hardline political news and analysis

Americans Like “New”

         Some years ago, my wife and I bought an 80-year old, hand-built farmhouse with a barn reeking of horse and hay and a six foot black snake in the unfinished basement. With five acres of rolling Virginia farmland, a cattle farm (complete with severely listing barn) across the unpaved road, and two creeks, it was what we had hoped to find (except for the apparently unlimited supply of mice). 

         My mother-in-law took a decidedly different view. “I like new,” she declared. Over the course of the next five years, we lost the battle with the mice and never saw the snake (although a repairman did). While we nevertheless loved the place, my mother-in-law was onto something which has influenced my interpretation of American politics ever since.

         Americans like “new.” New cars. New electronic gadgets. New shampoo. New diets. Perhaps it is the legacy of living in the “New World,” but “new” has a unique appeal in our society. For some reason, advertisers often declare a product is unchanged, but at least the box it comes in is “new.”

         And as a general rule, the same rule applies in presidential politics. Since the modern age of campaigning and telecommunications began to shape our electoral preferences, Americans have chosen, almost without exception, the new, less experienced, more alluring candidate when presented with a genuine choice.

         True, there have been exceptions. Nixon in 1968: a former congressman, senator, vice president and presidential nominee. You couldn’t get any better known. But remember, he was running against a sitting vice president and a segregationist ex-governor. And he ran as “the new Nixon”!

         The other great exception to my rule was George H. W. Bush, who had served as vice president for eight largely invisible years in addition to two terms as a congressman and a succession of appointive positions. But he was running against a dull-as-dishwater Democrat whom you felt you had known for a long time.

         But everyone else was, when they were elected, either new to federal office, politically inexperienced, something of a celebrity, or definitely more fun than the opposition. 

  • Eisenhower, the successful general with the big grin and no elective experience over the cerebral Gov. Stevenson (not even close); 
  • the telegenic and dashing Kennedy, a largely inconsequential senator over the drab but vastly better known Nixon (close election, but decisive);
  • Johnson over Goldwater (doesn’t count, special circumstances); 
  • Carter over Ford (peanut farmer, no federal service, and no voting record over long-serving House minority leader and appointed VP); 
  • Reagan over Carter (movie star, no federal service, no legislative record); 
  • Clinton over Bush (the aw-shucks Elvis over the clueless, watch-checking tax raiser);
  • Bush II over Gore (no federal service, no legislative voting record, everyman over Mr. Smarty Pants vice president, senator, congressman, son of a senator); 
  • Obama over McCain (youth, smile, history-making over gray-haired Beltway fixture who himself picked an alarming novice for VP); and 
  • Trump over Hillary (sleazy, tough talking TV star and political neophyte over the epitome of Beltway conventionality).

         The old saying declares we prefer the devil we know to the devil we don’t, but in presidential politics, that’s usually not true. We roll the dice; we prefer the slick talker, the phrasemaker, the new face over the experienced statesperson. Americans get bored easily and they view politics, to some degree, as entertainment. We don’t believe what candidates promise, and we presume they’ll probably disappoint us (often rather quickly); so, we might as well be entertained in the process.

         Applying this theorem to 2020 presents something of a challenge, but it might help explain the perplexing rise of Pete Buttigieg to the status of top-tier contender and maybe even, however briefly, front runner in Iowa. Yes, Buttigieg is a smart guy; he has the gift of the orator’s silver tongue; he has the unconventionality of having volunteered to serve in the military during a war he strongly opposed (yes, there’s likely an element of conscious resume-building in that decision).

         But he also is of incredibly limited experience to become president. After all, he has been mayor of a city that is one-seventh the size of a congressional district, his inter-branch experience is limited to dealing with a city council of eight  members (contrasted with 535 in Congress), and his two efforts to run for bigger office in Indiana and the Democratic party were unsuccessful. Even his combat zone   experience was as an intelligence officer; he did not exactly plan D-Day.

         And yet, Buttigieg is enjoying an enormous bump in recent polls. Unquestionably, if you apply the Bush II v Gore test to the 2020 field (“Who would you rather have a beer with?”), Mayor Pete is the hands-down winner. And few people discuss complex policy issues when having a beer at the local bar (at least, few people outside the Beltway).

         And maybe that’s enough. Buttigieg has the luck to be running against a more experienced but decidedly less appealing field, many of whom are burdened with long voting records that make opposition researchers drool when designing attack ads. He’s smart, he’s fresh, he handles questions well and he appears upbeat and pragmatic. And he is being contrasted to the incumbent who is everything Buttigieg is not, and then some.

         Of course, untested candidates often must overcome concerns about issues that could jeopardize (or at least raised questions about) their campaigns: Eisenhower’s health, Kennedy’s Catholicism, Carter’s evangelicism, Bill Clinton’s cavorting, Obama’s race. But like Trump, Buttigieg lives in era when, thanks to the internet, little about a candidate’s background or beliefs is unknown, so an issue that might have derailed a candidacy through disclosure, such as Mayor Pete’s sexual orientation, is well known and potentially neutralized by the time primaries, caucuses or Election Day arrive.

         Are Americans willing to overlook inexperience and elect someone who was born in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office? I often say I’m an historian who is more comfortable analyzing the past than predicting the future, but from an historical standpoint, Buttigieg’s inexperience could become an asset that could help propel him, as it has others, into the Oval Office.

A Return to Normalcy

With all of the political mayhem of the past three years, we should not be shocked by this statement from one of the leading ’20 presidential candidates.

My best judgment of America’s need is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path…America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate.

This statement was not recently uttered by Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg (and obviously not by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) but by Warren G. Harding, the enormously successful Republican candidate elected in 1920, exactly one century ago. (Note: Harding won what was then the most sweeping victory in contested presidential elections. The defeated Democratic vice-presidential candidate that year, incidentally, was Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Harding was railing against the internationalism that dominated the second term of Woodrow Wilson, which had included the entry of the United States into the Great War despite Wilson’s avowed neutrality during the 1916 campaign, and the resulting Treaty of Versailles. Harding was also fulminating against American participation in Wilson’s League of Nations. “Let us stop to consider that tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad,” Harding declared, reflecting the growing isolationism of the 1920s.

