DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Lamb’s Victory and the 1974 Precedent

Conor Lamb’s improbable but likely victory in yesterday’s congressional race in the 18th district of Pennsylvania raises  comparisons to the 1974 victories of Democratic candidates running in traditionally Republican districts. The significance of those earlier upsets as precursors to a November wave victory, is recounted in my just-published book, The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.

In one of those surprise elections, in February 1974, John Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran elected to the House, won a seat in Pennsylvania’s 12th district. Murtha’s military background and moderate views, were at odds with the majority of those Democrats running in November, but they helped him win the votes of district residents who had not sent a member of his party to Congress since 1936.

Even more stunning was the election a few weeks later of Richard Vander Veen in Michigan’s 5th district. The seat was vacant not only because the Republican incumbent had resigned, but because that incumbent was the House minority leader, Gerald Ford, who had been appointed vice president. Ford’s seat had been safely in Republican hands since 1912 and few had expected so secure a seat to change parties just 15 months after Richard Nixon’s landslide victory.

Two more special elections in 1974 – Tom Luken in Ohio and Bob Traxler in Michigan – seemed to set a pattern of Democrats filling vacancies in Republican districts, and panic began to spread among Republicans across the country. The House Judiciary Committee’s impeachments hearings and bipartisan resolutions, the Supreme Court’s decision against Nixon on the Oval Office tapes, the President’s resignation and then Ford’s surprise pardon just two months before Election Day all set the public mood against the GOP. In addition, the steadily worsening economy and growing energy crisis contributed to a decidedly anti-Republican sentiment.

Shortly before the election, Congressional Quarterly predicted “substantial gains” for Democrats, perhaps as many as 35 seats, and teased there was “at least the hint of a landslide.” Independent polls showed voters favoring Democrats in a generic congressional race by 20 points in the Gallup and 24 points in Harris. Democrats led in 18 seats held by Republicans, and were reportedly running even in another 32. Just a few weeks before the election, Ford was playing golf with Majority Leader Tip O’Neill and asked his old friend for a prediction. “It’s going to be an avalanche,” O’Neill advised the startled Ford.

The polls, and the early harbingers of Murtha, Vander Veen and the other special election winners proved prescient. Democrats picked up 49 seats from Republicans, elected 76 new members, and pushed their margin in the House to 291-144. The new members of the Class of ’74, called “The Reinforcements” by New York’s Bella Abzug, joined with veterans to implement sweeping modernization of the House and the Democratic Caucus, disbursing power more widely, imposing discipline on chairmen, and elevating issues of importance from Vietnam withdrawal to energy, the environment and children’s policy.

It may be too early to make predictions about the fortunes of congressional Democrats in November based on Lamb’s successful campaign, but some conclusions are clear. In a wave election, when the public is sufficiently fed up and hungry for change, incumbency and party labels do not provide the level of insulation one had long depended upon. While gerrymandered districts can afford Republicans some protection in typical elections, displeased voters stay home, and many seats thought to be secure can be lost. In 1974, well-entrenched Republicans like New Jersey’s William Widnall and Charles Sandman lost supposedly safe seats.

Another clear lesson is that parties aspiring to the majority must cast their nets wide, not only with voters, but with candidates. Lamb does not unqualifiedly reflect the liberal orthodoxy of the national Democratic Party, although evidence suggests he, like others elected in marginal districts, will reliably vote with the party on most measures once in office. But Lamb is the kind of candidate, running in the kind of district, that Democrats must win to reach the 218 seat majority. As liberal Rep. Phil Burton advised junior members in the mid-1970s, “Get to know southerners and conservatives. Be nice to those guys; listen to them. Without them, there is no Democratic majority.”

Several months ago, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez declared Democrats would not support candidates who were not 100% pro-choice. His remarks drew criticism from many who recalled that, but for congresspeople who were not reliable on key issues, the party would not have won the majority in 2006 or been able to pass landmark legislation like the Affordable Care Act. Democratic activists can have purity or they might just be able to have a majority, but the chances of having both are less than, say, the odds of Conor Lamb being elected to Congress.

***

You can order The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” from the following online addresses:
JHUP: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/class-74

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Class-74-Congress-Watergate-Partisanship/dp/142142469X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1508946588&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Class+of+%2774

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Class+of+%2774?_requestid=489232

 

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A Holiday for Oil Producers

The Trump Administration has decided oil companies are in desperate need of a holiday, and guess who is going to foot the bill? Surprise, the American taxpayer will pay for this first-class fleecing.

