hill’s list are soon-to-be-former governors of important states – Andrew Cuomo (NY) and John Hickenlooper (CO). Both have the executive experience valuable to a president, and neither has the long voting record of legislators that often proves perilous to candidates seeking to move to the national stage. But Cuomo is a notoriously difficult personality who seems to generate little affection among those who know him best. Hickenlooper was twice narrowly elected in Colorado although he was previously a popular mayor of Denver, but he has no national profile and like Gillibrand, he may possess serious vulnerability over his support for gun control, an issue that roiled Colorado’s Democrats in 2013.

It may appear that I am simply pouring cold water on the most likely Democratic candidates, but that is not my intention. Rather, I want to make three points:

First, it is premature to think about 2020 candidates. We have no idea of Trump’s greatest vulnerabilities, or if he will even be the Republican candidate. Second, we should not vest overdue significance in identifying the “white knight” to lead Democrats out of the wilderness. The key steps in the months ahead are likely to be taken by a collection of people – in the Senate, the House, the state houses, the incoming DNC chair – and it is foolish to create expectations and launch campaigns when so little is known about what will be required to achieve victory in 2020.

Lastly, Democrats should not be distracted by presidential speculation and ignore the essential 2018 off-year elections that present both opportunity (in governorships) and jeopardy (in the Senate, because of the large number of incumbent seats to defend). As argued in earlier DOMEocracy posts, building the Party’s strength does not begin with picking a presidential candidate, but in building the Party’s foundation, winning back key gubernatorial and legislative seats that will dramatically impact the reapportionment process for the 2020’s, and allow Democrats to demonstrate the workability of progressive policies –- and the skills of potential presidential candidates – in running state governments which will serve as crucial prototypes over the next few years.

Team of Tycoons

The selection of an incoming president’s Cabinet often provides valuable insights into the direction of the new Administration on key policy matters. Lincoln had his “Team of Rivals”; Trump offers up his “Team of Tycoons”.

Early in the 2016 campaign, many questioned the sincerity of Trump’s full-throated embrace of conservatism. But Trump has left little room to question his current thinking, as illustrated by his embrace of some of the most extreme and dubiously qualified purveyors of hard-Right ideology.

There is nothing new about appointing friends, cronies, contributors and even relatives to positions for which they are dubiously qualified. John Kennedy once joked that he saw nothing wrong with appointing his 35-year old brother and campaign manager, Bobby, as Attorney General so he might gain some legal experience before beginning private sector practice. Historically, the need to give grandiose and undeserved titles to inexperienced political amateurs is why we had offices like Postmaster General or Ambassador to France.

Trump’s appointments add new and deeply troubling complications to the assembling of a management team for the Executive Branch. For someone without a voter mandate justifying so extreme a reversal in policy – he currently trails in the popular vote by 2.6 million, by far the largest deficit in history – Trump has selected uniformly extreme conservatives for his Cabinet. By contrast, Barack Obama, who won a healthy majority of the vote, bewildered Democratic congressional leaders by embracing bipartisan governance, an objective he soon discovered was not shared by the vanquished Republicans.

Trump’s appointments are not only disturbing because of the ideological rigidity, but also because of the designees’ appalling absence of governmental backgrounds. The common denominator of these appointments, beyond ideology, seems to be public sector inexperience, private sector executive skills, and vast amounts of personal wealth – none of which necessarily bear any relationship to the skills needed to implement complex policies or supervise and motivate intricate bureaucracies. Of course, neither the nominees nor Trump has demonstrated much interest in those responsibilities: the goals, instead, seem to be to vitiate most federal policies over which the agencies have jurisdiction and to ignore the deep experience of those with decades of experience in managing the agencies. It will doubtless come as a shock to these corporate leaders when bureaucrats refuse to roll over at the first contrarian command, as did reliable private sector underlings.

