Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. Senate

The Myth of Political Wave Elections

In today’s Politico Magazine, crack “Crystal Ball” poly sci professor Larry Sabato breaks down the chances that this year’s midterm elections will be a Republican wave that will allow them to take the Senate away from the Democrats. Sabato’s analysis of each of the dozen or so Senate races that will decide this question is on target. But I have a problem with the way he and just about everyone else in the political punditry business tends to speak about congressional elections from a purely national frame of reference. Sabato accurately discusses the various local quirks to each of these state races. But his chart summarizing these contests classifies the possible outcomes in terms of what kind of wave will develop in November.

The various results run the gamut from the “calm seas” that Democrats hope for (in which no seats change hands), “ripples,” “small breakers,” and “sea wall holds” (in which the GOP gains seats but not enough to form a Senate majority), to outcomes that Republicans would like such as “sea wall breached,” “gale force white caps,” “tropical storm wave,” “tidal wave,” and “full tsunami” (in which they take back the Senate). It’s all good fun to play this game and is probably as good a way as any to make sense of an election that is, in fact, more than a dozen different elections. But that’s the problem with these reductive analyses. As much as it makes it easier to understand midterm elections to think of the verdict of the voters of all these states as being part of one comprehensive and easily understood narrative of Democratic or Republican victory, the truth is always going to be a lot murkier than that.

Whether the Republicans get their hoped for “tsunami” or the Democrats sail happily along in “calm seas,” what will happen this November will actually be the product of a host of differing and often contradictory narratives that can only be cobbled together into one story after the fact. While one party or the other may emerge triumphant this year, and perhaps spectacularly so, the notion that this will be the product of a genuine national wave is a myth.

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In today’s Politico Magazine, crack “Crystal Ball” poly sci professor Larry Sabato breaks down the chances that this year’s midterm elections will be a Republican wave that will allow them to take the Senate away from the Democrats. Sabato’s analysis of each of the dozen or so Senate races that will decide this question is on target. But I have a problem with the way he and just about everyone else in the political punditry business tends to speak about congressional elections from a purely national frame of reference. Sabato accurately discusses the various local quirks to each of these state races. But his chart summarizing these contests classifies the possible outcomes in terms of what kind of wave will develop in November.

The various results run the gamut from the “calm seas” that Democrats hope for (in which no seats change hands), “ripples,” “small breakers,” and “sea wall holds” (in which the GOP gains seats but not enough to form a Senate majority), to outcomes that Republicans would like such as “sea wall breached,” “gale force white caps,” “tropical storm wave,” “tidal wave,” and “full tsunami” (in which they take back the Senate). It’s all good fun to play this game and is probably as good a way as any to make sense of an election that is, in fact, more than a dozen different elections. But that’s the problem with these reductive analyses. As much as it makes it easier to understand midterm elections to think of the verdict of the voters of all these states as being part of one comprehensive and easily understood narrative of Democratic or Republican victory, the truth is always going to be a lot murkier than that.

Whether the Republicans get their hoped for “tsunami” or the Democrats sail happily along in “calm seas,” what will happen this November will actually be the product of a host of differing and often contradictory narratives that can only be cobbled together into one story after the fact. While one party or the other may emerge triumphant this year, and perhaps spectacularly so, the notion that this will be the product of a genuine national wave is a myth.

The assumption in all wave analysis projections is that the voters in the various states where competitive Senate seats are being contested are going to tell us something about the way national issues are influencing them. Thus, pundits read the polls and the tea leaves to ponder the impact of the unpopularity of ObamaCare, the sluggish economy, as well as whether Democratic themes about the faux “war on women” and misleading rhetoric about “income inequality” are going to be decisive factors. We also assume that the president’s own declining poll numbers and the public’s answer to the generic poll question about the direction of the country will be high or low enough to determine how rough the seas will be for members of his party.

It would be foolish to assume that any or all of these national factors are not going to influence the number of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate next year. It would be equally wrongheaded to think that the relative enthusiasm of the bases of the two parties—a factor that is determined largely by national rather than local concerns—will not help determine the outcome. But when discussing the most competitive Senate races, the more one looks at them individually, the easier it is to see that they each one is almost certainly going to be decided by factors that have little to do with national trends and everything to do with the particular circumstances and candidates in the individual state.

Take Arkansas, for instance. It is a deep-red state where Obama, ObamaCare, and the Democrats’ whole litany of issues are unpopular. The Republicans also have an able and popular Senate candidate in Rep. Tom Cotton, who has the added distinction of being a war veteran. But nonetheless Senator Mark Pryor is still ahead in the polls. Though Sabato wisely discounts the most recent poll that showed Pryor with a double-digit edge, it’s still obvious that the incumbent’s ability to play to the center is keeping him in the hunt.

In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu should also be on life support but is staying in the race through traditional patronage tactics and voter familiarity with her family brand (a factor that also helps Pryor).

In Alaska, Mark Begich won in 2008 on a fluke that was the product of an unjust federal prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens. But he’s got an even chance in that profoundly conservative state because of the local quirks of politics there in which independent-minded voters often overcome national trends.

The same is true of a number of other states where the relative strengths of the individual candidates will tell us more about who will win than poll numbers about ObamaCare or the president.

In the end, all these local factors may break one way or the other and we’ll call it a wave election. But don’t be deceived. It’s a rare midterm that is truly decided by national factors. Even those midterms that produced a one-sided outcome, such as the GOP’s 2010 Tea Party wave, the Democrat’s 2006 anti-Iraq war wave, or the 1994 Newt Gingrich Republican revolution wave, were bolstered by a flock of one-off outcomes that were less about the big issues we all focused on and more about local scandals or problems. Like all political science terminology, which seeks to create systems and patterns that can be applied across the board, these waves are all individual events that cannot be repeated. As the late Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” The quicker we grasp that fact, the better our understanding of the midterms will be.

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King Shows Dems’ Senate Hopes Fading

Since his election as a nominal independent in 2012, Maine Senator Angus King has been a reliable vote for the Democrats, with whom he has chosen to caucus. Considering that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actively worked for the former governor and against the nominal candidate from its own party, King’s independence seemed to be more a figure of speech than an actual political stance. But with Democratic control of the Senate very much in question this November, it turns out Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t depend on him as much as perhaps he thought he could. As The Hill reports, King is now making it clear that his vote will be very much up for grabs in January when the next Congress meets and that he will go with whichever party is in the majority.

The best indication that King is beginning to shore up his ties with the GOP Senate caucus came yesterday when he was the only member of the Senate to cross party lines on the vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. The vote on the bill was a Democratic ploy intended to embarrass GOP senators who could be depicted as voting against gender equality. The legislation did nothing to correct inequities that existing laws don’t already account for and its substance was largely a gift to trial lawyers, a key element in Democratic fundraising. But King wouldn’t play along and voted no along with all of the GOP senators (Reid also voted no as a procedural tactic so he could resurrect the bill at some point in the future). While no one should assume that King is turning his coat before he has to, his decision to defy the Democrats on this issue was perhaps a declaration of real independence from the party with which he has associated himself since taking office. More than anything it is a sign that the proverbial rats are leaving the Democrats’ Senate ship before it sinks.

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Since his election as a nominal independent in 2012, Maine Senator Angus King has been a reliable vote for the Democrats, with whom he has chosen to caucus. Considering that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actively worked for the former governor and against the nominal candidate from its own party, King’s independence seemed to be more a figure of speech than an actual political stance. But with Democratic control of the Senate very much in question this November, it turns out Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t depend on him as much as perhaps he thought he could. As The Hill reports, King is now making it clear that his vote will be very much up for grabs in January when the next Congress meets and that he will go with whichever party is in the majority.

The best indication that King is beginning to shore up his ties with the GOP Senate caucus came yesterday when he was the only member of the Senate to cross party lines on the vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. The vote on the bill was a Democratic ploy intended to embarrass GOP senators who could be depicted as voting against gender equality. The legislation did nothing to correct inequities that existing laws don’t already account for and its substance was largely a gift to trial lawyers, a key element in Democratic fundraising. But King wouldn’t play along and voted no along with all of the GOP senators (Reid also voted no as a procedural tactic so he could resurrect the bill at some point in the future). While no one should assume that King is turning his coat before he has to, his decision to defy the Democrats on this issue was perhaps a declaration of real independence from the party with which he has associated himself since taking office. More than anything it is a sign that the proverbial rats are leaving the Democrats’ Senate ship before it sinks.

That King is primarily in business for himself is not in question. Though he described any move he makes as being in the interests of his state, it should be taken as a given that his desk will be on the side of the Senate chamber where the majority sits regardless of who wins the midterms. That means that if the Democrats somehow hold onto their majority even by the most slender of margins, he will stay put. But if the Republicans get the six seats they need for a 51-49 majority, it will almost certainly become 52-48 in their favor provided that they pay whatever price King demands in terms of committee assignments and anything else he can think of.

But what would really be interesting is if the GOP only gains 5 seats and the midterms produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Up until now, the assumption has been that would leave Reid as majority leader since Vice President Biden would cast the deciding vote in favor of the Democrats when the Senate organizes in January. But such a result would also give King the opportunity to bargain with both sides. The competition for his services would be as unseemly as it would be costly. But given the cynical way he has approached the question of his party affiliation, who can doubt that the bidding will produce a wild auction with King the big winner?

If one takes into account the possibility that the close race in Louisiana where Democrat Mary Landrieu is in trouble may lead to a runoff in December if neither the incumbent nor her Republican challenger gets 50 percent of the vote, the there’s a good chance we won’t know who will be running the Senate until weeks after election day. But the fact that King is already sending signals that he will put himself up for auction is a very bad sign for the Democrats who have been counting on him.

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Note to Senate Democrats: We’ve Already Heard About Climate Change

Conservatives who avoid MSNBC like the plague missed a rare moment of clarity about our political culture this morning when his liberal partner Mika Brzezinksi fed Joe Scarborough one of the great straight lines of all time. While discussing last night’s Senate Democrats’ all-night talkathon devoted to climate change, Mika praised it by saying how glad she was that, “they’re trying to have a conversation.” That allowed the man who sometimes plays the role of the network’s token Republican while at others is its resident GOP critic of conservatives, to launch into a comic rant mocking both Brzezinski’s platitudes and the Democrats’ stunt.

