hardline political news and analysis

Month: April, 2016

Tuesday’s Undercard Winners

Tuesday’s Amtrak corridor primaries seem to spell the end of the line for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the also-rans ineffectively challenging the implausible Donald Trump. It is possible that the match-up in the fall will not be Clinton v. Trump, but don’t bet on it: Clinton will reach her magic number soon, and even if Trump stumbles at securing the 1237 delegates he needs, the Republican establishment will be hard-pressed to deny the nomination to someone who has so dominated the primary season, delivering it instead either to someone he consistently thrashed, or someone who didn’t even bother to run.

There were other races on Tuesday that bear noting. In Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary (the only race that counts in the most reliably Democratic state), two House Members with nearly impeccable liberal voting records squared off against each other: Chris Van Hollen, the long-ranking Democratic chairman and senior member on the Budget Committee, and Donna Edwards, who was seeking to become only the second African-American woman elected to the Club.

For most of the winter and spring, the race seemed too close to call. Van Hollen’s strength in the sprawling Montgomery County was offset by Edwards’ grip on her Prince George’s County district: the battle would be fought out in Baltimore.   Although the presidential contest brought out large numbers of minority voters, Van Hollen easily defeated Edwards, taking about one-third of the black vote. Many observers faulted Edwards for what seemed shrill and blatantly false accusations that Van Hollen was sympathetic to the National Rifle Association and slashing Social Security benefits. When Edwards ran an image of a weeping President Obama to illustrate her support for tougher gun restrictions than Van Hollen, she earned a rare rebuke from the White House. Over the last two weeks of the campaign, polling detected a decided erosion of support for Edwards, largely because of her controversial campaign tactics.

But another shortcoming of the Edwards campaign was her thin resume of legislative achievements. Although Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (who remained neutral in the race) appointed Edwards to lead an effort on economic policy, the congresswoman had little experience with policymaking at the upper echelons of Congress. By contrast, Van Hollen was a skilled legislator, entrusted with leading Democrats on the Budget Committee for years, heading up negotiations with congressional Republicans and the White House. Most observers saw in Pelosi’s persistent promotion of Van Hollen – on Budget, fiscal commissions, and White House negotiations, as well as the chairmanship of the Democratic campaign committee – as evidence of her confidence in his political and policy skills.

Edwards tried to appropriate the Sanders “inside/outside” message, simultaneously asserting she was well-connected and experienced, while also claiming to be a community activist free from taint as a professional politician, but it didn’t work, and her fact-challenged attacks seem to have backfired.

Van Hollen becomes not only a certain senator, but nearly as likely a future presidential candidate in 2020 or 2024, depending on how things go for Mrs. Clinton in November. As I noted in DOMEocracy a year ago, “Van Hollen’s easy manner and upbeat style camouflages a skilled and effective politician. [He has] enjoyed the confidence of Members as a thoughtful and savvy technician who also knew how to play the political and media games expertly.” While already 57, Van Hollen will be at the edge of a suitable age for a presidential run in 2024, but still younger than Clinton, Trump or Sanders this year. Given the thinness of the current Democratic bench, he will be carefully watched throughout his Senate career for signs of White House ambition.

Two other races are of interest. In the contest for the Democratic nomination in Van Hollen’s 8th congressional seat, the early favorite was Kathleen Matthews, a longtime television reporter and Marriott executive who is also the spouse of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Matthews is smart, personable, well-connected and the only major female contender in the primary. Her main competitor was thought to be state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a law professor with an impressive set of progressive legislative accomplishments in Annapolis.   A surprise entrant was a self-funding multi-millionaire, David Trone, who spent an obscene $12 million of his own money – five times Matthews and Raskin’s totals – to promote himself as an outsider candidate.

If Matthews had name recognition and Trone had money, Raskin had something of exceptional value in a House race: on-the-ground organizing skill. The most progressive voice in the race (he led the successful fights to end capital punishment and to permit same sex marriage in Maryland), Raskin’s Senate district covered only about a sixth of the congressional district, but his organizing diligence paid off. While some may compare his leftist politics and grassroots strategy to Bernie Sanders, Raskin’s record suggests he is more of a team player, a valued asset in House politics, and he will be one to watch in the 115th Congress.

