Obama Besieged on Many Fronts

Posted May 14th, 2013 at 9:12 pm (UTC+0)
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President Barack Obama gets hammered with questions about Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service controversies May 13 during a news conference that was supposed to be about U.S.-British relations. Photo: AP

Circling the Wagons at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

The recent history of second term U.S. presidents indicates trouble will come at some point.  You just don’t expect it to come three at a time with roots both foreign and domestic.  But for the moment that is where the Obama administration finds itself.

All of sudden last November’s easy re-election victory over Republican Mitt Romney seems like a galaxy far, far away.  And that soaring rhetoric from the second Obama inaugural about all of the hoped-for accomplishments now sounds a bit off key.  Second term presidents often find that their relevance begins to wane after the second congressional midterm election, in the final two years of their presidency.  But in some ways it feels like it’s already waning with this president.

 

The IRS and Ghosts of Nixon

 

President Obama was rightfully indignant about attempts by America’s taxation authority, the Internal Revenue Service, to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.  The president told a news conference this week that operating the IRS in “anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way” would be “outrageous,” and he quickly added that he wouldn’t tolerate it.  He also said he wasn’t aware of it until recently and there is no suggestion the White House was behind the idea.

Allegations of abuse by the IRS conjures up memories of the administration of President Richard Nixon and his efforts to intimidate and punish political opponents, sometimes by threating IRS audits as political payback.  Nixon is the only president who ever resigned the presidency and the last thing any president wants, especially a Democrat, is to be lumped into the same category with the man who left the office in disgrace back in 1974.  In fact for both parties, using the IRS as a political tool is one of those accepted “no-no’s” that would invite certain political peril.

President Richard Nixon tells a news conference in March of 1973 his administration would not cooperate with an investigation into the Watergate scandal. Photo: AP

The IRS has already apologized for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of some of the conservative groups. But this has already set off a firestorm over on the political right and it’s hard to imagine a dumber political move than to play right into the hands of your harshest critics, the Tea Party groups, by putting them in the position of playing the victims.

This is likely to rekindle some of the Tea Party true believers and get them fired up for the 2014 congressional midterm elections.  A pretty neat trick given how distraught and bummed out they were when the president won a second term at the White House last November.

Given the Tea Party influence among Republicans in the House of Representatives, it could also make it even less likely that some of the president’s major domestic goals like immigration reform will have much of a chance getting through the House.  The politics of Washington went sour some years ago but this kind of thing just gets everyone on the political right “fired up and ready to go”, to borrow a phrase from the Obama campaign, circa 2008.

 

Targeting the AP

Add into the mix the revelations that the Justice Department last year secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press, supposedly in connection with an AP story a year ago that focused on a foiled terror plot.

Attorney General Eric Holder leaves a news conference May 14, after being questioned about the Justice Department’s investigation of the Associated Press. Photo: AP

AP officials described the act as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into their news gathering operation and are demanding explanations from the Justice Department.  The irony here is that it was congressional Republicans who were demanding an investigation into leaks about the Obama administration’s anti-terror efforts that appeared to portray it in a positive light.

Federal prosecutors have been known to request reporter phone records in the past.  But the extent of the Justice Department sweep encompassing so many AP staffers and different bureaus is considered unusual.

So now you’ve got civil libertarians on both ends off the political spectrum spitting mad about both the IRS missteps and the apparent fishing expedition targeting the Associated Press.  News organizations are usually notified in advance when the government is seeking phone records and very often a negotiation ensues as to what in the end will be turned over.  But the fact this was done secretly and covered a two month period has sparked an angry reaction, not just from the AP but from journalist watchdog groups around the country.

 

Benghazi Won’t Go Away

In his latest news conference, the president was much more forceful in putting up a defense of his administration’s handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September 11th.  Mr. Obama blasted the back and forth over administration talking points about the attack as a political sideshow being fomented by partisan Republicans.

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi last September 11, in an incident that is still causing political fallout. Photo: AP

On one hand the story has had some staying power, given that it hasn’t gone away even after congressional hearings featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  At the same time, some Republicans are coming close to overplaying their hand.  For example, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe compared it to Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal and raised the possibility that the president might be impeached over the incident.

