hardline political news and analysis

Month: December, 2016

First Things First

In my first post-election DOMEocracy blog, I counseled anxious Democrats to “take a deep breath” and not overreact to the results. Nowhere is that advice more appropriate than in pausing before promoting presidential contenders for 2020.

Evidently, the editors at “The Hill” have a different perspective. Nearly a month before Donald Trump has even taken the oath of office, “The Hill” is speculating about his 2020 Democratic opponent, and in doing so, the newspaper has identified exactly why such an exercise is so ill-conceived. What we need is 20-20 vision about Party priorities, not an obsession with a 2020 nominee we cannot possibly predict.

“The Hill” identifies the “top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020,” a list that is not only implausible but unlikely to contain whoever will emerge to lead the ticket. Hopefully, Democrats will waste less time on such far-fetched guessing games and more time fine-tuning the points of attack against Trump’s unsuitable “Team of Tycoons” who are qualified only to undermine the very agencies they have incomprehensibly been selected to manage.

Certainly, four of the prospective candidates can be safely crossed off the list. Michelle Obama has been a groundbreaking First Lady and is a highly effective speaker, but she undoubtedly has 100 higher priorities than plunging into politics. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden deserve tributes to their long careers articulating traditional (and still sound) Democratic themes, but neither septuagenarian is running for national office in 2020. Hillary Clinton may still have a great deal to do, but running for president a third time is certainly not one of them.

Elizabeth Warren has quickly emerged as a forceful and effective Trump critic, and her star is likely to rise as she sharpens her rhetorical knife for the upcoming confirmation hearings. Warren’s well-honed critique of Wall Street and Trump’s plutocratic resumé might well have produced a dramatically different outcome in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Clinton’s empathy for working class whites proved ineffective. But Warren will be 71 in 2020 and while admirably combative, is not emblematic of the “new generation of leadership” many believe is needed to attract millennials and other young voters.

In the wake of the fragmentation of the Obama coalition in 2016, many question if Democrats can win a national election without a woman or minority on the ticket, a perspective that undoubtedly leads “The Hill” to place Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), Gov. Deval Patrick (MA), and Oprah Winfrey on the list. Winfrey is not running for anything. Patrick has had a reasonably successful two-term tenure as governor, but projects little of the magnetism expected of a presidential contender; also, a Harvard-educated governor of Massachusetts hardly sends a message of non-coastal diversity sought by many alienated Democratic voters. Booker remains largely untested in national politics, and his record as mayor of Newark has been the subject of skepticism. But Booker, who as mayor once ran into a burning building to rescue a constituent, has the panache of a prospective president and a willingness to self-promote that in and of itself suggests he should be watched.

Building a career in the vote-heavy Congress -– historically a weak presidential launching pad — is a current preoccupation of several of the remaining long-shots on “The Hill’s” list of potential candidates. Surely, attention will fall on Tim Kaine (VA) whose performance on this year’s campaign trail seemed underwhelming, marking him as better suited for a vice presidential nomination rather than the top of the ticket. Still, a successful, Spanish-speaking Democratic senator from swing-state Virginia (Kaine or his colleague, Mark Warner, who did not make “The Hill’s” list) cannot be dismissed.

Sen. Chris Murphy (VT) has struggled to find his balance after moving over from the House. His major issue – gun control – seems unlikely to serve as an effective rallying cry for a national campaign; indeed, Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on the issue, however meritorious, likely did little to enhance her appeal to the white working class. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) have both been mentioned as future candidates, but may find it difficult to generate greater profile or achievement in the minority. Their performance in the confirmation processes may prove critical in generating greater interest from the press or attention from funders.

The inclusion of the widely anticipated, multi-ethnic, Sen.-elect Kamala Harris (CA) on a list at this point seems fanciful (although Barack Obama, it will be remembered, became the nominee after just four years in the Senate). Harris will face the formidable tasks of learning the ropes of the Congress, building national recognition, achieving something of substance in the minority, and fending off those who will be anxious to ensure she does not prematurely eclipse their own aspirations.

The last names on The Hill’s list are soon-to-be-former governors of important states – Andrew Cuomo (NY) and John Hickenlooper (CO). Both have the executive experience valuable to a president, and neither has the long voting record of legislators that often proves perilous to candidates seeking to move to the national stage. But Cuomo is a notoriously difficult personality who seems to generate little affection among those who know him best. Hickenlooper was twice narrowly elected in Colorado although he was previously a popular mayor of Denver, but he has no national profile and like Gillibrand, he may possess serious vulnerability over his support for gun control, an issue that roiled Colorado’s Democrats in 2013.