Hollywood won’t talk about climate change. The media won’t talk about climate Nobody will talk about climate change. Thank God. Thank God, these brave Democratic senators are risking the wrath of the mainstream media and the Hollywood elites to talk about climate change …Damn the New York Times! They will not talk about climate change. It’s up to these men and women. This is 2014’s version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Scarborough’s sarcasm was, of course, right on target. No matter what you think about the question of human involvement in possible shifts in global temperatures, the idea that it was up to a few dozen Senate Democrats to get the issue on the national agenda is a joke. The mainstream media has spent the last decade or more highlighting the topic at every possible moment and treating the most extreme conclusions produced by alarmist environmentalists as unquestioned truth while popular culture has embraced the global warming agenda with a religious fervor that brooks no dissent.

The problem the Democrats were addressing was not a lack of information about the subject but the fact that while a majority may believe humans are involved with warming, they are either skeptical of the extremists’ claims or don’t care that much about it. That was one of the main conclusions to be drawn from a Pew Research Center poll published in January that showed that global warming ranked 19th on the list of top policy priorities for Americans. Indeed, even the amorphous concern about “dealing with moral breakdown” ranked higher than warming, which was embraced by only 29 percent of those polled as something that demanded immediate action. A separate NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out the same week in January showed that addressing climate change ranked dead last among the 13 topics listed with only 27 percent saying it was a priority.

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Conservatives who avoid MSNBC like the plague missed a rare moment of clarity about our political culture this morning when his liberal partner Mika Brzezinksi fed Joe Scarborough one of the great straight lines of all time. While discussing last night’s Senate Democrats’ all-night talkathon devoted to climate change, Mika praised it by saying how glad she was that, “they’re trying to have a conversation.” That allowed the man who sometimes plays the role of the network’s token Republican while at others is its resident GOP critic of conservatives, to launch into a comic rant mocking both Brzezinski’s platitudes and the Democrats’ stunt.

Hollywood won’t talk about climate change. The media won’t talk about climate Nobody will talk about climate change. Thank God. Thank God, these brave Democratic senators are risking the wrath of the mainstream media and the Hollywood elites to talk about climate change …Damn the New York Times! They will not talk about climate change. It’s up to these men and women. This is 2014’s version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Scarborough’s sarcasm was, of course, right on target. No matter what you think about the question of human involvement in possible shifts in global temperatures, the idea that it was up to a few dozen Senate Democrats to get the issue on the national agenda is a joke. The mainstream media has spent the last decade or more highlighting the topic at every possible moment and treating the most extreme conclusions produced by alarmist environmentalists as unquestioned truth while popular culture has embraced the global warming agenda with a religious fervor that brooks no dissent.

The problem the Democrats were addressing was not a lack of information about the subject but the fact that while a majority may believe humans are involved with warming, they are either skeptical of the extremists’ claims or don’t care that much about it. That was one of the main conclusions to be drawn from a Pew Research Center poll published in January that showed that global warming ranked 19th on the list of top policy priorities for Americans. Indeed, even the amorphous concern about “dealing with moral breakdown” ranked higher than warming, which was embraced by only 29 percent of those polled as something that demanded immediate action. A separate NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out the same week in January showed that addressing climate change ranked dead last among the 13 topics listed with only 27 percent saying it was a priority.

Why do Americans feel that way? Perhaps its because, as Scarborough noted, they’ve been having the Al Gore party line about the world on the verge of melting incessantly drilled into them for a decade and, even if they agree about the role of human activity, are sensibly skeptical about claims about Florida and Manhattan being under water in 20 years. Perhaps they also find a scientific theory championed by advocates who are unwilling to debate their findings and hell bent on silencing critics as members of the Flat Earth Society or worse to be somewhat suspicious. They also don’t like the fact that the discussion about the topic has taken on a theological rather than a scientific tone in which every conceivable weather event involving heat, cold, wind or precipitation is used to justify a preconceived conclusion about the climate that brooks no opposition rooted in reason or statistics.

Many also understand that some of the most popular measures associated with the climate change caucus would have a devastating impact on the American economy, particularly in states where coal is a major source of employment. Just as important, they have understandably come to associate this movement with Luddite objections to sensible projects like the Keystone XL pipeline that don’t hurt the environment but produce jobs and more energy to allow this country to become less dependent on oil from outside North America. That’s why the most Democratic senators up for re-election this year — Alaska’s Mark Begich, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan — wanted no part of the show.

It should also be noted that the hours of talk and carefully prepared visual aids were unrelated to any upcoming legislative purpose. In other words, what the Democrat were doing was playing to their base without having to defend a specific proposal or to pretend that what they were about wouldn’t cost Americans dearly in exchange for vague and unproven promises about their future.

But whatever it is that they were doing, the most risible aspect of this spectacle was the notion that it was needed to raise awareness about climate change. As Scarborough’s sarcastic rant made clear, there are few topics on which Americans have heard more in recent years than this one. Their children are inculcated with the global warming catechism in schools. Their movies, plays and television shows are also peppered with references to what is considered right thinking on the issue and abuse for those who dissent.

Americans are smart enough to know that whatever might be slowing happening to the climate, it is a far less pressing matter than issues relating to the health of our economy, jobs, terrorism, education, ensuring the survival of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, the budget deficit, health care, taxes and crime (to note the top 10 in the Pew poll).

If Senate Democrats want to devote their energies to something useful, they might try their hand at working just as hard on those issues (on most of which they have done nothing as part of their main task of thwarting all legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives) rather than pulling an all-nighter to talk nonstop about an issue that Americans have had shoved down their throats for years.

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Senate Auguries Get Worse for the Dems

Charlie Cook, a greatly respected election analyst, has some very bad news for Democrats.

No matter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Republicans appear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cataclysmic event for Democrats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the majority.

What’s changed is that Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in the Senate are looking increasingly tenuous. There are now at least 10, and potentially as many as 13, Democratic-held seats in jeopardy. By contrast, only two GOP seats are in any meaningful danger, and that number hasn’t changed in six months.

Larry Sabato, equally respected, is not much more upbeat:

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate is where the action is this year in American politics. Right now all signs point to a near standoff in the U.S. House elections. Barring a major change in the political environment in the next few months, the 114th House is expected to closely resemble the 113th House with a slightly larger or slightly smaller Republican majority. In contrast, party control of the next Senate is definitely up for grabs this year.

Part of the reasons for the Democrats’ peril is the fact that President Obama is increasingly unpopular, that the economy is mediocre at best, and ObamaCare is deeply disliked. That’s bad enough. But also, midterm elections in a president’s sixth year are almost always bad news for the party of the president. Only in 1998 did the president’s party gain seats in the House in a sixth-year midterm.  But the Democrats did not gain any Senate seats that year.

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Charlie Cook, a greatly respected election analyst, has some very bad news for Democrats.

No matter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Republicans appear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cataclysmic event for Democrats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the majority.

What’s changed is that Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in the Senate are looking increasingly tenuous. There are now at least 10, and potentially as many as 13, Democratic-held seats in jeopardy. By contrast, only two GOP seats are in any meaningful danger, and that number hasn’t changed in six months.

Larry Sabato, equally respected, is not much more upbeat:

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate is where the action is this year in American politics. Right now all signs point to a near standoff in the U.S. House elections. Barring a major change in the political environment in the next few months, the 114th House is expected to closely resemble the 113th House with a slightly larger or slightly smaller Republican majority. In contrast, party control of the next Senate is definitely up for grabs this year.

Part of the reasons for the Democrats’ peril is the fact that President Obama is increasingly unpopular, that the economy is mediocre at best, and ObamaCare is deeply disliked. That’s bad enough. But also, midterm elections in a president’s sixth year are almost always bad news for the party of the president. Only in 1998 did the president’s party gain seats in the House in a sixth-year midterm.  But the Democrats did not gain any Senate seats that year.

Also, the Democrats did very well in the 2008 Senate elections, when Barack Obama had significant coattails. The Democrats won 20 of the 35 seats up for grabs that year. And whenever a party does exceptionally well in the Senate in one election, it tends to do very badly six years later. Partly that is because weak candidates who were carried on the wave usually lose as the electorate reverts to normal. In 1938, six years after FDR’s triumph in 1932, the Democrats lost 7 Senate seats. In 1986, six years after Reagan’s landslide, when the Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years, the Republicans lost 5 seats (and control of the Senate).

It is, of course, way too early for the Republicans to be opening the champagne. Some dramatic event might change the electoral map. The Republicans, as they are all too often wont to do, might nominate unelectable candidates and throw away what now look like certain pickups, as they did in Indiana and Missouri in 2012.

But right now, the auguries are grim for the Democrats in the Senate.

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Obama Can’t Help Dems Keep Senate

President Obama understands the stakes in the midterm elections all too well. If Republicans take back the Senate in November that will give them a stranglehold on both Houses of Congress and ensure that the president will get nothing passed in his final two years in office. If the talk about the president being a lame duck hasn’t already begun, such a result would ensure him being consigned to irrelevance for the remainder of his term. While the GOP missed chances to win seats in the last two election cycles, 2014 offers them a golden opportunity with the Democrats defending 21 seats (including five in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012) to only 14 for their opponents.

But rather than sit back and wait to see if vulnerable red-state Democrats up for reelection can survive, the administration has decided to send in the cavalry. As Politico reports, the White House is consciously seeking to promote initiatives designed to help Democrats win over wavering moderates as well as mobilize the liberal base. But this plan, which reportedly includes more consultations with embattled Democratic incumbents, is a mistake. While the Democrats understand that they must somehow divert attention from problems with ObamaCare and focus voters on their income inequality agenda that polls far better than the president’s disastrously unpopular health-care law, their instincts here run counter to the best interests of some of their candidates. The last thing Democrats in places like North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, or Alaska need is an attempt to nationalize an election. If they have any hope of holding onto their majority in the Senate it lies in keeping the president and his agenda out of their states.