Two decades ago, when oil was selling for less than $30 a barrel, President Bill Clinton promoted a “royalty holiday” that forgave drillers from paying the mandatory fees for the production of oil from deep water leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Freeing oil companies from the royalties, Clinton argued, would fuel interest in federal tracts located in 100 feet or more of water on the outer continental shelf (OCS). Taxpayers would benefit, Clinton asserted, from the payment of up-front bonus bid fees paid by the companies to acquire these so-called “deep water tracts.”

As the Democratic staff director of the House Resources Committee whose ranking member was Rep. George Miller of California, I was very familiar with OCS policy. Miller and I had played a role in the design of the 1978 law that modernized OCS leasing and production.

Although a leading environmentalist, Miller’s district included several large refineries. I was dispatched to ask company executives if, as proponents asserted, a royalty holiday would prompt them to purchase, explore and develop deep water leases. Every executive I interviewed responded with the same answer. “If you want to sell me a lease without any royalty, sure, I’ll take it,” the executives said. “But I would not premise that purchase on a promise that Congress could rescind at any time.”

Congress unwisely approved Clinton’s royalty holiday, which was supposed to end when the price of oil rose to $28 a barrel. But oil prices rose past $30, past $40 to more than $50, and still, the holiday was kept in place by regulators sympathetic to the industry despite oilman George W. Bush’s campaign critique of the policy in 2000 as a “huge tax break.” Tens of billions of dollars due taxpayers have been lost from  development that would likely have occurred anyway.

Now the oil industry friendly Trump Administration is preparing a royalty free holiday of its own, although circumstances are quite different from those of the 1990s. The price of oil is not low and the industry needs little incentive to drill in the deep Gulf, where they have more than two decades of experience. Moreover, the same companies have extensive experience drilling in the deeper, and more perilous, North Sea.

Unlike other nations, the United States does not award its leases to companies that bid the highest royalty rates (although such an option – net profit sharing — was authorized in the 1978 law). Instead, the Department of the Interior auctions off leases to the company that offers the highest “bonus bid” for a tract, a bid that might, or might not, reflect the actual value of the oil and gas deposits within the tract. Federal officials love the up front bonus bid system because they don’t have to wait for years to reap money from the sale as they would if, like other countries, American taxpayers received fat royalties from production of publicly owned oil and natural gas.

If the tract is productive, lessees pay the government from 12.5% to 18.5% in royalties, far less than the royalties they willingly pay other countries for access to their offshore lands. And if the holes come up dry, the government keeps the bonus windfall anyway. If the bid turns out to have undervalued the value of the actual find, taxpayers lose many billions of dollars that could have been recouped had companies competitively bid on the royalty.

Now, the Trump Administration is offering to give up even the inadequate royalties secured by taxpayers for the valuable offshore energy resources they own.

There is no urgent need to spur oil development in America’s deep waters. Oil prices are not historically low, necessitating a spur to development. Perversely, selling off lands prematurely can flood the market with bargain leases, causing the value of bonus bids to drop. Companies winning these leases often defer exploration and production, waiting for prices to rise, fully aware that the Interior Department lamely enforces the law’s due diligence requirements.

With enormous federal deficits swelled by the new tax law, it is no wonder that federal officials are in the hunt for some quick cash, and even speculative bonus bids fit that description. Unsurprisingly, the royalty holiday is being encouraged by the industry-dominated Royalty Policy Committee, whose friends and allies stand to pocket billions of dollars in profits. Even so, the insufficient proceeds gleaned from OCS development are impressive when measured against the taxpayers’ take from private companies that haven’t paid a royalty for the gold, silver, uranium and other valuable minerals they have produced from public lands since 1872. (That is not a typographical error.)

Nearly a decade ago, Miller, Ed Markey, Nick Joe Rahall and others in Congress responded to the Republicans’ “drill, baby, drill” mantra by insisting that companies be barred from bidding on new leases if they were not diligently producing the public leases they already owned. Not surprisingly, Republicans sympathetic to the energy industry laughed off the suggestion. Now, the Trump Administration appears ready to once again auction off public resources for a fraction of their true value. It may be a holiday for oil executives, but once again, it is the taxpayer who will be taken for a ride.