An added temptation for some Republicans is that they can’t seem to resist trying to pin much of the responsibility for the problems at Benghazi on Hillary Clinton.  They would like nothing better than to politically knock her down a peg or two well in advance of the 2016 presidential election cycle should she decide to run.

The problem is, even if some Republicans are going overboard on Benghazi, it becomes added into the mix of the IRS flap, plus the new revelations about tapping the AP phones.  These budding all-at-once mini-scandals tend to have a greater cumulative impact on the public and can give the impression that the administration has been weakened and is in political trouble.

 

Obama’s Credibility at Stake

 

All three of these issues relate to the central concern about the president’s credibility, and that is something that could affect the rest of the administration’s second term.  Just a few weeks ago, administration supporters were enthusiastic about the prospects of passing gun control legislation, immigration reform and maybe even getting a long term deficit reduction deal.

Gun control has now been defeated and the prospects for a sweeping deficit deal seem to be fading.  Immigration reform remains the best hope as a major accomplishment for the second term.  But the worry now is that these three controversies over the IRS, Benghazi and phone monitoring will taint the political waters to the point where compromise on a major piece of legislation becomes untenable.  Few would have predicted that a key turning point in this administration’s second term would come so quickly.  But it appears to be here.

Early Onset Second Term Blues

Posted May 2nd, 2013 at 9:38 pm (UTC+0)
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President Obama fields question at a White House news conference April 30. Photo: AP

President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013 in Washington. The president said the US doesn’t know how chemical weapons were used in Syria or by whom. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Obama’s Leadership Test

It was only a few months ago that Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second presidential term with all the pomp and pageantry that official Washington can muster.  There was a time in this country when the early days of a second term were a heady time for a freshly re-elected president.

Think Ronald Reagan in 1985 or Lyndon Johnson 20 years earlier.  It’s true that both of them came off landslide victories, while Mr. Obama only won comfortably.  But it seems that winning re-election means less today than it did back then and carries less political swagger.

Lyndon Johnson, pictured here in 1968, had a productive second term as president. Photo: AP

So far, the first 100 days of the president’s second term have been a bit of a struggle.  There are signs the economy is improving, but a stubbornly high jobless rate continues to cast a shadow on the public’s general outlook.  The failure to get a gun background check measure through the Senate has led to a sense of frustration and failure among some of the president’s most ardent supporters.

And now the prospect of greater U.S. involvement in Syria looms as the administration tries to firm up evidence of chemical weapons use by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

At his recent news conference, the president was asked if he still has the “juice” to get his agenda through Congress.  Mr. Obama replied, “If you put it that way, maybe I should just pack up and go home.  Golly.”  The president added that it wasn’t his job to get members of Congress to, in his word, “behave.”  That, he said, is their job.

 

The Narrow Window

Historically, the productive time in a president’s second term comes in the first year and a half or so, before the focus shifts to the congressional midterm elections.  Those midterms often prove to be a minefield for sitting presidents, a chance for voters to demonstrate their fatigue with the current administration and to signal a restlessness to move on to the next big thing, whatever that is.

You can already feel that window of opportunity to get big things through Congress starting to close.  Come October and November, members of Congress will be almost completely focused on their re-election chances in November of 2014.  And for those Republicans who fear a primary challenge in the upcoming cycle, they are already consumed with making sure they won’t have to fend off any well-financed challengers from the right.

In the modern political era there are relatively few periods when meaningful legislative action is likely to occur.  So much time is spent on getting ready for the next election and fundraising and scoring political points that it becomes difficult for senators and House members to focus on crafting legislation that is aimed at becoming law.

 

Focus on Immigration

With the demise of the gun control bill, at least for now, the next major issue that will dominate Washington is comprehensive immigration reform.  A lot of the recent talk sounds optimistic. Even the president said at his news conference that he is confident a bipartisan bill on immigration will make it through both the Senate and House of Representatives and to his desk for his signature.  But we have a long way to go before that happens, and the administration would be wise to take to heart some of the difficult lessons from the demise of the gun bill.

