Tag Archives: John Cornyn

Obstruction, Part Deux

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

There are many signs these days of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party. One of the most striking is the pitiful attempt by Republican leaders to delegitimize President Joe Biden by claiming he is not in charge of his own administration. Biden is, so the line goes, old and fumbling, a figurehead for others, particularly Vice President Kamala Harris, who push him to extremist positions, or manipulated by his White House staff.

In a lame attempt to make this point, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn issued a string of tweets last month about Biden’s alleged lack of a media presence. Citing a Politico article entitled “The Biden White House media doctrine: Less can be more,” Cornyn wondered if the article “[i]nvites the question: is he really in charge?” Actually, the article did not invite that question at all. Politico simply observed that the current president’s tweets are few, his public comments scripted, and he limits his contacts with the press. And, as one White House official told Politico, the president and his communications staff are happy to have other people push Biden’s policy agenda. “We use the Cabinet, they’re experts in their field,” said deputy communications director Kate Berner. 

Questioning Biden’s media reticence is a funny, weird, and hypocritical critique by Cornyn since Republicans in the House and Senate often scurried from reporters’ probing questions seeking a comment about the latest embarrassing, inflammatory, ignorant, and/or bigoted tweet from former president Donald Trump. Who can forget those TV images of Republican lawmakers fast-walking past reporters’ microphones to avoid commenting? As for Biden having limited contacts with the media, it is true his media availability is significantly less than Trump’s. The “former guy” was a media hog, never shying away from a camera. But, those were often as embarrassing and ill-informed as his tweets. Remember his commandeering the daily press briefings in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when, among other things, he suggested injecting bleach into bodies?

Republicans also have attacked Biden for an alleged lack of energy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy disparaged Biden for having to sleep “five hours a night” and for not having “the energy of Donald Trump.” No one outside the Biden family knows — at least, I do not — how many hours the president sleeps, and McCarthy ought to know that adults usually require seven to nine hours of sleep a night. More importantly, it is a very strange accusation to compare Biden’s work ethic to Trump’s. The former president’s aversion to hard work was legendary. He rarely showed up to assume his daily tasks until 11 in the morning, refused intelligence briefings, and he spent hours every day watching television (when he was not playing golf).

Much of the Republicans political maneuvering and commentary would be silly if it were not part of a larger strategy aimed at derailing Biden’s bold agenda to bring American into the 21st century by revamping the nation’s infrastructure and strengthening its social safety net in an attempt to catch up to the rest of the industrialized and democratic world. Accordingly, Republican tactics center on portraying Biden as too weak and ineffectual to be an effective interlocutor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested in February — during discussions surrounding passage of the COVID-19 relief bill — that the president was hamstrung by his staff from reaching a bipartisan deal. “Our members who were in the meeting felt that the president seemed more interested in [bipartisanship] than his staff did,” McConnell said. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito said about the president, “He seemed more willing than his staff to negotiate.” Longtime McConnell adviser Josh Holmes suggested that White House “staff treats Biden as though he’s an invalid who just wanders into a meeting and knows not what he speaks.” It is a wily ploy by Republicans to suggest that the only reason there is no bipartisanship is because Biden is not in control of his own administration. “Gee,” the implication is, “we’d love to reach a deal, but we can’t figure out who’s in charge over there.”

Actually, it is the other way around. Republicans find it useful to belittle Biden because they do not wish to reach any deals with him. Bereft of ideas and policies, McConnell and his cohorts want to insure that Biden does not receive credit for any successes from his popular policies. When asked if he would do anything to support Representative Liz Cheney for calling out Trump’s “Big Lie,” McConnell said his only goal was to stymie Biden. “One-hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” said the GOP’s leading obstructionist. 

McConnell is an experienced hand at being Senator No. In obstruction, part un, he vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president, and, though he failed to do so, the Kentuckian obstructed Obama at every opportunity, including preventing the then-president from exercising his constitutionally mandated duty to appoint a Supreme Court justice. McConnell has never been known to be much interested in policy. The only two things he seems to care about is stacking the federal judiciary with conservative justices and insuring the spigot remains open for big money to flow into Republican coffers. A more cynical pol would be hard to find.

The senator’s cynicism has been on full display in the opening months of the Biden presidency. McConnell opposes creating a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection because an inquiry could hurt the Republican Party’s midterm election message. He did not explain the contents of that message, leaving the rest of us to wonder if it includes supporting White supremacy, insurrection, and treason. The United States suffered its worst treasonous uprising since the Civil War and Senator McConnell willingly places party before country! Apparently, McConnell forgot that he held Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the insurrection in a speech on the Senate floor following the former president’s second impeachment trial. 

