hardline political news and analysis

Month: July, 2016

After the Balloon Drop

The polls assessing Hillary Clinton’s post-convention “bounce” have yet to come out – I expect something modest, but ephemeral, just like the Trump bump last week – but there are a few take-aways worth noting from the 4-days of Democratic hoopla in the City of Brotherly Love.

For a meeting of hard-nosed politicos, there sure was a lot of talk about “love” — brotherly, sisterly, grandmotherly, and every other kind as well, which cast a message of acceptance and diversity much wider than at most conventions. Philly ’16 was all about playing to the base: making the substantial number of Sanders people feel appreciated, listened to, and courted, and for the most part, it seems to have been effective.

At the outset, it appeared as though the Sanderistas were adamantly cruising for a fight, even if they had to start one themselves. There is a “protest tradition” at Democratic conventions that seems to require that someone play this role, even when it has little rationale, like now, since the Clinton forces essentially capitulated on the platform, recognizing that a platform is short-lived, unread and unenforceable especially if (a) you lose or (b) you don’t win the down-ballot races essential to implement your platform. The main goal of any convention is to get the family together and charge them up for the fall campaign, and in that respect, you’d have to say the Democratic Convention was a considerable success (particularly compared to the Goth GOP gathering in Cleveland).

The major question for the Sanders forces, including Sanders himself, is their role going forward. This was Bernie’s first Democratic convention (unbelievably), and he has never been active in trying to elect Democrats to Congress or any other public office to effectuate his policy objectives. In Philadelphia, he promised to do so, but it remains to be seen whether he steers his supporters to more conventional political objectives. Will the Sanders supporters dive into grassroots political efforts to influence elections, as did the Tea Party following the 2008 election, or will they devolve into the role of critics who are more frustrated than effective? There is a big difference between “advocacy” and “politics”: “advocacy” is your telling me what you want; “politics” is your convincing me to do what you want. The former is easy, the latter a bit more of a challenge.

One effort emerging from the convention suggests some Sanders folks are heading down the road of self-satisfaction and ineffectuality. A group branding itself “Brand New Congress” has declared its intention “to spread the word about their goal to replace most members of Congress in two years. That means Democrats, as well as Republicans.” Presumably, this objective entails defeating any Democrats insufficiently wedded to far-left politics, regardless of the politics of their districts or their own personal views. Other than fostering the kind of polarizing, intemperate, adversarial politics that most Americans detest, such an effort wastes time and money that should be spent trying to build the Democratic congressional majority that produced two highly effective Congresses in 2007-2010 notwithstanding the inevitable diversity that comes with any congressional majority. The good news is that Politico reports “roughly 20 volunteers” involved with Brand New Congress; with any luck, their numbers and influence will remain right where they are today.

There was a fascinating dichotomy at the Convention: although the platform and most of the political speakers were decidedly from the Party’s left, the most riveting speeches were from three people who pretty clearly stated they were not particularly wedded to the Democratic Party but supported Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy anyway: Michael R. Bloomberg, a former Democrat, former Republican and now independent; Gen. John Allen, a four-star Marine general who warned that a Trump presidency represented “a dark place of discord and fear”; and Khizr Khan, whose Muslim son died fighting in Iraq, who thoughtfully offered Trump his personal copy of the U.S. Constitution.

These three speakers made the kind of compelling case for Clinton that invariably eludes politicians, who reflexively speak to their base. Their appeal signals the smart way for Sec. Clinton and Democrats to proceed this fall: don’t get too deeply into the policy weeds, differentiate between a tested, respected and mature leader and a dangerously inexperienced egotist, and most importantly, let others take the lead in trashing Trump, especially his fellow Republicans and, of course, Trump himself, through his own words.

When  Republicans like David Brooks, Paul Ryan, John Kasich, Joe Scarborough and Ted Cruz are excoriating the GOP nominee, stay out of the way and sound presidential! Asked if Trump was sounding perhaps a little too autocratic, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute – a group not normally associated with progressive politics – agreed: “I really don’t think that’s too over the top,” noting that Trump is “not even pretending — he is promising to be a one-man ruler.” Most importantly, David Boaz noted, Trump’s obsessive egotism and flippant dismissal of facts has the potential to encourage voters far beyond the Democratic base to choose Clinton.