A U.S. border control agent is seen through the fence along the U.S.-Mexican border near Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: AP

One of those lessons is to build as close as possible to a super majority – 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate. That’s why the president is relying on help from the so called “Gang of Eight” in the Senate that includes Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain.  Mr. Obama realizes that even if an immigration bill can get through the Senate it might not survive in the Republican-controlled House unless it can draw the support of a sizeable group of Republicans combined with most Democrats.  That is pretty much the only way compromise legislation can survive in the deeply polarized House.

Some liberals worry that whatever emerges as the final immigration bill will be less about a path to citizenship as Obama hopes than about securing the borders against illegal immigration.  President Obama is already cautioning immigration advocates not to expect a perfect bill and to be ready to accept compromise.

Most Republicans acknowledge they need to do something on immigration, given their dismal showing with Hispanic and Asian-American voters in last year’s election.  But there is already a strong chorus building on the right that would make the path to citizenship a long and rocky road. So both sides will have to contend with pressure groups on the far ends of the political spectrum.

 

Looking ahead to 2014 and 2016

The latest Quinnipiac public opinion poll found that Americans are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican in next year’s congressional midterm elections.  The survey shows 41 percent favor Democratic candidates at the moment, while 37 percent say they will vote for Republican candidates.  If that were to hold true, it would buck the historical norm of the president’s party losing congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is, for now at least, the front-runner among possible Democratic Party presidential candidates in 2016. Photo: AP

The last time the president’s party gained seats in a midterm during a president’s second term was in 1998 when Bill Clinton was in the White House.  Analysts said that was largely a negative reaction from the public to Republican efforts to impeach him and force him from office over the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Clinton was impeached by the House, but survived when he was acquitted in the Senate.

Speaking of Clintons, the latest Quinnipiac survey also found Hillary Clinton the far-and-away frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination.  Clinton got 65 percent in the latest poll, with Vice President Joe Biden way behind at 13 percent.  An earlier Quinnipiac poll looking at the Republican field for 2016 found no clear frontrunner.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio led the group of potential Republican candidates with 19 percent support, followed by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at 17 percent, Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul at 15 percent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with 14 percent and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at 10 percent.

One other Republican name to watch in the coming months is freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz who is already drawing interest from conservative groups for a possible White House run in 2016.

 

Boston Strong and Pulling Together

Posted April 23rd, 2013 at 7:23 pm (UTC+0)
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Boston Red Sox baseball fans sing the national anthem before a game with the Kansas City Royals in Boston Saturday, April 20. Photo: AP

Unity in the Face of Adversity

Boston is a tribal town.  I know because I grew up in the area.  Back in the day, it was the Irish who held sway politically, while the descendants of the English, the so called “Boston Brahmins,” controlled business and finance.  My grandmother could recall the days when signs appeared in shops that said simply, “No Irish Need Apply.”

Boston has changed dramatically over the years.  The population is lot more ethnically richer and the city has become a world-class destination for tourists. The city is known for its concentration of outstanding universities and internationally known hospitals.

The new Boston was on display during the recent bombing attacks that targeted the crowd watching the Boston Marathon.  Among the enduring images were people rushing toward the explosion scenes right after the bombs went off, looking to help in any way they could.  The subsequent efforts to give blood, help police look for suspects and bring a sense of healing to the city all did Boston proud.

 

Sports plays a crucial role

 

A Boston Bruins hockey jersey pictured April 17, expresses the city’s sentiments following the bombing attack: “Boston Strong.” Photo: AP

In the days following the attack, it was the city’s sports teams that offered Bostonians a chance to recover and begin to heal.  When the crowd took over the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” that Wednesday night at the Bruins’ hockey game, you could feel the swelling emotions of the crowd right through your TV.  And when the Red Sox came back to town and paid tribute to the police, first responders and the victims of the marathon bombings, the city at last began to exhale, take stock of what had happened and find a way to move forward.

Red Sox player David Ortiz may have offended some when he took the microphone at Fenway Park and said, “This is our (bleeping) city,” but the fans loved the spirit of defiance and perseverance that Ortiz was conjuring up.