So far, Biden is correct to ignore Republican insults aimed at him personally. But, when those insults indicate a larger Republican strategy with the goal of preventing passage of all of the president’s agenda, Biden needs to say, “Enough is enough! I’m going to act without their cooperation if they continue to obstruct.” Biden’s action must include signaling Senate Democrats that he supports the end of the filibuster so that a minority of a minority can no longer impede passage of popular and much-needed legislation.

Posted May 28, 2021

What a Losing Campaign Looks Like

RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows Biden holding a nearly 10-point lead, with one recent poll giving the Democratic challenger a 16-point lead and another puts the margin at 14 in favor of Biden. Leads of that magnitude portend a landslide victory of historic portions.

The trend is clear enough for previously Trump-loyal Republicans to begin distancing themselves from a flailing president. With Democrats all-but-certain to retain control of the House and poised to reclaim a majority in the Senate, Republicans worry that a potential “blue wave” might turn into a blue tsunami. Separating from Trump may not help many Republicans as their subservience throughout his term has tarnished their image, but they have little left in their playbook to counter Trump’s dismissive response to the pandemic and his off-again, on-again approach to negotiations with congressional Democrats over a new stimulus package. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, locked in an unexpectedly close race, says Trump “got out over his skis” in playing down the coronavirus threat. “He tries to balance that with saying, ‘We, you know, we got this.’ And clearly, we don’t have this,” Cornyn said. “I think the biggest mistake people make in public life is not telling the truth, particularly in something with as much public interest as here because you now the real story is going to come out.”

Nothing in the president’s recent behavior suggests he is capable of making a major push to close the gap with Biden. His boasting about how well he is recovering from his bout with COVID-19 suggests perhaps that the steroids he has been taking are clouding his judgment. Trump’s posturing on the White House balcony the evening he returned from the hospital reminded many of the poses of Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader. He has continued to play down the seriousness of the pandemic, tweeting just before leaving Walter Reed Medical Center Monday evening, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Wednesday evening, the president released a bizarre video in which he claims contracting the disease was “a blessing from God” and praises a miracle cure from an untested drug he was given. In the video, Trump appears to struggle to take in enough air.

His actions in recent days do not reassure voters that he is taking the pandemic any more seriously after coming down with COVID-19 than he did before contracting the disease. By all reports, Trump is walking around the White House without a mask, including when going to the Oval Office, against the advice and wishes of top aides. Trump and his doctors have been less than forthcoming about his symptoms, treatment, and infection history. The last point is critical because Trump came into contact with numerous people in the days before he tweeted that he and his wife were infected. He debated Biden just days before going to the hospital.

Trump acts as if his defeat on November 3 is a foregone conclusion. He behaved boorishly in his debate with Biden, violating the debate rules in repeated confrontations with both his opponent and the moderator. His campaign has run through so much money that it has been pulling TV ads in key battleground states. The president killed stimulus talks, saying that there would be no aid for struggling Americans until after he is reelected. Even Trump eventually realized that taking the blame for stalled talks was not a good idea just weeks before an election, so he quickly suggested that he might be agreeable to a scaled-down version of a stimulus package. 

Trump and his sycophants know there is not much time and not much they can do to change the trajectory that has Biden increasing his polling lead in the wake of so many presidential self-inflicted wounds. Vice President Mike Pence did little in Wednesday night’s debate to convince voters that the Trump administration is about to get a handle on the myriad crises afflicting the nation. He offered the same nonsense on the pandemic, saying Trump acted forthrightly in banning travel with China, while offering no effective rebuttal to Senator Harris’ accusation that Trump has presided over a catastrophic public-health failure. Pence was somewhat politer than his boss in his face-off with Harris, though he frequently talked past his allotted time and often interrupted his opponent, a tactic sure to alienate women viewers. All in all, Pence found himself diminished by Harris and a fly that landed and stayed on his white hair for more than two minutes.

Pence had a memorable and scary moment of not answering a question at the end of the debate. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, asked Pence what “would be your role and responsibility as vice president” if Trump refused to cede power if he lost the election. The president has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and his vice president was no more reassuring that the administration would accept the election results. Pence merely said “I think we are going to win this election” and then repeated his talking points about tax cuts and rolling back regulations, then ending by accusing the Democrats of trying to undo the results of the 2016 election.

Trump, too, has returned to his theme that the Democrats plotted against him in 2016 and that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, “cooked up the Russia hoax.” It is a curious obsession, given that Trump won the election. But, the reappearance of the accusation of a Democratic plot four years ago is one more indication that Trump and his allies have little to offer voters this time around, and it is an admission that they know the election is all but lost. The only question remaining — which Trump and now Pence have refused to answer — is: Will they go quietly?

Posted October 9, 2020

Who’s “Dumb As a Rock?”