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President Obama understands the stakes in the midterm elections all too well. If Republicans take back the Senate in November that will give them a stranglehold on both Houses of Congress and ensure that the president will get nothing passed in his final two years in office. If the talk about the president being a lame duck hasn’t already begun, such a result would ensure him being consigned to irrelevance for the remainder of his term. While the GOP missed chances to win seats in the last two election cycles, 2014 offers them a golden opportunity with the Democrats defending 21 seats (including five in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012) to only 14 for their opponents.

But rather than sit back and wait to see if vulnerable red-state Democrats up for reelection can survive, the administration has decided to send in the cavalry. As Politico reports, the White House is consciously seeking to promote initiatives designed to help Democrats win over wavering moderates as well as mobilize the liberal base. But this plan, which reportedly includes more consultations with embattled Democratic incumbents, is a mistake. While the Democrats understand that they must somehow divert attention from problems with ObamaCare and focus voters on their income inequality agenda that polls far better than the president’s disastrously unpopular health-care law, their instincts here run counter to the best interests of some of their candidates. The last thing Democrats in places like North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, or Alaska need is an attempt to nationalize an election. If they have any hope of holding onto their majority in the Senate it lies in keeping the president and his agenda out of their states.

The White House is right that even in red states Democrats often prosper by playing the populist card on big business and abuse of the poor. Obama’s proposals for increasing the minimum wage and lengthening unemployment benefits may be economic snake oil, but they poll well everywhere. But the last thing Senators like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, or Arkansas’s Mark Prior need is for Obama or his agenda to become part of this year’s election narrative. To the contrary, their main hope rests on keeping the president out of their states and putting the focus on divisions within the Republican Party.

The only reason Harry Reid is still the Senate Majority Leader is that in 2010 and 2012, Republicans found themselves saddled with poor candidates in crucial races that turned almost certain victories into defeats. Democrats can’t count on the second coming of such godsends as Sharon Angle in Nevada (who let a vulnerable Reid off the hook), the wacky Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, or the unfortunate Todd Akin in Missouri (whose dreadful gaffe about abortion and rape tarnished every Republican in the country). But their goal has to be to keep the public’s attention on conflicts within the GOP and demonizing Tea Party activists who form a crucial part of the conservative base.

As Politico notes, the president is key to fundraising efforts for Democratic Senate candidates but some of those benefitting from his skill in bringing out liberal donors want to keep him at a distance. For instance, Hagan won’t be anywhere near Obama when he campaigns in North Carolina this week for his economic agenda. She understands, as do many other Democrats facing the voters this year, that sympathy for the working class and the poor doesn’t necessarily translate into affection for a president with negative poll ratings. As recent polls show, Hagen has her hands full in a race in which she currently trails every one of her possible Republican opponents.

With the president set to rally his troops behind his effort to revitalize a disastrous second term with a shift to the left, the temptation to try to nationalize the election this year may be irresistible to the White House’s political operation. But without a popular president on the ballot this year and with an off-year turnout likely to see many of his supporters staying home this November, they would be wise to avoid injecting Obama into the already difficult battles Democrats face in red states. Having largely ignored the needs of Democrats in both the House and the Senate during his first five years, the president may think more attention paid to their races will help keep him relevant in 2015 and 2016. But if he is to have any chance of holding onto the Senate, he should stay out of races where he is more of a burden to his party than an asset.

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Why the Iran Sanctions Fight Matters

President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

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President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

The argument against the new sanctions bill is that any new legislation will be seen by the Iranians as evidence of the U.S. “breaking faith” with them and give them an excuse to end the negotiations. By speaking in this manner, the White House and Senate supporters aren’t just taking the Iranians at their word since regime figures have been making such threats ever since Secretary of State John Kerry signed a deal with them on November 24. They are acting, as the president and Kerry did throughout the negotiations, as if the U.S. is the suitor in these negotiations and that Tehran is the party with the whip hand.

If the goal of the talks is to use the formidable military and economic leverage of the United States over Iran to force it to finally comply with American demands and United Nations resolutions and cease its refinement of uranium and to give up (as the president explicitly said during his October 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney) its nuclear program, then it is hard to understand this line of thought. It is not just that it reflects an otherwise inexplicable defeatism about the dispute, but that it seems to indicate that the real objective is not the dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure but something else.

Despite the lip service they have paid to the importance of sanctions, the administration’s stance indicates a belief that they do not–indeed, cannot–work to influence Iran’s decision-making. And since, contrary to some of their statements, this administration does not contemplate ever using force to stop Iran, what they intend here is not so much Iranian nuclear compliance as an accommodation that will somehow end U.S.-Iran tensions. Seen in that context, the last thing they want is to actually heighten the pressure on Iran, even if their current negotiations don’t get us closer to the goal of ending the nuclear threat.

Under these circumstances, one doesn’t have to use much imagination to see what they might be contemplating is a negotiating process that does not so much resolve the nuclear question as kick it down the road while further loosening sanctions so as to lower tensions between the two countries. The negotiations then become not so much a way of persuading Iran to give up its cherished nuclear dream as easing the way for Americans to come to terms with containing a nuclear Iran.

Administration supporters will dispute this and claim the president can still be counted on to keep his word on Iran. They believe the honey being offered by Kerry will do more to entice Iran to stop misbehaving than threats or sanctions. But in order to buy into this thesis, we have to forget everything we’ve learned about Iranian negotiating tactics and goals in the last 30 years.

This is, after all, an administration that actually opposed the existing sanctions that it now boasts have helped revive diplomacy. But what Obama and Kerry seem to be pushing for is a policy that values diplomacy for its own sake rather than as a means to stop a nuclear Iran.

Since the opposition of Reid and the threat of a veto is probably enough to stop more sanctions, we will probably have a chance to see whether Obama’s diplomatic strategy works. But if six, nine, or twelve months from now the West is still locked in dead-end talks while Tehran’s centrifuges continue to turn and bring Iran closer to a weapon, we may look back on what is being billed as a tactical dispute between some senators and the White House as the moment when the president’s abandonment of his promises on Iran first became obvious.

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Can Washington Get Worse? You Bet it Will.

The main justification put forward by Democrats defending their decision to blow up the Senate rules and end filibusters on Cabinet and judicial nominations is that things are so bad now, they can’t get worse. That’s the spin President Obama put on the situation yesterday as he took a rare turn in the White House press room to spike the football after Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through the measure he hopes will allow him to pack the federal courts with liberals. This idea is integral to the president’s argument that Republican obstructionism has made it impossible for him to govern. Even on topics where Republican input has been nil such as the ObamaCare rollout, Democrats have stuck to this theme blaming Republicans for stirring up dissent against their unpopular dysfunctional legislation even as most Americans have focused on the president’s broken promises and a dysfunctional website.

There’s no denying that partisanship is nastier in Congress than it once was. But if President Obama and Reid think it can’t get worse, they’re kidding themselves. For all of the bitter combat that has been carried on in just the last year over the budget, ObamaCare, the shutdown, and the various administration scandals, the business of government has largely proceeded unhindered. Many nominations have been approved, bipartisan legislation passed, and the unanimous consent to keep the upper body functioning has almost always been there. But now that Reed has pushed the plunger on the so-called nuclear option, all bets are off. The 45 Senate Republicans may no longer have the power to block the president’s appointments on their own, but Senate procedures still give them plenty of latitude to put holds on legislation. Not only will Reed find it even harder to do his job now that he has broken faith with his opponents and sought to squelch dissent, he and the president may also discover that the benefits of their decision will not be as great as they think.

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The main justification put forward by Democrats defending their decision to blow up the Senate rules and end filibusters on Cabinet and judicial nominations is that things are so bad now, they can’t get worse. That’s the spin President Obama put on the situation yesterday as he took a rare turn in the White House press room to spike the football after Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through the measure he hopes will allow him to pack the federal courts with liberals. This idea is integral to the president’s argument that Republican obstructionism has made it impossible for him to govern. Even on topics where Republican input has been nil such as the ObamaCare rollout, Democrats have stuck to this theme blaming Republicans for stirring up dissent against their unpopular dysfunctional legislation even as most Americans have focused on the president’s broken promises and a dysfunctional website.

There’s no denying that partisanship is nastier in Congress than it once was. But if President Obama and Reid think it can’t get worse, they’re kidding themselves. For all of the bitter combat that has been carried on in just the last year over the budget, ObamaCare, the shutdown, and the various administration scandals, the business of government has largely proceeded unhindered. Many nominations have been approved, bipartisan legislation passed, and the unanimous consent to keep the upper body functioning has almost always been there. But now that Reed has pushed the plunger on the so-called nuclear option, all bets are off. The 45 Senate Republicans may no longer have the power to block the president’s appointments on their own, but Senate procedures still give them plenty of latitude to put holds on legislation. Not only will Reed find it even harder to do his job now that he has broken faith with his opponents and sought to squelch dissent, he and the president may also discover that the benefits of their decision will not be as great as they think.

On the surface, it would seem that the president now has carte blanche to do what he has longed to accomplish since moving into the White House: fundamentally alter the balance of the federal courts by packing federal district and appeals courts with the kind of hard-core ideological liberals that were being blocked by filibusters. He may well attempt to do that in the coming 12 months before the midterm elections give the GOP an opportunity to win back the Senate. But those who assume this will now become as easy as pie have forgotten about what will be uppermost on the minds of the several red-state Democrats who face uphill reelection fights next year.

As Josh Gerstein points out in Politico, the roster of potential liberal judges is filled by the ranks of left-wing jurists and lawyers that had little chance of getting the 60 votes they needed under the old rules. But getting to 51 votes may not be so easy for these liberals when you consider that many of the Democrats the president is counting on won’t want to hand their Republican opponents new talking points by rubber-stamping ideological judges. While some may get through, any controversial nominee will find themselves being thrown under the bus by moderate Democrats who can no longer count on the GOP or the filibuster rules to save them from a vote they’d rather not take.

