hardline political news and analysis

Month: June, 2017

The Important Take-Away in Ossoff’s Loss

Democrats and pundits need to be very careful about drawing the wrong conclusions about Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Tuesday’s special election in Georgia. The balloons at Ossoff headquarters have not even deflated and already we are being told he should have run a more left-leaning, progressive campaign (in a traditionally Republican Georgia district), he should have tied his opponent more to Donald Trump, he was weakened by charges he was a toady of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and his defeat – in what many had presumed would be a welcome victory – foreshadows a grim 2018 election season for Democrats.

All of those conclusions might be correct; but more likely, they are wrong. Elections at their bottom line are a grim, cold business, and people who want to be involved in campaigns need to face facts. So here are a few facts about the George 6th race and what it might say about next year’s off-year election.

The most important piece of news out of Georgia, in my view, was not that Ossoff lost, but that he lost by only 4 points in a district that 8 months ago re-elected a Republican congressman by nearly six times that margin. Less noticed was the similarly close election in South Carolina on Tuesday where last fall’s GOP margin also was shrunken to a few points in a race virtually no one was even watching. These close calls track races earlier this spring in which Democrats came close in Montana and Kansas House races, neither ones that the party had any reason to believe would be competitive.

One of the cruel truths of politics is that you can’t win by losing. But special elections can send significant signals even if they do not produce victories, and this group of four specials in heavily Republican districts are very revealing because each of the districts was so unqualifiedly weighted against a Democratic victory, which is why House strategists resisted pouring money into what they reasonably knew were long shot races.

There are 94 House seats currently held by Republicans where the margin of victory in 2016 was closer than the margin won by Tom Price in Georgia 6 last November. Democrats need to win just 24 of those seats to win the majority (assuming they hang onto their current seats). If you are angling for a House majority, go fishing where the fish are. (Or, as Willie Sutton reportedly replied when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”)

One often overlooked consequence of the gerrymandering practiced so effectively by Republicans is that in order to fashion such manipulated districts, the margins tend to be relatively close. States that look solidly Republican actually are chock-full of seats that the GOP wins by narrow margins. To squeeze 6 Republican seats into a state where registration would suggest 4 or 5 is appropriate, the seats need to have a fewer number of Republicans, making them more vulnerable to Democratic challengers. This is where the GOP could face across-the-board problems in 2018: seats that are not quite Republican enough to insulate incumbents from an anti-Trump wave. And there are a lot of them.

It is always important to remember that House races are largely determined by conditions on the ground, in the district, and less impacted by national trends than many believe.

Yes, it would have been satisfying to win Georgia 6th, but the loss is a reminder of one of the rules House tacticians must live with: some seats are just too tough to win. There is a long litany of races where a Democrat pulls down 47% and comes to party leaders explaining how a tweak here or there will produce 50%+1 in the next election if only the campaign committee can spare a million dollars or so. In many cases, that just isn’t true: yes, in a wave, all bets are off, but those familiar with the rhythm of House campaigns know that some seats can inch agonizingly close to victory without ever quite getting there. My guess is (and was throughout the Ossoff campaign) that Georgia 6 was probably one of those.

Of course, it didn’t help that our candidate was facing an experienced campaigner who had won statewide office and run for governor and senator. True, Clinton lost the district by only a couple of points (NOTE: However, she did lose it, see previous paragraph), but one should not be surprised that women repelled by Trump’s misogyny might come home to an established, Republican, female House candidate who avoided mentioning the president’s name. While the avalanche of money for Ossoff was impressive, it certainly didn’t help that the vast majority of it came from outside Georgia, bolstering Karen Handel’s characterization of Ossoff as a outsider-financed, carpetbagging interloper (who incidentally lived with his girlfriend outside the district).

So, what does this disappointing, if predictable, outcome tell us about 2018? Actually, the closeness of these races leaves me fairly optimistic, although it will still be a grueling path back to 218 for House Democrats. It is still very early in the cycle to assume these four losses spell doom for Democrats, who won a string of special election victories in 2009 only to suffer a massive loss in 2010. Events still unknown will likely shape the outcome 16 months from now, and if congressional Republicans cannot deliver legislative victories that demonstrably benefit independent voters, or if Trump continues his bull-in-the-china-shop approach to governing, the close races in 2018 may well swing towards the Democrats.




Is the Baseball Shooting a Game Changer?

