Party Like It’s 1852 Again

As the cliché goes, history often repeats itself.  1852 marked the effective end of the Whig Party, a political party that had elected four presidents and that generally favored the supremacy of Congress over the presidency, based on the Constitution.  It evolved for a while into the Know Nothing Party which was virulently anti-immigrant, especially against Catholic immigrants.  Eventually, mostly along regional lines over the issue of slavery, and forged by the Civil War, the modern Republican and Democrat parties emerged.

I am a strong believer in the two-party system.  In my lifetime, our country at times has veered right of center and left of center, depending on the election of one party over the other.  But I believe that the majority of Americans are moderate and centrist, with tendencies that cause them to lean left or right at various times over differing issues, but in the end, we mostly want to stay in the middle of the road.  We stay there without careening blindly over the cliff thanks to our two-party system.  It is self-correcting as one party or the other pulls its opponent back towards the middle when things start to get too wacky.  I am concerned that we are about to lose that balanced system as it appears to me that the Republican Party is about to self-destruct, much like the Whigs in the mid-19th century, over politicians and policies that no longer fit the main stream.  The reasons are many.

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday and by Wednesday morning we may wake up to the inevitability of Mr. Donald Trump (R-Manhattan) as the presumptive Republican nominee for president.  There is no need for me to list the many insults he has thrown at various groups around the country or to point out that he has no literate policy in any area of significance to this country other than to build a wall.  His nomination will create a dilemma for many main stream Republicans.  Support their nominee, chosen by the people and for the people, or not?  Whether or not individual voters continue to support him in the general election, he will have destroyed the Republican Party as we know it.  Even a cursory look at his statements (it is difficult to call them policies) indicate that he is all over the map on defense, foreign policy, healthcare, taxes, understanding the Constitution, trade, the economy and just about everything else. Few of his pronouncements match long-standing Republican policies.  Should he be elected, I am not sure how the rest of the Republican Party will align with his ideas, whether or not the Republicans continue to control both the House and the Senate.  (It may be hard for Republicans to hold onto the Senate with Mr. Trump at the top of their ticket.)  Those that think Mr. Trump will be better than any Democrat may be in for a rude awakening.  Regardless, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party will not continue to exist as we know it today.

Couple the thought of Mr. Trump as president (gasp!) with current events in the House and Senate. In the House of Representatives, the compromise budget hammered out as former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was being driven out of the Congress by his own party is now in jeopardy. The bipartisan agreement on the budget was to make 2016 non-controversial, get the Congress back to the business of running the country, and allow for other issues to get addressed in “regular order.” In the last few days, however, the Republican Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 Tea Party Representatives that caused the revolt that resulted in the government shut down in 2013, are now threatening to do the same thing again this year.  They do not plan to follow the budget agreement that all sides thought was in place.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is going to have his hands full dealing with this rebellion, just as Speaker Boehner did before him.  In many ways it is a battle within the Congress, among Republicans, as to the future of their party.

In the Senate, not much is getting accomplished.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) seems intent on shutting the government down through inaction.  So far, nothing of substance that President Obama put forward has been, or apparently will be, considered. Senator McConnell and his fellow Republicans have moved from just disagreeing with or opposing the president’s policies, to being down right insulting.  There are numerous examples as to how they are doing this to a “lame duck” president (for the record, an elected official is a lame duck only after an election where their replacement has been duly elected — not the full last year in office), but let me just throw out a few.

Earlier this month, the president sent his budget plan for fiscal year 2017 to the Congress. Before it officially arrived in the House and Senate, the Republican leadership rejected it in total.  Their prerogative of course, but one would think that they should actually take a look at it before rejecting it. However, that was not sufficient in their view.  For the first time in 41 years, the Congress did not even provide the courtesy of inviting the budget director to testify before Congress about what was in the plan. The Republican chairs of the respective budget committees announced before the budget was released that they would not invite the director to testify because they were not interested in knowing anything about what was in it.

Another example can be found in the video released last week by Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) where he makes a show of taking President Obama’s plan to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba and wadding it up into a ball and shooting it into the trash can without reading it.  One may disagree about the efficacy of closing the prison, but why make it into an insult?  (See: Trump, Donald.)

Biggest in the news, and the one that most worries me, is the refusal of the Senate leadership to abide any nomination by the president to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court following the untimely passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.  No nominee is named — but they already promise to refuse to provide even the most basic of traditional American political processes and will not meet with the nominee.  I have seen the tapes of then Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and then Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) saying during Republican presidential administrations that the president should not be allowed to nominate a justice in their last year as president.  Two things come to mind.  We seem to be on a giant national play ground so let me use a grade school admonition:  two wrongs don’t make a right.  More importantly, Senator Obama and Senator Biden never actually stopped a nominee from coming before the Senate.  They may have voted against some, but they did not stop them and they certainly did not prevent the process from playing out as it should.  If Republicans do not like the nominee, fine.  Don’t vote for the person.  But to be rude and insulting by refusing to meet with and provide due consideration is ridiculous.  It is their job — do it.   It is also bad politics.  Think about it.

