hardline political news and analysis

Month: February, 2016

The Irony of Clinton’s Southern Strategy

There are a couple of levels of irony in recognizing that votes from the old Confederacy will likely propel Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination. The former Secretary of State’s massive victory in South Carolina last Saturday provided her with a much needed demonstration of her electoral strength, especially among the black voters whose support – and turnout – will be crucial to her chances for victory in November.

South Carolina served to demonstrate the inherent advantages Clinton enjoys in a party that has developed a bedrock foundation of black and brown voters. True, young voters are also a crucial component of the Democratic majority, especially around values issues, and they have favored Bernie Sanders by significant margins during the early primaries and caucuses.   But they are also far less reliable voters, and Sanders’ questionable ability to motivate the minority base could prove a problem in the extreme unlikelihood of his nomination.

Should Clinton replicate her strong showing on Tuesday in the primaries that stretch throughout the South and to a few northern states, the math in favor of her eventual nomination becomes overwhelming, particularly with the steady addition of the party regular superdelegates who have already provided her with a little-noticed but significant majority of delegates.

Clinton’s surge to the nomination, therefore, is likely to occur in states which she – like any Democrat — has virtually no chance of winning in November. Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, even Arkansas where she presided as First Lady for a decade: these are states that Democrats have reliably lost in presidential elections for a half century, with a few anomalous exceptions, and in which she stands little to no chance of being competitive this fall. Yes, there are Democratic-leaning states in the Super Tuesday mix as well – Minnesota, Massachusetts and the People’s Republic of Vermont – and the former two are competitive with Sanders, but it will likely be the majorities Clinton runs up in the Old Confederacy that propels her towards victory in the fight for the nomination.

Yet Clinton’s victory in the South, while predicting little about how these states vote in the general election, has a special irony to it. Clinton likes to recall, particularly when campaigning among minority voters, how her earliest job after Yale Law School was with the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington non-profit that was a key player in legislation promoting the legal and educational rights of minority children in particularly. CDF sent Clinton to what remained, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a region hostile to black voters, although circumstances were improving as a result of the Civil Right Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s, and the end of the poll tax due to the XXIVth amendment in 1964.

The politics of these southern states remained nearly as segregated at that time as it had for the preceding 80 years, following the imposition of restrictions on black voting during the Jim Crow era that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1877. While black people often constituted 30% to 40% of a congressional district, restrictions from discriminatory testing to outright intimidation resulted in black voters often making up less than 3% of the voting population of many districts, allowing conservative segregationists to command control of the region’s politics for decades.

Clinton’s foray into the South focused on an important but largely overlooked phenomenon which followed the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws affecting the region’s public schools. While most Americans believe the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court (which then had its full compliment of 9 Justices) ended segregation in public schools, it was not for another 15 years, after a decade and a half of obstruction, that the Court, in Alexander v. Holmes, ordered an immediate end of segregation in public education.

As Jason Sokol noted in his important study, There Goes My Everything, most school districts in the South had blithely ignored or resisted the Supreme Court’s edict in Brown. By 1967, only 14% of the region’s black children attended integrated schools. In the North Carolina school district that brought the case, 14,000 of the 24,000 black students still attended schools that were 99%, if 100%, segregated. The Johnson Administration responded by terminating federal education aid to scores of school districts in the South; two years later, the Supreme Court unanimously (again, 9-0) upheld the use of mandatory school busing to achieve desegregation (which provoked explosive outrages in the North as well as the South).

Southerners responded to the Court’s mandates by creating hundreds of private schools, a large proportion of which were sponsored by the rapidly increasing number of evangelical churches that were simultaneously serving as political bases for the reviving Republican party in the South. These so-called “seg academies” accelerated academic white flight and effectively depopulated many of the region’s public schools of white students.

Churches and their communities rallied to provide the financial assistance many white families needed to allow their children to attend the seg academies, which often kept their fees as low as possible so as not to exclude any white child. “I would go out and collect empty bottles, if necessary, to send [my child] to private school,” one white woman in Yazoo, Mississippi declared. As a result, noted Charles Allen Thompson, Jr., the executive director of the Mississippi Education Association, the segregation strategy “hit every child and parent in the state of Mississippi.”

Hillary Clinton’s early work as a CDF lawyer involved investigating these seg academies to ascertain whether charges of racial segregation could be brought against their operators. Given the rising racial tension of the times, as blacks increasingly registered to vote and flexed their political and legal powers, Clinton’s decision to engage in such potentially hazardous undercover work, as opposed to opting for the cushy corporate job a top Yalie might have landed, speaks to the deep commitment that she now has trouble communicating effectively to voters.