 

My new book,The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship,” is now available for order from Amazon.com, JHUP and Barnes & Noble. “An essential work of congressional history.” Kirkus Review

The Speaker’s Grovel

We may not know how the ultimate budget impasse of 2018 will be resolved (the next shutdown deadline having been delayed six weeks). Nor do we know the resolution of the increasingly tense DACA dilemma – unnecessarily created by President Trump’s decision to rescind the broadly supported program. But as Congress inartfully stumbles through each of these artificially created crises, we have come to understand one incontrovertible fact about Speaker Paul Ryan: not only is he remarkably unskilled as a strategic leader, but he also fundamentally misunderstands the constitutional role of the institution over which he presides.

Granted, like John Boehner before him, Ryan has the misfortune of leading an agglomeration of factions ranging from hard-boiled conservatives to ideologically purist wing nuts who view their own leadership as perilously close to traitorous (to use a currently popular accusation). Boehner would compare the difficulty of assembling a working majority of 218 out of the diverse Republican Conference to herding chickens. A significant portion of those Republicans who strutted into Congress in 2010, as well as those who have followed them in three successive elections, has little interest in whether Congress operates in a responsible manner or garners public trust. Congress, to their way of thinking, is the enemy, along with the rest of the federal government, and actions that reduce public regard for these institutions are valued, not avoided.

The large dissident faction admittedly makes Ryan’s job more challenging. Indeed, with the exception of last year’s tax law, he has been unable to pass into law any bill that contained a whiff of controversy, and has been forced to rely on Democrats (as he did again with the latest CR) to pass anything at all. And, to state the obvious, passing a law that unloads tax cuts (even if skewed to the rich) is not the toughest sell to members, even if it does violate the Right’s anti-deficit mumbo-jumbo.

But Ryan should, at a minimum, demonstrate a dedication to the constitutional role of the institution he leads. For a half century, the congressional pushback against the Imperial Presidency and its dangerous tendency to vacuum up power from other branches of government has been a largely bipartisan effort. Even when both the presidency and Congress have been controlled by the same party, House and Senate members – who after all have a different constituency from a president – have asserted the prerogatives given them under Article I of the Constitution to promote their own agenda and check the exercise of executive authority.

Not Paul Ryan, who displays unequivocal loyalty to Donald Trump, who in October of 2016 dismissed the Speaker “a very weak and ineffective leader.” Trump may have been onto something, but it hardly should earn him the Speaker’s unqualified fealty. Yet loyalty is what Ryan has served up, including a virtual lack of oversight of Trump’s widespread use of executive authority in issuing regulations impacting pollution, environmental protection, financial institutions, health, education and dozens of other controversial topics. not to mention the stunning failure to conduct anything approaching competent investigations into the efforts of Russia to interfere in U.S. elections or the relationship of the Trump Administration to innumerable shadowy figures conducting dubiously legal activities.

The latest example of Ryan’s fecklessness and deference to the Tweeter-in-Chief came in response to Democratic demands that the Speaker follow the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and set a time to begin debate on DACA legislation. Senate Democrats secured such a promise from McConnell to put immigration legislation on the Senate floor in March, but no such pledge has been forthcoming from Ryan. Indeed, the Speaker has not even committed to take up legislation if sent over to the House by a bipartisan Senate vote, a disturbing reminder of the failure of the House to consider the Senate-passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration package in 2013.

Instead, the constitutional leader of the legislative branch has declared that he will schedule a vote on DACA legislation only if President Trump supports it.

Hello, Mr. Speaker, not the way the place is supposed to run. Legislation originates in Congress; that old, “President proposes, Congress disposes” slogan went out decades ago (remember: no Obama-proposed legislation was “disposed of” for 6 years!). Here is the crucial source material that might help you understand your responsibilities to the American people: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript; check out Article I. The job of members of the House (especially) is to listen to your conscience and the constituents you were elected to serve, not grovel before Donald Trump or any other president.

Courts Rethinking Gerrymandering

Whenever a discussion of the origins and causes of contemporary partisanship takes place, it doesn’t take long for the subject to turn to the pernicious topic of gerrymandering: drawing legislative district lines to enhance the probability that one party will win a larger number of seats than the partisan vote distribution in the state merits.