In Pennsylvania, the story was bit different, as Katie McGinty, a former staffer to Al Gore and in the administrations of Pennsylvania governors Tom Wolf and Ed Rendell. A vigorous environmentalist, McGinty was the establishment candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, strongly backed by President Obama (who called her “a true champion for working families”), Vice President Biden and other party elders against former Rep. Joe Sestak, who had lost a race for the seat six years ago. Sestak had been an irritant during his brief four year House career, often making a point of separating himself from the House leadership and other Democrats. A retired three star admiral, Sestak had defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched from Republican to Democrat in hopes of retaining his Senate seat in 2010, but narrowly lost the fall election to Pat Toomey.

Unlike Van Hollen and Raskin, McGinty’s route to a seat in Congress will not be secure. She still needs to defeat Toomey, elected in the Tea Party bacchanalia of 2010 but arguably too hard-line a conservative for Pennsylvania, especially in a presidential year when there will be a far larger turnout than when he won in the 2010 off-year vote.

Tuesday’s primaries not only pushed the presidential process towards its likely conclusion (mercifully), but elevated to national visibility three liberal Democrats who hold great promise as the party peers ahead into the post-Obama era.



Trump’s Triumph

It has been a while since a national party gave its presidential nomination to a candidate who appeared destined for electoral humiliation, but the rambling carnival road show that passes for the Republican Party seems likely to do just that. The consequences for conservatives, both in the Congress and at the state and local level, could be cataclysmic. But, as that quintessential New Yorker, Ralph Kramden, used to say, “And away we go!”

Donald Trump’s triumph in New York – apparently winning all but 3 delegates that went to Ohio Gov. John Kasich – makes his eventual nomination very difficult to derail. Unless he does something extremely unpredictable or stupid – and he has already done so many times with negligible ramifications – Trump seems all but certain to arrive in Cleveland with a majority, or near majority, of the votes needed to secure the nomination.

Most observers will stipulate that if Trump arrives with the majority and secures the nomination, the scenario for the fall is grim, to say the least (though one must note “most observers” have been consistently wrong this year). His negatives, even within the Republican party, let alone among key sectors needed for a successful presidential run, are likely beyond repair; with Trump at the head of the ticket, Hillary Clinton becomes an acceptable alternative for millions of Republican women, business people, and others essential to a Republican candidate’s competitiveness.

At worst, Trump will arrive at the convention with a considerable delegate lead over Sen. Ted Cruz (whose nomination would not fare much different, it is important to note) and other also-rans. True, you either win or you don’t, but there are serious consequences to denying the nomination to a clear front-runner who fell slightly short, particularly Trump whose anti-establishment attacks foreshadow a possible independent run if he is “not treated well.” I am confident that denying him the nomination under such circumstances would fit that definition.

The track record on contested conventions is not especially heartening, which is one reason party leaders exert so much effort to avoid them. According to a Pew study, a Republican candidate who wins a nomination on the first ballot stands a 50% chance of winning the election (as opposed to a 61% chance if winning a first ballot nomination). Successful Republicans who took more than one ballot to secure their nominations include Hays (7), Garfield (36), and Harding (10), while Democratic multi-ballot nominees included Woodrow Wilson (46) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (4). The historical record certainly is clear that the longer the battle goes on (and it is unlikely Trump would yield his delegates easily), the more chances of success plummet either further.

Back in 1940, for example, the Republican convention was a wide-open affair, with many prominent Republicans vying to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. Among the contenders were prominent party players including Sen. Robert A. Taft (OH), Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (MI), Republican House Leader Joseph Martin (MA) and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Barely noticed at 3% earlier in the year was Wall Street-based power company executive, Wendell Wilkie, a strong internationalist and FDR delegate at the 1932 Democratic Convention. (Shades of Trump’s business background and meandering political leanings). It took six ballots for the inexperienced dark horse to prevail amid a chorus of supporters roaring “We Want Wilkie.” But FDR labeled Wilkie as inexperienced and untrustworthy given the international crisis the country was facing. “Better a third termer than a third rater,” FDR’s slogan went; the country agreed, giving Roosevelt a 10 point margin of victory and 449 electoral votes to Wilkie’s 82.