The country is angry and about to nominate Donald Trump as a major party nominee.  Much of that anger is directed at the Senate and House for not doing their jobs.  It seems that strategically and tactically Senator McConnell is off base.  No Republican needs to vote for any nominee (although if qualified, they should follow American tradition and do so) but by not allowing any nominee to be vetted in the Senate, they play right into the Democrat’s hands.  Talk about rallying the Democrat’s base — this will do it and probably lead to some incumbent Republican Senators losing their re-election campaigns. Follow the process, use the system to their advantage, keep the seat vacant but do it by following the rules.  I am not sure what he is thinking unless he is afraid that some Republicans might actually vote for the president’s nominee if that person is qualified.  What a tragedy that would be.

Senator McConnell’s thinking is also short-sighted.  To satisfy the base now, he is willing to take a chance on the future.  President Obama would likely nominate a moderate to the Supreme Court this year because he knows  that is the only way his nominee has any chance at all to be confirmed.  What kind of nominee will a President Trump put forward?  Does Senator McConnell think that a President Clinton will put up a nominee more to his liking?  Hardly. (Fantasy:  President Clinton nominates Barack Obama for the empty Supreme Court seat.  Now that would be something to behold.) If Senator McConnell wants to see a more moderate nominee, his best chance is now, not after the election. Especially as his argument is that “the people” should have their say — well they will, and both presumptive presidential nominees are surely likely to put forward someone less palatable to the Senate.

(History lesson:  Chief Justice John Marshall, perhaps one of the greatest to sit in that chair, was nominated by John Adams in late January 1801 — months after the election of Thomas Jefferson as president.  The Senate confirmed him and he took the bench on the 4th of February, one month before President Adams left office.  President Jefferson accepted the appointment because the Constitution gives the president and the Senate the power to appoint members of the court.  Nothing in the Constitution says anything about “lame ducks” which in this case, both the president and some members of the Senate most certainly were.  These are the “Founding Fathers” that so many now refer to as the justification for their actions.  These Founding Fathers knew the Constitution, were certainly “originalists,” and guess what?)

Why do I think this is important to Republicans and that they should change their approach? Because taken together, and in conjunction with other similar events and the mood of the nation, the soul of the party is at risk.  I worry that the back lash, and continued infighting within the party, will destroy or at least splinter the current Republican Party.  Whether that new political entity will be better or worse than what exists now, I certainly cannot say.  However, I am concerned about another Know Nothing Party emerging, for however short of a time.  Without two strong mainstream political parties, both vibrant and reflecting the core values of our nation, we will lose our way in the middle of the road and careen recklessly off of it and over a cliff.



How Far Can We Drive the Country to Ruin?

Justice Antonin Scalia died sometime during the night Friday, reportedly of natural causes. Whatever one thought of his very conservative view of the law — based on what is often called an “originalist” view, or one where the original words as written are the law, not what the intent might have been or changes in community standards might be — he was also reported by those who knew him to be brilliant, funny and a good friend.  I extend my condolences to his family and friends who are surely reeling from the shock.  Although I rarely agreed with his votes or opinions, one can still recognize his innate kindness and abilities.

Unfortunately, such understanding of individuals as individuals, and their inherent abilities, does not extend to the Republicans in the United States Senate.  While one might understand the opinion of those on the campaign trail vying for the presidency — all of whom think that they will one day be president and should have the ability to appoint a Justice to the Supreme Court — I do not understand the majority leader of  the Senate claiming that the president has no right to appoint a replacement for Justice Scalia. Only an hour or so after the announcement of Justice Scalia’s death, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) announced that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) echoed Senator McConnell’s call to wait until the next president is sworn in.  This is significant as Senator Grassley is the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and can prevent a vote on a nominee within the committee and thereby prevent the entire Senate from voting.

I point out that a divided Senate confirmed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of then U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Scalia to the Supreme Court by a vote of 98-0.  Things were not perfect in the Senate then, but it was still the era where if a nominee was eminently qualified, like them or not, the president’s pick was his pick.

This unprecedented and outrageous stunt announced by Senators McConnell and Grassley has many ramifications and probable consequences.  One can only surmise that the personal animosity towards President Obama is so strong, that all of those Senate Republicans who espouse following the Constitution as their guiding light seem to have missed the part about the Supreme Court.