He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.President Donald Trump tweeting on Rex Tillerson on December 7, 2018, after his former secretary of state said Trump is undisciplined, does not like to read, and is willing to commit illegal acts. 

You know what I’ll say: Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other — whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government. Absolutely…. I am proud to shut down the government for border security…. So, I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.Trump in an Oval Office meeting with presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, December 11, 2018.

One of the more interesting questions of the Trump era (aside from how many criminal acts he committed as a candidate and while in office) is: Just how dumb is the president?

We know he does not read, at least not much. We know he was ignorant of the historical significance of Frederick Douglass. We know candidate Trump did not understand the Republican position on abortion nor the nature of the nuclear triad. We also know President Trump embarrassingly was unaware of the meaning of NATO’s collective security clause. The list goes on….

But, few thought Trump would be so foolish as to give away the whole ballgame in a rash statement during his White House meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. After all, the trick in Washington is to pin a government shutdown on the other side. Now, we have a president who, for the first time, pinned it on himself! Way to go, Mr. President!

I suppose a case can be made that Trump, once again, is playing to his base supporters in threatening a partial government shutdown at midnight on December 21 over funding for his border wall. Trumpistas, after all, despise the government and probably believe shutting it down is a good thing. They also may consider his threat a sign of manly toughness, though Pelosi may have had the last word on that when she said, “It’s like a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him. This wall thing!” As for Schumer, he could barely contain his glee, breaking into a wide smile at Trump’s ineptness, declaring simply, “Okay. Fair enough.”

Trump befuddled congressional Republicans, who along with members of the administration, have been laying the groundwork for a “Schumer shutdown” by trying to blame Democrats if an agreement on border security is not reached. “I don’t understand the ­strategy, but maybe he’s figured it out and he’ll tell us in due course,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. “But I don’t understand it.” The third-ranking GOP senator, John Thune of South Dakota, agreed. “It [a shutdown] would not be good.” Thune added, “The president has his own style and way of negotiating.” 

That is putting it nicely. During the campaign, Trump billed himself as the master negotiator, the author (kind of) of the best-selling, “The Art of the Deal.” I will leave it to the experts, but I am pretty sure a good negotiator does not go into talks declaring his or her willingness to take responsibility if the negotiations break down. And speaking of deals, whatever happened to Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the wall? “We will build a great wall along the southern border. And, Mexico will pay for the wall,” candidate Trump promised on September 1, 2016.

Promises, promises! Of course, Mexico was never going to pay for the wall, so now Trump has to beseech Congress for funding. The president thinks it is a winning issue for him. “If we have to close down the country over border security, I actually like that in terms of an issue,” Trump said after the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. “I will take it because we are closing it down for border security, and I think I win that every single time.”

There are three problems with Trump’s analysis. First, he ignores the simple fact that for the next few weeks, Republicans control all the branches of the government, which Pelosi pointed out. “…[I]n the House, you could bring it up [a bill funding the wall for five-billion dollars] right now, today,” she said. While the rules of the Senate dictate that Republicans will need some Democratic votes to pass the bill, the House is simpler, and the simple truth is that the GOP lacks the votes to pass a border security bill in the lower chamber, despite controlling a majority of representatives. And, frankly, Trump does not have the negotiating skills to persuade reluctant Republican House members to vote for funding his wall.

The second problem with Trump trying to pin blame on the Democrats is that the border wall is not very popular. In a poll taken last summer, a majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed expanding construction of the wall along the Mexican border. It is difficult to imagine many people rallying to Trump’s side because he shut down the government over funding a wall they oppose. 

Finally, Trump’s assessment is wrong because shutting down the government is never a winning issue. Trump believes Democrats will lose the current fight over funding because Schumer and his colleagues caved a year ago when they shut down the government over a path for citizenship for the Dreamers (immigrants brought to America illegally at a young age). But, that dispute differs from the current one in two ways: First, this time, Trump is the one making demands, and, second, Dreamers have much more support than the wall. If a shutdown over the Dreamers was a loser, then one over the wall is even more so. Besides, no one ever wins for causing a government shutdown. Just ask Senator Ted Cruz about the closing of the government he caused in 2013, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about the 1995 shutdown. Moreover, shutting down the government just before Christmas — throwing federal workers off the payroll — seems particularly Grinch-like.

So, Mr. President, who is dumb as a rock?