Boston’s heartbeat is fueled by its sports teams and in those early days, in the aftermath of the bombings and the manhunt for the suspects, they played a crucial role in bringing people together to grieve, to remember and to find a way forward.

 

Immigration fallout

 

The Boston bombings continue to have fallout on Capitol Hill here in Washington.  The attacks have become part of the widening debate over immigration reform that is likely to dominate the congressional agenda in the weeks ahead.  Some supporters of immigration reform worry that opponents will seize on the fact that the two suspects in the Boston case emigrated to the U.S. from Russia.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned those he said would try to “derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people.”

But Republicans who want to go slow on the immigration reform push are trying to raise some yellow flags.  Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, urged his fellow senators not to proceed on the issue until there is an understanding on what he called “the specific failures of our immigration system.”

 

Huge political stakes

 

The reform push comes from a bipartisan group of eight senators that includes Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a much talked about potential presidential contender in 2016.  Rubio’s Cuban-American roots and Tea Party cred makes him well suited to pitch the idea of immigration reform to conservatives who are generally skeptical of the idea.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a key supporter of immigration reform, will have to push hard to get a bill through Congress, even within his own party. Photo: AP

It’s clear in the wake of the Boston attacks that supporters of immigration reform are going to have to emphasize border security more than ever and try to sell the plan as making the country safer, not more vulnerable.  The central issue for most conservatives is a proposal to give undocumented immigrants a path to getting U.S. citizenship. Under the bipartisan plan, this would take several years.  That may turn out to be too much for some hardcore conservatives to swallow, especially those who have railed for years against granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

Some conservatives in the Senate and House of Representatives are also floating the idea of doing the bill piece-by-piece, and having separate votes on sections like the path to citizenship.  Immigration reform supporters oppose that idea.  They think the only way to get comprehensive reform is to get a big bill through Congress.  Dismantling it and voting on it piece by piece would, in their view, ensure a very watered down product will emerge in the end.

 

Democrats could reap electoral benefits

 

The website Politico has an interesting take on the debate that shows why many Democrats are eager to help the estimated 11 million undocumented residents, many of whom are Hispanics.  President Barack Obama cleaned Mitt Romney’s clock among Hispanic voters in last year’s election and finding a way to bring in millions of new voters likely to be grateful to the Democratic Party if they become legal could be a huge boost for Democrats in future elections.

 

According to Politico, reliably conservative states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas could be in for some changes if millions of Hispanics were one day eligible to vote.  In addition, states Mr. Obama narrowly won last year like Florida, Colorado and Nevada would probably move safely into the Democratic column in the future, giving them a huge advantage in the Electoral College and maybe helping Democratic congressional candidates as well.

Republicans might want to pay attention to the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library this week.  After all, Mr. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, well above Mitt Romney’s 27 percent last year.  Replicating the Bush model of appealing to Hispanic voters would be a boon to Republican chances of retaking the White House in 2016 and beyond.

 

Immigration now a priority after guns

 

For the president and his supporters, immigration reform has emerged as a political priority in the wake of the defeat of the gun background check proposal that failed in the Senate.  Gun control was a huge focus for the administration after the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy last year in which grade school students were massacred.   And the fact that the administration was not able to persuade enough senators to support a watered-down background check bill that won 90 percent approval from the public has left a bad taste in the mouths of many of the president’s supporters.

One of the arguments as to why the gun bill failed was because conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans were being asked to do too much too quickly.  In addition to gun control and immigration reform, some lawmakers in Republican-leaning “Red States” were being pushed to support gay marriage as well.

But I happen to think that gun control is perhaps the hottest button issue around the country.  Even some Democrats in Red States could not face the prospect of voting for even mild gun control, fearing it would be an act of political suicide to face an avalanche of ads funded by the National Rifle Association and others.  Democrats need to find a way for those who oppose gun control to pay a political price at the polls.  That is the only way to break the logjam on issues like background checks and the size of bullet magazines.  But at the moment those prospects look doubtful.  Red State America is too ready to jump to the conclusion put forward by the NRA that the federal government really does want to take their guns, no matter how many times the president and other Democrats say it just isn’t true.