Such narrow sentiments are among the reasons – along with the widespread corruption pervading his Cabinet – that Harding is consistently ranked among the very worst presidents, although current events suggest his standing seems likely to improve by one position in the near future.

Nevertheless, the underlying point about voter exhaustion and the need to step back from political pandemonium is worth considering with respect to the fast approaching 2020 primaries, caucuses, conventions and general election. The discrepancy between the small proportion of activists who dominate the candidate selection process and the small proportion of voters who are likely to determine the outcome of the election is a challenge that voters, as well as party leaders, need to confront sooner rather than later.

Large swaths of the country and the media are astonished by those who fill the stadiums and cheer wildly as Trump delivers his rambling, histrionic and accusatory rants. A contemptuous friend refuses to listen to Trump’s exhortations, professing he “prefers them in the original German”. I suspect a much larger cohort of voters is privately fatigued or appalled by the turmoil that is the Trump presidency, even if they favor many of his policies (as polling indicates do most Republicans).  

But that exhaustion does not translate into a desire for the ideological pendulum to swing in the opposite direction, towards an aggressive or bombastic progressivism in style or policies. Instead, millions of voters – and particularly the key cohort of voters whose preference will likely determine the next election – are seeking, well, a return to normalcy: a lowering of the rhetorical temperature so that we might have a reasoned discussion about health care, immigration, climate change, gun policy, election fairness, national security, or trade policy. Like Alvie Singer in Annie Hall, who is horrified by Duane’s thoughts of self-immolation, voters just “need to get back to planet Earth.”

That desire for “normalcy” is reflected in the new survey concerning the sliver of “perishable voters” in battleground states, about 9% of the electorate, more than enough to swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and thus, the 2020 outcome. Some of the results are surprising. For example, this group supported Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 by 8 points, and endorse a single payer health care system. They support Biden over the president by a 38%-27% margin. However, they support Trump over Sanders narrowly (34%-32%) and over Warren more decisively (37%-20%). Significantly, Trump polls under 40% against any of the current Democratic leaders.

Two additional points are worth noting. These “persuadable” voters are less likely to actually vote, so the decisiveness of their views may well turn on how motivated this unmotivated group of people is to actually show up. And even more assuredly, these are not the voters in either party who are likely to determine the nominees, which means the general election choice they confront in one year may not be between candidates with whom they are comfortable, with potentially devastating consequences for turnout.

One year out, it is difficult to predict with any accuracy where this constituency will land on Election Day, 2020, yet it seems likely that it will gravitate towards “normalcy” and the political center, where rational debate and compromise seem possible, rather than to the more partisan edges of the national discourse. For Democrats, whose nominee remains very much in doubt, strategic thinking about the mood of the general electorate now may save a great deal of regret and anguish the morning after. 

Fuzzy Math: 218+60=Medicare for All

Analysts and critics teasing apart the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders “Medicare for All” (M4A) proposal seem to me to be focusing on the wrong set of numbers. Of course, how much it will cost (most estimates suggest $30 trillion over ten years), how much middle class taxes will go up (they will, inevitably, to replace premiums and maybe co-pays and deductibles) and cutbacks on payments for drugs, doctors and hospitals are all legitimate questions that frankly deserve more credible answers than have been provided thus far.

But for me, the big question is how such a sweeping plan would be approved by Congress: how long would it take, in what configuration would M4A emerge, and how would a President Warren or Sanders secure the votes for passage? Yes, I know, that sounds like the protestation of a short-sighted, Hill-addled bean counter, but having the answer to precisely that question is how big ideas become laws. There is never a paucity of visionary, aspirational policy goals before the Congress but it is the rare one that emerges out of the tumult of the House and Senate in recognizable form.

So, yes, I am going to demand that candidates not only tell me their policy objectives but explain how they are going to be enacted, both because a goal with no means of implementation is deceit, and because a failure on such a major policy objective will engender even more voter cynicism about politicians’ overpromises and the failures of our political system. And we don’t need to foment more of that!

M4A proponents have conflated dissatisfaction with the cost of health care (both accessibility and prices) with a willingness to abandon private insurance, which does not exist. Nor have they explained why voters, who have a view of Congress (unjustified, perhaps) at 20 percent approval (a number that has not exceeded 30 percent in a decade), would entrust their elected officials with designing and running such a sweeping change to a system that affects every single American.

When the House passed the Affordable Care Act 2010, there were a lot more Democratic members than there are today, and yet the bill passed only by one vote. One. 219 votes in favor. True, the House had passed a bill with a public option, a distant (and weaker) cousin to M4A; that bill received 220 votes. A Senate with 60 Democrats killed the public option (thank you, Joe Lieberman). The chances of seeing a Senate with 60 Democrats again, as is needed to impose cloture to pass a public option of M4A, is slim to none.

Warren claims that as president she will end the filibuster on legislation just as the Senate has done on appointments. No, she won’t. The president doesn’t decide the Senate’s rules. Perhaps a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would consider ending the filibuster on legislation, but I wouldn’t bet on it; senators love the practice for the power it gives them over each other and especially over the House. As the late Senate president pro tem Robert Byrd once put it, “Filibusters are a necessary evil, which must be tolerated lest the Senate lose its special strength and become a mere appendage of the House of Representatives. Without the right of unlimited debate … there would also be no Senate as we know it.” Ending “the Senate as we know it” might sound a great idea to everyone but the 100 people in the Senate, but they, not the rest of us, make the rules.

Enacting something as sweeping as M4A would require not only overcoming enormous opposition in a highly polarized Congress, where few (if any) votes could be expected from Republicans, but also overcoming the phenomenal hostility of the massive health care, insurance, hospital, physician, medical supplies and drug industries. Yes, those might sound like “the bad guys,” but they include everyone from the American Medical Association to AARP (which makes most of its money by selling insurance). And to be fair, the issue is not simply that M4A would cost all these interests money (which could and should be controlled by tougher price negotiating, among other regulatory actions), but it also would radically alter a system that delivers health care to hundreds of millions of people. If they aren’t concerned, they obviously should be.