But that’s just the most obvious fallout from Reed’s move. Just as important is the way the rules change will now make it impossible for bipartisan coalitions to be assembled. The Senate has become more like the House in recent years as firebrand newcomers on both sides of the aisle have replaced old warhorses. But as we saw with immigration reform this year, for all the bitterness in D.C., enough conservatives and liberals were still able to work together to get a bill passed in the Senate. But after the president’s scorched-earth approach to the shutdown and the nuclear option being employed, you can forget about anything like that happening again in the foreseeable future. This will alter the nature of the Senate far more than anything we have seen before. The Tea Party had made it tough for Republicans to work with Democrats in the last three years. But the president has now ensured that even those inclined to ignore them will also refuse to play ball.

The Democrats’ mindset is based on an assumption that when the Republicans got control of the Senate again, whether in 2015 or at some later date, they would have employed the nuclear option as they threatened to do first in 2005 when Democrats were defending the filibuster. At this point, there’s no longer any way of knowing whether that would have happened even if the Democrats hadn’t struck first. Up until this point, it’s doubtful that we’ve ever had a Senate majority leader so incapable of working with the minority as Reid has shown himself to be. Perhaps Mitch McConnell or his successor would have wound up doing the same, but since the Republicans always backed away from pushing the button on the filibuster that question is now in the realm of counter-factual fiction, not serious analysis. But what we do know now is that it is highly unlikely that the GOP will refrain from playing just as rough in the future when it is their turn to control the Senate.

That’s why Democrats do well to avoid celebrations of their move. The benefits from it to President Obama will be minimal. But the costs in terms of dysfunction and the certainty of even worse political warfare to come are considerable. 

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Hypocritical Dems Think They’ll Always Rule

Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid took the first steps toward altering the nature of the Senate. Reid and his Democratic caucus intend to alter the rules so as to prevent filibusters of cabinet appointees and nominees to the federal bench save for the U.S. Supreme Court. Having come this far it is assumed that Reid finally has amassed enough votes to ram through changes in the upper body’s time-honored rules and allow President Obama to pack the Court of Appeals with as many liberals as he likes. He claims they are acting in the name of civility and the need to keep the government working, but there should be no doubt that what is going on here is a hypocritical grab for power that should be stopped.

That was, after all, the opinion of the New York Times editorial page on March 6, 2005 when Senate Republicans first mooted what we now call the “nuclear option” in order to stop Democrats from filibustering President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Going back to that piece would make for instructive reading for self-righteous liberals today who claim that what Republicans have done in blocking liberal judicial nominees is unprecedented. This is what the Times had to say in response to Republican frustrations about the Democratic minority in the Senate using the rules to obstruct the appointment of conservatives to the bench:

The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House’s judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. Republicans and Democrats should tone down their rhetoric, then sit down and negotiate.

To block the nominees, the Democrats’ weapon of choice has been the filibuster, a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod. Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton’s choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.

The Senate does much of its work by unanimous consent, which keeps things moving along and prevents ordinary day-to-day business from drowning in procedural votes. But if Republicans change the filibuster rules, Democrats could respond by ignoring the tradition of unanimous consent and making it difficult if not impossible to get anything done. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that “the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell.”

There is one way to avert a showdown. The White House should meet with Senate leaders of both parties and come up with a list of nominees who will not be filibustered. This means that Mr. Bush – like Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush before him – would agree to submit nominees from the broad mainstream of legal thought, with a commitment to judging cases, not promoting a political agenda.

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Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid took the first steps toward altering the nature of the Senate. Reid and his Democratic caucus intend to alter the rules so as to prevent filibusters of cabinet appointees and nominees to the federal bench save for the U.S. Supreme Court. Having come this far it is assumed that Reid finally has amassed enough votes to ram through changes in the upper body’s time-honored rules and allow President Obama to pack the Court of Appeals with as many liberals as he likes. He claims they are acting in the name of civility and the need to keep the government working, but there should be no doubt that what is going on here is a hypocritical grab for power that should be stopped.

That was, after all, the opinion of the New York Times editorial page on March 6, 2005 when Senate Republicans first mooted what we now call the “nuclear option” in order to stop Democrats from filibustering President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Going back to that piece would make for instructive reading for self-righteous liberals today who claim that what Republicans have done in blocking liberal judicial nominees is unprecedented. This is what the Times had to say in response to Republican frustrations about the Democratic minority in the Senate using the rules to obstruct the appointment of conservatives to the bench:

The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House’s judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. Republicans and Democrats should tone down their rhetoric, then sit down and negotiate.

To block the nominees, the Democrats’ weapon of choice has been the filibuster, a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod. Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton’s choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.

The Senate does much of its work by unanimous consent, which keeps things moving along and prevents ordinary day-to-day business from drowning in procedural votes. But if Republicans change the filibuster rules, Democrats could respond by ignoring the tradition of unanimous consent and making it difficult if not impossible to get anything done. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that “the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell.”

There is one way to avert a showdown. The White House should meet with Senate leaders of both parties and come up with a list of nominees who will not be filibustered. This means that Mr. Bush – like Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush before him – would agree to submit nominees from the broad mainstream of legal thought, with a commitment to judging cases, not promoting a political agenda.

Of course, once Democrats won back the Senate in 2006, the Times changed its tune and hypocritically denounced filibusters as a threat to democracy. But that’s whole problem with Reid’s decision. As I wrote back in July, Reid’s plan was to stage a series of votes on liberal nominees that he knew could not inspire bipartisan support. That has given him the ability to rally his caucus behind the move to end filibusters on all but Supreme Court appointments. But, as the Times pointed out in 2005, what the Republicans are doing now is no different from what both parties have done in the past.

It is true that the use of the filibuster has expanded in recent decades and that has not always been for the good of the country. But the filibuster rules exist to prevent narrow Senate majorities from ramming through any legislation or appointment they like without listening to the opinions of the minority. Having to do that can be infuriating for presidents and Senate majorities but such consensus is, as perhaps President Obama should have learned from his health-care debacle, useful and even necessary for making government work effectively. The Founders didn’t create the Senate to rubber stamp the desires of presidents and majorities but to act as a check on their impulses. If President Obama and Reid want to get more judges confirmed, they can do as their predecessors have done and try to work with the other party rather than just maneuver to impose their ideological agenda on the country. Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of Democrats, Republicans have allowed more than 200 of the president’s judicial nominees to be confirmed. That’s why the fight Reid has staged on the filibuster is a ruse designed to justify a naked putsch for total power.

Democrats should pull back from the brink for the same reason both parties have refrained from going nuclear: no majority lasts forever. A few years ago the GOP was inveighing against filibusters and Democrats spoke up for the rights of the minority. Today, the tables are turned. But though the president and Reid are acting as if their party will rule forever, it won’t. As Chris Cilizza points out in the Washington Post today, a lot of the current members of the Senate weren’t there in 2006, the last time Democrats were in the minority. But whether it is in 2015 or 2017 or another year, Republicans will win back the Senate some day. At that point, Democrats will once again discover the virtues of the filibuster. But, if Reid’s rule changes go through, they will rue the day they blew up the Senate.

Rather than making the government work better, as the Times predicted back in 2005, the nuclear option will only make political battles in Washington nastier and more divisive. Power grabs may work in the short run but those who try such gambits usually learn that the American political system encourages moderation and checks and balances. As such, Reid may get a taste of his own medicine sooner rather than later.

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Why Republicans Are Sniping at Cruz

Even if, like me, you don’t agree with Senator Ted Cruz’s belief that Republicans should go down in flames in a vain effort to defund ObamaCare, it’s hard not to sympathize with him over the way the Texas senator is being treated by some of his colleagues. The revelation by Fox News host Chris Wallace that he received opposition research and possible questions to be posed to Cruz in advance of an announced interview with him from the staffs of both Democrats and fellow Republican senators makes it clear just how disliked the freshman legislator has become in just nine months in office. Cruz’s response to this in which he said these senators feared anything that “changes the clubby way Washington does business” is undoubtedly true.

But while a lot of the antagonism currently being directed at Cruz can be attributed to the way he chooses not to play the traditional go-along-to-get-along Capitol Hill game, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as merely an effort by the Senate club to protect the dysfunctional culture of their institution. I actually like the way Cruz is willing to muss up his colleagues’ hair on routine as well controversial issues in an effort to shake up the Senate. But no matter where you come down on the question of which tactics the GOP should adopt in fighting the implementation of ObamaCare, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only thing Cruz has actually accomplished lately is to become the focus of an unprecedented amount of attention for a first-year legislator. If Republicans loathe and fear him it is also because they know the path that he would lead them down is one that has no possible conclusion but their political destruction while he is left standing blaming the debacle on their timidity rather than his foolhardiness. Refusing to be part of a failed system is a virtue. But in Cruz’s case it is one that may be overwhelmed by the egotism he is displaying in charting a path for his party that has no end game other than the political aggrandizement of the junior senator from Texas.

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Even if, like me, you don’t agree with Senator Ted Cruz’s belief that Republicans should go down in flames in a vain effort to defund ObamaCare, it’s hard not to sympathize with him over the way the Texas senator is being treated by some of his colleagues. The revelation by Fox News host Chris Wallace that he received opposition research and possible questions to be posed to Cruz in advance of an announced interview with him from the staffs of both Democrats and fellow Republican senators makes it clear just how disliked the freshman legislator has become in just nine months in office. Cruz’s response to this in which he said these senators feared anything that “changes the clubby way Washington does business” is undoubtedly true.

But while a lot of the antagonism currently being directed at Cruz can be attributed to the way he chooses not to play the traditional go-along-to-get-along Capitol Hill game, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as merely an effort by the Senate club to protect the dysfunctional culture of their institution. I actually like the way Cruz is willing to muss up his colleagues’ hair on routine as well controversial issues in an effort to shake up the Senate. But no matter where you come down on the question of which tactics the GOP should adopt in fighting the implementation of ObamaCare, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only thing Cruz has actually accomplished lately is to become the focus of an unprecedented amount of attention for a first-year legislator. If Republicans loathe and fear him it is also because they know the path that he would lead them down is one that has no possible conclusion but their political destruction while he is left standing blaming the debacle on their timidity rather than his foolhardiness. Refusing to be part of a failed system is a virtue. But in Cruz’s case it is one that may be overwhelmed by the egotism he is displaying in charting a path for his party that has no end game other than the political aggrandizement of the junior senator from Texas.