Posted December 14, 2018


There is little doubt of the capacity of most people to believe what they want to believe.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is the reaction of conservative Republicans to Donald Trump’s recently released list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Many on the right cite the list as a reason to support Trump’s presidential bid. Texas Senator John Cornyn said Trump made a “smart move” releasing the list. “It’s reassuring for conservatives to know what he’ll be looking for were he elected president,” Cornyn said. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, now stonewalling President Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the nation’s top court, said Trump put forward an “impressive list of highly qualified jurists.” Grassley praised Trump for providing voters insight into “the types of judges” he might select. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has been playing hard to get regarding endorsing Trump, said the list is a “very good step in the right direction.” Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said the list will further Republican Party unity.Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said the list will further Republican Party unity. “I think it will have a dramatic effect in doing that,” Krauthammer said. He thinks Trump’s potential nominees will mollify reluctant Republicans who fear giving Hillary Clinton power to name the next several Supreme Court justices.

No doubt preventing Clinton from having the power to appoint justices is a priority for conservatives. But — and this a big but — can Trump be trusted to appoint nominees from his list? Or, if not from the just-released list, would Trump name other, reliable conservatives to the high court?

Trump’s press release described the 11 judges he named — all white men, by the way — as examples of jurists he would “consider as potential replacements for Justice Scalia….” If the nuance in that statement does not frighten potential supporters, his further remarks should. “I plan to use this list as a guide,” he added. In other words, Trump refused to guarantee that he would choose a nominee from his list.

It is helpful to revisit the role of the Supreme Court to understand the type of jurist with whom Trump might be comfortable. The Supreme Court is a coequal branch of the federal government with the executive and legislative branches. Its primary function is to insure that the other two branches do not exceed the constitutional limits on their power. Would a narcissist like Donald Trump pick a justice who might restrain his power? “What makes us think that a President Trump would appoint a justice who would stand up to him?” asks Randy Barnett, director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. “That’s just not the type of person he is.” Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, puts the issue more bluntly. “When Trump realizes that judges can block a president’s actions, but that he gets to nominate judges,” Kerr said, “he’ll put two and two together. He’ll nominate cronies who would rubber-stamp whatever Trump does. That’s not a conservative position or a liberal position. It’s just a pro-Trump position.”

Trump has made it abundantly clear that the positions he takes one day may not be the ones he takes the next. “I’m allowed to change,” Trump said, justifying his current support for raising the minimum wage. On his tax plan, the real estate mogul says, “By the time it gets negotiated, it’s going to be a different plan.” He said women should be punished for having abortions, then said they should not. A flip-flopping politician is hardly news. Moreover, changing one’s position can be a sign of open-mindedness and a willingness to change views when the facts change. But, Trump’s so-called flexibility should trouble any and all potential supporters since he does not have a past rooted in strong political convictions. As Ruth Marcus wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, “When everything is a starting bid, how are voters supposed to judge — or guess — where Trump might end up?”

Conservative writer John Yoo captured the possible judicial consequences of Trump the shape-shifter nicely in a piece in the National Review. “I am thrilled by this list,” wrote Yoo, who drafted the infamous torture memos for the Bush Justice Department. “But that being said, I cannot trust Trump to keep his word. He has already flip-flopped on so many issues, before, during, and after the primary campaign. How do we know he would not start wheeling and dealing on judicial appointments if he were to win the Oval Office?”

Finally, conservatives should be leery about Trump’s assurances on the Supreme Court because the reality TV star is an habitual liar. Granted, Americans believe all politicians lie, but there is a difference between hyperbole, spin, and fudging and Trump’s constant — and often unnecessary — falsehoods. There is not space here to list all of Trump’s bouts with the truth, but, most recently, he has insisted he did not masquerade as his own spokesman. Aside from the fact that individuals who know Trump well say it is his voice on the phone, Trump told People magazine that his posing as “John Miller” was “a joke gone awry.” At another time, he admitted in court, “I believe on occasion I used that name,” referring to the alias, “John Barron.” Sure, his use of nom de plumes is trivial, but someone willing to lie about something so insignificant could be a president willing to lie about something consequential. That is not idle speculation, because Trump has a history of lying: thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, for example.

Trump’s list, containing the names of reliably conservative jurists, likely will accomplish the presumptive nominee’s goal of unifying the GOP. “It’s a good list of some of the outstanding judges who give ample sign of being faithful to the Constitution,” said Ed Whelan, a former Scalia clerk. Some Republicans seeking reasons to support the waffling, backtracking, and fibbing candidate may use the list to convince themselves to support Trump in the name of party unity because his Supreme Court nominees will be, he assures them, more conservative than Clinton’s. Doing so means, however, ignoring Whelan’s caveat: “Whether a President Trump could actually be counted on to pick folks like this is a different question.”

Posted May 20, 2016

The Politics of Obstruction

Let’s be clear about one thing: The Republican vow to block President Obama from selecting the next Supreme Court justice is politically motivated. All other explanations for delay are ahistorical and unconstitutional.

