hardline political news and analysis

Month: July, 2018

Right on Ron

Ron Dellums was elected to Congress during my first few months in Berkeley, where I was studying for a Ph.D. in American History. For someone who had grown up very involved in electoral politics, and then had his commitment soured by the horror of Vietnam, Dellums provided an extraordinary transition into the blending of progressivism and traditional politics.

Even then, as a city councilman running for the House, Dellums was something larger than life. Both in his stunning personal appearance and riveting style of oration, Dellums could easily have either been before a movie camera or on the floor of Congress. He ended up in both places.

In a city that barely contained its utter contempt at anything smacking of conventionality, let alone the contamination that was Democratic politics in the wake of Vietnam, Dellums somehow pulled off a blending of outraged activist and serious politician. Many who were veering off to the emotionally satisfying, if electorally irrelevant, fringe were helplessly drawn to this former marine turned anti-war activist. And Dellums had a very realistic streak despite the rhetorical flourishes that gave him the unshakable nickname “Right on Ron.” When Dellums decided to make the move into national politics, he did not opt for the Peace and Freedom Party; he went after long-time incumbent Democrat Jeffrey Cohelan who had unwisely remained a supporter of the war in Southeast Asia. Not unlike the phenomenon in some House primaries this year, Dellums’ 1970 upset proved that voters, when organized and focused, can have far greater impact than the cynics would have you believe.

In his second term in Congress, Dellums and Pat Schroeder, a freshman from Colorado, requested to be appointed to the Armed Services Committee. Dellums, noting that a disproportionate percentage of Vietnam casualties were African American, asserted it was high time minorities were represented on the Committee. The chairman, F. Edward Hébert, who tolerated no criticism of his pro-war sentiments, attempted to blackball both of them, but they maneuvered their way on anyway. When Hébert was assigning seats on the dais in January 1973, he told Schroeder and Dellums, the two newest members, that they would have to share a single chair because he did not consider them full members of the committee.

Ron Dellums did not accept a second-class role. Two years later, Democrats threw Hébert out as chairman, and the incident involving Dellums and Schroeder was heavily cited as illustrative of his autocratic abuse of power. Dellums went on to serve on the committee for over two decades, often as a forceful critics of Pentagon policy and U.S. military affairs. He was a highly regarded leader in the fight against Pentagon waste including weapons systems like the MX-missile, the B-2 bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative, and a vigorous proponent of denuclearization. There might be a greater irony in congressional history – although I doubt it — than Ron Dellums rising, through the seniority system that had once empowered segregationist white southerners, to become chairman of the committee he had once nearly been prevented from joining.

After helping to lead the successful fight against apartheid in South Africa and seeing Nelson Mandela installed as president, Dellums – to the surprise of many – retired from Congress in 1998, choosing to become a lobbyist with some clients who raised eyebrows, as many lobbyists’ client list have a tendency to do. But electoral politics proved an inescapable lure to the charismatic Dellums, and in 2006, he improbably entered the race to become mayor of Oakland to succeed the equally improbable  Jerry Brown. Shortly after he entered that race, I encountered Dellums in the Capitol and asked him what prompted him to take on such a grueling job. “Well, you know, I was introduced to speak at the convention, and I was saying, “I’m not running, I’m not running,” he recalled. “But then I got up there and there’s all this cheering, and I heard myself say, “OK, I going to run!’” And so he did.

People felt strongly about Ron, and even those with whom he strongly disagreed (perhaps other than Hébert) generally found themselves liking him. He could be blunt and cutting, he was almost always self-assured and erudite, but he also would collapse into laughs, often with an air of disbelief about the story he was relating. “Can you believe that?” he would incredulously ask when relating an inane comment or action by one of his colleagues, before regaining his slightly formal composure and seriousness.

It was a long arc, from social worker, to Berkeley city councilman, to congressman, to chairman, to mayor that Ron Dellums traveled. But throughout the journey, which ended yesterday at the age of 82, he never lost his style, his passion or his conviction. His passing is deeply mourned among his colleagues, staff and friends.

Right on, Ron.




Trump’s Outrageousness and Democratic Opportunity

O.K., pop quiz.  Which name does not belong on the following list: Aaron Burr, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Bob Hope and Donald Trump? After Monday’s eye-popping, breath-taking display of Trumpian obsequiousness and naiveté, the answer is pretty obvious. Old Ski Nose was a patriot, through and through.