It may appear that I am simply pouring cold water on the most likely Democratic candidates, but that is not my intention. Rather, I want to make three points:

First, it is premature to think about 2020 candidates. We have no idea of Trump’s greatest vulnerabilities, or if he will even be the Republican candidate. Second, we should not vest overdue significance in identifying the “white knight” to lead Democrats out of the wilderness. The key steps in the months ahead are likely to be taken by a collection of people – in the Senate, the House, the state houses, the incoming DNC chair – and it is foolish to create expectations and launch campaigns when so little is known about what will be required to achieve victory in 2020.

Lastly, Democrats should not be distracted by presidential speculation and ignore the essential 2018 off-year elections that present both opportunity (in governorships) and jeopardy (in the Senate, because of the large number of incumbent seats to defend). As argued in earlier DOMEocracy posts, building the Party’s strength does not begin with picking a presidential candidate, but in building the Party’s foundation, winning back key gubernatorial and legislative seats that will dramatically impact the reapportionment process for the 2020’s, and allow Democrats to demonstrate the workability of progressive policies –- and the skills of potential presidential candidates – in running state governments which will serve as crucial prototypes over the next few years.


Team of Tycoons

The selection of an incoming president’s Cabinet often provides valuable insights into the direction of the new Administration on key policy matters. Lincoln had his “Team of Rivals”; Trump offers up his “Team of Tycoons”.

Early in the 2016 campaign, many questioned the sincerity of Trump’s full-throated embrace of conservatism. But Trump has left little room to question his current thinking, as illustrated by his embrace of some of the most extreme and dubiously qualified purveyors of hard-Right ideology.

There is nothing new about appointing friends, cronies, contributors and even relatives to positions for which they are dubiously qualified. John Kennedy once joked that he saw nothing wrong with appointing his 35-year old brother and campaign manager, Bobby, as Attorney General so he might gain some legal experience before beginning private sector practice. Historically, the need to give grandiose and undeserved titles to inexperienced political amateurs is why we had offices like Postmaster General or Ambassador to France.

Trump’s appointments add new and deeply troubling complications to the assembling of a management team for the Executive Branch. For someone without a voter mandate justifying so extreme a reversal in policy – he currently trails in the popular vote by 2.6 million, by far the largest deficit in history – Trump has selected uniformly extreme conservatives for his Cabinet. By contrast, Barack Obama, who won a healthy majority of the vote, bewildered Democratic congressional leaders by embracing bipartisan governance, an objective he soon discovered was not shared by the vanquished Republicans.

Trump’s appointments are not only disturbing because of the ideological rigidity, but also because of the designees’ appalling absence of governmental backgrounds. The common denominator of these appointments, beyond ideology, seems to be public sector inexperience, private sector executive skills, and vast amounts of personal wealth – none of which necessarily bear any relationship to the skills needed to implement complex policies or supervise and motivate intricate bureaucracies. Of course, neither the nominees nor Trump has demonstrated much interest in those responsibilities: the goals, instead, seem to be to vitiate most federal policies over which the agencies have jurisdiction and to ignore the deep experience of those with decades of experience in managing the agencies. It will doubtless come as a shock to these corporate leaders when bureaucrats refuse to roll over at the first contrarian command, as did reliable private sector underlings.

Trump’s appointments leave little doubt about his contempt for the very offices to which they are being proposed:

  • an Ambassador to the United Nations with no experience in foreign affairs or national security;
  • a Labor Secretary from the notoriously anti-union, low-paying fast food industry (his own company had a 60% labor violations rate) who opposes the most basic legal protections for employees and unions;
  • an Education Secretary with strong ties to religious education who embraces diverting taxpayer money to non-public schools with dubious records of academic achievement;
  • a Commerce Secretary whose background at Rothschild’s included representing Trump’s failed Taj Mahal casino and buying up bankrupt companies to flip them for a quick profit;
  • a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs with a long history as a hedge fund manager, and for good measure, selection of the president of Goldman Sachs to run the National Economic Council;
  • an Attorney General once rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record on civil rights and who, as a senator, opposed passage of a domestic violence law because it extended protections to LGBT Americans;
  • a Housing Secretary with no experience on housing affordability or availability who admitted his unsuitability for running a federal department;
  • an EPA Administrator who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and has a long history of suing the agency he would lead;
  • an Energy Secretary who is an unequivocal apologist for the oil and gas industry to head a department he once promised to eliminate (of course, the nominee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also famously forgot that he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, but then again, he also once named Juarez, Mexico as “the most dangerous city” in the United States.).