Today’s dreadful attack on Members of the House, Capitol Hill police, staffers and others is a disheartening reminder of the perils that accompany public service – risks that are incalculably increased by the easy availability of assault weapons like those used by the man who shot Rep. Steve Scalise and several others on an Alexandria baseball field.

For anyone who has served in Congress or worked with Members for any period of time, the dangers are all too familiar. During the years I worked for Congressman George Miller, his personal safety was in danger on several occasions, including threats of a Chilean assassin sent to the United States to target Miller for his condemnation of Pinochet’s role in murdering the former Ambassador to Washington and a young American colleague at Sheridan Circle. On another occasion, Miller was physically attacked by a constituent during a Town Hall meeting. The security that surrounded Speaker and Leader Pelosi was justifiably of a higher, and constant, level, warranted not only by her prominent position but also by the vitriolic abuse directed towards her daily.

These kinds of incidents remind us that, except for very few in the leadership, House and Senate members have no police protection except when they are on Capitol Hill. The expense of providing such coverage for hundreds of legislators would simply be prohibitive. Instead, members make arrangements with local law enforcement officials to safeguard them and their staff during public events like Town Halls; some have moved their district offices into secure facilities like courthouses or federal buildings that provide security screenings. Some level of risk seems unavoidable; Members must advertise their local schedules well in advance of public events which often lack the level of security screening that would be afforded an event on Capitol Hill.

One sensed a serious dissipation of the traditional collegiality with the ramping up of divisive rhetoric during the 1990s, as Washington and its denizens were routinely pilloried as corrupt, evil and worse. Long before September 11, 2001, when the sophistication of security procedures and safeguards on Capitol Hill changed radically, I recall hearing of the alarming number of weapons removed from those seeking to enter the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings. Following the 9/11 attacks, police training and protective measures for the Hill were dramatically increased to minimize the danger to legislators, staff, visitors and others should Congress come under a similar attack.

Still, the atmosphere continued to deteriorate. No one who worked on the Hill during the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009-2010 will forget the hysterical mobs that besieged the House, at one point spitting on Members as they marched to vote on the legislation. Members reported constituents who were attending rallies and Town Halls armed with handguns in states where open and concealed carry laws have proliferated.

And then, there was that truly awful Saturday, January 8, 2011, when I took a call from the Capitol Sergeant at Arms informing me that Rep. Gabby Giffords, a good personal friend, had been shot; I had the terrible duty of calling my boss, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, to relay that news and the radio update – fortunately false – that Gabby had not survived. On Monday morning, I emailed Speaker John Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, to suggest we invite all staff members to join us on the East steps of the Capitol to demonstrate our support for Gabby and our hopes for her survival and recovery. In just two hours, dozens of staff from both parties, as well as Members, joined us on the steps for an impromptu service during which all signs of partisan disagreement were instinctively suspended.

Now again, the violence has reached Capitol Hill, as it so tragically did nineteen years ago when a deranged gunman killed Capitol Hill officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut. Miraculously, this time, none of the intended victims died, largely because Majority Whip Scalise, as a member of the leadership, had a small security contingent with him that was able to fire back and prevent many more from injury.

Today’s horrifying events will prompt discussions of gun restrictions, the hazards of holding open constituent meetings, political rage and other predictable and reasonable topics. Will any change come from the tragedy and ensuing discussion? Not likely, at least not from Congress which remains in the thrall of the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America.  Nor from the media that thrives on the bloodletting – figurative and otherwise — that has become endemic in the Nation’s political discourse and coverage.

The pressure will have to come from voters who send unmistakable messages to legislators, media leaders and their fellow Americans that the price for the unrestrained availability of guns and hyper-partisan political rhetoric is unacceptable. How many times do we need to be reminded?




Congressional Oversight and the Trump Gag Order

Oversight has long been a crucial, if irregularly utilized, obligation of the Congress. While most people know that subcommittees and full committees hold hearings on policy issues that necessitate examination and on specific pieces of legislation, they also are charged under House and Senate rules with scrutinizing whether the Executive Branch is implementing laws consistent with Congressional intent. “If any realm exists in which [Congress] can be autonomous and consequential, it is in the realm of investigation,” observed political scientist David Mayhew. Between 1947 and 2010, Congress conducted 1,137 investigations, with the House emerging as the more aggressive chamber after 1974.

Not surprisingly, an adversarial relationship often exists between the Legislative Branch that writes the laws and the Executive Branch that administers them. When Congress decides to probe the operations of the Executive Branch departments and agencies, calling officials to testify and subpoenaing documents, the bad blood between the branches can heat up quickly.

