A Retrospective, and Look Ahead

by John Lawrence

When I was growing up, Esquire magazine used to publish a year-end feature that conferred the tongue-in-cheek “Dubious Achievement Awards” on individuals whose statements and activities over the preceding 12 months earned them this doubtful distinction. For most of the 1960s, the Awards included a picture of a buoyant Richard Nixon, who had lost both the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California governorship, with the caption, “Why is this man laughing?” Not surprisingly, Esquire stopped asking the question after Nixon’s resurgence in the 1968 presidential election, although I suspect it was resurrected after Nixon’s ignominious downfall.

Well, here we are at year’s end and it seems like an appropriate time to recognize some trends that seem to be emerging and that we might well find amusing, or dismaying, a year from now. I will avoid the temptation to make predictions, although I must say that I had a pretty good track record in 2015.

I foresaw congressional acceptance of the big budget agreement, the Iran agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I don’t consider these predictions to warrant any particular recognition since each was predicated on the fact that Congress had little alternative, after offering up some bluster, but to accept these policies. In an era of near-gridlock among the 535 representatives and senators, the President’s power expands exponentially since he can move swiftly and command press and media attention for a carefully honed message – something a diverse and divided Congress is incapable of doing. The aggressive use of executive power by President Obama – something many were encouraging after the 2012 election, made it clear his legislative initiatives would confront massive resistance on the Hill – demonstrates once again that however much the Legislative Branch may attempt to reassert its equality with the Executive Branch, a divided Congress faces enormous difficulties in challenging the singular power of a determined President.

Almost immediately after Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement, I advised that once the internecine Republican warfare subsided, a Speaker Paul Ryan might well emerge from the rubble on the Right. My observation was not based on my enormous respect for Ryan’s still-undetermined leadership skills, but on the painfully obvious inadequacies of other pretenders to the Speakership. I also noted that while Ryan might enjoy a brief respite from the caterwauling of the conservative Conference, inevitably he would confront the same Hobbesian choice that faced, and doomed, Boehner: acquiesce to the intemperate demands of the Freedom Caucus, including a national default and government shutdown, or cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation without the nefarious riders demanded by the conservative irreconcilables. Of course, Ryan would choose the latter course, and thereby earn the same condemnation that drove Boehner to retirement on the golf links in Florida. Ryan performed as predicted, abandoning the most noxious riders (defunding Planned Parenthood, repealing the Affordable Care Act, creating barriers to Muslims entering the country) because he knew he would ultimately be judged not on how well he catered to the extremists, but by how well he made the institution function.

Predictably, such bursts of responsible stewardship have not earned Ryan the approbation of the Right. The snarling Ann Coulter called for another Republican to challenge Ryan in his 2016 primary much as David Brat successful ousted Majority Leader Eric Cantor two years earlier. The hardliners at Breibart.com declared “Paul Ryan Betrays America,” and on Twitter, there were numerous assertions that Ryan’s newly grown beard provided evidence of his sympathy for Muslim extremists.

Ryan has had a fairly good first act: a multi-year highway bill, a new K-12 education bill replacing No Child Left Behind, a major increase in spending reflecting the higher levels permitted by the budget agreement’s sidestepping of the sequestration caps, and a major tax bill that included high Democratic priorities such as making both the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit permanent at stimulus levels. Before anyone credits Ryan’s extraordinary legislative legerdemain too fulsomely, let’s recall that increasing spending and cutting taxes are not exactly the stuff of which legislative legends is made. The tax bill created about $800 billion of new debt (as much as the Obama stimulus or TARP, though the latter was repaid with interest) which Republicans typically decry, except when handing out tax breaks to the business community. Moreover, the Omnibus spending bill was loaded down with dozens of special-interest riders (also known as the now-banned “earmarks”) for Democrats and Republicans alike – defense spending the Pentagon didn’t want, a tax break for casinos and hotels that Harry Reid did want – that boosted its cost and greased its way to enactment.