First, let’s simply look at the calendar.  If a new president knew exactly who his or her nominee was going to be and announced it the day that he/she is sworn in as president on 20 January 2017, and assuming the modern average of about 67 days for confirmation hearings and votes, we would still not have a new Justice until roughly the end of March or early April 2017.  About 13 or 14 months from now! Talk about the slow wheels of the legislative process.  It is also unprecedented in our nation’s modern history.  Not to mention that it leaves many important cases coming before the court this year susceptible to a 4-4 tie vote.  More on that later.  If this happened in September, then it might be reasonable to wait, but it is only mid-February, with about a year left in office for President Obama.  Is he to do nothing until next January?  Does he have no right to execute his office under the Constitution? It would be unprecedented for a sitting president to abdicate his Constitutional powers to the demands of the legislative body and turn over his power to appoint justices to the Senate. The Senate’s job is to “advise and consent” to presidential nominees, not to hijack presidential powers.  Let them work with the White House and see if there is a compromise candidate for the court.  Let each branch do what it is designed to do.  Senator McConnell and other Republicans argue that elections have consequences.  I agree. We elected President Obama to do a job.  Twice.  He should do it.

Second, the Senate Majority Leader’s announced plan to block any nomination from the president presumes that the individual is not qualified, merely by the fact that President Obama nominates that person.  And they do not know who the nominee will be.  I sincerely hope and expect that the president goes ahead with a nomination and decides to “leave it to the American people” (the catch phrase of choice for so many of the obstructionists) to see who is following the Constitution and doing their job. And it’s not exactly like the Senate calendar is jammed or packed with other pending legislation.  Take a look and it is apparent that the Senate has plenty of time to fairly proceed with the process. (You can find the proposed calendar here.  Note that being in session doesn’t mean they are actually working as most come in from their home states on Tuesday morning and go home on Friday.)  To block a nomination when the nominee is unknown makes no sense. Hold hearings.  Vet the nominee.  Find out how qualified that person may be and then vote. Making demagogic pronouncements within an hour of the loss of a Justice is ridiculous.

Third, there is a presumption in the Republican Senator’s actions that the next president will be a Republican.  Perhaps.  The next president could also be a Democrat. Does the Senate think that it will just wait another four years for another presidential election to fill the vacancy?

Fourth, the practical impact of not filling the vacancy for over a year could be tremendous and further divide our already politically divided country.  A 4-4 tie vote in the Supreme Court leaves lower court decisions in place.  This has many possible consequences.  The Supreme Court is set to make many important decisions in the upcoming year with scheduled cases including ones impacting abortion, The Affordable Care Act, one-person one-vote, affirmative action and a host of others.  We the people may not like what those lower cases decide and want the Supreme Court to weigh in.  In a 4-4 tie they have no impact.

More importantly, many Supreme Court cases are taken on because lower courts often pass down conflicting judgments.  For example, if the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals (the western U.S. including California) hands down one decision, and the Eleventh (the southeast including Florida) hands down a conflicting decision, which is the rule of the land? One nation of law-abiding citizens is no longer the case as the “law of the land” is different depending on where one lives.  One function of the Supreme Court is to pull disparate court decisions together for a unified interpretation of the law. Such a scenario of conflicting opinions is not out of the realm of possibility when it will be over a year before the Supreme Court is at full strength.

I am many things, but I am not a political strategist.  However it seems to me that the Senate Republican’s strategy to stonewall the president on nearly everything, but especially on the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice could backfire.  Congress is already considered by many of us to be doing nothing to help the American people.  Prognosticators say that depending on who the two major party nominees are, that Republican control of the Senate could be in jeopardy.  It seems to me that if the voters do not see their Senators doing much of anything for a year, coupled with a few of the lower court decisions becoming the law of the land in a series of 4-4 votes in the Supreme Court, that some are going to take it out on their sitting Senators, especially in “blue” or “purple” states where Republican incumbents will be challenged by strong Democrats in the fall.

We will see how things actually unfold.  I am not optimistic that the Senate will move forward and conduct the business that we elected them to do.  Now not only will we have a divided legislative process, but the complete lack of cooperation between the Senate and the president will be exacerbated by a potentially hog-tied Supreme Court.  Hog-tied only due to the personal animosity towards the president, which apparently takes precedence over actually doing their job.

It will be a long, poisonous year.  I comfort myself in knowing that in our history we have been through some extremely divisive internal crises (Civil War anyone?) and come out the stronger for it. I hope that we enter 2017 with a new sense of purpose.  It is a shame that we will have to waste an entire year first.


Game On!