Not so Donald Trump, whose irresponsible, egomaniacal, destructive behavior of the past week might well be unparalleled in American history, certainly by anyone occupying the White House. Not only did Trump roundly insult the British Prime Minister on her own soil, but he praised her chief critic, Boris Johnson, who had just quit the Cabinet in protest. To ensure no feathers remained unruffled in the merry olde mother country, he kept the Queen waiting for over ten minutes in the hot sun, and then pushed past her as deftly as he did the prime minister of Montenegro in 2017.

Trump also brought along a bag full of insults for our allies in the European Union, or as he prefers to think of them, our “foes.” Seriously? “Foes?” Well, yes, according to Trump. “Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe,” Trump pronounced. “They’ve really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills.” Never mind that many EU countries have increased their defense spending under both Obama and Trump, and have another 7 years to reach the 2% goal. Never mind that this alliance of our “foes” has maintained the peace in Europe longer and with greater stability than anytime in the last four centuries. Trump will just castigate them, in Germany’s case, for buying natural gas from Russia. (Oops, the U.S. did that last year, too! What does that make us?)

But Trump’s behavior with Russian President Putin was the cherry on the sundae of Trump’s week of diplomatic catastrophes. Not only did he conduct a private meeting with Putin which he thought went splendidly, but he also came down firmly on Putin’s side, against his own intelligence agencies, on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election (which he reminded everyone he won by defeating Hillary Clinton). If there was any question who got the better of the private talks, it was clarified when Trump revealed that while Putin would not agree to extradition of those indicted for interference, he would consider allowing them to be interviewed by Russian authorities. In return, Russian would get U.S. help with “cases of interest to Moscow.”

Trump, a master dealmaker if there ever was one, was overjoyed.  Putin’s idea of letting Russians interview Russians was  “an incredible offer.”  Of course, Trump, added, “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would have interfered in the election in he first place. Maybe because two years ago, Trump invited the Russian to attempt to hack Clinton’s email server during the presidential campaign (which, if you forgot, he won.)

The reaction from Trump’s own party to his cozying up to Putin and denigrating (a) Mueller, (b) the Department of Justice and (c) the intelligence agencies was swift, as long as you were (a) out of office, (b) extremely ill or (c) not running for office again. The press conference was “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” according to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. When Newt is complaining that you went overboard, you really need to worry, The ailing Sen. John McCain, whose 7 years as a POW Trump once ridiculed, called the president’s statement “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Not to be outdone, John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, asserted that Trump’s embrace of Putin was “nothing short of treasonous,” easily exceeding  “the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’” which is the ground for you-know-what.

Which raises the issue: What should Democrats do? The answer depends on what the desired goal might be. The short-term response could be to draw up papers to indict Trump based on his statements in Helsinki, but that would be a major mistake. Democrats need self-discipline, because the goal here is to make it as easy as possible for moderates, independents, and even some Republicans to vote Democratic this fall, and Trump has provided a compelling rationale for doing so.

The message of House Democrats should be aimed at those swing voters and should go something like this:

“Republicans in Congress have squandered their constitutional responsibility to stand up to the president and provide institutional oversight. Unless you are comfortable with Trump continuing to wreak chaos at home and on the world stage, without a substantive peep from the legislative branch, we must have a Democratic Congress to ask reasonable questions. Clearly,  the Republican majority has instead decided it is too scared, or too  enamored of Trump to perform that responsibility. At a minimum, congressional committees should demand that Trump come before them, in closed session if necessary, and tell them exactly what transpired in his private tète-a-tète with Putin.”

For those worried that a Democratic majority would behave irresponsibly, consider that the only way Democrats will reach the majority is by winning more moderate swing seats. They will then have their own inner dynamic to avoid polarizing and extreme policies and instead serve as an appropriate constitutional check on a president badly in need of independent oversight. And this idea is not fanciful; when Democrats won a majority under President George W. Bush in 2006, they found common ground on a stimulus, on an energy bill and on the financial rescue despite the inherent challenges of divided government and a looming election.

Some Democrats would rather have the election be a referendum on the public’s embrace of hardline issues like impeachment, abolishing ICE and single payer health. Those ideas have little appeal to the voters Democrats must win to secure the swing seats that get them to 218 votes. They need to work hard to make sure that happens. One thing is for certain: Donald Trump is already doing his level best to create a Democratic majority.

A Democratic Tea Party?

The surprise defeat of NY Rep. Joe Crowley by non-traditional, anti-establishment newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has fueled extensive speculation about worrisome chasms opening within the Democratic Party as it struggles to reclaim a House majority.