Lastly, both Warren and Sanders (as well as several lesser candidates likely to remain also-rans) have embraced the idea that participation in M4A would be mandatory, requiring that those with private insurance give up their plans and compelling those without it to participate. Uh, I remember the hellfire that arose from the ACA requirements to compel the uninsured to purchase coverage (repealed) and the tax on the high-quality, so-called “Cadillac” plans negotiated by unions for their members and retirees (repealed). Any Democrat who wanders into a union hall in Michigan or Wisconsin next year to make the case for the mandatory liquidation of private health plans will be lucky to escape with their briefing papers. That dog won’t hunt, and unless a M4A proponent can explain it more successfully than they have to date, ending private insurance is unlikely to be the key to unlocking the disaffected middle class vote in the Mid-West.

The last argument of the M4A proponents is that we must think big to achieve big; Barack Obama understood this appeal, which is why he talked about “hope” and “change.” But the “change” has to be achievable change, and it cannot provoke nationwide controversy that obscures other issues in the campaign. Yes, there have been times America has been aspirational and legislated in an exceptional manner: the New Deal and civil rights are two shining examples. But in the case of the former, there was little alternative but sweeping government intervention, and in the case of the latter, there was a driving moral force throughout much of the country. Nor did either of these great periods of activism challenge huge swaths of the private sector in which tens of millions of Americans worked, or undo existing systems that enjoyed overwhelming public support as does private insurance.

We do need major changes to our health insurance and delivery program, and candidates are right to point out the shortcomings remaining despite the great benefits of the ACA. Moreover, I have little doubt that if we are able to implement a public option, reverse the administrative obstructions to ACA imposed by President Trump, expand Medicaid to all states, allow states to defer to a national exchange and lower the entry age for Medicare, all very achievable goals, the inexorable trend will be towards a single payer system. If voters see that government managed care is effective, resistance to greater efficiency will diminish. And with greater federal management of health care will come enormous power to negotiate for lower drug, hospital and other medical costs. 

But we need to bring voters and affected businesses along, prove to them these reforms can work, restore confidence that government can be trusted managing health policy. Just telling people the system they have relied on will end in 4 years, someone else will shoulder all the costs, premiums, deductible and co-pays will magically vanish, and their health care will be secure borders on the ludicrous, and it is a dangerous and self-defeating cornerstone to any presidential campaign.

Why calls for impeachment have become commonplace

(Note: This column first appeared in “The Hillon October 12, 2019)

A half century ago, a popular lapel pin urged Americans to celebrate the centennial of the impeachment of President Johnson by … impeaching President Johnson. Instead of prosecuting Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act (a dubious ground for impeachment), the red, white and blue button voiced the widespread anger at Lyndon Johnson for his alleged treachery associated with his escalation of the war in Vietnam. Unlike his namesake, however, LBJ never had a fear of impeachment, in part because his transgressions seemed limited to bad judgment not criminal behavior.

It is important to remember that no president faced a serious threat of impeachment from 1789 until Andrew Johnson in 1868. Then, for over a century, the procedure lay unused against presidents until Richard Nixon faced almost certain impeachment and conviction over the Watergate scandal in 1974 before he resigned. Only months after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, Democrats in Congress floated the possibility of impeaching him for cutting a deal with Nixon that traded resignation for a pardon. (This little-remembered effort is recounted in my book, The Class of ’74.)

A decade later, many Democrats contemplated filing impeachment resolutions again Ronald Reagan for his attempted efforts to cover-up knowledge of White House operatives circumventing congressional strictures against aiding the anti-Sandinista “contras” in Nicaragua’s civil war. Although aides were prosecuted, Reagan himself escaped, partly because many in Congress believed he was too confused to have orchestrated the deception.

Just over a decade later, Bill Clinton actually was impeached — though not convicted — over allegations over his inappropriate personal behavior and his alleged prevarications during questioning. Neither charge against him received a majority vote in the Senate let alone the two-thirds required for conviction.

Less than a decade after Clinton’s trial, the new Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was pushed to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether George W. Bush had intentionally misled the Congress and the country about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in order to galvanize the nation into beginning a seemingly endless war. Pelosi, focused on enacting her “6 for ‘06” legislative agenda, pushed back against the impeachment demands notwithstanding her own suspicions about Bush’s mendacity and her fervent opposition to the war.

Nearly a decade and a half later, we again find ourselves in the midst of demands for the impeachment of a president. A process one rarely contemplated seemingly has become reflexively discussed. Indeed, some journalists were even speculating in April 2016 that Trump could face impeachment soon after being inaugurated — and he hadn’t even been nominated yet!

What explains that evolution? Are presidents more dishonest? Are Congresses more obsessed with finding wrongdoing? Or is there something more profound about the changing nature of American politics?

Indeed, American politics have become far more polarized as parties ideologically realigned and the middle ground dramatically withered over the past 40 years.

With the rise of partisanship has come a far greater level of equity — close margins of control — between the parties, with persistent competition for the control of Congress more closely resembling the quadrennial race for the White House. In the 62 years from 1932 to 1994, Democrats controlled the House for all but four years; in the modern political era, however, control of one house or another has shifted in 1980, 1986, 1994, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, resulting in a heightened competitive fervor fed by unrestrained money and round-the-clock “news” coverage often untethered from the facts.

The more frequent change in control of Congress has also meant a greater chance that the House will be controlled by the party other than that of the president, especially since off-year elections often serve the purpose of checking the power of the person in the White House. Indeed, every presidential impeachment has unsurprisingly come when the House and White House were under different party control.

Lastly have been the cultural changes, especially more rigid ideology and an expectation of immediate gratification, unwillingness to wait for the next election, and activist base groups that view election outcomes as little more than the starting point for investigations and challenges to winners.

In an earlier era like the 1960s, none of these factors existed, and so despite those clever “Impeach Johnson” buttons, there was little contemplation of impeaching a president. Perhaps the only way to avoid the threat of impeachment is the way Barack Obama did during eight scandal-free years: Deny critics the grounds in the first place.

Will the Seniority System Survive?

The announcement by House Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey (NY) that she will retire at the end of this Congress marks the departure of a highly respected and well-liked member, but it also could very well accelerate an historic era of change in the House.