If Cruz were proposing to his fellow Republicans a strategy that had a prayer of accomplishing the goal of stopping ObamaCare or in any way discomfiting their Democratic antagonists, their resentment of his lack of concern for their sensibilities would be laughable. The Senate is always in need of a few members who don’t fear to step on their colleagues’ toes and Cruz’s disdain for the clubby nature of the institution is laudable. Indeed, it is exactly why Texans sent him to the Senate instead of some other Republican willing to become a member of the D.C. establishment.

But the problem is that there is no discernible endgame to his demand to refuse to fund the government if it means allowing ObamaCare to go forward that would give the GOP a chance of success. ObamaCare should be stopped, but so long as the White House and the Senate are both controlled by Democrats, that won’t happen. Republicans can’t make up for their failure to win the 2012 elections by a filibuster. The person who is really cheering for the GOP to be led by Cruz is President Obama. He knows that a government shutdown is the one way to save his presidency and doom the Republicans to defeat in 2014. A GOP-controlled Congress would have the leverage to start chipping away at the way the president’s signature health-care legislation erodes our liberties and expands the power of the government. But if Republicans listen to Cruz and make a Custer’s Last Stand on the issue now, they will lose that chance.

Moreover, the way Cruz has hogged the spotlight while denouncing everyone who doesn’t drink the suicide caucus’s Kool-Aid lends credence to the idea that what he is really about is making himself look good at the expense of more sensible conservatives. Playing the righteous prophet now might help bolster Cruz’s possible presidential candidacy in 2016 but it does nothing to really stop ObamaCare or to help the GOP take back the Senate.

Seen in that light, the desire of some Republicans to see Cruz taken down a notch or two must be seen as not only an act of spite but one aimed at averting their party’s destruction.

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Dem Filibuster Win Doesn’t Change Much

The aftermath of yesterday’s agreement to end Republican filibusters of several of President Obama’s nominees to federal posts is being widely interpreted as a severe defeat for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus. After holding up several appointments, the GOP conceded the confirmation of Richard Cordray as director of the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In exchange, the president withdrew his two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board that Republicans had challenged in court as being illegally put into office via bogus recess appointments, but immediately nominated replacements that will presumably not be filibustered. In exchange for this, Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew the threat of a “nuclear option” that would stop filibusters on presidential appointments, though not judicial nominations or ordinary legislation.

Taken in sum, McConnell’s critics are probably right to say this is a victory for the Democrats and a setback for the GOP caucus. But while the deal gives Reid a rare good day as well as helping the president pack the federal apparatus as he likes, the idea that this is a turning point in the struggle between the parties that will enable the president to successfully implement his second term agenda is an exaggeration at best. As much as the Republicans have been portrayed as a menace to the government, the ability of a minority—even Senate minorities—to obstruct a determined majority is not unlimited. Holding up nominations is the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare. Such tactics can annoy and wear down the opponent, but they won’t by themselves take down a president and no one in the Republican Party thought they could. Ending this particular standoff is merely one more round in an endless conflict in which the president and his Senate allies cannot claim more than a temporary small-scale victory.

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The aftermath of yesterday’s agreement to end Republican filibusters of several of President Obama’s nominees to federal posts is being widely interpreted as a severe defeat for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus. After holding up several appointments, the GOP conceded the confirmation of Richard Cordray as director of the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In exchange, the president withdrew his two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board that Republicans had challenged in court as being illegally put into office via bogus recess appointments, but immediately nominated replacements that will presumably not be filibustered. In exchange for this, Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew the threat of a “nuclear option” that would stop filibusters on presidential appointments, though not judicial nominations or ordinary legislation.

Taken in sum, McConnell’s critics are probably right to say this is a victory for the Democrats and a setback for the GOP caucus. But while the deal gives Reid a rare good day as well as helping the president pack the federal apparatus as he likes, the idea that this is a turning point in the struggle between the parties that will enable the president to successfully implement his second term agenda is an exaggeration at best. As much as the Republicans have been portrayed as a menace to the government, the ability of a minority—even Senate minorities—to obstruct a determined majority is not unlimited. Holding up nominations is the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare. Such tactics can annoy and wear down the opponent, but they won’t by themselves take down a president and no one in the Republican Party thought they could. Ending this particular standoff is merely one more round in an endless conflict in which the president and his Senate allies cannot claim more than a temporary small-scale victory.

McConnell may have taken Reid to the brink in this confrontation, but, as was the case when their positions were reversed only a few years ago, beyond a certain point the smaller caucus must always give in to some extent. The confirmation of an agency head that has actually already been in place for more than a year is not a substitute for a viable legislative program or a coherent policy. Nor can it be portrayed as anything more than a tactical triumph with little or no carry-over to the rest of the president’s fading agenda.

There are two reasons why Democrats have to crow about the deal as a seminal event.

One is the obvious fact that, after being consistently stymied by a wily minority, Reid’s bluffs about the “nuclear option” at least allowed him to say that he got the better of McConnell for at least one day. Such days don’t happen very often in the Senate, as even with 55 seats and few moderates in his caucus to thwart the liberals, Reid often finds himself unable to outmaneuver his counterpart and—despite the complaints of many conservatives—rarely is able to get many Republican votes on virtually any matter of consequence.

The other reason goes to the liberal misconception about what the Republicans are doing. The president and many in his party really do believe the goal of the GOP is to literally stop the government from functioning. Thus, anytime they are able to do anything, such as getting his nominee to lead an agency Republicans would like to abolish confirmed, they tell themselves that they have thwarted a primary aim of their opponents. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding both of the Republicans and of what they hope to accomplish.

Few Republicans really thought they could hold off Cordray indefinitely anymore than they can stop Obama from filling any post if the Democrats care enough about it to make it an issue. The point of the delay was to call attention to their opposition to the agency and to lay the groundwork for attempts to change its structure—to give it a bipartisan leadership—or eventually abolish it. The same is true of the NLRB appointees who might well have been tossed out of their positions by the courts if Obama hadn’t backed down and agreed to replace them.

Reid may feel his nuclear threat about the filibuster will smooth the way for future Obama nominees, but he knows very well that if the president chooses to put forward people who are vulnerable to criticism, the GOP will be back with stalling tactics. Like momentum in baseball that depends on a team’s starting pitcher on each day, the outcome of the next battle has more to do with the identity of future appointees than it does with what happened yesterday.

More to the point, the greatest victory for the Democrats in this deal has nothing to do with Obama’s nominations and everything to do with his own dubious prospects for sitting at the majority leader’s desk in 2015. Since, as I wrote on Monday, even liberal pundit/prognosticator Nate Silver is predicting the GOP will emerge from the 2014 midterms with 50-51 seats, preserving the right to filibuster is just as important to the Democrats as it is to McConnell. The ease with which the long standoff was solved tells us as much about Reid’s desire to preserve the right to stall as it did about McConnell’s interests.

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A GOP Senate? Don’t Bet Against It.

There has been a lot of triumphalism heard lately on the left—and even from some on the right—about Republicans allowing extremists to hijack their party and thereby dooming them to permanent minority status. The GOP has its problems and may ultimately rue the decision of so many House conservatives to put their heads in the sand about immigration and the impact their stand will have on Hispanics. But that controversy won’t stop them from taking the Senate next year if they manage to put together a slate of electable candidates in the midterm elections. The decision of Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, to pass on a Senate run is a body blow to Democrats hoping to hold onto the seat being vacated by Max Baucus in 2014. But what really ought to worry them is the fact that their party’s lucky charm in 2012 is officially labeling their chances of holding onto control of the Senate as less than likely. New York Times blogger and liberal pundit Nate Silver writes today to handicap the race for the Senate, and what he has to say should send a chill down the spines of Democrats:

A race-by-race analysis of the Senate, in fact, suggests that Republicans might now be close to even-money to win control of the chamber after next year’s elections. Our best guess, after assigning probabilities of the likelihood of a G.O.P. pickup in each state, is that Republicans will end up with somewhere between 50 and 51 Senate seats after 2014, putting them right on the threshold of a majority.

Considering that Silver’s prognostications proved to be perfect in the 2012 presidential election, that’s the sort of prediction that might leave some Democrats wondering about the wisdom of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to employ the so-called “nuclear option” that diminishes the power of the minority in the Senate.

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There has been a lot of triumphalism heard lately on the left—and even from some on the right—about Republicans allowing extremists to hijack their party and thereby dooming them to permanent minority status. The GOP has its problems and may ultimately rue the decision of so many House conservatives to put their heads in the sand about immigration and the impact their stand will have on Hispanics. But that controversy won’t stop them from taking the Senate next year if they manage to put together a slate of electable candidates in the midterm elections. The decision of Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, to pass on a Senate run is a body blow to Democrats hoping to hold onto the seat being vacated by Max Baucus in 2014. But what really ought to worry them is the fact that their party’s lucky charm in 2012 is officially labeling their chances of holding onto control of the Senate as less than likely. New York Times blogger and liberal pundit Nate Silver writes today to handicap the race for the Senate, and what he has to say should send a chill down the spines of Democrats:

A race-by-race analysis of the Senate, in fact, suggests that Republicans might now be close to even-money to win control of the chamber after next year’s elections. Our best guess, after assigning probabilities of the likelihood of a G.O.P. pickup in each state, is that Republicans will end up with somewhere between 50 and 51 Senate seats after 2014, putting them right on the threshold of a majority.

Considering that Silver’s prognostications proved to be perfect in the 2012 presidential election, that’s the sort of prediction that might leave some Democrats wondering about the wisdom of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to employ the so-called “nuclear option” that diminishes the power of the minority in the Senate.

As Silver breaks down the 2014 Senate races, it’s clear that Democrats are in trouble. Democrats will (after they win back the seat they lost in New Jersey when Frank Lautenberg died this October) be defending 21 seats next year while Republicans will only have 14 seats. That’s already a disadvantage, but that becomes even worse when you realize that none of those GOP incumbents face anything close to a formidable challenge. On the other hand, three of those Democratic seats are rated by Silver as either safe or likely GOP pickups: Montana (Baucus), West Virginia and South Dakota (where Jay Rockefeller and Tim Johnson are retiring). Add those three to the existing total of 45 Republican seats (again, discounting the New Jersey seat temporarily held by Jeffrey Chiesa) and you bring the GOP total to 48.