 

Bipartisan Hopes Spring Eternal

Posted April 12th, 2013 at 8:51 pm (UTC+0)
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Spring is here. A Washington area couple relaxes under one of the city’s blooming cherry trees overlooking the Potomac River tidal basin April 10, 2013. The memorial to President Thomas Jefferson is in the background. Photo: AP

Progress on Guns and Immigration

It’s taken a while but spring has finally come to Washington.  The weather is warming, personal moods are improving and thousands of tourists continue to flock to what remains of the world famous cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial.

There are signs of a ‘political spring’ as well.  Progress is being made in the Senate toward the most significant gun control legislation in about two decades.  And a bipartisan group of senators is preparing to put forward a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that holds real potential for enactment.  We’re still a long way off from Congress actually passing legislation, but given the recent history of Washington political gridlock, these early signs of progress are producing a sense of optimism, at least for now.

 

The Legacy of Newtown

 

Even the strongest supporters of the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of some of the Newtown, Connecticut, families making the rounds on Capitol Hill.  Just months after a horrific shooting incident that took the lives of their children at Sandy Hook Elementary school, family members went to congressional offices to plead their case for tighter background checks for gun buyers.

Parents Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene mourn their daughter, pictured, who died in the shooting attack at the Sandy Hook elementary School in Newtown, Connecticutt last December. Photo: AP

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was brought to tears during his meeting with Newtown parents.  Manchin, a conservative Democrat, has emerged as the key player in trying to get something through a polarized Senate even as opponents are heavily pressured by the powerful National Rifle Association.  Manchin teamed up with Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who described the effort as more about “common sense” than gun control.  Their proposal would require background checks for those trying to buy weapons at gun shows and on the Internet.

Liberals regard the effort as a minimal approach to the gun problem in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.  With the way now clear to a lengthy Senate debate on the issue, some of the stronger anti-gun Democrats like Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont will push for reinstating a ban on assault weapons and limiting the size of ammunition magazines.  But those measures are in doubt in the Senate as a whole, and likely face little prospect of passage in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

 

Gun Politics

The best hope may be a bill that beefs up background checks and that attracts enough Republican votes in the Senate to be seen as a bipartisan effort.  That would set up a tough fight in the House, where the only road to passage would seem to be forming a rough coalition of virtually all House Democrats and small group of remaining Republican moderates.

Two senators, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, left, and Republican Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania arrive at a news conference April 10, to announce they had reached a deal on strengthening gun control laws. Photo: AP

But something has to emerge from the Senate first and we not close yet to that happening.  Some of the Senate Republicans who supported having a full debate on the gun issue are already on record as saying they won’t likely vote for whatever emerges as the final proposal.

Complicating all this is the 2014 election cycle that begins later this year.  Even a number of Democrats from so-called “red” Republican states will be leery to cross the National Rifle Association in the run up to an election year, fearful of those dreaded 30-second TV ads that could easily sway voters.

Some Democrats recall the 1994 midterm congressional elections in which Republicans captured control of the House for the first time in 40 years.  That was thanks in part to a crime bill supported by Democrats that year that included a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons that sparked a fierce counter-campaign led by the NRA that helped to sink a number of House and Senate Democrats in conservative states.  So the closer we get to the 2014 campaign cycle, the more complicated the politics of gun control becomes.

 

Immigration Fast Track

 

The other area for optimism in the near-term is immigration reform.  A bipartisan group of eight senators will soon release a plan that ties improved border security to the aspirations of millions of immigrants who would like to legalize their status in the U.S. and eventually become citizens.

Republicans have a huge political stake in making progress in this area.  All you have to do is review the election results from 2012 when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote even as he lost the white vote to Mitt Romney.  The prospects for future Republican presidential candidates are dim unless they can find a way to reduce the Democratic advantage among Latinos and Asian-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.