Republicans opened their last uncertain convention in 1976 under chaotic circumstances. The incumbent, Gerald Ford, had never been elected to the presidency or even to the vice presidency, having been appointed to the latter in 1973 upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and elevated to the latter upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford fought continuously with the Democratic Congresses he faced, endorsed legislation that inflamed the rising right wing of his party (including a controversial labor law and negotiations on yielding the Panama Canal) which enthusiastically backed former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Ford and Regan battled throughout the primary season, and the outcome was not clear until the convention opened and Ford narrowly triumphed. But the remaining enmity complicated Ford’s race against the reformer Jimmy Carter, who narrowly ousted the President in November.

The last genuine Democratic free-for-all was in 1912, when contenders included New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, a relative neophyte compared to opponents like House Speaker Champ Clark (MO) and Ways and Means chairman Oscar W. Underwood (AL).     Clark secured a majority on the 9th ballot, but convention rules required a two-thirds margin, which dragged out the balloting.   When Tammany Hall bosses endorsed the Speaker, reformers in the party pounced. Former three time nominee (and loser) William Jennings Bryan endorsed Wilson, who had consistently run second to Clark, and the balloting seesawed for several ballots until Wilson moved ahead on the 29th and finally won on the 46th. Unlike other multi-ballot victors (James Cox’ 44 ballots in 1920 and John W. Davis’ in 1924 come to mind), Wilson actually was elected president, but possibly only because the Republican vote was split between incumbent William Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. (Wilson received just 41% of the popular vote.)

The last contested Democratic convention was 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson , who had declared he would not be a candidate, faced Senate powerhouses Estes Kefauver (KY), Richard Russell (GA), and Alben Barkley (KY) as well as former Secretary of Commerce and Ambassador Averill Harriman (NY).   Stevenson emerged victorious on the third ballot, but was crushed in the fall by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Historical comparisons are entertaining, but one needs to remember that most of these past contests involved nominations and conventions in which crucial decisions were made by the political party and elected leaders, not by primary voters or caucus attendees.   Votes could be juggled and manipulated by bosses far more easily than the GOP establishment might be able in Cleveland. Moreover, the losers in most of these races were experienced politicians who remained committed to their party (TR being a notable exception in 1912, and his heresy of running as a 3rd party candidate might well have cost Republicans the White House).

Even in the days of party control of the nominating process, selecting a dark horse nominee after the major contenders had exhausted themselves (and the delegates) does not fare well. John W. Davis received less than 3% of the votes on the first ballot in 1924’s Democratic convention and was not considered a serious possibility for dozens of ballots. Davis won on the 103rd ballot, and was crushed by President Calvin Coolidge. Before Republicans contemplate digging up a fresh face to replace Trump and Cruz, they should recall Davis’ fate. Indeed, the insult would be even worse this year should the party select someone repudiated by voters or not even tested during the primary season.

The track record in modern times is not very favorable for a party divided at the convention, even when there is no multi-ballot fight (see Republicans in 1964 or 1976, or Democrats four years later and in 1980 and 1984). The goal must be to resolve the nomination as early as possible and patch up the bad feelings and wounded egos as long as possible before the gavel comes down, the confetti drops, and the nominee goes out to face his – or her — destiny. Unfortunately for Republicans, after New York, that prospect is increasingly one with orange hair, a confrontational message, and horrific negative ratings.

Budget Blues

Americans view April 15th with a certain degree of dread as they must cough up the taxes they owe the government. But for Members of Congress, April 15th has another significance – the day by which the Congress is supposed to finalize the annual budget. It is a deadline generally honored in the breach.

Since enactment of the Budget Control and Impoundment Act in 1974 – one of the signal efforts of reformers to claw back power usurped to the imperial presidency – Congress has actually met the deadline only 6 times. Even when a resolution is cobbled together weeks late, it has the effect of delaying other crucial business, especially Appropriations legislation, which is why members of the spending committee have long detested the budget process. Former Appropriations chairman David Obey has made no effort to disguise his contempt. “Nobody went to God to ask him to add four months to the calendar” at the beginning of the year to accommodate the budget process, Obey has complained. Moreover, since budgets have evolved from a congressional statement to contrast with the White House’s budget into a representation of respective party positions on spending, deficits and taxes, scholars have argued that the 1974 law helped usher in the era of polarized politics that now overwhelms much of American government.