Trump’s appointments leave little doubt about his contempt for the very offices to which they are being proposed:

  • an Ambassador to the United Nations with no experience in foreign affairs or national security;
  • a Labor Secretary from the notoriously anti-union, low-paying fast food industry (his own company had a 60% labor violations rate) who opposes the most basic legal protections for employees and unions;
  • an Education Secretary with strong ties to religious education who embraces diverting taxpayer money to non-public schools with dubious records of academic achievement;
  • a Commerce Secretary whose background at Rothschild’s included representing Trump’s failed Taj Mahal casino and buying up bankrupt companies to flip them for a quick profit;
  • a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs with a long history as a hedge fund manager, and for good measure, selection of the president of Goldman Sachs to run the National Economic Council;
  • an Attorney General once rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record on civil rights and who, as a senator, opposed passage of a domestic violence law because it extended protections to LGBT Americans;
  • a Housing Secretary with no experience on housing affordability or availability who admitted his unsuitability for running a federal department;
  • an EPA Administrator who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and has a long history of suing the agency he would lead;
  • an Energy Secretary who is an unequivocal apologist for the oil and gas industry to head a department he once promised to eliminate (of course, the nominee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also famously forgot that he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, but then again, he also once named Juarez, Mexico as “the most dangerous city” in the United States.).

Few appointments could be more disturbing than naming the president of Exxon-Mobil as Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson will be the most inexperienced person to serve as America’s chief diplomat – by a long shot. His international experience is reflected in longstanding business relationships that earned him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2012 for sealing a $500 billion deal. Tillerson’s baggage includes decades of world-wide conflicts of interest that no one could purge from their thinking once entering public service.

Tillerson, along with many of the other plutocrats preparing to join the Trump Administration, will face questions from skeptical senators eager to expose their long records of hostility to what will soon become their public responsibilities. They also will have to reveal their intricate and extensive financial interests that may compromise their ability to act in ways that serve the public rather than their private interests. And they will face inquiries into their lack of experience in managing a large public agency with mandates to implement laws which they have long histories of opposing or flaunting.

One person in the Administration will avert such scrutiny, at least until 2020: the President-elect himself, who has yet to describe how he intends to divest himself of his own massive conflicts of interests, or to release his own tax records that may clarify the extent of his own involvement with foreign countries and foreign business leaders. Just five weeks from Inauguration Day, it is difficult to know what is more unsettling about the Trump Administration: what we already know about the special interest records of his Team of Tycoons, or what we do not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Pelosi Won, and What It Means

Earlier this week, a reporter asked House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi if she would achieve the three-quarters vote she had predicted to retain her leadership position. “Two-thirds,” Pelosi corrected the reporter. On Wednesday morning, in a secret vote among 197 House Democrats, Pelosi won an eighth term as the House’s top Democrat, with 68% of the vote, as predicted.

Pelosi’s precise vote-counting skills explain a good deal about why her colleagues extended her tenure, already the second longest in House history after that of legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn. During her one term as Democratic Whip and throughout seven terms as Speaker or Leader, Pelosi has been a meticulous vote counter, losing only one key vote — the 2008 vote on TARP when a teary John Boehner was unable to persuade his quota of Republicans to support the Bush-Pelosi initiative. (TARP quickly passed when Pelosi produced additional Democratic votes).

Long after she had vacated the Whip’s office to others, Pelosi ran her own vote-counting operation. Late into the night before key floor votes, Pelosi and her lieutenants and staff would count their pledges, and then painstakingly recount them, before seeking out the wavering dissidents who still needed persuading. It was that kind of diligence and persistence that paid off on Wednesday; Pelosi knows her members, and she is assiduous in listening to their views and addressing their needs.

But vote-counting skill alone did not secure Pelosi’s victory. First and foremost, leadership decisions are driven not by the symbolic value or national profile of a particular candidate, but by the answer to the time-honored question: “What can you do for me?” Compared to Pelosi’s massive fundraising record, her years of strategically assigning minority and vulnerable Members to key committee positions, and her skills at maximizing the party’s leverage even in the minority, a substantial majority of Democratic Members chose her continued leadership not because they liked or feared Pelosi, but because she was good for them. Her challenger, Tim Ryan of Ohio, offered none of that experience, which is why it was a foregone conclusion that in the era of Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Members concerned with their own political futures would not turn to an unproven novice.

Still, the Caucus protests sent a powerful message to find ways to elevate the participation of more junior Members – a majority of the House Caucus – into the leadership and decision-making roles. Pelosi has long sponsored weekly meetings between the leadership and these newcomers, but she proposed additional innovations to address the serious stasis among the aging committee leaders that has obstructed many Democrats from achieving even subcommittee leadership well into their careers. Some of her proposals met with immediate resistance, especially among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that is among the most vigilant defenders of a seniority system that ensures that minority legislators secure and retain their committee positions. (Ironically, the 1974 revolt against seniority targeted aging southern conservatives who, like many of today’s CBC members, enjoyed long tenures and leadership positions thanks to their largely uncontested seats.)