 

Rubio Front and Center

 

Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, is getting the most attention among the group of eight senators pushing for changes in immigration policy.  Rubio could parlay a successful effort in immigration in the Senate to a legitimate run for president in 2016.  But in the meantime, he’s protecting his right flank by staking out a conservative position on gun control (basically he’s a “no”) and trying to assure his conservative Tea Party supporters that he really is one of them.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a key player in the immigration reform debate, is often mentioned as a possible Republican Party presidential candidate in 2016. Photo: AP

Rubio’s track on immigration and guns seems to be a case study on how a modern Republican with national aspirations is trying to thread the political needle.  First off, don’t do anything to antagonize your conservative base.  Rubio was elected with Tea Party support in Florida in 2010 and can’t be seen to turn his back on that constituency.  Mitt Romney had to make peace with the Tea Party and conservative factions of the party last year to be viable. Rubio will be closely observing that model if he decides to make a White House run in 2016.

But Rubio also understands that Republicans need to do something to make themselves more appealing to moderate voters in the general election when conservative ideology is less important.  Rubio wants to be out in front of this effort, but not too far.  He can’t risk hurting himself with the right early in the process when he will need to galvanize those voters in the caucus and primary contests.

If Rubio does run, he could find himself campaigning against other conservatives in the primaries like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  He’ll do all he can to make sure they don’t outflank him on the right, something Mitt Romney did effectively in 2012 in fending off a challenge from Texas Governor Rick Perry.

 

The Early Line on 2016 Contenders

Posted April 5th, 2013 at 9:14 pm (UTC+0)
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Republican Youth versus Democratic Experience

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is among the most mentioned possible Republican presidential contenders in 2016. Photo: AP

Okay, I know, it’s way too early to be talking about 2016 presidential contenders but the fact is Washington is a political town and is fueled by political speculation.  And if you’re a Republican, there is no better way to escape the gloom of last year’s presidential election than to think ahead four years when the Obama era will end and the presidential field will be wide open.

The latest Quinnipiac public opinion poll on potential 2016 Republican contenders showed no clear frontrunner.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio topped the list at 19 percent support among Republican voters.  He was followed in order by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  In other words, it’s way early and Republican voters haven’t even come close yet to coalescing around one or two major presidential candidates.

 

Wait Your Turn

Another possible Republican contender is Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Photo: AP

Consider the last two Republican presidential nominees.  John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney last year were pretty much products of the Republican establishment, though you can make the case that McCain has long had a maverick streak (and no, not in a Sarah Palin kind of way).  Both men ran for the nomination previously and lost.  They patiently waited their turn and eventually triumphed, though both also had their detractors within the party who doubted their commitment to core conservative principles.

This is how the Republican Party has operated for much of the post-World War II era.  The heir apparent patiently awaits his turn in the spotlight.  Richard Nixon faithfully served two terms as vice president under President Dwight Eisenhower and narrowly lost his presidential bid to John Kennedy in 1960.  Eisenhower wasn’t always helpful to Nixon’s campaign.  Asked to name a major idea put forward by Nixon as vice president, Ike famously told a reporter, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”  Ouch.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican budget expert, is a favorite among fiscal conservatives. Photo: AP

Ronald Reagan made his first tentative foray into presidential politics in 1968, the year of Nixon’s big comeback.  Reagan ran for real in 1976 and nearly knocked off the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in the Republican primaries.  Reagan had to wait until 1980 to finally claim the Republican nomination and then cruised to the first of two easy wins in the general election.

Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, patiently waited eight years for his turn in 1988.  Bush had challenged Reagan for the nomination in 1980 and won the consolation prize of being asked to be Reagan’s number two. That set him up for his own victorious presidential run eight years later.

Likewise for John McCain, who made a spirited run in 2000 only to lose out to George W. Bush in what was a times a nasty campaign.  McCain hung in there and waited his turn, re-emerging in 2008 and winning the nomination, the latest in a long line of Republican contenders who waited their turn for a chance at the prize.

 

Ripe for a Takeover

 

Looming in the background among Republican contenders is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has angered some party conservatives. Photo: AP

Looking ahead to 2016, there is no heir apparent.  The Republican Party looks to be in the midst of a generational shift.  No more establishment-favored candidates like McCain or Romney.

Enter the new generation—Rubio, Christie, Paul and Ryan.  And of course, there is Jeb Bush looming in the background.  How about a Bush-Clinton sequel match for 2016?  I just wonder how well Jeb Bush would do in the Republican primaries dominated by evangelical Christians and Tea Party activists.

