hardline political news and analysis

Month: November, 2017

Looming CR Showdown Has Risks for Everyone

Media attention is focused on Congress for a number of reasons in the post-Thanksgiving period: Moore, Franken, Conyers, Barton. Also the Republican scramble to pass a partisan tax cut bill before the end of the year. Less noticed is the behind-the-scenes, bipartisan negotiation feverishly underway on an end-of-the-year spending package. The Continuing Resolution, or “C.R.,” presents enormous opportunities and risks for members of both parties.

Since Congress failed, as usual, to pass the appropriations bills by the October 1 deadline, legislators must extend existing spending levels to avoid a government shutdown. Despite the highly partisan atmosphere, virtually all extensions since 2011 have required the majority Republicans to seek Democratic votes because something less than 218 Republicans are willing to approve the essential spending.

Republican hardliners do not fear a shutdown; indeed, they insisted that John Boehner force one in 2013, a politically costly tantrum that cost the economy a stunning $24 billion in lost output, equaling 0.6% of projected annualized GDP growth, according to Standard and Poor’s. Pelosi regularly has delivered the votes to keep the government functioning, but only after exerting her leverage to remove every objectionable Republican provision. The acquiescence of the Republican speakers to her demands has infuriated the Freedom Caucus partisans who prefer a government shutdown to collaboration with Pelosi’s Democrats.

This time, Pelosi and Democrats are in a tricky position of their own. Democrats are feeling heavy pressure from core grassroots activists to withhold the votes needed to pass the CR unless Republicans agree to use the bill to resolve several high profile issues facing imminent deadlines: an extension (or replacement of) the DACA program for undocumented youth and the continuation of premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

GOP Leaders Ryan and McConnell (and President Trump, if he has a clue what this discussion is all about) doubtless believe they can resist making such concessions to their Democratic counterparts, confident that Pelosi and Schumer cannot abide withholding the votes that would result in a shutdown. They may be making a serious miscalculation.

Pelosi has recounted the discussion when Trump and other Republicans futilely attempted to bludgeon her and Schumer into accepting an 18 month budget/debt ceiling deal back in September. The GOP leaders glumly admitted they lacked the votes to pass their position, leading Trump to agree to Pelosi and Schumer’s 3 month extension. “Votes are the currency of the realm,” Pelosi noted, “maybe not on Wall Street or in New York real estate, but that is the case in Congress.” If McConnell and Ryan had the votes to go their own way, well, that’s what they would do. But if they didn’t, Pelosi reasoned, they would have to deal with her Democrats.

Using a stop-gap measure like a CR to resolve complicated policy questions like immigration or health policy is what political scientist Barbara Sinclair termed “unorthodox lawmaking.” But the stagecoach goes by the narrow point in the pass only so often, and you need to strike when it does. If Republicans call their bluff, Democrats can plausibly say, “We didn’t shut down government; we’re not in the majority. The Republicans have the responsibility to govern.” But they would find it more difficult to explain to core supporters that “We had them cornered and let them escape, so now Democratic constituencies face deportation and premiums spirals because we didn’t flex our muscle.”

While the negotiations continue in secret, it is essential that Democrats lay the predicate with the voters, the press and the media that the minority, has no burden to support a C.R. unless it is responsive to Democratic goals. As in 2013, Republicans might have to be allowed to fail at the most elementary of responsibilities – to keep government functioning. But can Democrats resist their instinctual urge to keep government open even at the expense of seriously disappointing their most loyal supporters on their highest priority issues?




Deficit Doves

Coverage of hurricane relief efforts perpetuates the conservative canard that congressional Republicans are genuinely concerned about budget deficits. A recent story in the New York Times (“White House Requests More Disaster Aid but Also Seeks Cuts as Deficits Rise,” November 17) restates that the longstanding argument that “Republican leaders [have] made fiscal rectitude a central organizing principle.”