Ever since the 1910 bipartisan rebellion against Speaker Joe Cannon, which removed his ability to name committee chairmen, the seniority system has largely governed who controls the gavel in committees and subcommittees, at least during those periods of Democratic majorities. In 1994, the incoming speaker New Gingrich, the first Republican to preside over the House in 40 years, abolished seniority in favor of the Cannon-era practice of the speaker’s designating chairmen in order to ensure conformity to the leadership’s agenda and priorities. Since no Republican then serving in the House had ever been a chairman, Gingrich had something of a free hand that Democrats lacked when they regained the majority in 2006 and 2018.

Early in the 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans had adopted rules declaring that seniority alone would not be the criterion for awarding gavels, but for the next 40 years, seniority remained largely inviolate with the exception of the post-Watergate Congress. Dozens of new members in the Class of ’74 joined with other reformers to depose three older, autocratic or somnambulant chairs who had more regularly voted with the Republican minority than with their own caucus. Half a dozen other chairs retired in 1976, unwilling to live in an atmosphere where they were compelled to be responsive to the caucus.

Over the years, Democrats have largely continued to honor the seniority system, although challenges to existing chairs have been rare (a notable exception was the successful challenge of John Dingell by Henry Waxman in 2008). When chairmanships open through retirements, challenges to automatic seniority are becoming far more commonplace, as when Richard Neal jumped over John Lewis to chair Ways and Means and when Loewy herself challenged the more senior Marcy Kaptur when Dave Obey retired in 2010. 

Because seniority remains the general rule, the vast majority of Democratic chairs are significantly older than the caucus average, and younger members (and many not that much younger) have waited years to have an opportunity to move into the center chair on the upper dais. Since Democrats do not have a three term limit on chairmanships like Republicans, many members have had little option but to wait for a retirement to launch their own campaign, seniority notwithstanding. As a result, nearly all Democratic chairs are well over 60, and many are in their 70s (Lowey herself is 82) and those waiting to move up aren’t much younger in many cases. To help give a more age-balanced appearance to their committee leaderships, Democrats name vice chairs who are typically decades younger than the person running the panel.

Challenges to the leadership in 2018 fizzled despite questions about age and long tenures, but chairmanships are different. Those aspiring to displace Nancy Pelosi as speaker had no experience as speaker, or in the leadership, or as a chairman or any other senior position in the House; they had never demonstrated the kind of strategic expertise essential to occupying the top position, and for that reason alone, they had difficulty making the case for replacing a widely respected former speaker.

But that is not the case with members attempting to move into chairmanships. Members serve on their committees for years, even decades, before having an opportunity to chair a committee, if they ever do. Ed Markey remarkably served in the House for nearly four decades and never chaired a standing committee because he had the bad luck of falling behind George Miller and Henry Waxman, who had been elected a few months before him. There are many members in the second, third, fifth or eighth position on committees who have plenty of expertise, have chaired major subcommittees and have the relationships and expertise needed to launch a credible challenge for chair.  

There are any number of reasons why members may be less inclined to honor the seniority system as they have in the past, and the race to succeed Chairwoman Lowey (which doubtless began earlier today) will have to be watched to see if the time-honored tradition can withstand the changing times. You have to acknowledge a system that has largely endured for 109 years, but regardless of years of service, I would not bet on the gavel automatically falling into the hands of senior members after another cohort of young, reform-minded winners storm the Capitol in 2021.


For more on the reforms of the post-Watergate era, see my book: “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship”: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship (JHUP, 2018) available on Amazon and Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Three C’s of Impeachment

Now that the Rubicon has been crossed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, it is essential that the impeachment inquiry be carefully managed. Members should be deeply relieved that they decided last December that Pelosi was the person to lead the House through what everyone understood would be challenging times.  The speaker was secure enough not to yield prematurely to the rising demands for impeachment. Instead, she let the string out slowly, allowed the evidence to pile up, which it continued to do thanks to the spectacular ineptitude and criminality of Donald Trump and his unhinged posse of second-rate bunglers.

Now Pelosi’s strategic and management skills are going to again be tested. Everyone will offer advice on how the impeachment probe and any resulting decision should be managed. {MSNBC talking heads were chastising her Tuesday night for not already guaranteeing when the House vote would occur!) As with the decision about whether and when to proceed, Pelosi will have to fend off those insisting on precipitous action while simultaneously managing Republican efforts to obfuscate  the inquiry in order to confuse and exasperate Americans.

Pelosi often relies on alliteration when laying out a strategy. Successful campaigns, she often would say, are built on “the three M’s: message, money and mobilization.” In the case of impeachment, I would recommend “the three C’s: coordination, clarity, and conciseness.”

Coordination. Pelosi has charged six committees with investigating the most serious Trump violations within their jurisdiction. The goal is likely not to prepare an encyclopedic bill of particulars against Trump, but to allow a broad swath of the Caucus to present charges that might qualify for inclusion in the impeachment resolution. However, when the time comes to hold the formal hearings on the charges, which undoubtedly will be developed by the leadership based on the committees’ recommendations, a small (I’d suggest no more than 6 on each side to allow for committee representation and diversity) select committee should be named. There may be someone out there who wants to hear dozens of members on six committees pontificate and speechify before offering their tortured questions, but I haven’t met one yet. A select committee will help limit congressional urges to endlessly bloviate, as exhibited with dramatic inefficiency during the recent Judiciary hearing at which Cory Lewandowski bobbed and weaved (and prevaricated and evaded) like a heavyweight contender.

Clarity. There will be a temptation to overwhelm on the part of investigators, laying out a set of allegations that details dozens of violations that constitute impeachable offenses, like an undergraduate who over-footnotes a paper hoping it will appear more authoritative. But the impeachment charge will only be as good as the best example the committee develops. More important, neither the press nor the public can focus on a multiplicity of charges. As that great messaging strategist, Pat Benatar, said, “Hit me with your best shot.” Maybe that’s Ukraine; maybe something else shows up. But make it clear and understandable and brief.