And then there is the Bush name.  Has enough time gone by for the memory of the George W. Bush years to fade from public consciousness and allow Jeb Bush to create his own political profile?

So to me, Bush is the only possibility for the establishment Republicans to reassert themselves in terms of a presidential nominee in 2016.  Some could also gravitate toward Chris Christie.  But he gave plenty of conservatives heartburn last November with his 11th hour appearance with President Obama touring the hurricane-ravaged Jersey shore.

And then there is the wild card, Senator Rand Paul.  He appears to be building a fervent following like his father, Congressman Ron Paul, especially among younger conservatives and libertarians.  But Paul’s semi-isolationist foreign policy views are in stark contrast to the robust intervention advocates among the Republican Party’s neo-conservative wing, which had a profile in the Bush years following the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Could Paul split from the party in 2016 and mount an independent bid for president?  It’s conceivable. And don’t forget his recent 13-hour filibuster in the Senate targeting the president’s drone policy. It won some kudos from both liberals and conservatives. Paul looks as though he’s got a good knack for self-promotion and that’s no small thing if you’re thinking of running for president.

 

Succeeding Obama

Vice President Joe Biden is keeping his options open for the Democratic presidential nomination. Photo: AP

While Quinnipiac looked over the possible Republican Party presidential contenders, the latest Marist public opinion poll showed that Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, would defeat all of them if the election were right now instead of 2016.  The only Republican who came close was Christie, who lost to her by three points, 46 to 43.

Clinton has not said much about her intentions for 2016, but women Democrats in particular are eager for her to run.  They believe it’s time for a woman president and no one comes even close to filling that bill like the former secretary of state, senator and first lady.

In that sense it could be like the old Republican mantra that it’s Hillary’s turn in 2016 and the party should rally around her.  Of course some savvy observers would note that she was the Democratic favorite heading into the 2008 election cycle, and while the race was close, Barack Obama, the new kid on the block, emerged victorious in the nomination battle.

The big question is whether former secretary of state, former senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016. Early polls show her the favorite against all Republican possibilities. Photo: AP

What about Vice President Joe Biden?  Will he still run if Hillary decides to go?  It would seem an uphill battle for Biden, even though he has his supporters in the party and certainly within the administration.

Could the party withstand a heavyweight bout between two Democratic stalwarts?  Divisive nomination battles can harm a party’s prospects in the general election.  But it didn’t hurt the Democrats in 2008 following the drawn-out Obama-Clinton primary struggle.

While the Republican side boasts younger candidates, both Biden and Clinton have been around a while.  Clinton is 65 and will turn 69 shortly before the 2016 election.  Biden is 70 and would turn 74 shortly after the 2016 election.  A younger generation of candidates is waiting in the wings, hoping one or both of them decline to run in 2016.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley are both actively promoting themselves on the national scene and may decide to run no matter what Clinton or Biden do, just to boost their name recognition.

As for the age thing, Biden and Clinton could take inspiration from Ronald Reagan.  He’s the oldest candidate ever to win election to the White House.  He was 69 when he defeated Jimmy Carter back in 1980.

 

 

Rushing the Court on Gay Rights

Posted March 29th, 2013 at 2:58 pm (UTC+0)
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The U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are pictured here on Oct. 8, 2010, are expected to rule on two same-sex marriage cases by June. Photo: AP

Justices Caution Not So Fast

It’s not often that a revolution winds up on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, but it seemed to happen this past week.  The nine justices heard two potentially significant cases on same sex marriage and while decorum was maintained inside the chamber, a lot of the action seemed to happening outside on the court steps.

Thousands of pro-gay marriage supporters spent two days chanting, holding signs and celebrating what seemed to be a national coming-out party of sorts for a civil rights movement that believes its time has come.  Not to be outdone, scores of gay marriage opponents also made their presence known with a march for traditional marriage that wound up right in front of the court.