The justification that the voters should decide in the November election is nonsense. There is no precedent for the Senate declining to do its constitutional duty to “Advice and Consent.” The Senate has considered and approved numerous nominations in a president’s final year. The voters already decided when they re-elected Barack Obama in 2012. It is absurd to argue, as the Republicans appear to be doing, that the last election matters less than the election that has not happened. Moreover, the Framers of the Constitution never intended for the voters to make selections for the Supreme Court. The drafters of the Constitution gave the power to name justices to a president elected by the Electoral College, not the popular vote of the people, and approved by senators elected by state legislatures. The direct election of senators did not become national policy until 1913. It is passably odd that proponents of a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution wish to give to the people a right not found in the original document.

Republican obstruction on filling the vacant Supreme Court seat is outrageous and unjustified, but it is politically necessary. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had little choice but to declare within hours of the announcement of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death that the Senate should wait until after January 20, 2017, to vote on a replacement. Obstruction is politically necessary because of the virulence of the Republican base, whipped to a frenzy in this election cycle by the candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. McConnell knows that the base would erupt if the Senate approved an Obama appointee who would provide liberals with a majority on the nation’s highest court. A 5-4 liberal majority would protect abortion rights and might eventually reverse the Citizen’s United decision overturning campaign finance laws, the Heller ruling, written by Scalia, providing an expansive view of so-called Second Amendment rights, and the Shelby County v. Holder case striking down sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

McConnell moved quickly after Scalia’s death, getting ahead of the GOP candidates, all of whom called for the Senate to delay during the presidential debate held that evening.  Trump was not alone in saying, “I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell, and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.” Cruz’s call for obstruction underscored Republican fears over a possible Obama appointment and the conservative justification for obstruction. “We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states,” the Texas senator said. “We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will reverse the Heller decision, one of Justice Scalia’s seminal decisions that upheld the Second Amendment right to keep and to bear arms…. The Senate needs to stand strong and say, ‘We’re not going to give up the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by allowing Barack Obama to make one more liberal appointee.’”

But, obstruction never comes without costs. As is often the case, Republicans are locked in a dilemma which pits the need to run to the right in primaries against the requirement to move to the center in the general election. Republican senators who are up for re-election this year potentially strengthen right-wing challengers in the primaries if they waver on Obama replacing Justice Scalia. But, and here is their dilemma, obstruction weakens those senators in the general election.

Because of the tea party rout of 2010, Republicans are defending a large number of Senate seats this year. Many of those seats are held by Republicans who pass for moderate in the current climate. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin all represent blue or battleground states. In addition, Marco Rubio is not running again, so his seat in the swing state of Florida is a likely tossup. Blocking an Obama appointment guarantees that Democrats will make Republican obstructionism and congressional dysfunction campaign issues. Republican attempts to guarantee that the next president appoints a pro-gun and anti-abortion justice makes it harder to appeal to an electorate in blue or swing states that does not embrace ultra-conservative positions on guns and abortion.

John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, said GOP obstruction “is not about the personality.” That is nonsense. Of course it is about the “personality,” in this case Barack Obama’s. It is just the latest example of the obstructionism the Republican Party has practiced since Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

The prediction here is that blocking Obama from naming Scalia’s replacement will work in the short term — keeping the Republican right at bay — but will backfire in the long run. Obstructionism helps Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders win this presidency and could give her or him a majority in the Senate, as well.

Posted February 26, 2016

The Clinton Past and Future

Bill Clinton cares about two things: Defending his legacy; and assisting Hillary Clinton in her quest for the presidency, should she decide to run.

The two concerns are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intertwined, and both require the former president to position Clintonius politiicus (a singular species) slightly to the left of where he and his wife once were.

Clinton’s sensitivity about his legacy erupted in 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama labeled Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy transformational presidents, while pointedly ignoring the husband of his primary opponent. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path… I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction.”

Clinton got over it, partly because Obama was right (the next president was not commenting on the policies of Reagan and Kennedy; rather, he was simply noting their historical impact) and partly to insure a Democrat in the White House. By 2012 Clinton had become an enthusiastic and tireless campaigner for Obama’s reelection.

But that “legacy” thing has not disappeared. On Wednesday, Clinton delivered a strident defense of his economic policies. “My commitment was to restore broad-based prosperity to the economy and to give Americans a chance,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University, his alma mater. With his wife in attendance, the former president detailed the affect of policies like welfare reform, the earned-income tax credit, and balancing the budget. “You know the rest,” he told his audience. The 1990s “worked out pretty well.”

As president, Clinton presided over a healthy economy in which unemployment declined and median family income increased substantially. But it is also true that Clinton was the candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council, a middle-of-the-road, centrist organization that worked assiduously to revive the Democratic Party after the Reagan years. The DLC forged a new image of Democrats as pro-business pragmatists. As president, Clinton implemented many of the policies of the DLC, which did not include addressing the issues of poverty.