Conciseness. This may be the toughest even for Pelosi to pull off, but it is essential: get it over fast. The country feels like it has been through the wringer on a daily basis for nearly three years. We do not need month after month of excruciating hearings and partisan battling. Pelosi should appoint members to the select committee who understand their role will be to sift through the evidence provided by committees, assemble (with the aid of the leadership) the best case to make to the full House, but then allow the chairman to handle the questioning. The five minute rule, which gives all committee members time to speechify, is the enemy of making an effective case. It will take all of Pelosi’s skills to explain to six chairmen and dozens of members that they are not all going to get their Barbara Jordan moment in the sun to wax eloquent about the sanctity of the Constitution. Successful armies move fast, and in Congress, anything involving six committees and dozens of members necessarily moves at the speed of tar sliding downhill in the middle of January. If members must be given the right to ask question, then they should do so only after the chairman has had a significant bloc of time to cogently lay out the evidence in a succinct and comprehensible manner. True, members will hate this; that’s too bad. The need here is for skilled prosecution, not self-promotion.

I would not be surprised if Nancy Pelosi was far ahead of me on all of this; she often was when I worked for her. She always spoke of her admiration for a tightly constructed argument, and this is the time to apply that principle as the House moves forward into an historic but important impeachment process. One can only hope the members of her Caucus rally behind an effective strategy as they have come together in support of the battle they have now begun.

Down the Rabbit Hole

For months now, Nancy Pelosi (correctly in my opinion) has pushed back against those in the Democratic Caucus and the party’s base who have been importuning her to launch an impeachment investigation into the appalling and likely criminal activities of Donald Trump. The arguments for aggressive oversight and vigorous inquiries instead of impeachment have made good sense, in my view: 

  • a lack of public (let alone bipartisan) support – somewhere around 36% –favoring Trump’s removal; 
  • a significant number of Democratic freshmen in districts that voted for Trump in 2016 (and may well again in 2020) whose re-election, and therefore House control, could be jeopardized by an impeachment vote; 
  • a tactical decision to allow public sentiment to grow by letting out the string slowly with a series of committee hearings, investigations and reports that indisputably document Trump’s grim record of chronic abuse of office;
  • an appearance of partisan congressional efforts to challenge the suspect 2016 election results; 
  • a diminution of attention to the legislative accomplishments of Democrats in the House on high priority issues like health care, the integrity of elections, ethics, fair wages, voting rights, gun policy and a slew of other approved bills gathering dust in Mitch “The Grim Reaper” McConnell’s self-described “graveyard” for House-passed legislation; and
  • the virtual certainty that Senate Republicans would acquit Trump, providing him with yet another basis for gloating about “complete exoneration.” 

All of those arguments remain reasonable and compelling. But with the stunning revelations about Trump’s colluding with Ukrainian president Volodymyr

Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and the all-but-certain quid pro quo of $250 million in aid mandated by the Congress, the case for deferring an impeachment inquiry has taken a significant body blow. Trump famously declared he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it. Well, he has shot holes through the Constitution, political norms and likely the criminal code on Pennsylvania Avenue: let’s see if he’s right.

It was one thing to defer impeachment on the basis of Special Counsel Mueller’s report, even though it detailed numerous instances of improper conduct by the president. But in the case of Ukraine, the evidence of collusion (and probably extortion to boot) is impossible to ignore. In fact, the president admitted that he repeatedly raised, in “perfect” phone calls with Zelensky, the importance of launching an investigation that would presumably weaken Biden and benefit Trump’s re-election. 

Trump purports to be mulling release of the transcript of his call with Zelensky, although his lawyers oppose doing so on grounds that it would compromise the confidentiality of future presidential communications with foreign leaders. Oh, please; I thought the Supreme Court decided about 45 years ago that executive privilege does not extend to covering up criminal activity. Maybe Trump should offer to allow  a sympathetic senator to listen to the tape of the phone conversation and then share with the rest of us his opinion as to the legality of the president’s comments (as Nixon proposed to have the near-deaf Sen. John Stennis listen to the Watergate tapes before the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the tapes’ release).

The strength of the arguments against launching an impeachment inquiry were already weakened by the defiant Cory Lewandowski’s appearance before the Judiciary Committee and the revelation of the Zelensky call. If Trump refuses to cooperate with a non-impeachment probe, if he insists that even non-Executive Branch employees must comply with dubious executive privilege constraints, and if he refuses to release the transcript of his corrupt call with Zelensky, there may be little option but to make the inquiry official to expand the House’s investigative toolbox. Inaction appears to give Trump (and future presidents) assurances that their misdeeds are immune from punishment. Inaction also would seriously diminish the role of the Congress as a co-equal branch of government determined to utilize its Article I powers. 

It is true that impeachment provides Trump an opportunity to seek Senate exoneration, although I would bet there are a number of Senate Republicans who would just as soon not cast that vote in 2019 or 2020. But it is also possible that the additional findings of an impeachment investigation would ensure Trump’s defeat, if not his removal, and energize Democrats (and demoralize Republicans), resulting not in a House falling back to Republicans, but rather in a Democratic sweep in 2020. That outcome is not a reason to pursue impeachment. But one could argue it is at least as plausible an outcome as the loss of the House and the White House.

Pelosi is not wrong to be concerned about the political and electoral consequences of going down the impeachment rabbit hole; it is after all her job more than anyone else’s to worry about maintaining the Democratic House majority. But she also has to worry about maintaining the Democrats’ credibility and protecting the integrity of the House in safeguarding our democracy from “high crimes and misdemeanors”. Sometimes leaders are compelled to bow to their members, even when they doubt the wisdom of their preferred course. Speaker John Boehner took that route in 2013 when, against his better judgment, he reluctantly gave in to his Tea Party-dominated conference that insisted on a government shutdown. He warned there would be substantial ramifications, and he was right; the GOP’s standing dropped precipitously (although not enough to cost them House control in 2014). 

Pelosi doubtless has similar qualms about unleashing the forces of impeachment, but her alternatives may be dwindling rapidly. Sometimes the issue is less about going down the rabbit hole than recognizing the ground is collapsing under your feet.

On the Road Home

            No offense intended to those who reside along the byways radiating off US 40 and 70, but there’s not a whole lot to see as the countryside and corn wiz past at 75 miles an hour (or considerably faster if you are driving a rig almost large enough to apply for admission as the 51ststate). Leaving Santa Fe for Washington, D.C. on Labor Day, my summer in New Mexico over again, I was making the three day drive in my rental car with my two canine co-pilots, Ralph and Alice, who are too precious to transport by air and who are happy to sleep on their beds for 10-hour days of monotonous driving. 