This year was going to be different because Obey’s Wisconsin colleague, Paul Ryan, is now Speaker and able to exercise his formidable power to ensure that the budget process moves expeditiously. Ryan knows how that is supposed to occur since he was chairman of the Budget Committee for four years, as well as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Moreover, the two year budget and spending agreement that Ryan, as the freshly minted Speaker, concocted with President Obama and Democrats last December should have made this year’s blueprint a slam dunk success.

But April 15th will come and go this week with no budget, largely because Ryan, as predicted, has confronted the very same obstinate sub-caucus of Republican hardliners that bedeviled John Boehner and drove him from the Speaker’s chair. Having opposed December’s two-year agreement for lifting sequestration spending caps on domestic, as well as defense, spending (without which neither Obama nor congressional Democrats would have gone near it), Freedom Caucus absolutists now refuse to rubber-stamp its higher spending levels and insist that Ryan walk back the December deal, which would make him look foolish. Since Democrats cannot be expected to vote for the GOP budget as they will for real spending measures when needed to keep government functioning, Ryan needs to cobble together 218 Republicans, a task which has proven difficult to impossible on spending-deficit-debt ceiling legislation since Republicans resumed control of the House in 2011.

There are consequences to this budget impasse, which CNN has termed “an embarrassing setback [and] … big political black eye for Ryan and his top lieutenants.” Absence of a budget resolution will likely delay work on appropriations bills almost certainly beyond the September 30th end of FY2016, necessitating a Continuing Resolution or two to keep the government open. Unlike past years, the threat of a government shutdown if such a CR does not pass doesn’t work in 2016 because such an action weeks before a national election would be suicidal. Responsibility for the last shutdown orchestrated by the hard Right fell almost entirely on Republicans, causing the party’s approval to crater in public opinion — not a scenario any sane politician wants to replicate while voters are thinking about the election.

Moreover, the lack of a budget resolution agreement with the Senate rules out a reconciliation bill that could contain changes to Obama and Democratic priorities, such as modifications to the Affordable Care Act or alterations of Obama executive orders, which might serve as useful campaign positioning for Republicans. True, Obama would veto any such changes, as he did last year, but the messaging opportunity is not without value in the election season.

The Freedom Caucus does not see any particular downside to tripping up Ryan or missing the deadlines. North Carolina’s Rep. Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus hardliner, praised Ryan for listening to his voluble absolutists without imposing the kind of pressure Boehner had been so reluctant to employ against party dissidents. “In times in the past, there would have been a forced vote,” Meadows said. “And because there is not a consensus from the bottom up, he has not done that.” Boehner’s example should prove a warning to Ryan: accommodating the hardliners on the bottom only encourages further intransigence.

The missed budget deadline is symptomatic of much bigger problems for Ryan and Republicans. The chronic discord within the GOP Caucus and the unwillingness (or inability) of the Speaker to cobble together a functioning majority presents real challenges to any progress on long-delayed policies by the House. One can hardly imagine a comprehensive tax reform bill, let alone needed legislation on economic revitalization, infrastructure reconstruction, climate change or national security making it through a Congress where the majority leadership cannot count on support from its own members, and lacks the fortitude, skills or wisdom to persuade its own members to act – on behalf of the party’s credibility if not the country’s best interests.

Moreover, the inflexibility of the Freedom Caucus faction will leave Ryan with little alternative other than once again cutting deals with House Democrats to avoid shutdowns and other perilous cliffs. Those inevitable acts of political pragmatism will only exacerbate the frustration of hardliners who rose up against Boehner for his repeated deals with Democrats, who provided the votes Freedom Caucus conservatives refused to provide. To make matters worse, Nancy Pelosi once again will have the upper hand, insisting that no offensive riders be attached to CRs or other “must pass” bills, a condition that drives the irreconcilables into a frenzy against the alleged collaborationists in their own leadership.

So this April 15th brings a painful message of both policy and strategic failure for Paul Ryan and his Republican majority, with little prospects for improvement in the months to come. One might wonder why the accidental Speaker was so quick to definitively close the door on the last stagecoach out of Dodge, an escape to the “relative calm” of the White House, or at least a presidential nomination that like his invitation to the speakership, might be offered on a silver platter.