But as the African American voters of South Carolina just demonstrated, and those in Super Tuesday states are likely to affirm, black Americans appear to have little skepticism about Clinton’s commitment and sincerity, and their votes are likely to seal the deal on the nomination soon, if not this week. Donald Trump’s latest controversy, over his unwillingness to dissociate himself decisively from the Ku Klux Klan, is likely to further fuel black voter enthusiasm for the former Secretary of State.

Assuming she makes it to the White House, Clinton will find familiar terrain before her. For as conservatives employed religious-based seg academies in an effort to obstruct compliance with civil rights laws, so now they assert that their religious precepts should insulate them from compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Clinton’s experience with CDF may prove more valuable than she or voters have appreciated.





Strict Obstructionism


Just when it appeared that the 2016 presidential campaign could not possibly become more of a cacophonous contest, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies and suddenly, a whole new layer of contention has oozed its way to the surface of the national debate.

President Obama, conservatives assert, is a lame duck and therefore should not appoint a Scalia successor until the people have spoken (assuming one can discern “the people’s” Supreme Court preferences from an election). Obama, noting that one-eighth of his presidency is still before him (three times as long as the longest confirmation process in recent memory, that of Clarence Thomas) intends to exercise his constitutional right to send a nominee to the Senate.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley have already declared they will not allow the Senate to consider any Obama nominee, not even one like Appeals Court Judge Sri Srinivasan, who in 2013 was confirmed in a 97-0 Senate vote that included support from Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The Court is in the midst of considering a slew of highly controversial issues including abortion, health care, and affirmative action. Without a replacement, it is possible that there will not be a majority for either side, and yet one more branch of the American government can move into gridlock!

The debate over whether or not a “lame duck president” has the right to nominate a Court appointee is a ridiculous one.   The Constitution, whose immutable clarity Justice Scalia dedicated his career to defending, was, well, quite clear. It says right there, in Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution that “The President” (I note no references to “lame ducks” or any other fowl) “shall nominate” (not “shall nominate except in the last year of his term”) “Judges of the supreme Court.” Period.

Now, of course, few really believe that the precise words of the Constitution, set down nearly 230 years ago, are to be taken absolutely literally (the late Justice Scalia being an exception). So when strict constructionists like McConnell or Ted Cruz pontificate about why Obama should be precluded from fulfilling his clear constitutional duties, they are revealing their truly mendacious and conniving intentions.

Coincidental to this moment’s focus on strict constructionism is the publication of The First Congress by historian Fergus Bordewich. While strict constructionists like Scalia would have us believe that the words of the Constitution were written by perfect men and venerated even then as immutable truths, the actual history is anything but so idyllic. As Bordewich pointed out, the Constitution – itself the product of exhausted negotiation and compromise – was the skeleton upon which early legislators had to build the actual structure and design of a national government that lacked not only a permanent home, but credibility in the skeptical minds of many who had fought the Revolution. In formulating that structure for the federal government, senators and congressmen of 1789-1790 (as have all since) made countless compromises and concessions to cobble together the votes required (11 in the Senate, 33 in the House) to pass a law. President Washington’s authority to veto a law passed by Congress was even debated; the Supreme Court sat around with nothing to decide since the appellate and district courts did not yet exist. In other words, they were making it up as they went along.

Nothing against the Founding Fathers, but the point is this: it’s kind of ridiculous to assert that we of the 21st century posses some clairvoyance to know how they might have addressed highly complex contemporary issues. They were fabricating a country, and they, of all people, realized the uncertainty with which the finality of their work would be viewed by future generations, which is why they allowed for an amending process. They were cutting deals like a rug dealer during a “going out of business” sale, as all legislators, in all times, must do.

But on this point they were quite clear: the President nominates Supreme Court justices, and the Senate is supposed to consider them: up or down, but not rewrite the intent of the Constitution and obstruct the operations of the third branch of government.

The emergence of this new battle may well have great salience in the campaign. Politicians are always struggling to convince the electorate to pay attention to issues that seem slightly out of focus for the average voter, such as how a presidential contest will affect the composition of the Supreme Court. Scalia’s death, and the coming debate over whether, and with whom, to fill the vacancy, moves the Court issue front and center, impossible to ignore. Indifferent millennials will be shown a powerful lesson about the election’s ramifications for the Court. Issues like abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, health care and others may serve to motivate voters to become more engaged, realizing the outcome of the election unquestionably will impact not only the Scalia seat, but perhaps two or three others that could become open in the next five years.