Silver also rates three other Democrats, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor as tossups at best in their reelection efforts. Throw in Alaska’s Mark Begich, who currently leads his potential opponents in the polls but must still cope with the difficulty of running in a deep red state, and you have an easy path for the GOP to 50, 51 or even 52 seats. Silver goes further to postulate that if 2014 turns out to be a good year for Republicans, a not unreasonable scenario for a midterm election during the sixth year of a Democratic president’s administration, the total of GOP pickups could go as high as nine as states like Michigan and Iowa, where incumbents are retiring, might fall prey to a downward trend for President Obama’s party.

The point here is that Democrats have almost no chance of picking up any seats in 2014 and a good chance of losing some. The question is how many, and Silver rightly points out that total will be defined as much by Republican primary voters as it is by the economy or any other issue or external factor.

The most obvious example of this may be in Alaska, a state that Democrats have no business winning except if they are faced with a GOP nominee who is terribly unpopular, as is the case with 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller or former Governor Sarah Palin. But it could also make the difference in more than half a dozen states where opportunities exist in 2014. If Republicans wind up putting forward implausible figures such as Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle (whose nominations transformed winnable GOP pickups into easy Democratic wins in 2010) or candidates who make astoundingly stupid gaffes like Todd Akin (who gift-wrapped Claire McCaskill’s reelection in a year where few thought she had a chance of surviving), then they’ll wind up tilting Silver’s evaluations back in the direction of the Democrats.

It’s true that seemingly safe establishment candidates can also fail, as was the case last year when drab GOP nominees wound up being dragged down in a Democratic year. But if, as was the case in 2010, Republicans are on the upswing next year as Americans grow tired of President Obama, ObamaCare and the assorted scandals attached to the administration, the need to avoid nominating politicians who are easily marginalized will be greater than ever.

For all of their problems, divisions and flaws, Republicans are in position to be in sole control of Congress in January 2015. That should chasten Democrats who foolishly think the 2012 results will be endlessly repeated in future elections and grass roots Republicans who should remember that it was their folly that has kept Harry Reid in the majority leader’s seat.

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Dems’ Tired Filibuster Hypocrisy

After threatening to do so ever since they took back control of the Senate in 2008, Democrats may finally get around to trying to limit the right to filibuster this month. As the New York Times reports, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks he’s finally got a clear path to hamstringing Republican attempts to use the rules to prevent the president from getting more of his nominees for various offices confirmed. But though they—and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media—believe the time is right to start rolling back filibusters, it is far from certain that even this limited proposal can pass.

Reid appears to be planning to stage some confirmation fights in which he knows he doesn’t have 60 votes for cloture. But this carefully crafted confrontation won’t really be about the kinds of filibusters that generally get the most attention. Democrats are proposing that the new rule will only affect stalls of appointments to federal agencies and cabinet posts but leave in place procedures which require at least 60 votes to end debate on judicial appointments as well as legislation. That will allow Democrats to argue that the only thing they are asking is for Republicans to allow the government to function and to let the president have, as tradition allows, his choice on who should lead Cabinet departments and agencies. But the notion that the motivation for all this is a particularly unique or unprecedented series of actions by Senate Republicans to obstruct the government doesn’t wash. Both the specific nominations that Reid will use to leverage the filibuster limits and the recent history of Democrat stalls undermine the majority’s credibility. Getting even 51 Democrats to buy into making historic alterations in the Senate rules on these flimsy grounds may be a heavier lift than Reid and President Obama think.

Though this all may be a gigantic Democratic bluff, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has noted during his frequent speeches on the issue, “Majorities are fleeting, but changes to the rules are not. And breaking the rules to change the rules would fundamentally change this Senate.”

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After threatening to do so ever since they took back control of the Senate in 2008, Democrats may finally get around to trying to limit the right to filibuster this month. As the New York Times reports, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks he’s finally got a clear path to hamstringing Republican attempts to use the rules to prevent the president from getting more of his nominees for various offices confirmed. But though they—and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media—believe the time is right to start rolling back filibusters, it is far from certain that even this limited proposal can pass.

Reid appears to be planning to stage some confirmation fights in which he knows he doesn’t have 60 votes for cloture. But this carefully crafted confrontation won’t really be about the kinds of filibusters that generally get the most attention. Democrats are proposing that the new rule will only affect stalls of appointments to federal agencies and cabinet posts but leave in place procedures which require at least 60 votes to end debate on judicial appointments as well as legislation. That will allow Democrats to argue that the only thing they are asking is for Republicans to allow the government to function and to let the president have, as tradition allows, his choice on who should lead Cabinet departments and agencies. But the notion that the motivation for all this is a particularly unique or unprecedented series of actions by Senate Republicans to obstruct the government doesn’t wash. Both the specific nominations that Reid will use to leverage the filibuster limits and the recent history of Democrat stalls undermine the majority’s credibility. Getting even 51 Democrats to buy into making historic alterations in the Senate rules on these flimsy grounds may be a heavier lift than Reid and President Obama think.

Though this all may be a gigantic Democratic bluff, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has noted during his frequent speeches on the issue, “Majorities are fleeting, but changes to the rules are not. And breaking the rules to change the rules would fundamentally change this Senate.”

Though thanks to Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington they are enshrined in American popular culture, filibusters are not mentioned in the Constitution. The Senate can change its rules allowing them any time it wants as the advent of cloture rules requiring 60 votes to stop debate showed.

But the reason why filibusters survive in their current form is the stark knowledge that both parties know they are the only thing that allows minorities in the upper body to have a say in legislation. Without them, the Senate could function like the British House of Commons where a narrow majority can always shove any bill down the country’s throat. The filibuster is important because it is the perfect tool for an institution created by the Constitution specifically to act as a check on majority opinion and impulses.

Critics of the filibuster say it is a fundamentally undemocratic practice and they’re right about that. But the Senate is itself a body created to thwart democracy with small states getting a disproportionate voice in the nation’s affairs and six-year terms meant to stand in contrast to the more frequent election cycles that, at least in theory, keep the membership of the House of Representatives closer to public opinion.

But the main point here is that it was only a few years ago that Senate Republicans were in charge and it was the Democrats who used filibusters to stop George W. Bush’s nominations to the judiciary and even cabinet posts. As I noted in 2009, the New York Times endorsed filibusters as an essential tool that enabled liberals to thwart the GOP, but they changed their minds as soon as Democrats took back the Senate. Since then, Republicans have done their share of obstructionism, but it has been no worse than the Democratic mayhem wreaked on Bush administration plans. If Senate Democrats and the mainstream liberal media are up in arms about the use of the filibuster now, it is only because the dysfunction of Congress has become their main talking point about GOP beastliness, not because what Republicans are doing is any worse—or better—than what President Obama and his party were doing prior to his taking office.

Even more damning is the fact that the specific nominations that Reid has chosen to make his stand over are not typically anodyne confirmations. All of them are controversial not so much because of the individual nominees but because of the manner in which they were appointed or because the agency posts they seek to fill are in and of themselves points of partisan contention.

In particular, Republicans are on very firm ground in seeking to use the rules to stop President Obama’s nominations to the National Labor Relations Board. Four of Obama’s nominees to the NLRB are already serving since the president snuck them into their posts as recess appointments, something that was rightly opposed by the GOP as a power grab. The Supreme Court has accepted the case for review and may well rule that they should never have been appointed in this manner in the first place. The Senate should wait until that case is decided before going any further.

The GOP also has a strong case in opposing other nominations that Reid is seeking to use as a litmus test for the future of the filibuster. Virtually the entire Republican caucus has vowed not to confirm any appointment to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until it is reformed in order to create a bipartisan leadership for it rather than having it led by a single political appointee.

While Democrats are eager to get these agencies functioning in a manner that will further their political agenda, these appointments are poor examples of the alleged plague of Republican-inspired dysfunction.

But above all, the key issue here is hypocrisy. As even the New York Times noted today, it was Senator Barack Obama who said the following about GOP threats of changes in the filibuster rules:

If they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse.

The president was right about this issue then, even if he and his followers have attempted to throw that statement and the reasoning behind down the proverbial memory hole. One suspects that more than a few Democrats mindful of the fact that they might find themselves in the minority in 2015 or 2017 will remember that and prevent Reid from changing the rules.

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Who’s Got the Edge in 2014?

Ever since the November election, Democrats have been talking big about 2014. The odds are always against the party that controls the White House in a midterm, but after President Obama’s smashing victory and the surprising Democrat gains, especially in the Senate, optimism about the next Congressional election has reigned in the White House as well as liberal opinion columns.

But the decision of yet another incumbent Senate Democrat in a red state to forgo a shot at re-election earlier this week ought to put something of a chill on liberal triumphalism. While, as the 2012 election illustrated, all assumptions about who has the edge in a battle for control of Congress are bound to be upset by developments that neither pundits nor party leaders can foresee, the odds against the Democrats next year are getting longer, not shorter.

South Dakota’s Tim Johnson was the fifth Democrat to announce he would be leaving the Senate at the end of 2014 and immediately put his seat in play. He joins Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller among those exiting the arena. Of the five, only Lautenberg’s seat could be said to be safe for the Democrats. Neither of the two Republicans not running for re-election—Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns—is leaving their seats in jeopardy for their party. When you add these changes to the existing lineup in which Democrats will be defending 21 seats next year (including a number of red state seats whose incumbents were the beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s 2008 coat tails) as opposed to the GOP’s 14, it’s much easier to chart a path to a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 than it is to imagine another big year for the Democrats.

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Ever since the November election, Democrats have been talking big about 2014. The odds are always against the party that controls the White House in a midterm, but after President Obama’s smashing victory and the surprising Democrat gains, especially in the Senate, optimism about the next Congressional election has reigned in the White House as well as liberal opinion columns.

But the decision of yet another incumbent Senate Democrat in a red state to forgo a shot at re-election earlier this week ought to put something of a chill on liberal triumphalism. While, as the 2012 election illustrated, all assumptions about who has the edge in a battle for control of Congress are bound to be upset by developments that neither pundits nor party leaders can foresee, the odds against the Democrats next year are getting longer, not shorter.