In the past, the courts have hesitatingly weighed into the frequent battles alleging manipulation of district lines, mainly in cases where the boundaries have been tortuously drawn to disenfranchise racial or ethnic minorities (typically by hyper-concentrating them into one district to purge adjacent districts of their influence). Now, however, it appears the courts are so offended by the excesses of Republican legislatures (for the most part, since the GOP dominates in the control of line-drawing legislatures) that they may impose a tougher standard that could play an enhanced role in diminishing the partisanship so decried by politicians and the general public.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the congressional districts drawn after the 2010 Census by the Republican legislature for “cleanly, plainly and palpably” violating the state’s constitution. The court declared that if the Legislature does not redraw a plan that the Democratic governor agrees to submit by Feb 14, in time for the state’s upcoming primary election, the court will do the job itself. With an eye towards the ungainly, spindly districts concocted by the Legislature, the court insisted that the new districts reflect the common standards of being “compact and contiguous territory” composed of a roughly equal number of voters and that do not divide counties, cities towns or other subdivisions except to achieve numerical equity.

Pennsylvania is a prime candidate for such distortions because its sizeable Democratic population is hyper-concentrated in just a few areas of the state around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton. As a result, it has been easy to give safe seats to a few Democrats like Bob Brady and Dwight Evans whose Democratic margins are nearly double those enjoyed by any other incumbent, Democratic or Republican. Providing these few Democrats with so many excessive, “wasted” votes (in the parlance of redistricting) bleeds enough Democrats out of nearby districts to give an advantage to Republican candidates. As a result, although Democratic candidates won over 50% of the combined votes for the U.S. House seats in the state, they were able to win just 5 of the state’s 18 seats in Congress.

The Pennsylvania decision is very timely. The U.S. Supreme Court is also weighing a significant gerrymandering case that ventures beyond race-based motives for disenfranchising voters to the less clear standard of deliberate distortion to gain disproportionate political advantage. Courts have been hesitant to rule on such cases in the past since the Constitution is silent on the issue of political parties and says little aboutthe overall issue of reapportionment and state elections.

But the concern about partisanship appears to have moved the courts to adopt a more pro-active stance and question whether drawing lines to favor one party over the other contributes to a poisoned political environment. Many believe drawing such safe districts has just such an impact by empowering more extreme elements who prevail in primaries where voter participation is light and skewed to the more ideological office-seekers.

Fixing the abuses of gerrymandering is not without risk, especially to minorities. Black voters in particular, long suffered from the “cracking” gerrymandering strategy that fragmented their votes (when they were allowed to vote at all. These communities benefitted from reapportionment changes in the 1990’s that allowed the creation of “majority minority” districts by hyper-concentrating minorities (and therefore, Democrats) into districts to ensure the election of a minority legislator. As a result, the number of minority-held seats swelled, but likely at a cost of many adjacent districts that were deprived of minority Democrats who had made those districts more competitive. Instead, those adjacent districts were now occupied by Republicans and often by hard line conservatives who win their primaries.

David Lublin of American University studied this conundrum in the 1990s, concluding that the benefits of ensuring the election of minorities to these safe districts was confounded by the increased probability that the resulting legislature in which they served was unlikely to have a majority sympathetic to the minority’s policy objectives. Courts have winked at this race-based gerrymandering in order to empower minorities, but the current round of reviews may result in some fine-tuning, perhaps by limiting the proportion of minority voters to ensure the election of a minority legislator. Is it 65%, or in the post-Obama world, is that figure closer to 45%?

Fixing gerrymandering alone is unlikely to significantly roll back the partisanship that is suffocating our politics, but it could make several dozen districts more competitive. That outcome might well reward legislators who fought for more moderate approaches, assuming moderate voters vote in primaries and help select those candidates. And purging Congress of grotesquely distorted districts would likely put control of the House itself in play more often, although the presence of more competitive districts and uncertain control may accentuate party discipline more than enhance collaboration. Still, how much worse could it get?

 

The Wrong Foot

Whatever Donald Trump mused about on New Year’s Eve, while gorging himself on ravioli pasta, beef tenderloin, and baked Alaska (apparently missing the irony of serving this particular dessert in a time of climate change), it decidedly was not how to improve his working relationship with the Democratic congressional leadership. Presumably, someone at the White House understands they are going to have to collaborate with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a raft of urgent policy matters including an upcoming spending resolution, a new budget, and immigration reform.