            I had long since passed the highlights of Oklahoma (the world’s largest Route 66 sign and the world’s largest non-operating natural gas drill rig, both conveniently located in Elk City) and the wonders of the Texas panhandle – an enormous wind farm, a gigantic stockyard, and Tyler’s of Amarillo, the home of the best damn BBQ sauce (closed on Mondays). I had zoomed through the chaotic highways of St. Louis, and caught a good glimpse of the one, genuine landmark on the route – the Arch – as I crossed the broad Mississippi, all the way listening to Bruce Springsteen read his autobiography Born to Run and very much feeling proud to also be a dyed-in-the-wool son of the Garden State.

            I was in the home stretch: Dayton to D.C., home by dinnertime with plenty of daylight to unload the car. Thirty-some miles west of Columbus, I casually glanced at the dashboard and saw the warning sign: “tire pressure warning.” Three tires showed psi’s in the low 30s, which was normal, but the left front, which had triggered the ominous alarm, read “20”. I hadn’t run over anything, so I wondered if it might just be low on air and not actually leaking. Just then, the indicator dropped to “19” and I decided it was time to look for an exit.

            Fortunately there was one two miles up the road; a couple of days earlier, and I could have been tens of miles from the nearest exit. With the tire pressure down to 13, I hobbled to a filling station-convenience store and inquired if they repaired or replaced tires. No dice, so I phoned AAA, recalling that I annually wondered if it was really worth maintaining my membership. While I was on the phone, a woman came out of the store and motioned to me; I put AAA on hold and asked what she wanted. 

            “Do you have a flat tire?” she inquired. I nodded “yes.” “Do you mind if I pray for you?” she asked. “Jeez.” I thought, “I hope this isn’t that serious!” I waved her off as politely as possible and went back to AAA. Where was I? Good question; back into the store: South Vienna, Ohio (which I also saw blazoned on the water tower as I exited the store). AAA promised to send a repair truck out within 90 minutes. “Well, ” I thought, “there goes dinner at home.” I called the car rental company; they told me that, since I hadn’t purchased insurance coverage, I would be responsible for paying for a new tire, which I could probably get a few miles up the road at a tire store. “Really?” I asked. “A tire isn’t considered wear and tear, not damage?” I was glad the transmission hadn’t failed. 

            A fellow driver at the rest stop pulled over to where I was waiting and lowered his window. Is this going to be a hassle I don’t need, I wondered? He nodded towards my left front tire. “You know, you’ve got a flat tire,” he offered. “Yeah, I know,” I replied, a bit exasperated. I was sitting away from the pumps, obviously waiting for some help and obviously, one would think, was not about to jump onto the interstate. “OK,” he replied, “just trying to be helpful!” I unloaded the entire back of the SUV to remove the emergency spare to give to the AAA man, whenever he appeared. 

            In fact, the AAA driver pulled up ten minutes later, was as pleasant and efficient as could be, and had me on my way to the tire shop within a few minutes. I thanked him profusely but he just shrugged and said he was happy to help. I limped along on my dwarf spare tire and found the tire place at the next exit. The guy at the counter, like all the guys behind the counter, was a beefy guy who was explaining to the man in line ahead of me that there were 15 people ahead of him and recommended he return the next day. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I might not even make breakfast at home tomorrow.”

            But when my turn came, the counter man immediately identified me as “the guy AAA called about” and promised to hurry me along as fast as possible. He also said my dogs were welcome to walk around and use his lawn as a rest stop. “We have less problems with dogs here than with people,” he assured me. I settled into the waiting area and was thinking about making the last few hours of the drive in the dark when a repairman stuck his head out of the shop’s bay. 

“You have the Buick with the flat?” he called over to me. “Yep,” I acknowledged. “Yeah, there’s a big chunk out of that tire. You need a new one, but I’m not sure I’ve got that size.” Ugh; my heart sank; maybe I was looking at a few days in the wilds west of Columbus. “Let me go see if I have a used one,” he offered. A few moments later, he came out again. “Well, I’ve got one that’s just about the same size; it’ll work,” he said. “Sounds good,” I said, and went back to the repair bay to unload the back of the car again so they could replace the spare. By the time everything was unloaded, they were done, the spare was replaced, the car was repacked, and within a half hour of showing up, #16 in line, I was good to hit the road.

            The rental company was going to pay the bill and then charge me, I had been told, but I did wonder what this episode was going to set me back. The mechanic just waved at me.  “On the house,” he said. “We’ve got a lotta cars backed up here and we just need to get you out of here.” “Really?” I asked, somewhat amazed; I mean, these guys had me over the barrel: stuck in central Ohio with a couple of dogs and a carload of boxes, luggage, a ukulele and a few houseplants, but they had bumped me to the front of the line and now were eating the cost of the new used tire. “Yeah,” he said, “Merry Christmas.” We shook hands all around, I again thanked them, and I went back to exceeding the speed limit and listening to Bruce Springsteen for another 500 miles.

            Maybe it was the Boss’ subtle influence, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those rural, white, working class people – the woman willing to offer up prayers for my safe travels, the good samaritan who wanted to make sure I knew about the flat tire, the AAA repairman, the manager at the tire store who bumped me to the front of the line, the repair guys who fixed the tire so fast I barely had time to unload the trunk and who then threw away the bill. Perhaps unfairly, I pictured each one of these southern Ohioans wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap and cheering their lungs out for the billionaire charlatan whose policies made a mockery of working class Americans. Weren’t they probably the sort of rural, aggrieved, overlooked proletarians whose political views I could not abide and for whose genuine anxiety I felt conflicted concern?

             But here they were, as nice as could be, as considerate and helpful as I could ask, and not a rough comment or aggravated reaction to be found. Now true, I wasn’t exactly wearing a “I’m Still With Her” button and my car wasn’t covered with “Bernie” or fading “Obama ‘08” bumper stickers, but maybe that wouldn’t have made any difference in how these people treated me. And yes, I was a white, senior citizen  with two dogs and perhaps if I was a young Hispanic with tattoos or a middle aged black driver the response might well have been very different.