South Dakota’s Tim Johnson was the fifth Democrat to announce he would be leaving the Senate at the end of 2014 and immediately put his seat in play. He joins Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller among those exiting the arena. Of the five, only Lautenberg’s seat could be said to be safe for the Democrats. Neither of the two Republicans not running for re-election—Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns—is leaving their seats in jeopardy for their party. When you add these changes to the existing lineup in which Democrats will be defending 21 seats next year (including a number of red state seats whose incumbents were the beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s 2008 coat tails) as opposed to the GOP’s 14, it’s much easier to chart a path to a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 than it is to imagine another big year for the Democrats.

The argument for a Democrat opportunity this year is based on a continuation of the same trends that have helped Obama in 2008 and 2012. They are counting larger numbers of minorities making up the electorate than in the past as the demographic picture of the country changes to help Democrats.

Moreover, the president and his media cheerleaders are genuinely convinced that more than demography is at work to help Democrats. They believe GOP stands on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, as well as their opposition to raising taxes, gives them a near permanent advantage that will be impossible for their opponents to overcome. But as even liberal poll guru Nate Silver noted last week, the president’s supposedly permanent edge on economic issues over a Tea Party-controlled GOP evaporated before the onset of spring.

The president does seem more focused on helping his party in the midterms than he was in the prelude to 2010. But his absence from the ballot that year was the determining factor in understanding the difference between the results in 2010 as opposed to those in 2008 and 2012. Without the much larger turnout associated with a presidential election—especially one in which a magnetic and hugely popular candidate like Obama is driving interest—Democrats are facing odds that favor their opponents.

Just as no one could have predicted the Tea Party revolt that galvanized the country in 2010, we don’t know what factors will sketch the narrative of the next federal election. But liberal assumptions that they can look forward to another cakewalk in 2014 because of the advantages they held in January or February 2013 is the sort of mistake that often leads to partisan debacles such as the one they experienced at the last midterm.

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How Dare Ted Cruz?

Democrats might well be spending the day after the unsuccessful attempt to end debate on the nomination of Chuck Hagel pondering why President Obama and Vice President Biden were so obsessed with shoving an unqualified and incompetent candidate down the throats of the Senate. Politico has a fascinating story about why President Obama and Vice President Biden were unwilling to listen to sense about Hagel and went all in on the nomination even after clear signs of trouble about the former senator were apparent. But owning up to the sorry truth that what the White House likes best about Hagel are exactly the qualities that have made his confirmation such a tough slog — weakness on Iran, hostility to Israel and an unwillingness to stand up for the needs of the department he’s slotted to run — would require liberals to ask some tough questions about the president’s goals for his second term. Instead, the chattering classes are obsessing about the alleged bad manners of one of the newest additions to the U.S. Senate.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus speaks for many in the capital today when she slams Texas Senator Ted Cruz for being mean to Chuck Hagel. Cruz had the temerity to demand five years of financial records from the nominee rather than the two he provided. He’s curious as to whether more detailed financial documents will reveal some embarrassing details as to who has funded some of the groups Hagel is involved with or paid for speaking engagements he has undertaken. These sound like reasonable questions to me and probably most Americans who think there’s nothing wrong with more transparency. This is a stand Democrats had no shame in adopting last year when they demanded that Mitt Romney reveal his tax returns and every last detail of his financial existence but as far as the Washington establishment is concerned, Cruz’s questions were a “smear.” They think he’s a bumptious, arrogant right-winger who doesn’t know his place and the chattering classes will do their best to besmirch his reputation until he pipes down. They shouldn’t hold their breath.

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Democrats might well be spending the day after the unsuccessful attempt to end debate on the nomination of Chuck Hagel pondering why President Obama and Vice President Biden were so obsessed with shoving an unqualified and incompetent candidate down the throats of the Senate. Politico has a fascinating story about why President Obama and Vice President Biden were unwilling to listen to sense about Hagel and went all in on the nomination even after clear signs of trouble about the former senator were apparent. But owning up to the sorry truth that what the White House likes best about Hagel are exactly the qualities that have made his confirmation such a tough slog — weakness on Iran, hostility to Israel and an unwillingness to stand up for the needs of the department he’s slotted to run — would require liberals to ask some tough questions about the president’s goals for his second term. Instead, the chattering classes are obsessing about the alleged bad manners of one of the newest additions to the U.S. Senate.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus speaks for many in the capital today when she slams Texas Senator Ted Cruz for being mean to Chuck Hagel. Cruz had the temerity to demand five years of financial records from the nominee rather than the two he provided. He’s curious as to whether more detailed financial documents will reveal some embarrassing details as to who has funded some of the groups Hagel is involved with or paid for speaking engagements he has undertaken. These sound like reasonable questions to me and probably most Americans who think there’s nothing wrong with more transparency. This is a stand Democrats had no shame in adopting last year when they demanded that Mitt Romney reveal his tax returns and every last detail of his financial existence but as far as the Washington establishment is concerned, Cruz’s questions were a “smear.” They think he’s a bumptious, arrogant right-winger who doesn’t know his place and the chattering classes will do their best to besmirch his reputation until he pipes down. They shouldn’t hold their breath.

I don’t agree with Cruz on every issue. I think his qualms about the bipartisan immigration reform proposal put forward by other senators are unpersuasive and worry whether his desire to cut back spending places him among those who would denude our national defense. Yet what really bothers Washington liberals about Cruz is that he didn’t come to Washington to enjoy the benefits of being a member of one of the most exclusive and powerful club in the world — the U.S. Senate — and to play the time honored go-along to get-along game that greases the wheels of the country’s big government spending addiction. He intends to stand up for his principles and speak out.

I’m skeptical that more digging in Hagel’s financial records will reveal anything that will derail his nomination. But there’s nothing offensive about Cruz’s insinuation that Hagel might have something to hide. As has been made clear in just the last couple of days, what we already know Hagel’s extreme views about making nice with Iran and offensive statements about Jews and Israel may be just the tip of the iceberg. What the Washington establishment and the White House wanted was a collegial confirmation process for Hagel that would give the appearance of scrutiny rather than a genuine investigation about his suitability for a sensitive and powerful post. And that is something that a man like Cruz won’t tolerate.

In his first weeks in office, Cruz has not played the usual role of freshman senators and kept quiet. Instead, as another Politico story noted, he has stepped on a lot of toes and the owners of those toes aren’t happy. They say it will decrease his influence. Others will agree with Marcus about his bad manners and do their best to shun him.

About that, I have two thoughts.

One is that liberals don’t always think ill of freshman senators who don’t defer to senior colleagues. When Barack Obama arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2005 he might not have been as tough as Cruz but he wasn’t shy about asserting himself. As one senator told me, he showed up acting as if he had been there for 20 years and his colleagues didn’t like it one bit.

The other is that all the blather we’ve been hearing lately about the virtues of compromise can be overrated. It is true that politics is the art of the possible and that getting anything done requires accommodation as well as advocacy. But the problem with Ted Cruz isn’t so much that he strikes some Washingtonians as obnoxious as it is that he won’t play the part assigned to him in their vision of the future of the Republican Party. We may need dealmakers but we also need politicians who take ideas more seriously than the kabuki dance of Capitol Hill manners.

The Hagel contretemps illustrated perfectly why we need people in the Senate who won’t pull their punches. Given the commitment of the president to his nominee, stopping an unsuitable and dangerous man like Hagel from being given the Pentagon required courage and a willingness to drop the faux courtesy that would have allowed him to skate through without tough questions or real scrutiny.

I daresay Ted Cruz isn’t bothered by Marcus’s jibe that he isn’t going to win Senator Congeniality. Neither should the voters of Texas who sent up there to speak up and not fit in. A few more like him wouldn’t do the Congress any harm.

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Democrats Can’t Avoid Fiscal Cliff Blame

For the past few days, the focus of coverage of the budget negotiations has been on the House Republicans who torpedoed Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B proposal. The hardliners determined to fight any tax increases, including those on millionaires, have helped create a situation where the deadline may well expire before Congress and the president can agree on a deal that will avoid an across-the-board tax increase as well as devastating spending cuts. Though their argument that the country’s problem is about spending, not taxes, is right, allowing the country to go over the fiscal cliff is irresponsible and will cost the GOP dearly in terms of public support. But now that the House has failed to advance Boehner’s compromise measure, it is up to the Senate to act and that means the media needs to turn its attention from the intransigence of a minority of House Republicans to the equally unproductive behavior of the majority of Democrats in the upper house.

For all of the country’s justified concern about the inability of the Republicans to make a deal, the fact remains that the Democratic-controlled Senate is even more of an obstacle to an accord. For Majority Leader Harry Reid and his party to act to avoid the fiscal cliff, he will have to do something that he has failed to do in the last three years: pass a budget plan of any kind. The Democrats have sat back and enjoyed the brickbats thrown at the GOP for their dysfunctional behavior, but have done nothing themselves to make a deal other than to play the role of cheerleaders for the White House’s class warfare rhetoric. With only days left for action to avoid the automatic enactment of measures that could potentially devastate an already weak economy, it’s time to for Reid and his caucus to put forward a bill that could actually pass. If not, their reliance on public opinion only blaming Republicans for the impending debacle may ultimately wind up a colossal misjudgment.

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For the past few days, the focus of coverage of the budget negotiations has been on the House Republicans who torpedoed Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B proposal. The hardliners determined to fight any tax increases, including those on millionaires, have helped create a situation where the deadline may well expire before Congress and the president can agree on a deal that will avoid an across-the-board tax increase as well as devastating spending cuts. Though their argument that the country’s problem is about spending, not taxes, is right, allowing the country to go over the fiscal cliff is irresponsible and will cost the GOP dearly in terms of public support. But now that the House has failed to advance Boehner’s compromise measure, it is up to the Senate to act and that means the media needs to turn its attention from the intransigence of a minority of House Republicans to the equally unproductive behavior of the majority of Democrats in the upper house.