Few appointments could be more disturbing than naming the president of Exxon-Mobil as Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson will be the most inexperienced person to serve as America’s chief diplomat – by a long shot. His international experience is reflected in longstanding business relationships that earned him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2012 for sealing a $500 billion deal. Tillerson’s baggage includes decades of world-wide conflicts of interest that no one could purge from their thinking once entering public service.

Tillerson, along with many of the other plutocrats preparing to join the Trump Administration, will face questions from skeptical senators eager to expose their long records of hostility to what will soon become their public responsibilities. They also will have to reveal their intricate and extensive financial interests that may compromise their ability to act in ways that serve the public rather than their private interests. And they will face inquiries into their lack of experience in managing a large public agency with mandates to implement laws which they have long histories of opposing or flaunting.

One person in the Administration will avert such scrutiny, at least until 2020: the President-elect himself, who has yet to describe how he intends to divest himself of his own massive conflicts of interests, or to release his own tax records that may clarify the extent of his own involvement with foreign countries and foreign business leaders. Just five weeks from Inauguration Day, it is difficult to know what is more unsettling about the Trump Administration: what we already know about the special interest records of his Team of Tycoons, or what we do not.







Why Pelosi Won, and What It Means

Earlier this week, a reporter asked House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi if she would achieve the three-quarters vote she had predicted to retain her leadership position. “Two-thirds,” Pelosi corrected the reporter. On Wednesday morning, in a secret vote among 197 House Democrats, Pelosi won an eighth term as the House’s top Democrat, with 68% of the vote, as predicted.

Pelosi’s precise vote-counting skills explain a good deal about why her colleagues extended her tenure, already the second longest in House history after that of legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn. During her one term as Democratic Whip and throughout seven terms as Speaker or Leader, Pelosi has been a meticulous vote counter, losing only one key vote — the 2008 vote on TARP when a teary John Boehner was unable to persuade his quota of Republicans to support the Bush-Pelosi initiative. (TARP quickly passed when Pelosi produced additional Democratic votes).

Long after she had vacated the Whip’s office to others, Pelosi ran her own vote-counting operation. Late into the night before key floor votes, Pelosi and her lieutenants and staff would count their pledges, and then painstakingly recount them, before seeking out the wavering dissidents who still needed persuading. It was that kind of diligence and persistence that paid off on Wednesday; Pelosi knows her members, and she is assiduous in listening to their views and addressing their needs.

But vote-counting skill alone did not secure Pelosi’s victory. First and foremost, leadership decisions are driven not by the symbolic value or national profile of a particular candidate, but by the answer to the time-honored question: “What can you do for me?” Compared to Pelosi’s massive fundraising record, her years of strategically assigning minority and vulnerable Members to key committee positions, and her skills at maximizing the party’s leverage even in the minority, a substantial majority of Democratic Members chose her continued leadership not because they liked or feared Pelosi, but because she was good for them. Her challenger, Tim Ryan of Ohio, offered none of that experience, which is why it was a foregone conclusion that in the era of Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Members concerned with their own political futures would not turn to an unproven novice.

Still, the Caucus protests sent a powerful message to find ways to elevate the participation of more junior Members – a majority of the House Caucus – into the leadership and decision-making roles. Pelosi has long sponsored weekly meetings between the leadership and these newcomers, but she proposed additional innovations to address the serious stasis among the aging committee leaders that has obstructed many Democrats from achieving even subcommittee leadership well into their careers. Some of her proposals met with immediate resistance, especially among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that is among the most vigilant defenders of a seniority system that ensures that minority legislators secure and retain their committee positions. (Ironically, the 1974 revolt against seniority targeted aging southern conservatives who, like many of today’s CBC members, enjoyed long tenures and leadership positions thanks to their largely uncontested seats.)

One important signal emanating from Wednesday’s vote is that the next team of Democratic leaders will certainly come from a new generation. Pelosi, along with Whip Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, the Assistant Leader (a position Pelosi created), will all be in their late seventies by 2018. The prospects for either Hoyer or Clyburn advancing to the Leader’s position, long a goal of the former, are negligible. Ryan’s challenge demonstrated that a substantial portion of the Caucus is prepared to look outside the traditional “leadership ladder,” a sentiment likely to grow and impact Ranking Members as well if some do not choose to step aside voluntarily, as did Ways and Means’ 85-year old Sander Levin this week.

It is unclear as of right now who will possess the multiplicity of talents displayed by Pelosi when the time comes to replace her, although one potential prospect, termed-out Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra of California, just decided to accept an appointment as that state’s Attorney General rather than seek to replace Levin or await Pelosi’s retirement. His departure, like that of Chris Van Hollen (Pelosi’s all-but-presumed successor who opted for a Senate seat) leaves open the question of who can credibly step up whenever the Pelosi era ends.