Secondarily, the debate over whether to consider an Obama appointee may well impact some Senate races. No Republican senator up for re-nomination will dare side with Obama’s right to nominate a replacement as long as he or she may face a primary challenge for such apostasy. Donald Trump honed the team cheer in Saturday’s GOP debate: “I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it: It’s called delay, delay, delay.” I can almost hear James Madison uttering those stirring words.

In general elections, however, such hardline positions could come back to hurt vulnerable GOP senators in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, opening them to the charge of excessive partisanship while the Democratic opponent need only ask that the senator do his or her duty and “advise or consent” but not obstruct. Doing so would be the strict obeisance to the Constitution that Antonin Scalia would have endorsed.

The New Hampshire Vote

Daniel Webster, that great son of New Hampshire, once advised, “How little do they see what really is, who frame their hasty judgment upon that which seems.” Webster’s cautionary admonition is always timely, especially following the eye-popping results in his home state’s presidential primary on Tuesday. Nevertheless, some conclusions do jump out quickly from the preliminary data, and they suggest a long, messy and potentially seriously demoralizing primary season.

Webster also cautioned to “Keep cool; anger is not an argument,” but coolness had nothing to do with the results in New Hampshire. The blow-out victories by the two candidates most hostile (and that is saying a lot)to business-as-usual politics certainly gave a definitive coloration to the 2016 race, at least thus far.
If nothing else, the NH results illustrate the differences between the complex machinery of a caucus state like Iowa, where turnout is unpredictable and behavior inside the caucus venues is often idiosyncratic. NH was a straight out primary: you show up, you vote, you don’t have to confront your neighbors or reveal your choices. And in this more common form of American voting, Trump and Sanders blew away opposition that had flummoxed them in Iowa.

Where does it go from here? How predictive is tiny NH when compared to the coming primary in South Carolina, or Super Tuesday, or the long slew of other primaries and caucuses? No one knows, but some “hasty judgments” seem worth noting.

The most obvious conclusion is that the loud voices of anger (sorry, Sen. Webster) with government, and especially the federal government, made their point, and not just among the predictably hostile Republicans. Sixty-one percent of Democratic voters were “dissatisfied or angry with the federal government,” and that sizeable group favored Sanders by a 42-point margin. Unless Democrats elsewhere feel much more warm and toasty about Washington, or events merit a dramatic reversal of sentiment, that number would not suggest enthusiasm for Sanders is going to cool off any faster than his allegation (perhaps a little misplaced coming from someone with three decades as a public official) that Clinton embodies “the establishment.”

There are two more troubling statistics coming out of NH for Clinton, however. The first is that independent voters broke almost 2-1 for Sanders. If at least a significant portion of those Sanders votes were attributable to his being perceived as an outsider, it may suggest a trend that could damage Clinton not only through the remaining primaries but in the fall, especially if she emerges with the nomination and faces a Republican who can claim the “independent” or “outsider” mantle.

Even more problematic is Clinton’s performance with what I always consider the key polling question: “Who cares most about people like me?” Voters can forgive many transgressions by politicians – bad votes, ideological misalignment, behavioral misconduct – but it is really difficult to win over a voter who doesn’t believe a candidate cares about them. Not “understands” or “is compassionate towards” or “sympathizes,” but “cares.” Sanders won this crucial cohort of voters 82% to 17%. Less surprising, but equally important, Sanders crushed Clinton 91% to 5% among the one-third of voters who said that being “honest and trustworthy” mattered most.

Those are numbers that should make even the most loyal Clintonistas or pundits who believe her nomination and even election are inevitable (if not messily achieved) ponder alternative scenarios.

One cautionary note to the Clintons: Bill and Hill often do not seek to reach the electoral mountaintop, following a bruising setback, via the high road. That was certainly the case in South Carolina 8 years ago.   Sanders seems to recognize it might get a little nasty. “They are throwing everything at me except the kitchen sink,” he said Tuesday night, “and I have the feeling that the kitchen sink is coming pretty soon as well.” That might be the primal instinct within the Clinton camp, but it would be a mistake of potentially fatal proportions. The very worst thing a politician can do is to confirm voters’ hostile impressions of them. The road back for Clinton must be based upon re-emphasizing her steadiness on national security issues, her longstanding commitment and performance on subjects key to the Democratic base, and a contrasting of her depth of achievements with the fringe performance of Sanders in national politics over the decades before he became “Bernie!”.