But the political winds have changed, and the Democratic Party — prodded by elected officials like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — is adopting a more populist tone. Clinton is a savvy politician, which is why he presided at de Blasio’s swearing-in last January. Clinton remembers how Obama got to Hillary’s left in 2008, and his presence in New York was the opening salvo in a campaign to insure that no candidate, like Warren, does the same thing in the 2016 primaries. (To be sure, Warren has shown no interest in running, but you can’t be too careful.)

Repositioning the family on more solid populist ground is the point at which Bill’s legacy and Hillary’s ambitions merge. So, at Georgetown, he not only defended his record, but he also addressed the burning issue for today’s progressive wing of the Democratic Party: Income inequality. Calling it “a severe constraint on growth,” the former president acknowledged that growing inequality is a more serious problem today than in the 1990s.

The immediate symbol of the new populism on the left is raising the minimum wage, which Hillary Clinton advocated in a speech last week in Boston and which was defeated in the Senate by a Republican-led filibuster on the same day Bill spoke at Georgetown. Democrats believe increasing the minimum wage is a winning issue this November and in 2016. “I’m confident that if we don’t raise the minimum wage in Congress before the election,” said out-going Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, “the American people are going to speak about this at the ballot box in November.”

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican countered, “This is all about politics. This is all about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hardhearted.”

Actually, Republicans are capable of doing that all by themselves.

Still, it never hurts to give the opposition a shove, which Democrats will do by raising the issue at every opportunity.

As loyal Democrats, expect the Clintons to pitch in as well. Besides, talking about income inequality and the minimum wage helps cement the Clinton legacy, past and future.

Posted May 2, 2014

Death of the Tea Party?


A majority of House Republicans shrugged off ultraconservative opposition Wednesday to vote for  a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the current fiscal year. The measure won the support of 166 House Republicans, with only 64 voting against.

The 1,582 page bill reached the House only two nights before the vote, making it the poster child for the kind of legislation the tea party has opposed since its formation, a huge bill delivered to Congress in the dark and voted on before legislators could read it. It predictably was opposed by such conservative groups as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action. Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said the spending bill proves the need for “members in the House and Senate who are willing to keep their campaign promises, stand up of the people and protect Americans from Washington’s tax, borrow, spend and spend and spend mentality.”

Despite all that, more than 70 percent of House Republicans voted for the spending bill, a degree of independence from the strictures of the far right that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. The vote marked the culmination of what may be the marginalization of the extreme right in Republican politics, a process that began with the vote to reopen the federal government after the politically disastrous 16-day shutdown. That vote won the support of 87 House Republicans.

The reopening of the government led to the broad budget deal reached in December. Though ultraconservatives denounced the agreement, 169 Republicans supported it. The budget pact paved the way for the this week’s spending bill, backed by a similar number of Republicans. “Our people learned a lot of tough lessons in the last year, and I think you’re seeing the tough lessons applied,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, in defense of his vote for the spending bill.

Speaker John Boehner appeared to learn those lessons when he lashed out against conservative groups last December. He criticized organizations such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity for attacking the budget deal reached by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” Boehner fumed.

Does all this mean that these conservative action groups have lost power and influence? Does it presage the end of tea party extremism and the reassertion of moderation in the Republican Party?

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, says his group is still influential, but concedes recent House votes show that “we’ve got work to do.” He added, “We’d love to put ourselves out of business, but until you get a majority of economic conservatives, you’ve got to keep fighting.”

Don’t expect tea party groups to roll over, either. Indeed, an indication of the direction of the Republican Party likely will come in the 2014 elections, especially in the primaries, where right-wing groups are challenging incumbents accused of alleged moderation. Such stalwart conservative Republicans as Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, face tea party-backed primary opponents.

Establishment Republicans are fighting back for the first time in several election cycles. Of particular note is the role of the Chamber of Commerce, which appears to be abandoning tea party candidates in favor of pro-business Republicans who encourage trade, favor immigration reform, and support infrastructure construction.

The Chamber has not always been anti-tea party. “When the Tea Party first came out with who they were and what they believe, they talked about things that the Chamber very much supports,” said Thomas Donohue, the organization’s president, who pointed to shared values such as lower taxes and spending cuts. “Then,” he continued, “we had a lot of people who came along who had different views and they tried to hitch their wagon to the Tea Party engine, and those are the people that wanted to not pay the federal debt and to shut down government and to take more radical approaches to try and get where we all really want to get.”

Establishment Republicans know that such tea party-backed candidates as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Sharron Angle in Nevada cost the GOP possible control of the Senate.

