Fire and Smoke

by John Lawrence

After a 4 day drive across much of the country and a week settling into our temporary housing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I am ready to resume writing DOMEocracy while completing my book on the House Class of 1974 and the impacts of congressional reform. There has been a lot of fire and smoke since the last DOMEocracy post – similar to the Zozobra festival torching of a 60’ high marionette I witnessed here – but after the smoke has cleared, does anything solid remain?

A number of earlier observations have proven accurate, at least in this still early point in a turbulent political year: Trump remains a profoundly disturbing, undisciplined, divisive and improbable (but not unelectable) candidate; Senate Democrats might narrowly win control, but (in my view), that is no certainly; House Republicans are putting a lot of partisan irons in the fire for use in early October; and Speaker Paul Ryan is confronting the same extremists within his Conference who doubt his fealty to conservative principals and his inclination to compromise with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.

The Clinton campaign remains a careening force barely capable of staying on the tracks between non-issues (including her health), unresolved issues (the endlessly evolving emails), and inexplicable issues (why would Bill Clinton accept $17 million to glad-hand dubious for-profit educators at a time they are under investigation in Congress and his wife is contemplating a run for President)? One can only imagine the state of the polls if Secretary Clinton were running against virtually any other Republican.

House Democrats appear likely to pick up a number of seats – perhaps 15 or more – but predicting down ticket outcomes is very tricky, even when the outcome of the presidential race is a good deal clearer than it is today. Leader Pelosi continues to raise money and is adding races to her Red-to-Blue competitive list of challengers. The upbeat former Speaker refuses to rule out winning the House majority, which would unquestioningly return the gavel to her hand. The single biggest factor in that outcome and the election in general is the question of Republican turnout. Will GOP voters be so disenchanted with Trump that they stay home, or will they defy historical voter behavior and flood to the polls to support congressional candidates even if they intend to skip the presidential race? If Libertarian Gary Johnson continues to offer the kind of uninformed musings he uttered this past week (“What’s Aleppo?”), Republican voters may not even come out to vote for him in protest. GOP turnout will be crucial to Democratic prospects in the House.

While the rhythm of the presidential campaign will likely impact the House outcome more than any specific strategies hatched by the party leaders, Republicans have unwittingly provided Pelosi and Democrats with precisely the target that could resonate with voters. I downplay the significance of attacks referencing poor legislative performance or low numbers of votes; I don’t imagine such allegations influence undecided voters very much, and many, in fact, may be delighted that this Congress, for which so many Americans have only contempt, is passing few new laws. But the Republican inaction is providing a winning theme for Democrats: Republican mismanagement and extremism threaten the well-being and security of the American people. When voters feel there is something at risk, particularly for them and their families, they pay attention; when the risk is to an institution for which they have little regard, there will be minimal impact.

By failing week after week, month after month, to approve legislation sought by President Obama and Democrats to attack the Zika virus threat, Republicans are putting Americans at risk. By insisting on inclusion of irrelevant riders like defunding Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico, Republicans are sending a message that their extreme agenda is more important than the health and safety of the American people. The same argument holds true for inaction on gun safety legislation and immigration reform. Republicans would rather promote division, inaction and extremism than do what they are being paid to do: protect you, me, and millions other Americans who pay their salaries. So get rid of them and let someone else bring forward a reasonable gun bill, a balanced immigration bill, and a Zika control bill that will pass with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes. That is precisely the strategy successfully pursued by Democrats in 2006; the problem isn’t the institution, it is the people who are running it. So change the leadership by changing control.

Instead of addressing these urgent issues, Republicans continue to engage in the circular firing squad that was once the signature formation of Democrats. (As political scientists have noted, large majorities by definition contain more disputatious factions than relatively homogeneous minorities.) As I had anticipated, the Freedom Caucus zealots are thinking of spending September planning the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner, a fairly low priority for most Americans. Some are also discussing plans to censure the Democrats who sat in on the House floor in June to protest inaction on gun violence. Waste of time. And they are surely planning a few privileged votes holding Hillary Clinton in contempt for emails, Benghazi, and probably coughing. All designed to force Democrats into defending their nominee (which virtually all are unhesitatingly doing already).

They also are throwing up resistance to any long term budget deal that would lock in the agreed spending formula from a year ago, preferring either a government shut-down or a bloody fight over additional cuts and Obamacare riders that will once again leave their Speaker no alternative but to cut an unsavory deal with Pelosi and Obama. “How’d that work out for John Boehner,” asked Freedomite Paul Gosar of Arizona. Another GOP dissident recently told Politico that “the question many of us have is whether [Ryan’s] leadership is any different than Boehner’s.” The answer to that, as I predicted some months ago, is “no,” if Republicans refuse to back his budget and appropriations strategy to free the beleaguered Speaker from pleading with Pelosi for votes.

Accepting a deal to avoid what would be a cataclysmically harmful government shutdown five weeks before the election now seems likely to produce challenges to Ryan’s re-election as Speaker. So will bowing to reality and dropping the riders to the Zika bill, an absolute certainty unless Ryan wants to kiss off several GOP seats in Florida, including Marco Rubio. Acquiescing in an effort to ram the TPP trade deal through the Lame Duck session, as some are predicting (but I think unlikely) would create yet another dilemma for the pro-trade/business money dependent Ryan. Accepting any one of these scenarios could mean a real challenge for Ryan reaching 218 votes for Speaker, assuming Republicans are even in the majority. Recall that Boehner had two dozen “no” votes from the Right wing in 2015, and with a diminished GOP Conference including a higher proportion of nay-sayers in 2017, Ryan could face trouble for being anything but an obstructionist.

All of this maneuvering is understandably far beyond anything the average voter will follow. The question will be whether citizens remain so discouraged and fatalistic that they just give up on the whole operation and stay home playing Pokemon Go or watching Netflix. How much more ludicrous can it get? Sometimes it feels we are simply doomed to repeat the most demoralizing political experiences in recent memory:

  • Newt Gingrich diagnosing Hillary Clinton’s coughing spell and launching into a coughing spell of his own before hinting she might have a more serious problem than allergies. Sounds a bit like Bill Frist diagnosing Terri Schiavo’s coma, having never examined the patient.
  • Donald Trump asserting that had he rather than Obama been confronted with the Chinese failure to allow use of the official airplane stairs, he would have simply refused to participate in the G20 meeting. (“If that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here.’”) That undiplomatic possibility revived memories of Newt’s own fit when he shut down the government because Bill Clinton didn’t talk with him enough on Air Force One, prompting one of the great Daily News front pages in history.
  • Or Trump assuring voters he has a “secret plan” to defeat ISIS, but he doesn’t want to talk about it before he is Commander in Chief.   Sounds a lot like Nixon’s 1968 secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, which continued until 1975.   At least Trump inspires confidence with his explanation of his ISIS strategy: “When I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine or maybe doesn’t.” Oh, good grief.

We have two months to go and we are three weeks from the first debate in what is already an interminable and inexplicable election season. I will be interested to see if the Southwest offers a different perspective as events unfold.