But the conservative commitment to reducing deficits has been more of a campaign slogan than a governing principle. Attacks on federal spending since Ronald Reagan’s budgets have been thinly veiled strategies for undercutting domestic policies. As historians have demonstrated, the demand for deficit reduction is the wolf’s clothing in which conservative cultural values have long masqueraded. Little wonder so few Republicans are expressing deficit angst about the $1.5 trillion hole their proposed tax cut will create over the next decade, not to mention the following decade (which is conveniently excluded from cost projections).

The tax and spending agendas of President Trump and the Republican-led Congress follow a well-worn path of skyrocketing deficits notwithstanding frequent protestations of concern about overspending. Historically, the deficit rose more under Presidents Reagan and the two Bushes than under Clinton or Obama largely as a result of unpaid for tax cuts, exploding military spending and a refusal to reign in entitlements. Clinton and Obama were left the task of raising taxes to reduce the deficit holes dug by their anti-deficit predecessors (although George H.W. Bush’s later acquiescence to raising taxes despite a pledge not to do so fatally wounded his presidency.) When Democrats imposed a “pay as you go” requirement for new mandatory spending or tax cuts in the 1990s, the result was the first balanced budget in two decades. Once in the majority, however, Republicans rescinded the pay-for mandate for taxes, and then rescinded “pay as you go” altogether, leading to mushrooming deficits.

None of this comes as a real surprise to Republican leaders who were well aware of their duplicity. No less a deficit slouch than Dick Cheney admitted, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Even those who designed the supply side scheme have confessed their theory was ridiculous. “You’re kidding yourself if you think cutting taxes is really cutting taxes,” confessed David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan. “We’re simply … and immorally putting huge debt burdens on future generations and that is just wrong.” And Bruce Bartlett, who crafted the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp, has admitted that tax cuts do not really pay for themselves. “It’s not true,” Bartlett said, “it’s nonsense, it’s BS.”

The real goal behind Republican deficit concern has been to create a rationale to do indirectly what they know voters will not sanction: direct cutbacks to domestic programs from education to economic development to environmental protection. “When a program is too popular to attack directly, like Medicare or Social Security,” former Republican Budget Committee staff Mike Lofgren acknowledged in 2011, “they prefer to undermine it by feigning an agonized concern about the deficit [that is] largely fictitious.”

This strategy explains the skepticism among Democrats in Congress that greeted the opposition of deficit hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz who demanded spending cuts to offset emergency aid for the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged East Coast. Cruz was echoing the concerns raised following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when then-Rep. Mike Pence admonished his House colleagues to “figure out how we’re going to pay for” the emergency aid, warning that “Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren.” (Now Vice President and facing hundreds of billions in disaster costs, Pence hasn’t said a word about requiring offsets.)

Indeed, even when Congress was providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the financial services industry in 2008 to stave off total economic collapse, GOP Sen. Judd Gregg privately proposed cutting domestic spending to offset any costs not repaid by the Wall Street firms.

The cornerstone of modern conservatism is not the fiscal prudence that motivated earlier generations, but the fierce reassertion of traditional cultural norms that have been challenged not only by Democrats but by many independents and Republicans as well. “All the foundations had been pulled out” of a country long governed by white, Christian, conservative men, noted Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America, and contemporary hard-line grassroots conservatism and nativism is the result. That movement is driven by evangelical hardliners for whom the deficit is little more than a convenient foil, easily and frequently discarded in pursuit of other policy objectives.


Promote Policy, Not Yourself

The good news coming out of Tuesday’s election is that the Democratic Party has a pulse and that progressive (and especially female) candidates can successfully push back against incumbent Republicans – even in districts contorted to favor those Republicans.

The bad news is that Democrats already show signs of tripping over their own feet, insisting on a focus on issues that repel the swing voters who deliver Election Day majorities. Successfully corralling these distracting controversies, as much as finding that magically appealing nominee for 2020, will determine whether November 7, 2017 was the beginning of the next era of Democratic dominance or a historically insignificant blip.