This race is a long way from being over, but Clinton needs to act and sound gracious, compassionate and calm as she plows forward. For all the noise and drama of Iowa and NH, she still leads Sanders in delegates, largely because of superdelegates falling in line behind her. The next few weeks are going to be brutal for her, as the media smells danger in the Clinton campaign and will emphasize every miniscule piece of evidence that the wheels are coming off the campaign plane. She needs to send a much clearer and far more succinct message of what she stands for, downplay the substantive differences between her and Sanders, and highlight the need for experience and maturity in the Oval Office. Bernie has a clear and resonating message and 110% of the enthusiasm right now, but most skilled political hands are being wrung at the prospect of his emerging as a nominee.

As for the Republicans, the big losers certainly were Christie, who proved to be an outstanding attack dog (as only a fellow New Jerseyan can fully appreciate) and Rubio, who has the teeth marks of a New Jersey attack dog to thank for a dismal collapse. Christie decamped to New Jersey to reassess; one can only imagine how pleased he was with his campaign’s decision to play the Bon Jovi song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” at Tuesday night’s rally.

Rubio has always sounded like he was running for class president rather than U.S. president (and not of a very impressive high school, I might add) but it took Christie to make the point effectively on national television. We will always be indebted to Rubio for confirming the charge so guilelessly just micro-seconds after Christie hurled it at him, and for assuring us in his concession speech on Tuesday night that he would not be caught mechanically repeating himself. “That won’t happen again,” Rubio promised his supporters. “That won’t happen again.” OK, maybe he was kidding, but it was an awkward time for self-deprecating humor.

Although Bush treated his fourth place finish as some sort of “Comeback Kid” moment, that conclusion is a bit premature. While Trump ran true to the polls, Cruz’ third place finish deserves attention since the evangelical community in NH is pretty thin compared to that in Iowa which delivered last week’s victory. But Cruz’ 12% indicates he isn’t going anywhere soon, and combined with Trump’s 34%, illustrates there remains a very sizeable outsider faction in the GOP that is going to be hard for any “establishment” Republican to corral not matter how much pundits add up the “establishment” GOP “majority” opposed to Trump and Cruz.

John Kasich spent a lot of time and money in NH and it paid off, especially with what appears to have been a significant defection from Rubio. Kasich strikes fear into many Democrats because we know him from his days in Congress and he could send a formidable November message of pragmatic politics. But he is so dour and operational that he seems to generate little of the genuine excitement it will take to sustain primary/caucus interest over the long months ahead. He also will always be manacled to his wise decision to take Ohio into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, Original Sin to base Republicans from which he may never recover.

Which means that, hard as it may be to believe, Jeb! might actually survive as the establishment Republican when all the shouting and voting are over, although selling him to a GOP electorate that has elevated Trump and Cruz is going to be a serious challenge and perhaps an invitation to a third party by Tea Party/Freedom Caucus activists. One can see Sanders’ voters reluctantly accepting Clinton (if not necessarily voting in droves for her) should she prevail and, in fact, polling in NH reflected just such a willingness by Democrats, but less so among Republicans to accept a second or third choice. That polling raises the interesting question of predicting an outcome if the November election, following a season of outsider angst, turns out to be between the two ultimate insiders: Clinton and Bush. Who might be the third party alternative (other than Michael Bloomberg, just what we need, another billionaire swaggering in to confirm the oligarchic drift of American politics)? There was a candidate in the NH Democratic primary I want to investigate: Vermin Supreme. Or perhaps that was editorial comment.



The Wrong Kind of Oversight

While most political commentators are micro-analyzing the intermezzo between the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential contests, an important drama is playing out in the House of Representatives that is stunning in the opportunity it presents to Democrats seeking an effective messaging challenge to the Republican majority.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by the aggressive Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), has been firing off letters demanding information relating to the horrific contamination of the water supply of Flint, Michigan. Given the extensive federal involvement in the issue of water quality under multiple statutes, oversight of the local decision-making in Flint is perfectly appropriate. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice are also undertaking investigations into the decisions to continue supplying lead-tainted water to Flint’s largely minority population for two years despite the fact that the contamination was well known to state officials.