But Trump began the New Year brimming with contempt for those he will likely need to avert a cataclysmic government shutdown and policy meltdown. A White House parley with the leaders is planned for tomorrow, and Trump not only set the agenda but also once again gratuitously insulted the Democratic participants.

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA,” Trump tweeted on January 2, they are “just interested in politics.” He predicted that “DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, [and] will start ‘falling in love’ with Republicans and their President!” However, all that will have to wait, since White House functionaries have declared that the DACA discussion is off the table for the January 3 meeting although Trump had promised the congressional leaders the issue would be imminently considered.

However, the discussion tomorrow will focus only on “setting budget caps, not immigration or some of these other issues which are on this month’s overall agenda but not driving the substance of this meeting.” In other words, Trump only wants to talk about cutting entitlements, especially Medicaid and Social Security, and slashing non-military domestic discretionary spending while busting through the 2012 military spending caps. You know, the Trump-McConnell-Ryan post-“tax reform” agenda. Pelosi and Schumer have been warned not to raise what the White House consider to be extraneous issues.

I could be misreading the situation, but if that is the way the West Wing meeting goes down, I will volunteer to be one of Santa’s elves next Christmas. It is inconceivable that Pelosi and Schumer would abide by the absurd ground rules laid down by the Trump White House. They certainly will raise DACA and perhaps other urgent issues on which the Congress failed to act in 2017. Those “DACA activists and Hispanics” would have every reason to become frustrated with the Democrats if the leaders did not insist that these topics be raised at the first face-to-face meeting of the year.

Which raises the question: why go through the charade of declaring the Democrats’ highest priorities to be off the table, while only Trump-McConnell-Ryan topics are fit for discussion? Is the goal to make Pelosi and Schumer seem impertinent by raising topics that the White House has declared off limits? Is it to send a signal that only Trump gets to decide what topics are suitable for discussion, and when?

Decoding Trump tweets is as impossible as discerning his strategy or decision-making processes, but it seems obvious that he is trying to create a tableau depicting Democratic insolence and ineffectuality that he will then trumpet as illustrating his superior capacity for determining the parameters of the debate. He is misjudging his adversaries. Pelosi, for one, gives enormous deference to the office of the President, but as she illustrated in her bare knuckles relationship with George W. Bush, she will not hesitate to forcefully confront the person occupying the office, and she certainly will not allow her position, or that of her party and constituents, to be misrepresented or belittled.

Trump closed off his tweet by declaring, “We are about RESULTS.” If he hopes to improve on the desultory legislative record of 2017, however, he is going to have to display sharper political acumen than simply baiting the opposition. Maybe his subcontractors in New York real estate were intimidated by his bluster and bankrolls, but it won’t work with Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

Here Comes Santa Claus (for the 1%)

Well, well, here comes the tax bill, all tied up in a nice red bow for Christmas. That’s “red” for the deficits its authors admit it will create (not to mention the much larger ones every other economist predicts it will generate). Also “red” as in “red-faced” for the duplicitous behavior of those behind this irresponsible law.

Not that the outcome was ever in doubt. As I have written before, tax cuts – especially for the wealthy and corporations – are the sine qua non of Republican governance: the essential reason the circus that is the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Express rolled into town. Unlike efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the “affected industry” in this case was gung-ho for passage, a sentiment shared by something around 25% of the rest of the country.

There is a certain absurdist quality to the intensity and obsessiveness surrounding passage of the tax bill. After all, when the only congressional response to madmen using automatic weapons to slaughter scores of people is to ease the interstate ability to carry concealed handguns into states that do not allow such a practice, one could reasonably wonder if the entire Republican legislative agenda is not intended as some kind of sick joke.

Any serious analysis of the tax legislation must begin and end with an evaluation of its distributional effects: how concentrated are the benefits? Of course, in sheer dollar terms, any law that grants benefits to the middle class is going to spend a lot of money doing so; but the benefits accrued by the middle class (maybe enough to buy a wide screen TV monitor) are miniscule compared to the largesse piled on the plates of the 1% (enough to buy a house to put the TV in). Indeed, more than 83% of the benefits of this absurd bill will flow to the top 1%.

The second act of this farce will be the looming cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a vast array of discretionary spending, compelled by the language of the tax bill in order to address the $1.5 trillion deficit it acknowledges will be created. And don’t go to the bank that the $1.5 trillion number is a ceiling; baked into it are rosy economic scenarios endorsed by a small number of serious economists; actually, by none. Never the mind, count on Republicans suddenly rediscovering their inner deficit reduction mania sometime after January 3. Sort of like an arsonist torching a building and then complaining the fire department took too long to arrive.