Three examples of such self-induced damage have marred what should otherwise have been a week of celebration for the minority party.

First was the release of Donna Brazile’s book, Hack, less than a week before an election so crucial for the political party she chaired a year ago. Regardless of one’s feelings about the management of the DNC, the favoritism allegedly given the Hillary Clinton campaign at the expense of Bernie Sanders, or the flaws in the 2016 general election gameplan, Brazile’s timing was disgraceful. Given the cataclysmic impact of James Comey’s last minute disclosures only a year before, Brazile might have worked with her publisher to defer release until after a fateful gubernatorial election in Virginia.

Brazile’s comments in innumerable interviews illustrate why that delay did not occur: a desire to maximize sales was understandable for the publisher but not for someone who, as a longtime party functionary, has responsibilities beyond pocketing profits gleaned from her access to inside information. Brazile regularly turns the conversation to herself — how she was treated in a “condescending and dismissive” manner by the Clinton campaign, and how she considered initiating a process to replace the nominated candidate.

No one can sanction interference in the primary campaign (though much of what Brazile describes occurred not against Sanders but in the general election against Trump). But because Brazile was the chair of the party, her admissions sound like confessions of her own ineffectuality. Nor is she a perfect messenger for unbiased party leadership, having admitted to leaking debate questions to Mrs. Clinton as well as leaking to Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Brazile claims that the Clinton campaign had, to her way of thinking, an “odor of failure” about it, but her own activities have a distinct aroma of self-promotion at the expense of hard-working candidates and volunteers.

Yet another example of self-promotion gone awry is the $20 million initiative of Tom Steyer to pressure Democratic candidates into pledging to impeach President Trump. A better example of the excessive influence of personal fortunes in politics is difficult to conjure than a California billionaire determining the acid test for those contemplating a run for Congress in 2018. Steyer’s egotism tracks that often found in the Golden State’s initiative process where well-heeled, single issue activists decide that the give and take of the regular legislative process is too plodding for their personal timetables and instead craft self-serving policy in the calm of their Malibu mansions, often with disastrous electoral or policy results.

We all get it, Tom: Trump’s a bad guy, but frankly, there are a few more urgent issues affecting those we need to persuade to vote for Democrats than parsing the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Our goals right now are recruiting good candidates, raising sufficient funds to ensure they are competitive (and by the way, our campaigns could use some of that $20 million you are burning to promote your impeachment obsession), and winning over skeptical suburbanites and other independents who might just be willing to give Democrats a shot at governing again. Flaring up partisan warfare isn’t the smart way to do that, which is why even as dedicated a Democrat as Nancy Pelosi is telling activists to focus on the plight of undocumented children and the health needs of poor Americans instead of confirming swing voters’ perceptions that Democrats would rather attack than govern responsibly.

And lastly, thank you Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP and longtime Democratic Party activist, for your prodigious research that discovered offensive lyrics in the never sung third stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Ms. Huffman’s contribution to the national debate is to call for the replacement of the National Anthem. “This song is wrong,” she said this week. “It won’t kill us if it goes away.” No, but a gratuitous slap at a national icon is unlikely to impress those concerned about college affordability, health care, income equity and job creation. “The Star Spangled Banner” has long had its critics, and others have made reasonable arguments for something less militaristic like “America the Beautiful” or more inspiring like “God Bless America.” And, it isn’t especially singable (most get that last, three note “banner” wrong by inserting a fourth note). But right now, in the midst of the divisive kneeling controversy, do Democrats, perennially portrayed as weak on patriotism, have to take on a national symbol?

Running races and winning elections requires strategy, organization and discipline. Democrats are going to have to exercise greater self-regulation over the course of the next year, forgoing self-promotion in favor of promoting party effectiveness to avoid putting the Democratic Party on the same track as the Republicans’ Trump train wreck.