One important signal emanating from Wednesday’s vote is that the next team of Democratic leaders will certainly come from a new generation. Pelosi, along with Whip Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, the Assistant Leader (a position Pelosi created), will all be in their late seventies by 2018. The prospects for either Hoyer or Clyburn advancing to the Leader’s position, long a goal of the former, are negligible. Ryan’s challenge demonstrated that a substantial portion of the Caucus is prepared to look outside the traditional “leadership ladder,” a sentiment likely to grow and impact Ranking Members as well if some do not choose to step aside voluntarily, as did Ways and Means’ 85-year old Sander Levin this week.

It is unclear as of right now who will possess the multiplicity of talents displayed by Pelosi when the time comes to replace her, although one potential prospect, termed-out Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra of California, just decided to accept an appointment as that state’s Attorney General rather than seek to replace Levin or await Pelosi’s retirement. His departure, like that of Chris Van Hollen (Pelosi’s all-but-presumed successor who opted for a Senate seat) leaves open the question of who can credibly step up whenever the Pelosi era ends.

 

 

Is Trump the Republicans’ Cowbird?

 

The fledgling Populist Party made a fateful decision 120 years ago to join forces with Democrats in supporting William Jennings Bryan for president. Populists and Democrats did not agree on many issues, but they shared a common enthusiasm for the free coinage of silver to boost the money supply. That was sufficient to persuade Populist leaders not to field their own candidate (as they had in 1892) but to throw in with Bryan. When the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, the Populist Party was virtually obliterated as a significant entity in American politics.

Both contemporary observers and historians have questioned the wisdom of the Populist decision, a strategy of opportunism that linked the party to a dubious issue and subsequent campaign disaster. Henry Demerest Lloyd, the muckraking journalist who was sympathetic to the Populists, faulted party leaders for allowing themselves to be lured into their fatal political alliance. Lloyd called “free silver” the “cowbird of the Populist movement” after the fowl that lays its eggs in the nests of others and often fouls the host’s brood.

One question emanating from the shocking 2016 election is whether Donald Trump is the cowbird of the Republican Party. Historically, Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative in the contemporary sense of those terms: Trump is a party unto himself, with positions on issues from immigration to LGBT rights to trade to tax policy that have distinguished him from Republican conservative orthodoxy. He abandoned central tenets of conservative thought dating back a half century.

 

After an initial hesitation (doubtless mingled with dread), most of the Republican establishment has opportunistically lined up behind Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan realized that withholding support from the party’s nominee was inconsistent with their obligations as Republican leaders and might also jeopardize their own candidates if Trump supporters sought payback at the polls.

Much of the Washington Republican community has loyally lined up behind the president-elect. He named the Republican National Committee chairman to be his chief of staff and he has tapped into the deep reserves of K Street lobbyists to staff his transition and likely his administration as well. Indeed, by the time Inauguration Day arrives, it is likely the distinction between Trump and the GOP will seem indistinguishable.

Which is where that cowbird analogy comes in.

 

Trump, whose conservative credentials are suspect, successfully bullied his way into the Republican roost, but how beneficial will his presence be for the other residents of the nest? After all, for better or worse, Trump’s misfortunes and setbacks will inevitably become those of the Republican Party, which has embraced him. But the GOP may well come to rue the day it invited such an unpredictable and volatile leader into its midst. A

s Trump pursues policies that clash with longtime Republican dogma and interests, will conservatives revolt? When he agrees to defer deportations and sanctions only a partial fence paid for by U.S. taxpayers, how will the wall proponents respond? If he declines to repeal the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — entirely or reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders on LGBT rights or rescind the Iran arms agreement or the Paris climate treaty, will conservative stalwarts suspect they have been duped?

 

We are only a week into the Trump pre-presidency, and there already are signs that this could be a fecund administration for intrigue and scandal. The reports of bloodletting within the transition team already are legendary, with the abrupt firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief along with several top deputies, reportedly as retribution for Christie’s prosecution of the father of Trump’s son-in-law. The appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to a top West Wing position stunned and worried observers on all sides of the political divide, including the oddly repentant Glenn Beck. And this is just the beginning.