Moreover, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, notwithstanding his bona fides as a trash talking conservative who never misses an opportunity to impugn “Washington,” has requested – in the tradition of anti-Washington conservative governors – assistance from the big spenders on the Potomac to remedy a crisis the federal government had no role in creating. Snyder has sought assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been distributing bottled water to the city. (The state government has been supplying clean bottled water to employees in its Flint office buildings for months without bothering to alert the rest of the city to the contamination of its supply.) and asked President Obama to declare a state of emergency so the nation’s taxpayers, with the help of Congress, can provide water, food, electrical generators and millions of dollars in funds to address the crisis. Federal agencies including EPA, HUD CDC and FEMA are already on the ground helping Michigan and Flint officials.

Snyder, who took many months to respond to what officials in his administration knew was a serious problem, accepted responsibility in his recent State of the State address. “No delays, no excuses. We are accountable,” he told state residents, although he noted Flint shared a problem of deteriorating infrastructure along with many other parts of the country (a fact all members of the Congress might want to consider when they votes on major infrastructure initiatives).

Snyder may have been a little late in recognizing and responding to a severe public health crisis, but at least he has owned up to his personal culpability. His admission is what makes Chaffetz’ repeated refusal of requests by Committee Democratic to invite the governor to testify before the committee so incomprehensible. As the Democrats noted in a February 3rd letter to Chairman Chaffetz, Michigan “has primary enforcement responsibility for public water systems in the state,” yet Chaffetz has insisted on taking testimony only from Flint and federal agency officials.A water advisory task force appointed by the governor to look into the Flint water pollution crisis concluded last December that “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.” Apparently not by the House Committee on Oversight, since Chaffetz’ spokesman asserted that “our responsibility as a committee is at the federal level.” Democrats disagree, noting in their letter that if the Chairman continues to refuse to call Snyder to testify, “the Committee’s credibility will be impaired and subjected to accusations of partisanship that will undermine our work.”

For a committee that has found time to investigate not only politically charged topics like the alleged Benghazi cover-up (disproved) and Planned Parenthood’s supposed marketing of fetal parts (disproved), let alone the cost overruns in constructing the new embassy in London, it is a bit of a surprise that there is no interest in hearing testimony from the person who readily admits responsibility for the contamination of the water supply for a city of 99,000 people, largely minority.

The investigative blind spot behind which the Republicans are hiding Gov. Snyder is no minor issue, and needs to be highlighted by Democrats as a startling illustration of why a change in the governance of the House is urgently required. The role of oversight is not to provide political cover for the misdeeds and culpability of officials, let alone officials who admit their responsibility. Yet there surely is no other rational explanation for Chaffetz’ repeated refusal to acquiesce to Democrats’ demands to bring Gov. Snyder before the Committee.

This highly partisan management of the Chaffetz Committee is a pure example of what political scientists David Parker and Matthew Dull refer as the “weaponization and politicization of congressional investigations,” and serves as a case in point for why Republicans have forfeited their right to serve in the majority. It is bad enough that urgent public issues from immigration to tax reform to college affordability to preschool education are ignored year after year by the House. The Flint cover-up, especially in contrast to the extensive (and costly) hearings on Benghazi and Planned Parenthood, provides a clear, understandable, impartial example of the need for new leadership. Democratic Administrations and governors in the past had more than a few bruising experiences with oversight chairmen like John Dingell, John Moss, Henry Waxman and Jack Brooks who did not grant a safe haven to culpable bureaucrats or elected officials simply because they came from their own party. But apparently if you are a Republican state official who has admitted overlooking the poisoning of tens of thousands of your constituents for many months, you can count on House Republicans to shield you from questioning while they turn their fury on federal officials in an effort to pass the blame to “Washington.”

House rules allow Democrats on the Committee, led by the very able Elijah Cummings, to request their own hearing, with their own witnesses, if Chaffetz continues to stonewall on Snyder’s behalf. As Hill veterans know, however, Chaffetz gets to set the time of any hearing, so Cummings may find himself chairing an inquiry during the Super Bowl or some other time when viewership is minimal. Nor is it clear that Cummings will be able to compel Snyder’s attendance, which is necessary to understand what transpired and a bi-partisan response to preventing a recurrence in one of those other cities in which, as Gov. Snyder helpfully reminded us, the water delivery infrastructure is just as deteriorated (and potentially hazardous) as Flint.

Perhaps while he is testifying before Rep. Cummings, Gov. Snyder can thank the federal government for coming to Michigan’s aid in responding to the Flint crisis, just as taxpayers came to the state’s assistance, to the tune of billions of dollars, to rescue (and revive) the state’s automobile industry a decade ago. Of course, including those remarks would require some editing to the Republicans’ stock talking points about the evils of Washington.