As with the victories of other newcomers in a number of races around the country, some speculate that the incoming wave of ideological hard-liners – embracing aspirational goals like abolishing ICE, free college tuition and universal health care – might represent less the fresh blood Democrats needed to win the majority, and more a progressive version of the GOP’s absolutist Tea Party faction that became a persistent thorn in the side of Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Some observers draw an historical comparison to the 1974 wave election in which 49 Democrats won formerly Republican seats, and 76 new Democrats were elected overall. “It’s going to be … an extraordinary class, like the Watergate Class,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who cites “a hunger for generational change [and] for a new generation of leadership.” (Readers of DOMEocracy know that my recent book, “The Class of ’74,” addresses this topic in depth.)

Experienced political observers – and I acknowledge, some of the traditional ground rules may well be evolving in this volatile atmosphere – counsel caution about drawing too many conclusions from select races. The Crowley/Ocasio-Cortez race makes for terrific speculating, but the degree to which it is emblematic of national trends remains very much open to discussion. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other insurgents who will find themselves with voting cards in January 2019 will confront all of the same challenges to enactment of sweeping progressive legislation that progressives before them, like Barney Frank, Henry Waxman and George Miller, confronted when fashioning their own legislative initiatives: the diversity of views within the Democratic Caucus (let alone within the Democratic Party), institutional frustrations with the Senate and White House, addressing inflated expectations that are challenging to match with legislative output.

But in one respect, it is not difficult to predict one likely outcome of the November election, especially if the Democrats find themselves in the majority. The activists who become Members of the House are very unlikely to play the same role in the Democratic Caucus that the Tea Party insurgents have played in the Republican Conference. Indeed, the activists of ’18 are far more likely to resemble the 76 Democratic freshmen of the Class of ’74 than their 2010 and 2012 Republican counterparts.

The 2018 freshmen are likely to arrive with many aspirational policy agendas: immigration reform, affordable higher education, universal health care; as did their 1974 counterparts: ending the war in Vietnam, national health care, energy independence. They are likely to push their leadership on both procedural and policy changes, and to be told the House moves more slowly than some would like. We have already seen candidates voicing support for new leadership, as was the case in 1975, although today’s Democratic hierarchy is far more in alignment with the policy (and ideological) objectives of many of the potential freshmen than was true four decades ago. Still, as in 1974, there may be pressure for changes; Speaker Carl Albert was pushed aside at the end of the 94thCongress to make way for Tip O’Neill, and some freshmen are already targeting Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in the top positions. The long-time Leader appears content to have candidates say whatever they like if it helps achieve their mutual goal: a House majority. ‘Just win, baby,’ she was recently quoted as telling her critics.

There may well be challenges to some of the current members who are expecting to become chairmen, many of whom have served long tenures and have long lines of frustrated, aspiring colleagues waiting to move up. In 1975, three chairmen were removed by the Caucus, with near unanimous support of the freshmen. All were either elderly, autocratic or grossly out of line with the ideology of the Caucus (or some combination of the three). It is far more difficult to identify such out-of-step committee leaders today. Ironically, despite the historic challenge to the seniority system in 1974, there remains substantial support for honoring the seniority system within the Democratic Caucus, especially among many minority members who remain skeptical they could win chairmanships were the system abandoned.  However, there could easily be pressure for term limits on chairmen, an idea floated several times in recent years.

In one very important respect, however, the Class of ’18 is likely to resemble the Class of ’74 more than those of ’10 or ’12. “You campaign in poetry,” it is said, “but you govern in prose.” The high-minded rhetoric of campaign speeches inevitably encounters the harsh reality of diverse viewpoints within the House.  The complexities of the legislative process – substantive, procedural, institutional – combine to produce work products with less grandeur than envisioned by idealistic candidates. When encountering this reality of the democratic process, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus activists have regularly proven obdurate, standing on principles not shared by the vast majority of the Congress, and willing to obstruct the processes of government and sully the reputation of the institution in which they serve. Doing so presents few problems for these extreme conservatives who have few objectives that require an operational federal government.

The Democrats of 2018 are unlikely to assume such a stance because, like other Democrats, they both respect and need a credible, functional government to achieve their goals. Ultimately, few Democrats are prepared to shut down government or demean the House because only with a functional and respected (or something approaching it) government can they achieve the policies they promote. The freshmen of 2018 will certainly demand some changes and, like those of ’74, they may well throw some sharp elbows and annoy their veteran colleagues. But like the Class of ’74, they are far more likely to become dependable supporters of the achievable, not a Democratic version of the Tea Party nihilists.