But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Stephen Sondheim — “Send in the Clowns”

It is unclear what to make of Monday’s Iowa caucus results.  Analysts and pundits are busy parsing it in many directions.  So far I have heard that Hillary Clinton’s win was really a loss, Marco Rubio’s third place finish was a win, Bernie Sanders pulled out the biggest upset, Ted Cruz really knew how to do “retail politics” and Donald Trump is not unstoppable.  I suppose all of that means we can make of the results whatever we wish.

There are a few things that are apparent.  Projections, pundits and potential are all mostly in the past now that real people are voting.  The game is on.  On to New Hampshire.  There is no clear front-runner in either party even though various candidates would like to think that they are the inevitable nominee for their respective parties.

Perhaps we also know (or hope) that the reality show atmosphere of the Republican debates will be a thing of the past. Perhaps the clown show is finally over.  (Time out:  You may remember that Donald Trump boycotted last week’s debate on Fox News.  We will never know if that hurt him or helped him — many argue the latter because he would be asked some difficult questions.  Ever the entrepeneur Mr. Trump opined that they should pay him for his appearance as he was such a boon to ratings for the network, and felt that the questions asked him were “unfair” — even as Fox News claims it is the only network that is “fair and balanced.”  If I were a cynical conspiracy theorist, I would opine that it was actually a back room deal between Fox and Mr. Trump to boost ratings for each of them by creating a mock feud.  But I must stop myself from slipping into the slime that is unworthy of the citizens of our great country.)  Perhaps the next debates will be more substantive, but in truth, without Mr. Trump there, the last Republican debate was the most policy driven one they have held thus far.

There are a few things to keep in mind about the “winning and losing” that often get lost.  In no particular order these include:

  • Caucus goers in Iowa are not representative of the voters nationally.  For both Democrats and Republicans they tend to skew farther to the edges of their respective parties.  The last two winners of the Republican caucuses were former Governor Mike Huckabee and former Senator Rick Santorum.  Neither were much of a factor in later primaries.
  • The “winner” in the Republican caucus was Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who got 8 delegates. In second place Mr. Donald Trump (R-Manhattan) got 7 and in third place Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) got 7 delegates.  Out of 1,237 needed to gain the nomination.  (For the record, Dr. Ben Carson (R-Johns Hopkins) got 3 and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich each got one.  Chris Christie got zero, along with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, “other” and Jim Gilmore — “other” actually got more votes than Jim Gilmore.)  The “winner” got about six tenths of one percent — less than one percent — of the total needed for the nomination.
  • The “winner” for the Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got 23 delegates and the runner-up, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) got 21.  Former governor Martin O’Malley (D-MD) got no delegates but he did finish ahead of “other” and “uncommitted” in the voting.  Out of 2,382 delegates needed to get the nomination, the “winner” got about one percent of the total needed.

(Time out number two:  Out of the roughly 314 million citizens of the United States, these fifteen people are the best our nation has to offer?  No offense to any one of the candidates that have put themselves out there to run (well, maybe offense to two or three of them), but whoever ends up being the two nominees do not to me look like the best that we can do.)

One thing is clear, the economy of Iowa benefits from hosting the first test of the candidates among the voters.  I am not so sure the rest of us get much benefit from it.

The real impact of the caucus is the psychological aspects of winning or losing.  Especially this year. Given the number and variety of candidates running, many voters are undecided and more importantly to the candidates, many major donors have been sitting out this cycle waiting to see who is a viable candidate with a shot at winning, you know, the real election.  Additionally, some candidates found out that they have no realistic shot.  (Farewell Governor Huckabee, Governor O’Malley, and Senator Paul. All “suspended” their campaigns after Iowa.)

The rules of the Iowa caucus, for both Democrats and Republicans are a bit arcane.  I won’t go into them here, but even as one may argue that Iowa does not represent the country as a whole with respect to race, ethnicity, socio-economic factors, etc. it is also difficult to participate in the caucus. None-the-less, it is what it is and it does provide a chance to start narrowing the field.

Up next, New Hampshire.  While that state also may not reflect the make up of the rest of the population of this great nation, at least the good citizens of the Granite State cast a real ballot at a polling booth. What makes New Hampshire interesting is that independents can vote in either the Republican or the Democrat primary (but not both).  Expect more Republican candidates to suspend their campaigns after New Hampshire, especially those that only paid lip service to the Iowa caucus and put most of their effort into New Hampshire and still make a poor showing.

That said, I am not in the prognosticating business so I will not venture a guess as to who decides to retire from the field. I also am sure that we will still have a large field for a few more weeks.  At a minimum, however, it should start to reveal who has a realistic shot at being their party’s nominee.

Perhaps by early March, we can send out the clowns.