            But maybe it wouldn’t have been. And what I found myself noting was that the stereotyping and assumptions that play such a deleterious role in our politics, that feed the partisan divide and inflame polarization, cut both ways. Maybe, instead of venomous Trumpistas whose loathing of minorities was lurking just below the surface of their affected cordiality, these were just salt-of-the-earth people trying to help out someone who had run into some trouble on the road and needed their assistance to get home safely.

            I’m not trying to conjure up lyrics for a Springsteen-like song about the hard life in the Badlands or working on the highway or the resilience of the downtrodden working class, but the experience was a strong reminder of how important it is to not make assumptions, to avoid pigeonholing people based on what they look like or what they do or where they live and to find a way to be helpful and thankful rather than judgmental. Those guys made my trip home much easier and safer (and a bit less expensive) than I thought it would be when that warning flashed up on the dashboard. They just changed and replaced a tire, true, but for a few minutes that morning, they were outstanding teachers as well.

Time to End the Filibuster

        For years, I have argued and taught that the Senate filibuster was, in the words of former Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, a “necessary evil.” In a different time, with different congressional leaders and political realities, there was a case to be made for retaining Rule 22 of the Senate: the requirement that 60 votes (67 before a 1975 reform) are needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate. 

        But time have changed; indeed, the filibuster rules have changed twice, by Harry Reid in 2013 and by Mitch McConnell in 2017. The remaining use of the filibuster – with respect to legislation – does not serve to ensure that the minority is not run over with a cement truck by an arrogant majority. Instead, the 60 vote rule is now employed to prevent consideration of legislation that enjoys broad public and bipartisan support. By clogging up the legislative process, it ensures not deliberation but obstruction, and as such, it is destructive of the lawmaking process, diminishes the public’s faith in government, and negates the ability of the legislative branch to function. It needs to go the way of the bustle, the buggy whip, and the rotary telephone.

        Most people have only a vague sense of the filibuster. Either it is the noble image of Jimmy Stewart, standing alone on the Senate floor, growing hoarse amid catcalls and ridicule as the naïve proponent of reform, or it is some drawling, bloviating southern segregationist eviscerating civil rights legislation. The actual process is a bit less dramatic, which is why few movies have been made about the Senate rules.

        Only a handful of filibusters ever produce a member, Stewart-like,  standing on the floor for hours; the mere threat of a filibuster is more than sufficient to cause the Senate to put aside the intended legislation because the threat can gin up adequate support from other senators (who want to preserve their filibuster rights) to prevent reaching the 60 vote cloture minimum.

        And while it is true that the Richard Russells and James Eastlands were practitioners of the filibuster, so were liberals who used it to defer consideration of legislation like the supersonic transport and anti-busing legislation. In many cases, knowledge that a filibuster could kill your bill was enough to convince many senators to seek out the objectors and negotiate a compromise that could overcome the cloture requirement. 

        The filibuster also serves the Senate’s institutional interest. House members are familiar with the frequent plea from the Senate to “take our bill” because the Senate’s version – often inimical to House members – is the only version that can secure the supermajority needed to pass. The alternative, frustrated House leaders are told, is that nothing will pass. “The Senate,” complained North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan, “is 100% human brake pads.”

        Indeed, Sen. Byrd cited just such leverage is his defense of the filibuster. Without the cloture process, he argued, “the Senate [would] lose its special strength and become a mere appendage of the House of Representatives … there would also be no Senate, as we know it.” In short, Byrd – an unparalleled practitioner of the Senate’s convoluted rules – asserted, “The good outweighs the bad.” 

        Well, yeah! For the Senate. But for the Congress? For the country? Not so much. 

        In the not-too-distant past, the filibuster was rarely employed, generally reserved for momentous issues where the parties were constituted by ideologically diverse membership. Yes, the Democrats had knuckledraggers like Russell, Talmadge, Eastland and Ellender. But Republicans had moderates like Percy, Javits, Case and Mathias. Members moved fluidly across party lines to tamp down filibuster threats that permitted errant senators to bring the entire process to a crushing halt. And majority leaders of both parties, whether Dirksen or Baker or Johnson or Mansfield, knew that party and even ideology did not preclude the ability to push past venal obstructionists.

        But those days are history, like the names and achievements of many of the aforementioned senators. Parties today are far more ideologically aligned, and margins between them (therefore, any party’s claim on the majority) are tenuous. Reaching 60 votes has been made much tougher by the paucity of senators to find collaborationist allies in the other party. As a result, the majority leader can obstruct the process, knowing there are not 60 votes to challenge him the power of the few outliers – the Manchins or the Murkowskis – is rarely sufficient {outside budget reconciliation) to force the hands of those who favor sitting on their hands.

        In the period 1930 to 1960, there were no cloture votes to cut off debates, and filibuster efforts themselves were rare. In all his time as the fabled majority leader, Lyndon Johnson faced only one cloture motion.Between 1961 and 1971, as controversial issues from civil rights to the environment began to proliferate, the number of cloture votes per Congress rose to about 5 and then, following the rise of greater ideological realignment of parties and widespread polarization, as documented in The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Rise of Partisanship, the frequency of filibuster threats and cloture began creeping upwards.

         By the 102nd Congress (1991-1992), there were 35 cloture votes and through the 1990s, Senate minority leader Robert Dole adopted the filibuster as a “party weapon,” in the words of historians Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker. By the time I was sitting in White House meetings with the congressional leadership and President Obama, majority leader Harry Reid was bemoaning over 400 filibuster threats a Congress that prevented him from bringing up legislation or from confirming judges and executive branch appointments. 

         Reid’s response in 2013 was to employ “the nuclear option,” cleverly challenging a ruling of the chair, which he overcame with a simple majority, to establish a new precedent for executive appointments other than Supreme Court justices. Heavily criticized at the time, Reid’s action was warranted and in the Senate’s best interest. An inability to act because of hundreds of filibuster threats not only tied up the Senate calendar, but encouraged the use of executive orders that bypassed the Congress and expanded the powers of the presidency, while implementing policy without the negotiating and compromising inherent in the legislative process. Not surprisingly, while satisfying at the moment for those favoring such orders, many of these unilateral policy creations proved short-lived in contrast to policies that had gone through the handwringer of the congressional lawmaking process.