The mainstream GOP is determined to prevent a repeat of such disastrous candidates. Wether they can control the nomination process, where the tea party has strong grassroots supports, is the key question of 2014.

Posted January 17, 2014

The Politics of Cynicism

The good news: The Senate may soon pass a comprehensive immigration reform package.

The bad news: Immigration reform still has to clear the House of Representatives.

An apparent compromise on border security, acceptable to Democrats and Republicans, appears to open the way for Senate approval of a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Moderate Republicans who want to support immigration reform need the cover of tough border security provisions so they can tell tea party constituents at home that they didn’t cave to liberals.

Toughening border security costs money, and austerity-minded conservatives have been reluctant to vote for measures to increase the federal budget. But this week’s announcement by the Congressional Budget Office that immigration reform will reduce the federal deficit gives the bill’s supporters wiggle room to back additional spending.

The compromise finesses the amendment introduced earlier by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, which stipulated that tough and probably unattainable goals on border security would have to be met before undocumented immigrants could apply for citizenship. The draconian nature of Cornyn’s proposal led Democrats to label it “a poison pill.”

All the back and forth on compromising over border security is part of Senator Chuck Schumer’s strategy to find 70 or more votes in the Senate for an immigration overhaul. The New York Democrat believes that any bill coming out of the Senate must have the support of a substantial number of Republicans if it is to pass in the House.

The 70-vote goal has made Schumer willing to compromise with Republicans, but it has also irked powerful Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who believe Schumer’s approach could lead to a weak bill.

Reid and Durbin argue that a watered-down bill undermines their ability to negotiate a compromise with the House since it will leave them little with which to bargain. Durbin says, “When some of my friends announce 70 votes, they create an incentive for Republicans to dream up things that they either needed in this bill or outside of it.”

And here’s where the bad news becomes relevant: Conservatives in the House may make negotiating over a final immigration bill moot since they may torpedo any reform measure.

House Speaker John Boehner announced this week that he will not bring a package to the floor if it doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans. The Ohio Republican reportedly said, “I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the principles of our majority and divide our conference.” By invoking the so-called Hastert rule, which stipulates that the speaker will not allow a bill to get to the floor that does not have the support of a majority of the majority, Boehner appears to have doomed reform.

Yet, in Washington, things are never as simple as they appear. In the cynical world of politics, it is conceivable that a majority of House Republicans might want to see an immigration bill pass even though most intend to vote against it. Here’s the calculus: Republicans know the immigration system must be fixed because of the results of the 2012 election in which President Obama drubbed Mitt Romney among Latino voters. At the same time, their constituents are opposed to anything that smacks of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

The GOP may have a way out: Vote in the caucus to move the bill to the House floor, then vote no on the bill. Immigration reform will pass with a majority of nearly all Democrats and a smattering of Republicans, allowing most Republicans to satisfy the voters back home.

Cynical, for sure. But that’s politics in polarized Washington today.

Posted June 21, 2013





A Modest Proposal

Republicans were quick to call out mega-billionaire Warren Buffett for arguing the nation’s super-rich are under-taxed.

“For tax-raising advocates like Warren Buffett, I am sure Treasury would take a voluntary payment for deficit reduction,” tweeted Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, during the 2011 debt ceiling dispute.

“If Warren Buftet [sic] wants to pay more taxes and send more of his money to Washington, why doesn’t he just do it?” tweeted Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia.

In the spirt of Republican calls for voluntary revenue enhancements to solve the nation’s ever-expanding debt, and with due apologies to Jonathan Swift, I offer “A Modest Proposal” for the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Here is my suggestion: Those who believe Washington should slash spending should come forward and voluntarily decline federal services, just as Republicans call on the wealthy who believe they are under-taxed to voluntarily contribute to paying down the national debt.

If you voted for a tea party candidate, for example, then presumably you favor draconian spending cuts. So, step up to the plate and in the spirit of your vote, turn down federal services. Those who favor cuts could refuse to accept Social Security payments; they could opt out of Medicare and pay for their own health care.

The rest of us, who favor the social safety net, could enjoy the benefits of these federal programs.

Communities that send deficit hawks to Congress could turn down federal subsidies. Farming communities in Kansas that consistently vote Republican should back their ideological convictions with their pocketbooks and turn down farm subsidies.

Overwhelmingly red states, demonstrate to us your redness by declining federal money for Head Start. Reject federal grants for education at all levels. Don’t accept money for Food Stamps and let your churches and other voluntary organizations feed the hungry.

Conservatives, if you want smaller government, then go small. Do without or let your state and local governments take over all the functions performed by the federal government. Come on Kansas! Let’s go Oklahoma! Step up Utah!

Here’s a bet I’m confident I’d win: No one, no state, no city, no county, no individual will accept my modest proposal.