“Couldn’t be better,” an exultant Mitch McConnell declared after ramming the little analyzed bill through on a party lines vote. Actually, it could have been, if Mitch had been able to keep the sweetheart arrangement he surreptitiously dropped in to benefit a college in his own state, but that provision (like the very title of the bill) was ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian.

There are many big lies surrounding this legislation, but none moreso than to label it “tax reform.” It is a tax cut, pure and simple, ill-timed since the economy does not require priming, and inappropriate since it fails to address economic challenges like infrastructure development, the effects of expanding automation, or offshoring of U.S. jobs. Nor does it slam shut the “carried interest” loophole that allows a tiny fraction of hedge fund billionaires to escape fair taxation – a tax reform Donald Trump had promised during the 2016 campaign. Instead, like all other Republican tax schemes, this bill promises that growth will eradicate the deficits the new law will create. But take it from Bruce Bartlett, who authored the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp. “It’s not true,” Bartlett has admitted. “It’s nonsense, it’s BS.”

Well, considering the circus analogy I used earlier, “BS” probably is as good a way to describe the new tax cut as any, and the people walking behind the GOP elephants are the supposed Senate hardliners who were going to oppose the bill unless it cracked down on the deficit, protected health care and addressed DACA students: Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain. McConnell delivered nothing to any of them but a wink and a nod, and they went for it like a 5 year old swallows the magic trick in a sideshow. Don’t think for a minute these clowns are going to clean up the mess left behind the Republican elephants; the bill, while admittedly flawed in their views, was “good enough.”

The people who do deserve credit are congressional Democrats who unanimously opposed this fatally flawed legislation that they were given no role in fabricating. Since passage was assured with Republican-only votes, it would have been easy for House and Senate Democrats facing difficult races next year to relieve themselves of having to explain why they voted against a tax cut for their constituents. But they didn’t: whether for policy or politics, they stuck together, banking that the bill’s low approval rating and long term consequences will prove them right for having opposed it.

In the short term, however, there will be more celebrating by Republicans in the Congress and Donald Trump (himself an enormous beneficiary of the new law), and to some extent, they are entitled to crow. After all, no one can say they hadn’t explained their intentions; too many voters either weren’t paying attention or thought it would all work out well for them in the end. Well, it won’t, nor for the economy of the country. Politico called the new law a “once-in-a-generation success,” and let’s hope they are right; we can’t afford too many “successes” like this one.

 

 

Alabama After-Action Review

Doug Jones’ slim victory in the Alabama Senate race last night was a gigantic event in American politics, but it remains to be seen whether it, like the Virginia election in November, was a genuine harbinger of an anti-Trump, Republican-rejecting mid-term course correction. Trump naturally was quick to diminish the significance of Jones’ astonishing victory in a state he won by nearly 30 points just 13 months ago. Predicting Jones’ tenure in the seat will not last beyond the 2020 election, the President commented, “It never ends!” Don’t we know it.

Democrats have every reason to be exultant by the outcome, but there are important lessons for party activists as we gear up for the 2018 congressional races. No one should be under the misimpression that the Alabama (or Virginia) results give license to Democrats to behave like, well, Democrats, chasing every sparkling light and divisive, identity-based cause and demanding absolute ideological fealty to “progressive” axioms. Republicans are unlikely to reliably provide a Bible-thumping molester as their candidate of choice, so the district-by-district, state-by-state battles next year will not necessarily provide the same kinds of opportunities that Roy Moore presented.