As Trump demonstrated this week, he cannot restrain himself from saying things that, ideology aside, are shockingly inconsistent with someone running for President of the United States. While there was much coverage of the new email scandal – Russians hacking Democrats and leaking information, perhaps to assist Trump – a truly eye-blinking statement from the Republican nominee went virtually ignored. Asked if he would tell Vladimir Putin to stop hacking into American servers, the would-be President said, “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?” I’ll bet they drank an extra Stolichnaya in Moscow to that one!

Scene: The White House Situation Room, 2018

 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Mr. President, the Russians are expanding their threats against Poland and Croatia. We recommend a sharp rebuke to Putin. Remind him that we will respond to any violation of section 5 of the NATO treaty.”

President Trump: “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do? Let’s fly Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago and hit the links.”

Trump seems unlikely to learn from such errors. Before the GOP convention, one Republican senator warned Trump he needed to change his style because “it wasn’t working for him.” Somehow, I think that message will have trouble penetrating Trump’s orange-encrusted head: his style seems to have “worked” effectively enough to vanquish 16 more skilled politicians (give or take a few, depending on how you characterize Ben Carson), win the Republican nomination, and draw pretty close to even with Clinton in current polls.

Trump’s unflagging faith in his own infallibility and his inability to present a presidential demeanor likely will be his undoing, much more than policy issues or ideology. The two commercials the Clinton campaign is running in battleground states, one showing adorable children appalled by Trump’s obscene public utterances, and other of the Republican hierarchy dismissing him as a know-nothing and dangerous braggart will do far more to influence independents and Republican voters than any critique Democrats could conjure up. When the conservative Republican Speaker of the House denounces the remarks of his own party’s nominee as racist, there’s a problem. Believe me, as Trump would say.

I was up on Capitol Hill yesterday walking past the Republican Club. In recent elections, the windows have been festooned with campaign posters: “Fire Pelosi,” “McCain-Palin,” “Romney-Ryan.” But yesterday, there weren’t any posters in the dozens of windows. Not one. The windows were as empty as Donald Trump’s ideas for how to govern, and just as transparent as his cynical and egotistical ambition. Let Trump be Trump, take nothing for granted (especially the debates), and hopefully (but not certainly), the American voter will make the intelligent choice.





Drawn to the Flame

When FBI Director Richard Comey and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch concluded there was no sound basis on which to prosecute Hillary Clinton over the email controversy, there was the expected sigh of relief from most Democrats. While I shared that sense with other Clinton supporters, my long experience on Capitol Hill told me it was unlikely to mark the end of the controversy, as many commentators predicted (and, no doubt, as the Clinton campaign mightily wished).

My concern was that House Republicans, frustrated by the unwillingness of the Justice Department to undertake a politically charged and unwinnable prosecution, would utilize procedural options within Congress’ purview to ensure that the controversy remain prominent throughout the remainder of the year, tainting the Democratic convention and dogging the Democratic nominee through Election Day. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, my concerns proved well founded.

There is an old rule of politics, written in the Watergate era and revisited with annoying regularity, that the cover-up is invariably worse than the crime. In the case of the Clinton emails, the issue is less a cover-up than the accusation that if she did not break a law in the handling of her emails, then perhaps she did when she testified before Congress about how she handled her emails. With the criminal accusation disposed of, one might presume Congress would not drag the issue kicking and screaming back into the limelight; but one would be wrong. The chant of this political season is less “keep hope alive” than “keep controversy raging.”

As if on cue, Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)  have asked the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to investigate whether “evidence collected by the FBI during its investigation of Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal email system … directly contradict[s] several aspects of her sworn testimony” before the Select Committee on Benghazi.   Chaffetz and Goodlatte know the U.S. Attorney, Channing Phillips, will likely have to respond to their inquiry, thereby ensuring that the controversy endures, either because Phillips decides Clinton did commit perjury (highly unlikely since the standard requires a witness knowingly lied to Congress, which is hard to prove) or Phillips decides not to act, in which case Republicans will heap accusations on the U.S. Attorney for making a “politically motivated” decision. Either way, the Republicans live to issue another press release condemning Clinton, the Obama Administration, and the Justice Department.