 

Historians never like to make predictions, especially in circumstances as unprecedented as Trump preparing to occupy the Oval Office. But the early indications suggest that major embarrassments and scandals could easily overwhelm this amateur political operation that is rife with financial conflicts of interest, inflicting deep damage not only on Trump but on his fellow Republicans.

 

Is Trump the cowbird of the Republicans? It’s too early to say, but one fact is beyond doubt: It’s too late to kick him out of the nest without likely bringing the whole flock down with him.

 

(Reprinted from the Santa Fe New Mexican, November 18, 2016)

Don’t Mourn: Organize!

(Printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Saturday, November 13, 2016)

A decade ago, after Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress, President George W. Bush admitted that Republicans had taken a “thumping.” Two years later, Republicans were plunged into even greater despair when Democrats won the presidency and enacted a substantial litany of progressive legislation.

Last Tuesday, Democrats took a “trumping” that has left progressives alternating between shock, anguish and, in some cases, genuine fear of what an America governed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the House Freedom Caucus might unleash.

They should be concerned. The people who will soon be in charge of the U.S. government are hard-line ideologues. It seems highly probable that ISIS or some other bad foreign actor will quickly test the inexperienced President Trump, and no one has an idea how he might respond. Domestically, he and congressional allies will use their newfound power to unwind as much of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legacy as they can, employing every governing device at their disposal from executive orders to the complex reconciliation process that will limit Senate Democrats’ opportunities for obstruction. In the House, the Freedom Caucus has apparently decided to give Speaker Paul Ryan a pass, choosing a unified GOP front to advance its agenda rather than devolving into a counterproductive internecine struggle at the outset of the 115th Congress.

There is not much point in sugar-coating what lies in store for progressives: It is going to be at least as demoralizing and destructive as the Obama salad days were for conservatives. But it is one thing to be weepy and dispirited, or to take to the streets questioning the legitimacy of the election outcome (that was going to be Trump’s response, remember?) and another to plan a serious political response to the events of Nov. 8.

Let’s take a deep breath. Allowing a little time to pass will facilitate clearer thinking than is possible immediately in the concussive aftermath of Trump’s victory. Much of what passes for “fact” right now consists of pundits inventing stories to fill dead airtime or self-promotion from aspirants to positions in the Trump administration. Prepare for the inevitable aftershocks: the Electoral College vote in December; appointments to Cabinet and White House positions; the inauguration on Jan. 20; the arrival of the first Trump budget in early February. Each will generate a paroxysm of anxiety among Democrats, which is understandable, but which doesn’t take one step toward achieving a political outcome more reminiscent of 2008 than of 2016.

It is instructive to remember than in response to the 2008 blowout, Republicans turned their energies to the state and local elections of 2010. Over the course of the Obama presidency, Republicans have amassed an increase of more than 900 such positions, and as of January will control more governorships than at any time in history. These positions have been the springboard for controlling the redistricting process that immeasurably helped the GOP build and hold its congressional majority in the intervening six years, and provided the farm team from which current and future political leaders are being promoted.

Democrats need to replicate such a strategy for all the same reasons. If Democrats pay as little attention to preparing for the upcoming 2020 reapportionment as they did a decade earlier, the possibility of controlling the House will be lost for another decade. Moreover, Democrats are in desperate need of a bigger farm team. One reason Hillary Clinton emerged as the inevitable if flawed nominee was the paucity of credible alternatives capable of challenging her. The party’s current leadership is mostly well into its 60s and 70s, and offers no credible candidates for national office. For a party predicating its appeal on young voters, a new generation of inspiring and motivating leaders is needed, not simply at the presidential level but within Congress as well.

In those states with progressive governments already in place, or those that can be won in the coming years, Democrats should embrace a “progressive federalism” that initiates policy experimentation where real impacts can be measured and replicable prototypes can be developed. Smart, creative people should look to opportunities in state capitals and city halls, not simply languish in powerless congressional offices where good ideas have little chance for advancement.

If the opportunities for creative policymaking in Washington are stymied, build capacity in Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., in Springfield, Ill., and Denver, in Lansing, Mich., and Trenton, N.J. If Trump and Congress send block-grant federal money to the states (a strong likelihood), fight for control of state governments that can demonstrate the effectiveness of progressive policies precluded at the national level. Conservatives have long advocated devolving power and money back to the states; maybe that’s not such a bad idea if Capitol Hill remains a sclerotic gridlock.