         The supermajority is what gives Mitch McConnell the ability to declare himself “the grim reaper” and the so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body” the “legislative graveyard” for any bill approved in the House, even if it received bipartisan support. Election reform, gun control, immigration modernization, prescription drug affordability: fergetabouit! In an ideologically stratified, closely divided Senate, McConnell knows there is no way 60 senators are going to challenge his imperious defiance not just of the House, but of the public will. 

         As Reid and McConnell have both demonstrated, the filibuster is not sacrosanct and is susceptible to modernization. Although Louisiana’s Sen. John Kennedy has declared he will not support any change in Rule 22 because “the Founding Fathers set it up this way,” the Founding Fathers did no such thing. Indeed, the House abandoned unrestricted debate in 1805 to end the interminable debate, but the Senate never followed suit, allowing the filibuster to fester. There is no Constitutional reason for the filibuster or cloture; indeed, the Constitution explicitly gives each house of Congress the power to write, and rewrite its “Rules of its Proceedings.” It is true, as Senate historian Ira Shapiro has noted, that the Senate “does not like to be pushed,” but it can be pulled into the 21stcentury, as Reid and McConnell have demonstrated.

        Yes, eliminating or sharply restricting the use of the filibuster thorough a number of reforms that have been proposed could have unforeseen consequences. Yes, some bad ideas (depending on your point of view) may be approved where a filibuster threat might have prevented them. But the current formulation prevents both good and bad legislation, weakens the Congress, empowers the presidency, and diminishes public confidence not only in the Senate but in government in general. That may not matter if, like Mitch McConnell, you have nothing but contempt for the federal government, but those who need government and have regard for the institutions created by the Constitution need to act in defense of those institutions. 

        Mitch McConnell won’t, and that is one more justification for throwing him out of office and replacing him with a majority leader who will act in the interest of the legislative branch and the policies it should be considering. One good sign would be beginning the 117th Congress with new Senate rules that allow for the consideration of legislation this country desperately needs debated.  

The Secretary of Sweatshops

Wow.  It really takes your breath away. 

Just when you think you might have seen the limits of Donald Trump’s malevolence, he outdoes himself with an appointment so pernicious that it makes his team of blaggards seem positively noble.

Trump, or whoever scours ocean trenches for miscreants, makes Robert Ballard and Jacques Cousteau look like they were splashing on the surface. Drain the swamp? Trump’s Washington makes the Okefenokeelook like a backyard mud puddle.

Now, give them credit where credit is due: consistency. Trump’s appointments are not the half-hearted nominations of a Reagan or Bush, who sprinkled flickers of competence like George Schultz or James Baker in with scoundrels like James Watt and Ed Meese. No, Trump reliably picks only the bottom feeders, the blowhard zealots, and the mindless myrmidons who lack a scintilla of commitment to the agencies they are sworn to administer.  

OK, I’m a bit annoyed. But for good reason.

Look, it’s bad enough to have a coal company lobbyist running the Environmental Protection Agency, an enemy of public schools managing the Education Department, an oil, gas and water lobbyist sitting behind the big desk at Interior, and the list goes on, pretty much without exception. But here’s the thing. Your Labor Secretary – the guy charged with enforcing the law against child labor and trafficking (among other responsibilities) — is drummed out of office for having sheltered one of the great child sex abusers in history (and perhaps because he reminded people of the  president’s own record of sexual predation). And whom does Trump decide is the very best person to protect the men and women who labor under the flag of the United States?

If you’re Donald Trump, you naturally annoint Patrick Pizzella, currently the #2 at Labor, to step into the big shoes. If you never heard of him, I’ll tell you all you need to know to understand that he is an abysmal though hardly surprising choice.

Pizzella was part of the crack team assembled by Jack Abramoff (AKA # 27593-112 at the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution) whose name was synonymous with the worst criminal lobbying scandal of the last 50 years. Abramoff fleeced Native American tribes, represented Russian goons, doled out illegal gifts and travel to congressional cronies, and happily worked hand in hand with the Reagan and Bush administrations as the consummate Washington felonious swamp dweller.

But what earned Abramoff a very special place in Hell was his tireless flacking for the thugs who ran the Commonwealth of the Marianas Islands (CNMI), a U.S. protectorate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Back in the 1990s, the local government cut deals with Chinese garment manufacturers to ship their raw material, including hundreds of women (as well as others from Vietnam, Bangladesh and other low-income Asian countries) to labor long hours for virtually no pay in sweatshops located in the CNMI. Why? Because by finishing the product there, under the U.S. flag, the Chinese factory owners would claim the products were made in the USA – in fact, the labels they sewed into their garments declared that was so. And then, as domestic products, those garments entered the US free from the quotas and duties imposed on imports from other nations like China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

The workers were sent over as indentured servants, obligated to pay off not only travel costs but room and board in the companies’ oppressive housing (where they were required to live). Needless to say, virtually none of the pay went into the workers’ pockets. If they protested, which was rare, they were fired and abandoned in the CNMI with no way to earn a ticket home. Many turned to prostitution, nude dancing, and other unsavory forms of survival. When I was in Saipan as part of the congressional investigation that shut down the garment industry, under the leadership of Congressman George Miller, one abandoned worker asked if we could arrange for him to sell his kidney so he could pay for passage home. 

For years, Abramoff expended every ounce of his energies defending the dishonest CNMI government that winked at this abuse. Pizzella was part of the team at Abramoff’s firm, and while he escaped the punishment that landed Casino Jack and two dozen of his other cronies in jail or convicted of serious crimes, here’s the question.

Why would you name anyone as the acting head of the Department of Labor whose name, when Googled, connects immediately with Jack Abramoff, CNMI sex trafficking, and fraudulent labor practices? Why? Because just like at Education and EPA and Interior and elsewhere, Trump couldn’t care less about destroying the reputation of government or its ability to fulfill its responsibilities.

I guess it could get worse. After all, Jack Abramoff is out of prison, a registered lobbyist (he tried to arrange meetings between Trump people and foreign governments), and is officially available for public service.