The frequency and tenor of oversight is frequently related to the partisan relationship between the White House and the Congress, particularly the House. When government is divided, the partisan probing is particularly aggressive: think Benghazi, Lewinski and Wall Street circa 2008. When the same party controls both branches, congressional interest in performing its oversight function has a way of fading dramatically. Republicans showed little interest in scrutinizing the decisions leading to the Iraq War when George W. Bush was president, and Democrats were unusually quiescent during the first two years of the Obama presidency, when they were in the majority. Only rarely, in the case of inescapable meltdown – Watergate comes to mind, as do the inquiries into the Titanic sinking and the Challenger explosion – is oversight largely bipartisan.

As with so many features of traditional Washington behavior, the rules of the game are changing under President Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, the Republican majority has been loathe to launch inquiries into innumerable peccadillos (and worse) committed by the Trump Administration, any one of which, if committed by the Obama Administration, would have sent GOP inquisitors into paroxysms of sleuthing.

House and Senate Democrats are losing their patience with the Republicans’ meager deployment of oversight, and they are sending their own detailed inquiries to agencies demanding information and answers. Lacking the ability to issue a subpoena (the power to do so rests with the committee’s majority and sometimes, just the chairman), Democrats have to count on the good will of the Executive Branch to honor their request for data.

Fat chance. Now, to be fair, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama slow-walked the informational requests of Republican minorities. Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators often obstructed confirmation votes in response to the unresponsiveness of Obama bureaucrats. But now the Trump Administration has issued explicit instructions to departmental officials to decline to comply with requests for information from Democratic lawmakers. According to recent reports, Uttam Dhillon, a lawyer on the White House staff, directed agencies “not to cooperate with such requests from Democrats.” The source of this revelation: “Republican sources,” who affirmed that the goal is “to choke off the Democratic congressional minorities from gaining new information that could be used to attack the president.”

It probably should not come as a huge surprise that, in response to the criticism this directive has unleashed, the civics-challenged Trump White House sought to assure critics that the Administration would respond to “the requests of chairmen, regardless of their political party.”

Note to Trump White House: there are no Democratic chairmen. Yet.

It is easy to get up on a partisan high horse on this issue, but the truth is that all administrations are loathe to turn over documentation to political adversaries who sometimes are on fishing expeditions. But the Trump clan seems to have elevated common practice to formal White House policy, and the damage done by this unresponsiveness compounds the circle-the-wagons paranoia prevalent in the embattled White House.

Refusing to hold the Administration accountable is far from the only example of the Republican leadership backtracking on pledges in their administration of the House. During their 2010 to regain the majority, House Republicans promised to return to “regular order”: committees, where debate is open and amendments are unrestricted, would develop legislation instead of having it dictated by the leadership. (This promise was a response to a bogus charge about the way Democrats had written the 2009 stimulus, health care and Wall Street reform laws. In fact, all were developed in committees, subjected to extensive hearings and mark-up sessions in which Republicans were fully engaged.) No legislation, John Boehner promised, would come to the floor without having been open for scrutiny for at least 72 hours. No Member would have to vote on a bill they had no had the time to read.

Of course, all these promises have been broken. Committees now are largely inactive; hearings on policy development are few and far between; bills, like the atrocious ACA revision never endured a minute of hearings, testimony, or committee debate or mark-up. In the case of the ACA revision, virtually no one knew what was in the constantly morphing bill, and absolutely no one knew what it would do, or how much it would cost when they voted on it. So much for the promised “regular order” which often is dispensed with when vote margins are tight.

Now Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican majority must decide whether they will kowtow to an Administration that displays open defiance to their Democratic colleagues’ requests for information. After all, there is more than partisan politics at stake; the interests of the institution of Congress are also on the line.

If the Republicans refuse to stand up for the minority, and the tens of millions of Americans they represent, at least Ryan should clearly affirm the right, and responsibility, of Congress to conduct oversight, a crucial and hard-won power of the Legislative Branch. This week’s Senate hearing with James Comey stands in sharp contrast to the continued stonewalling by House investigators who are protecting Trump and his hapless team. Unfortunately, Ryan and a substantial portion of his Caucus are content to ignore Mayhew’s standards of being “autonomous and consequential” by conducting serious oversight. As with their abysmal record of non-legislating, if this inaction elevates public disdain towards government, they have achieved their goal, and the Congress and the country are the worse for it.