Why? Because everyone benefits from the federal government. Every program run by Washington is in the federal budget because someone likes it, someone benefits from it.

The odd thing about the spending debate is the most avid of deficit slashers usually come from states that benefit the most from federal spending. Louisiana, for example, receives $1.45 in federal largesse for every $1 it sends to Washington; Alabama takes $1.71 for every $1 that goes the other way; South Carolina gets $1.38 on its $1 investment, and so on. All of these states are very red; none have volunteered to return the excess; all hungrily suck on the federal teat.

By contrast, New York gets 79 cents for its tax dollar and Michigan, badly hit by the recession and in need of help, gets 85 cents. Both states voted twice for Barack Obama.

The naiveté of Americans who rail against federal spending yet benefit from it never ceases to amaze. I wrote a year ago about Ki Gulbranson, who typifies this mindset. Mr. Gulbranson earns about $39,000 annually. He insists he does not need federal help, claims too many people depend on Washington for assistance, believes the federal budget should be slashed, and supports the tea party.

Yet Mr. Gulbranson relies on thousands of dollars in a government subsidy for working families called earned-income tax credit. His three school-age children eat breakfast and lunch free at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his 88-year-old mother to have hip surgery — twice.

I guess Mr. Gulbranson does not view any of this as federal assistance.

Ki Gulbranson is not alone in railing against federal subsidies on the one hand while accepting Washington’s benefits on the other.

The rest of us should not be so gullible.

Posted March 5, 2013

Out of “Cruz” Control

Granted freshman senators are not like children: Seen but seldom heard.

Still, Texas Republican Ted Cruz has made a name — notorious, some would say — in an institution where newcomers usually are silent for many months before plunging into partisan warfare.

Not Senator Cruz, who has not been reticent in the Republican fight to defeat Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Nor has Cruz — who has been on the job for barely six weeks — been reticent about much else.

Cruz has wasted no time in becoming the Dr. No of the Senate, voting against virtually everything considered by that august body. He was one of three senators to vote against John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state, among the 22 who voted against the Violence Against Women Act, among the 34 who voted against raising the debt ceiling, and among the 36 who voted against a relief package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Senator Cruz does not like much, apparently. And apparently, not many of his colleagues much like him. In a body known for its collegiality, more often apparent than real, he has taken his confrontational tea party roots to new heights — or depths, if you will.

He even earned the enmity of Texas’s other senator, John Cornyn, who has a reputation as a reliable conservative but who did not appreciate his junior colleague’s refusal to support him for party whip. Another GOP colleague described Cruz as Jim DeMint without the charm, a reference to the notably charmless former senator from South Carolina who now heads the Heritage Foundation.

It’s Cruz’s treatment of Chuck Hagel that has led many of his colleagues to view him with distaste. He has accused the former senator from Nebraska of possible foreign corruption. “We do not know, for example,” Cruz insinuated, “if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups. It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

Cruz made this startling allegation because Hagel has refused to provide financial details that are not required by law, inferring from his refusal that “there was something in there that they did not want to make public.”

At another point, the junior senator from Texas intimated that Hagel would be cozy with Iran because that country’s Islamic regime supports his confirmation.

Cruz’s outrageous allegations raise the specter of McCarthyism. “It was really reminiscent of a different time and place,” California Senator Barbara Boxer noted, “when you said, ‘I have here in my pocket a speech you made on such and such a date,’ and, of course, nothing was in the pocket. It was reminiscent of some bad times.”

Senator John McCain, who has not been shy to attack Hagel, believes Cruz went too far: “No one on this committee should at any time impugn [Chuck Hagel’s] character or his integrity.”

The most ardent of tea party supporters may like Cruz’s combative style, but as Frank Bruni notes in The New York Times the new senator from Texas is symptomatic of what threatens to make the Republican Party a permanent minority.

Superficially, Ted Cruz looks like he should be the face of modern Republicanism: Young, Latino, smart (he went to Princeton), and from a modest background. His genealogy ignores the less attractive parts of his political persona: His grandstanding, his uncompromising social conservatism, and his evident meanness.

It’s what various tea party senators exhibit in differing degrees, from Kentucky’s Rand Paul, to Florida’s Marco Rubio, to Utah’s Mike Lee. Some, like Rubio, put a kinder face on their extremism, but it’s still extremism, and it’s not likely to play to a wider audience.

What Cruz and his colleagues have yet to learn is that to have a chance to win elections nationally the Republican Party can’t be opposed to everything President Obama and Democrats favor. Republicans have to be for something too, not to mention being inclusive and generous.

As long as Ted Cruz has a big mouth that spews vitriol, he will get publicity. But not much else, and he’ll be a drag on the Republican Party,

Posted February 19, 2012