Lastly, stop with all the self-flagellation. “We liberal elitists are wrecks,” Garrison Keillor complains. “America died on Nov. 8,” Neal Gabler mourns. “It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety,” declares David Remnick. Oh, please! We lost an election we should have won, largely because nearly half the electorate didn’t vote, key portions of the Democratic base didn’t bother to show up, and millions of those who did fell for a lot of hooey from a non-taxpaying, subcontractor-stiffing, immigrant-bashing, bankruptcy-declaring, job-exporting misogynist.

Wallowing in self-pity, anguishing that we are, in Gabler’s words, “a pariah country,” or engaging in symbolic paroxysms of futility like a “Cal-exit” secession of our largest state or abolishing the Electoral College are wasteful diversions, luxuries for people who really do want to make America great again.

A century ago, the famed labor organizer Joe Hill confronted a future far more bleak than that facing today’s Democrats; he was about to be executed. Hill’s advice to his compatriots: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Still good advice.

GOP Division Won’t End Nov.8

(reprinted from Santa Fe New Mexican, October 19, 2016)

NOTE: While in Santa Fe for the fall, I will be writing occasional commentaries for the local newspaper on the election and its aftermath, and will post them on DOMEocracy once published.

Predicting election outcomes is a tricky business, but not when a presidential campaign is self-immolating. Here are certain signs of trouble: when the candidate, less than a month from the election, denounces his own party’s leadership, his allies are fleeing like he is the Walking Dead, and the press refers to the campaign as a “murder-suicide mission,” there’s trouble brewing on Election Day.

Even if Hillary Clinton is victorious, she may face a daunting task as President: dealing with a Congress in which Republicans are likely to control the House and will have enough votes in the Senate to obstruct her legislative priorities. Concern about those wishful priorities is why both parties are focusing so much attention on the “down ballot” races for the House and Senate.

As Donald Trump’s campaign spins alarmingly out of control, Republicans confront the unenviable challenge of encouraging voters to support their down ballot candidates even if they disapprove of the presidential nominee. Infuriated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to campaign for the ticket, Trump has launched unprecedented vitriol at those who are vacillating on, or abandoning, his campaign, tweeting “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary.” As for the House Speaker, Trump tweeted, “I don’t really want his support,” dismissing Ryan as a “weak and ineffective leader” and suggesting an undisclosed “sinister deal” is influencing Ryan. There are still congressional Republicans embracing the Party’s nominee, like Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold who recently admitted he would “consider” withdrawing his support if Trump “said he liked raping women,” but the ranks are getting thinner daily.

The GOP’s internecine warfare is escalating at a rate unprecedented in American presidential politics. Independent conservative campaign funders like the Koch brothers have decided to bypass Trump, pouring money instead into the races of endangered GOP incumbents. Loyal Trump voters are retaliating by threatening to boycott candidates who decline to embrace the top of the ticket. Meanwhile, GOP strategists are appealing to voters who blanche at voting for the Trump-Pence ticket to turn out to vote for other Republican candidates. As one who spent four decades in congressional politics, I know how difficult it is to persuade voters to focus on candidates even when they enthusiastically embrace the top of the ticket; when voters are deeply riven about the nominee, the task of enticing them to focus on the “down ballot” becomes even more formidable.

Few recognize this problem more than Ryan. Like his predecessor John Boehner, Ryan has been unable to persuade about 70 of his most conservative Members to support legislation he favors, depriving him of the 218 Republican votes he needs to pass bills designed by Republicans. Instead, like Boehner, he has had to negotiate with President Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to secure the Democratic votes to make up the deficit.   Indeed, virtually every major bill enacted during Boehner’s speakership had been passed with less than a majority composed of House Republicans (the supposed “Hastert Rule”) and with the strong support of Democrats. Ryan has not even tried to move forwarded with complex reforms on immigration, criminal justice and tax policy because of the deep GOP divisions and an unwillingness to be accused of compromising with Democrats.