Not that there’s anything wrong with such typical legislative logrolling; what is offensive is Ryan and Company’s gross hypocrisy about forswearing deficits and earmarks while hungrily employing them. Ronald Reagan used to say that the difference between Democrats and an intoxicated sailor was that at least the latter was spending his own money. That statement needs to be updated to include the profligate Republicans, whose longstanding addiction to deficits is a matter of record, even if their recurring habits are obscured by their purported fealty to fiscal restraint.

I also anticipated that Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi would continue to exercise outsized influence in the House’s legislative product, particularly if Republicans proved unable to consolidate their majority to ensure the 218 GOP votes needed to pass bills to avoid having to appeal to Democrats. Pelosi has demonstrated the skill first exhibited a decade ago that achieved unparalleled party unity in voting on the floor. Pelosi (like Boehner and Ryan) found it harder to command a similar level of unity once in the majority, when the inclusion of more marginal seats (whose capture created the majority) created more intra-party factions. Her enduring power in shaping legislation, notwithstanding her party’s status in the minority, must be vexing to Republican leaders and infuriating to the GOP’s far Right which had hoped to maneuver her and President Obama into accepting their radical demands.  Instead, they have had to acknowledge, as did the San Francisco Chronicle during one recent debate, that if “anyone was in control of the House floor, it was San Francisco Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, not the Republicans who won full control of Congress.”

Lastly, I had anticipated that over time, Republican governors would abandon their resistance and choose to participate in the expanded Medicaid benefits permitted under the Affordable Care Act, a trend that is now gathering momentum. Any governor, given the large number of uninsured who remain the state’s responsibility, would be guilty of malfeasance, malevolence or mendacity to turn down the 100% federal reimbursement (until 2016) and 90% thereafter. As the New York Times has recently reported, a growing number of conservative governors are accepting the expansion, notwithstanding the opposition of the state’s congressional delegations. Recently, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard endorsed the Medicaid expansion, as have Republican governors in Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Ohio. In Tennessee, GOP Gov. Bill Haslam ran into a hail storm of opposition from conservatives like the Koch brothers when he tried to expanded Medicaid to an 280,000 people. You can be sure the Kochs and other opponents won’t be kicking in any money to help Haslam pay 100% of the costs of covering those sick Tennesseans when they show up in clinics and emergency rooms.

Other Republicans are similarly facing reality and endorsing the expansion like Utah’s Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Wyoming’s Matt Mead of Wyoming, who had earlier sued to challenge the ACA, but now acknowledges, “It’s the law of land … so now I’m trying to be pragmatic.” Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson similarly has agreed to continue the expansion to include 220,000 residents begun under his Democratic predecessor. These conservatives have found that their rhetoric does little to match the benefits conferred by the ACA, just as congressional Republicans have yet to come up with a credible alternative despite years of promising to “repeal and replace” the health care law.

It is not altogether clear what all this means for the second session of the 114th, an abbreviated schedule due to a combination of the election season and a minimalist agenda by congressional Republicans. Certainly all eyes will focus on Speaker Ryan and his strategy for managing his fractious Conference which cut him some slack on the recent Omnibus spending package and tax bills, but is unlikely to continue to roll out the Welcome Wagon in 2016. The prominence of the far Right base in the GOP presidential primaries will exert constant pressure on House and Senate Republicans to also demonstrate their fealty to issues like repealing the ACA and defunding Planned Parenthood, neither of which has a chance of success. Those failures will inflame the Right which will make continual, unachievable demands on Ryan. All that means the dynamic that promoted factionalism within the GOP Conference is likely to continue, which could either energize or exasperate Republican voters, whose turnout will be determinative of the nation’s political direction following the November elections.

How will it all turn out? Who knows? But don’t be surprised if next year’s Dubious Achievement Awards include a grinning Paul Ryan with the caption, “Why is this man laughing?”