For all of the country’s justified concern about the inability of the Republicans to make a deal, the fact remains that the Democratic-controlled Senate is even more of an obstacle to an accord. For Majority Leader Harry Reid and his party to act to avoid the fiscal cliff, he will have to do something that he has failed to do in the last three years: pass a budget plan of any kind. The Democrats have sat back and enjoyed the brickbats thrown at the GOP for their dysfunctional behavior, but have done nothing themselves to make a deal other than to play the role of cheerleaders for the White House’s class warfare rhetoric. With only days left for action to avoid the automatic enactment of measures that could potentially devastate an already weak economy, it’s time to for Reid and his caucus to put forward a bill that could actually pass. If not, their reliance on public opinion only blaming Republicans for the impending debacle may ultimately wind up a colossal misjudgment.

Wyoming Senator John Barrasso isn’t the only Republican who thinks that the Democrats, and in particular President Obama, are quite eager for the nation to go over the fiscal cliff. As he said yesterday on Fox News Sunday, doing so would accomplish two things that Democrats have longed to do: create a massive tax increase and cut defense, all the while letting Republicans take the blame. That was the president’s strategy last year during the debt ceiling negotiations during which he hoped to duplicate President Clinton’s success in shifting the culpability for the 1995 government shutdown to Newt Gingrich and his House majority. But the collapse of Boehner’s stratagem actually puts the onus on the Senate and the Democrats in a way it has not been throughout this crisis.

With no one paying much attention to the family squabble among House Republicans, the time has finally arrived when the Senate and its Democratic leaders are bound to start getting more coverage. If Reid does not pass something this week and pass on to the House a bill that will at least give the nation a short respite from the consequences of the fiscal cliff, then it will be impossible for anyone to pretend that what will follow is only a GOP problem. If so, then perhaps we are arriving at the moment when the assumptions about the budget standoff could turn out to be unfounded.

Their grandstanding about taxing rich people has allowed Democrats to avoid any real discussion about reform of the entitlements that are sinking the country. Neither the White House nor the Senate has put forward a coherent plan or a proposal worth voting on that addresses this issue, without which any talk of a long-term solution to the problem is impossible.

Republicans may have hit bottom last week when they sandbagged Boehner and effectively undermined any chance that he could force a more favorable compromise out of Obama. But Democrats are foolish to believe that no blame will ever attach to them just because the GOP has failed. Public cynicism about Congress and the political system is, at its heart, a bipartisan consensus about the governing class, not just anger about Tea Party intransigence. Unless Reid and the Senate Democrats do something this week to put the ball back into the House’s court, they, too, will shoulder plenty of the responsibility for what follows.

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Ruling: Senate Can’t Dodge Unpopular Budget Votes

Senate Democrats hoped to avoid voting on any controversial budget resolutions, claiming the debt ceiling deal last summer already deemed a budget for the next two years. But the new Parliamentarian disagreed, and issued a ruling that will give Republicans more power to force budgetary votes that the majority party wants to avoid:

Newly appointed Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whom [Sen. Harry] Reid recommended for the job, has decided that last summer’s deal on the debt ceiling and spending caps does not preclude the Senate from taking up other budget resolutions this year. The ruling could force vulnerable Democrats to cast tough votes that hurt them in November, a situation Reid and other leaders are eager to avoid as they work to protect their fragile majority.

The written opinion, shared late last week with a handful of Democratic and GOP senators, gives Republicans significantly more leverage to push for votes on budgets of their choosing. It could mean roll calls on Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget plan and others offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Democrats would gladly vote down the Ryan blueprint, which Obama described Tuesday as a “radical” vision that guts funding for Medicare and education.

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Senate Democrats hoped to avoid voting on any controversial budget resolutions, claiming the debt ceiling deal last summer already deemed a budget for the next two years. But the new Parliamentarian disagreed, and issued a ruling that will give Republicans more power to force budgetary votes that the majority party wants to avoid:

Newly appointed Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whom [Sen. Harry] Reid recommended for the job, has decided that last summer’s deal on the debt ceiling and spending caps does not preclude the Senate from taking up other budget resolutions this year. The ruling could force vulnerable Democrats to cast tough votes that hurt them in November, a situation Reid and other leaders are eager to avoid as they work to protect their fragile majority.

The written opinion, shared late last week with a handful of Democratic and GOP senators, gives Republicans significantly more leverage to push for votes on budgets of their choosing. It could mean roll calls on Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget plan and others offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Democrats would gladly vote down the Ryan blueprint, which Obama described Tuesday as a “radical” vision that guts funding for Medicare and education.

Ryan’s budget would be good to bring up for a vote, though nobody expects it to actually pass. But Republicans will likely try to force a vote on Obama’s budget, which already failed unanimously in the House, and would likely go down in flames for the second year in a row in the Senate.

That is, if Reid would ever agree to bring the president’s budget to the floor. As Politico notes, if Reid refuses to do so, that’s a potentially damaging political move in itself. What’s worse though? For Reid to block it from a floor vote – a clear acknowledgement that it won’t pass – or to allow the vote and let the White House go through the embarrassment of a (likely unanimous) rejection once again? It seems like there’s a good chance the budget will never actually make it to the floor, despite the Parliamentarian’s ruling.

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Why is Leahy Blocking a Bill to Track Down Sex Offenders?

The media narrative for the past month has been that the GOP is waging a “war on women.” But one story that’s fallen through the cracks is the legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions last spring to crack down on fugitive sex offenders. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in January, and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy is now reportedly blocking it from full Senate consideration. Big Government reports:

The Act was designed to grant the U.S. Marshals administrative subpoena power so that they could better investigate sex offenders who had not registered as required by law. The FBI already had similar authority for health care and child crime cases; the Secret Service already had similar authority for cases involving threats to officials. …

In January, the bill was reintroduced and passed through the Judiciary Committee. And now, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has put a hold on it, blocking it from full Senate consideration.

There’s no good excuse for such a hold. Administrative subpoena power is necessary because it is faster moving than traditional subpoena power; it is frequently used in emergency situations. And there is no greater emergency than tracking down sex offenders, who have the highest recidivism rate of any criminal subgroup.

You have to wonder what Leahy’s reasons are for holding up the bill, which is non-controversial, and would presumably have bipartisan support. Sex offenders have a high recidivism rate, and there should be universal interest in aiding efforts to track down convicted predators who are trying to dodge registration laws.

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The media narrative for the past month has been that the GOP is waging a “war on women.” But one story that’s fallen through the cracks is the legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions last spring to crack down on fugitive sex offenders. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in January, and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy is now reportedly blocking it from full Senate consideration. Big Government reports:

The Act was designed to grant the U.S. Marshals administrative subpoena power so that they could better investigate sex offenders who had not registered as required by law. The FBI already had similar authority for health care and child crime cases; the Secret Service already had similar authority for cases involving threats to officials. …

In January, the bill was reintroduced and passed through the Judiciary Committee. And now, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has put a hold on it, blocking it from full Senate consideration.

There’s no good excuse for such a hold. Administrative subpoena power is necessary because it is faster moving than traditional subpoena power; it is frequently used in emergency situations. And there is no greater emergency than tracking down sex offenders, who have the highest recidivism rate of any criminal subgroup.

You have to wonder what Leahy’s reasons are for holding up the bill, which is non-controversial, and would presumably have bipartisan support. Sex offenders have a high recidivism rate, and there should be universal interest in aiding efforts to track down convicted predators who are trying to dodge registration laws.

Democrats have recently been attacking the GOP for opposing new provisions in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The law typically has bipartisan support, but this year Democrats have made additions that would create loopholes for illegal immigrants and other measures that Republicans believe are unnecessary or irrelevant to the law’s purpose.

But the bill proposed by Sessions has crucial practical implications when it comes to preventing and prosecuting violence against women and children. This isn’t just a symbolic proposal, like some of the “poison pill” provisions Democrats added to the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization can be characterized as. Big Government writes:

Back in 2006, when considering the predecessor law to the Finding Fugitive Sex Offenders Act, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pointed to the tragedy of Dylan and Shasta Groene, who were abducted by Joseph Duncan, an unregistered sex offender; he killed Dylan, as well as the kids’ mother, stepfather, and teenage brother. “Joseph Duncan was essentially lost by three states,” Cantwell explained. “He moved from State to State to avoid capture. No one knew where he was nor even how to look for him.

Its cases like that which make Leahy’s hold on the bill seem incomprehensible. If there were any bills relevant to women, you would think this would be at the top of the list. Of course, it would also be difficult to claim the GOP is indifferent to anti-women violence if this bill was introduced on the Senate floor.

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Senate Will Force Obama’s Hand on Iran

In a clear contrast to President Obama’s speech yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a hard-hitting speech to AIPAC tonight, promising to use the tools at his disposal to pressure the administration to take military action against Iran if it passes specific “red lines” that he outlined.

While Obama has also made it clear he’s open to using force against Iran, he has declined to explicitly state what Iranian actions would trigger a U.S. military response. But McConnell did not have the same reluctance.

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In a clear contrast to President Obama’s speech yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a hard-hitting speech to AIPAC tonight, promising to use the tools at his disposal to pressure the administration to take military action against Iran if it passes specific “red lines” that he outlined.

While Obama has also made it clear he’s open to using force against Iran, he has declined to explicitly state what Iranian actions would trigger a U.S. military response. But McConnell did not have the same reluctance.

“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” said McConnell.

The minority leader criticized Obama’s vagueness on Iran, and suggested that the president watered-down his threats of action by failing to use force in Libya and Syria. He also claimed the administration was relying too heavily on sanctions.

“The administration has used this same language about preserving all options in developing its policy toward Libya, Iran, and, now, Syria,” McConnell said. “Clearly, the threat has lost its intended purpose.”

McConnell said he would force the administration’s hand on Iran by introducing an authorization for military force in the Senate if intelligence shows Iran is enriching weapons-grade uranium.

“If at any time the intelligence community presents the Congress with an assessment that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon — consistent with protecting classified sources and methods — I will consult with the president and joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization for the use of military force,” said McConnell.

The numerous standing ovations from the audience showed that AIPAC attendees are anxious for clearly outlined proposals from elected officials, after yesterday’s vague assurances.

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