Well, at least that would be the end of it. Actually, no. If the request to Phillips comes up dry (as it almost certainly will; prosecutors are loathe to delve into congressional antics), Republicans still have other options. Speaker Paul Ryan threw some red meat to the Right last week by suggesting his Members might “have to ask [FBI Director James] Comey to look at” whether Clinton had lied to the Benghazi panel.   “That’s something we should look at,” the Speaker mused. Of course, Comey would welcome such a request about as much as Phillips; his likely response, at least on the record, would be to suggest that if Congress was upset about Clinton’s behavior, it should utilize its own procedures rather than continually call upon the legal system to prosecute politically charged and hopeless cases.

And that is precisely what House Republicans might do, bringing a resolution to the floor declaring that Clinton perjured herself before the Benghazi Committee. Speaker Paul Ryan likely would not relish such a debate since he will certainly need Democrats to help pass the Continuing Resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown on October 1st.   It is a pretty safe bet that the Freedom Caucus Republicans will insist that the CR contain poison pill policy riders that cannot be enacted (e.g., the 978th repeal of the Affordable Care Act). Or, they might simply refuse to vote for must-pass spending laws because they object to the spending levels Congress and Obama agreed to last year. Either way, Ryan needs Democrats just as John Boehner did. A knock-down, drag-out bloodletting on the floor over a contempt of Congress resolution is unlikely to foster the sense of collaboration needed to craft a bipartisan CR, so Ryan will doubtless try to discourage his Right flank from insisting on such a move.

Unfortunately, such a motion is privileged, and a motion to table it – the only line of defense – would be very difficult to pass without inciting the Freedom Caucus. My expectation would be that few Republicans would dare vote against such a sanction in the heat of the political season in September, ensuring yet another round of headlines declaring that Clinton has been “found guilty” of some nefarious email crime although the standards of evidence and burden of proof on the floor of the House are somewhat less rigorous than in a court of law.

If this scenario has a certain familiar ring to it, it is because of the similarities to the Republican House’s decision to press an impeachment resolution against then-President Bill Clinton in 1998 despite widespread public (and legal) sentiment that doing so was unwise and motivated purely by political maneuvering. The obsession with impeachment damaged Republicans in the 1998 off-year election, allowing Democrats to pick up 5 seats despite its being the sixth year of a Democratic presidency. Shortly after the election, Gingrich was challenged for the Speakership and quit, having also been founded in violations of House ethics rules and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.   After the Senate acquitted Clinton, most analysts concluded Republicans had damaged their standing by pursuit of so patently partisan a prosecution.

But the ability to wield pseudo-judicial power through resolutions accusing officeholders (or candidates) of wrongdoing is the flame to which congressional Republicans seem implacably drawn. If Comey won’t act, and Lynch won’t act, and Phillips won’t act, well, then, House Republicans are a-gonna pin on the sheriff’s badge an’ damn well enforce the law themselves. In fact, they have already begun the politicization of their prosecutorial powers by filing an impeachment resolution against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen for supposedly targeting conservative organizations. If they are going after Koskinen, can the Clinton resolution be far behind?

Republicans likely believe a privileged resolution that forces Members to vote on whether Clinton mislead the Benghazi Committee is a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose proposition. Once it passes, with solid Democratic opposition, Republicans can spend October trumpeting both the successful “prosecution” and the Democrats’ willingness to “overlook” Clinton’s alleged indiscretions. On both counts, they have extended the life of an issue that should wither in the August heat, assured a common theme with nominee Donald Trump for the fall, and created an issue for some Democrats whom they can hammer for having voted to exonerate Mrs. Clinton. If there is a downside, Republicans probably don’t see it, but then again, they didn’t see any dangers in going after Mr. Clinton’s evasiveness in 1998 either. Like Mr. Trump, they relish the notion of re-litigating that sorry chapter in presidential behavior this fall. It’s a bright flame for Republicans that they likely cannot help but fly towards.