Republicans may be able to sustain their House majority in 2016, largely because many districts have been drawn to disproportionately favor GOP candidates. But with Trump potentially running more than 10 percentage points behind Clinton in several bellwether states, Ryan may lose as many as 20 seats from the dwindling “moderate” wing of the Party, the only seats to remain marginally competitive despite the best gerrymandering efforts of state legislatures. As a result, in the next Congress, any majority Ryan enjoys will likely be much smaller and include an even larger proportion of irreconcilable conservatives than at present. Ryan would once again have to rely on Democrats to pass essential laws simply to keep the government functioning, and Democrats will continue to insist that the price of their support is keeping bills “clean” of conservative riders, like abolishing Obamacare. Ryan’s inevitable capitulation to that political reality will only outrage the Freedom Caucus further.

Such a likely dynamic is certain to spell continued turbulence for the Republican Party nationally, and renewed headaches for Speaker Ryan who would rather promote his ambitious policy agenda and perhaps pursue a 2020 campaign for the White House. One more reason to keep a close eye on the outcome of the congressional balloting next month.

A Microcosm of the Campaign

The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump served as a microcosm of their characters, styles and campaigns. Clinton arrived prepared, poised and ready to bait Trump into responding to her most provocative attacks: his temperament, his tax records, his dubious business practices, and his lack of preparation. Trump arrived undeservedly confident of his debating skills and ability to do one-on-one to Clinton what he had done to a shelf-full of Republican primary opponents: bluster, intimidate and spew half-truths (at best).

Let’s be clear that what is important about the debate aftermath is not who scored the most points; this isn’t a high school state championship after all. What matters is (a) how voters – especially undecided voters, who hopefully watched – evaluate the candidates’ performances; (b) how the media describe what happened for those who didn’t watch or who need some guidance in sifting the wheat from the chaff; and (c) what the polls reflect in the days to come.

The immediate reactions were mixed, as they always are. CNN, whose commentators gave Trump’s performance higher marks than did MSNBC, ran a quick poll that found viewer evaluations favored Clinton by nearly a 2-1 margin. Democratic commentators naturally gushed over Clinton’s performance, especially James Carville who appeared nearly giddy in the debate’s aftermath. Importantly, Republican commentators, most notably Steve Schmidt (a former McCain strategist), was almost as apoplectic about Trump’s undisciplined behavior.

They key question for me, as with all issues related to campaigns, is whether the performance of each candidate persuaded voters to move out of the undecided category. It is difficult to believe that Trump’s vintage performance would move an undecided voter into his camp, whereas it is reasonable to conclude that Clinton’s measured, serious demeanor and exhibition of detailed information might well persuade some undecideds that she is the superior candidate. In that regard, rather than parsing each statement or answer, she was the winner.

The climax of the debate for me, hands down, was Trump’s unwise foray into a discussion of his temperament. In my earlier blog last weekend, I highlighted the temperament issue as the one I would have Hillary focus on; as it turns out, Trump did it for her. To be honest, I nearly dropped my pen when he claimed his greatest asset is his temperament. OK, let’s be clear: when your opponent hands you the line you can run with till Election Day, it’s been a good evening. Trump may be able to lay claim to some strengths as a candidate – the articulator of lower income white angst comes to mind – but no reasonably intelligent person would conclude his temperament is an asset, let alone his “greatest” asset. I could practically hear the film editors rushing to the editing room to re-cut all those commercials showing a volatile, explosive, vulgar Trump to insert his absurd statement as the introductory overlay. I wasn’t disappointed: it showed up within 12 hours, and it’s a doozy; plan on seeing it non-stop from now to November. https://m.youtube.com/watch?wpisrc=nl_daily202&v=Y7ys8bmTf5U&feature=youtu.be&wpmm=1

Clinton’s performance was not perfect by any means; occasionally she slipped into demonstrating that she was the smartest person in the room, reeling off acronyms and the names of obscure foreign leaders or adversaries. Her comeback on his charge that she lacked stamina was good – highlighting her globetrotting as Secretary of State and her 11 hour testimony on Benghazi before a House committee — but he had a good response (“wrong experience”).  More importantly, her answer opened what could have been a devastating segue into a discussion, in the hands of a more skilled debater, of her shortcomings as Secretary of State. But she also projected voluminous knowledge, an ability to parry Trump with a gentle put-down instead of an off-putting battering ram, and a willingness to sustain a smile on the split screen during Trump’s venal attacks. She skillfully raised differentiating issues that will cut against Trump with that undecided portion of the electorate –- equal pay, minimum wage, student loan relief – and found opportunities to remind viewers of his vile and un-presidential attacks on women, his shoddy business practices and his refusal to release his tax returns: all issues a voter not immersed or interested in policy nuances would easily understand. But she missed an opportunity to follow-up on his charges about manufacturers exporting jobs by pointing out that all of the products bearing his name are made overseas.