  • In an election decided by about 1.5%, only 35% of Alabamans voted despite a well-publicized recognition this would be a close and consequential contest. Some of the low turnout, common in special and off-year elections, was doubtless attributable to Republicans who (for whatever reason) voted with their feet and stayed home; GOP turnout in many key counties was low. But 2018 presents a challenge for Democrats who must sustain the anger and energy that propelled the Alabama and Virginia victories to generate atypical off-year turnout; whether they can, given the inevitability of disappointments over the next year (that may leave base groups indifferent to the party) will be crucial to seizing the House and/or majority.
  • Democrats did much better among white suburbanites, college educated and white women than they did in 2016, but those changes could prove ephemeral against candidates less toxic than Moore. Even with his hair-raising record of misconduct, Moore still won white women by 29 points last night.
  • Black turnout (along with other members of the Democratic coalition) will be crucial to victory in 2018 and 2020. Although black voters were faulted for not turning out sufficiently in the key Mid-Western states whose loss cost Clinton victory in 2016, they substantially outperformed white voters in Alabama; over 70% of black voters cast ballots, a constituency Jones won by 92 points. Will black voters be as engaged nationally in 2018? Will Hispanics be, if Democrats are not perceived as pushing the DREAM Act as hard as they can in budget negotiations?
  • Democrats showed some strategic discipline, overlooking Jones’ moderate views on some topics. Will they also forgive some moderate votes he will assuredly cast in the Senate? While Jones was upfront, and risked real dangers, in his support of abortion rights, he did not pledge fealty to every special interest in the Democratic catechism. He and others understood that if you make unreasonable demands of Dixie Ds, you get Dixie Rs. DNC Chair Tom Perez caught criticism earlier in the year when he asserted the party would reject any anti-abortion candidate (he was quickly rebuked by Nancy Pelosi and others). Democrats must realize that the most crucial (i.e., the ones that determine majorities) elections are won in the middle, and must accept candidates whose views actually reflect, rather than confront, their constituents. This fall in Alabama, the activist base showed signs of behaving like politicos instead of simply like protestors.
  • Electorally, Alabama shows any seat can be in play (well, there’s always Utah) with the right candidate and the right political atmosphere. Howard Dean was correct: you need to fight everywhere to win somewhere. As was the case in the 1974, 1994 and 2010 wave elections, you can win seats you never thought were in play.
  • At the same time, no one should come to the conclusion that the conservative political movement has suffered any type of deep organizational setback. The underlying machinery of the hard Right remains quite strong, although encumbered by the divisive primary challenges promised by Steve Bannon and others. The conservative infrastructure – organization, finance, media – is  deeply rooted in three generations of American politics, and it remains largely unaffected by Moore’s defeat. Absent the multiple morals charges and the abandonment by key GOP allies like Sen. Richard Shelby, Roy Moore, in all his holy roller, gun waving, Scripture spouting goofiness, would be heading to the United States Senate (as would virtually any other Alabama Republican).
  • Among the winners, Sen. Cory Booker, who came into the state touting his own roots in sweet home Alabama and seemingly demonstrated an impressive ability to rally black voters to show up and vote. National Democrats are unlikely to ignore his success (along with John Lewis and Barack Obama, neither of whom are looking at 2020 in quite the same way as Booker).
  • Potential winners: Susan Collins and Jeff Flake. With the GOP’s Senate majority now at 2 (since a tie means VP Pence gives Republicans a victory), Collins and Flake have enormous leverage to press the demands they made during the Senate vote on the tax bill, neither of which Mitch McConnell has any intention of keeping. Now we will see whether these two “mavericks” are, as they say here in Santa Fe, all hat and no cattle. House Democrats used to say that Collins was always there when we didn’t need her. Will she insist McConnell’s promises be kept, or fold like a cheap suitcase?

In the end, the Jones victory proved Nancy Pelosi’s longstanding observation that adherence to the 3 M’s wins elections, especially under difficult circumstances: money is crucial, and Jones outspent Moore 6-1 on television; message discipline is key: stick to core issues that resonate with the target electorate, like jobs and economic opportunity), and mobilization: mailings and TV/radio are nice, but organize an army of foot soldiers, as did Jones whose supporters knocked on over 300,000 doors. Good lessons, great campaign, and an upbeat ending to a year of disorienting political chaos.

NOTE: My forthcoming book, The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship is now available for pre-order.

Some early reviews:

  • “I’ve never read anyone who ‘gets’ Congress and its characters as Lawrence does.” Chris Matthews, MSNBC
  • “A fascinating account of the Class of ’74 … Students of American politics must read this gripping story of these turbulent years on Capitol Hill.” Julian Zelizer, Princeton University
  • “A landmark volume on congressional history.” Norman Ornstein, AEI
  • “A fascinating account that sheds new light on Congress’ past and reveals deeper truths about its present.” E.J. Dionne, Brookings, Washington Post
  • “A remarkably vivid portrait … It is hard to put down and downright fun to read.” Frances Lee, University of Maryland

Pre-order:

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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.