Trump showed some strength early on, but quickly dissipated into an angry, uncouth loudmouth who lacked both the substantive knowledge and – sorry, Donald – temperament to be President. He was doing pretty well attacking Clinton’s positions on trade, ISIS and deficit spending, and he forced her into what was unquestionably her worst stumble of the night, a full-throated defense of NAFTA. (You can be certain that mistake will be replayed exhaustively in battleground states hard-hit by job losses including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.) But Trump missed numerous opportunities to return to the issue and remind viewers what Clinton had just said, an amateur’s mistake. Meanwhile, he displayed an incredible tin ear to middle income voters, boasting he had paid no taxes on over $600 million in income last year (“That was smart”), hoping for a collapse in the 2008 housing market (“That’s called business, by the way”) and defending his refusal to pay contractors working on his construction projects. (Clinton should have mentioned there are thousands of such suits). As an attorney, Clinton should have pounced on Trump’s implication that he was innocent of racial discrimination in his rental practices because the Department of Justice suits were settled without an admission of guilt, which is no exoneration or dismissal of the charges. I was fascinated by Trump’s persistent assertion that he knew about foreign nations because he owned properties in various locales, and his admission that he took advantage of bankruptcy laws because he could.

Perhaps his most revealing statement all evening is one that voters should carefully consider. “My obligation right now” (note “right now,” in the midst of a presidential campaign) is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.” The American voter has reason to expect a little more attention to their well-being and security from a candidate for President.

Overall, a decent night for HRC, but not a knockout.  She deserves credit for being knowledgeable, managing Trump’s adolescent behavior and finding multiple opportunities for reminding voters of Trump’s unsuitability. Also, I give her and her team great credit for taking the debate deadly seriously, preparing assiduously, and not assuming that she could simply rely on experience and knowledge. She will have to demonstrate the same discipline in the two remaining debates and not fall prey to the assumption that because she vanquished Trump once, he will prove similarly inept in their future encounters.

 

Eve of Destruction

A few random thoughts the day before THE DEBATE, between book editing, exploring Santa Fe and deep anxiety over the presidential election.

The Debate

 OK, everyone’s heart is in their throat, realizing that all Trump need do is not foam at the mouth (a possibility) and he will be judged the equal of Clinton’s 40 years of public service and expertise.

My advice to the Clintonistas is simple: the only issue in this campaign is whether Trump has the temperament to be President. Sure, there are policy differences as well, but the gut question for rationale people even contemplating voting for Trump is whether he can be trusted to act responsibly. So Clinton should simply find as many opportunities as she can (and there will be many) to say to Trump: “Donald, that comment reflects exactly why you lack the temperament and judgment to be President. It is obvious your words and decisions would threaten the security of the people of this country.”

When Clinton is hit with provocative questions about emails, Benghazi or her supposed evasiveness, her response should not be to refute them substantively, but to dismiss them by saying, “The real issues are Mr. Trump’s complete lack of experience and his temperament that will endanger the safety of the people of this country.”

I also would not be opposed to finding an opportunity for this: “You know, I don’t think Mr. Trump would hire and architect or an engineer or a welder to work on one of his casinos of hotels if that person had never spent an hour doing such important work, regardless of whether he agreed with their opinions (or whether he intended to pay them for their work). Why would we entrust the safety and security of this country, and the American people, to someone without any demonstrated experience in dealing with the most complex national or international challenges?”

Gary Johnson: Will He Be Missed at the Debate?

Johnson’s absence increases the chances that Trump will be the candidate most likely to say something truly jaw-dropping. Here is a recent offering of the Libertarian’s musings that will not be offered on stage at Hofstra on Monday night:

“I mean, the plate tectonics at one point, Africa and South America separated, and I am talking now about the Earth and the fact that we have existed for billions of years and will going forward. We do have to inhabit other planets. I mean, the future of the human race … is space exploration.”

OK, as Bernie Sanders says: this is no time for a protest, 3rd party vote.

Congress: Who Is Driving This Train?

 End-of-the-session continuing resolutions and pre-election maneuvering are always fascinating (and a little unsettling) to watch, and this year proves no exception. As I have long noted, the conflict is within the House Republican Conference where the Freedom Caucus threatens to withhold support for a CR that might become law unless Speaker Ryan, House Democrats, the Senate and President Obama all do what the Freedomites demand. Not going to happen. So Ryan again likely will have to pass a CR with Democratic votes, although even that is looking problematic because Republicans are balking at providing assistance to Flint, Michigan residents following the water contamination debacle.

Some Republicans seem to have figured out they are doing grave damage to their party in battleground Florida by delaying the provision of the $1.9 billion requested by President Obama last February for addressing the spread of the Zika virus. Still, the Republicans are insisting on unrelated riders as the price for Zika funding, including a ban on the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring that public entities reveal their political spending. There’s a connection most voters would immediately appreciate: no money to stop a deadly virus unless you also agree to cover up special interest campaign spending! Every Zika case in the country – 19,000 so far — should be ascribed to Republican procrastination. Coming from the same people who profess so much concern for the unborn, one might have thought a more timely and compassionate response would have been in order.

Of course, Louisianans who are desperate to secure money from the federal government – which they disparaged when the Northeast required emergency aid – also wanted help responding to recent flooding. The willingness of these anti-Washington zealots to demand handouts (and not paid-for handouts, as they demanded in the past for Hurricane Sandy and other catastrophes) is really a marvel of self-serving hypocrisy, notable even by Louisiana standards (which are impressive). Perhaps they would have more time to consider the inconsistency of their appeal if some of the very same players were not also focused on trying to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen, who was not even in office when alleged (and disproven) investigations of conservative organizations were taking place.

Ryan’s “Relief”

 The beleaguered Speaker Paul Ryan has been spending the summer and early fall trying to avoid association with his Party’s presidential nominee. With an eye towards his own likely campaign four years from now, Ryan has been sweating the details of his own policy program to contrast with that of a possible President Clinton (and distinguish himself from his Party’s current nominee). Ryan is often given undeserved creds as a policy and budget genius, based largely on his ability to craft a House budget that passes only with Republican votes, needs no Senate agreement or presidential approval and thus demonstrates no particular political or legislative skill whatsoever.

What is important to note is that the tax plan embraced by this strategic and policy maven is decidedly reminiscent of every other Republican tax scheme for the past 40 years: high-minded talk about evening out the inequities in the tax laws, but stuffed full of policy that delivers most of the benefits to the very rich.

Under Ryan’s proposed tax rewrite, 99.6% of the tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of Americans. Before the masses take to the streets to celebrate Ryan’s tax relief plan, they might want to check who gets the relief. It isn’t them. No surprise.

By the way, this proposal is not quite the sharp reversal of policy Ryan would have us believe. In addition to being warmed over trickle down economic hooey, it tracks the tax laws approved by Republicans over the past decade that have showered $269 billion in tax breaks, not just on their favorite 1% of Americans, but on the wealthiest two-tenths of one percent!   That translates to 5,400 families! No report on how the trickling is going.

But the vast bulk of Americans aren’t ignored in the Ryan plan; at least not the poorest Americans who probably wouldn’t gain anything from tax cuts anyway. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens can look forward to $6.5 trillion in cuts to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition assistance.

Quick Quiz

OK, here is a quiz you might want to take the day before THE DEBATE.

Both of the following stories have been reported in the (loosely defined) press.   One is true; the other, I honestly believe, is not. Take a guess, and the answer will appear in the next DOMEocracy. Meanwhile, enjoy the debate.

o Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby

In June 1993, shortly after entering the White House, the Clintons adopted the infant survivor of a UFO, whom they named John Stanley Clinton. An observer told the Weekly World News, “He will almost certainly be educated and groomed for a life in public service.”

o One-fifth of Trump Supporters Disapprove of Lincoln Action

According to a January 2016 poll by YouGov, 20 percent of Trump supporters disagreed with Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. No word on whether they disapprove because it only applied to slaves situated in states in rebellion (i.e., Trump states), because they thought it should not have been issued at all, or because they think Lincoln’s Executive Order paved the way for President Obama’s unilateral actions.