There was a bit of nervousness watching the two groups come together on First St. in Washington, D.C., which just happens to run between the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol building.  But the demonstrations came off peacefully and the whole scene had a movie-like quality to it as thousands milled outside the court while the justices listened and questioned the lawyers inside, seemingly exactly as the framers of the U.S. Constitution had intended.

 

Two Cases, One Cause

By the end of June we will know where the court stands on gay marriage, at least for now. Of the two cases in question, the justices seemed to signal a clearer intention on how to deal with the 1996 federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

DOMA defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. It passed with overwhelming support in Congress and then was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  DOMA denies federal benefits to gay couples married in states where same sex marriage is allowed, and from the tone of the questions from several justices it appears the high court may be poised to declare the law unconstitutional.  DOMA was passed at a time when even many Democrats were reluctant to support gay marriage, and so a victory over DOMA at the Supreme Court would energize gay rights activists.

But gay marriage proponents are really hoping for a clear-cut legal win in the other case before the high court, California’s ban on gay marriage known as Proposition 8.  Proposition 8 was approved by California voters in 2008, but later struck down by lower courts.  Gay rights activists are hoping the Supreme Court will seize the moment and declare Proposition 8 unconstitutional and in the process set a standard that would prevent other states from either continuing or establishing bans on same-sex marriage.

 

Reluctant Justices

Justice Anthony Kennedy has sometimes been the ‘swing voter’ on the Supreme Court, tipping cases one way or the other with his decisions. Photo: AP

But from the tone off the oral arguments in the California case, it appears several of the justices are looking for a way out of making a sweeping ruling on gay marriage, at least in the context of this particular case.  There is a lot of attention on Justice Anthony Kennedy in connection with both gay marriage cases.   Gay rights proponents regard Kennedy as sympathetic based on his record in previous cases.  But during oral arguments in the Proposition 8 case, Kennedy wondered aloud whether the high court should have even taken the case given that both the state of California and the Obama administration now oppose it.  Kennedy’s vote would seem crucial to any hope of a sweeping ruling for gay marriage emerging from the court on this case.

The court generally breaks down between a four-member conservative faction and a four-member liberal faction, with Kennedy often acting as the swing vote one way or the other.  Of course there are exceptions to this rule such as when Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative appointee of President George W. Bush, broke with his fellow conservatives on the court last year and upheld the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.  But Kennedy has long been seen as the key swing vote on the court who often provides the margin of victory for either the conservative or liberal factions and the gay marriage cases are likely to be no exception.

 

Shifting Public Mood

Public opinion polls show a remarkable shift in support of gay marriage in recent years and the thousands who descended on the Supreme Court this past week seemed to embody the sense of a civil rights movement gaining momentum.  It was as though you could actually feel the energy from the crowd trying to will the Supreme Court to come around to their point of view.  But plenty of legal scholars point out that the court often does not like to lead on divisive nationwide issues like gay marriage, and would prefer either the public or Congress to take the lead while the justices sit back and assess the legal implications.

Those favoring same-sex marriage protections are hoping their demonstrations in front of the court on Tuesday, March 26, will sway the justices in their rulings. Photo: AP

Plenty of people I talked to outside the court said the gay rights struggle is a case of the people leading the courts and the politicians.  In some way they hope that all their energy and commitment will somehow penetrate the hearing chamber have an impact on the justices inside.  It usually doesn’t work that way, though I will say this past week produced the largest crowds I have ever seen for Supreme Court oral arguments.

That won’t have much of an impact on the stalwart conservatives on the bench, but a lot of court watchers wonder about Chief Justice Roberts.  Because of Roberts’ ruling on the president’s health care law last year, it’s often suggested by court insiders that the chief justice has a special interest in the court’s reputation and historical standing.  But that doesn’t mean Roberts would be willing to get too far ahead of public opinion if he thought the issue of gay marriage needed to marinate longer in the sphere of public opinion, Congress and state legislatures.

 

Isolated But Aware

The justices like to have the public think they are immune from politics and public opinion but the fact is most of them are aware of what goes on outside the court and have some sense of where they see the court fitting into the constitutional framework.  Sometimes the court may be ahead of its time such as its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down racial segregation in schools, even though the problem had persisted for decades.

Several of the justices said this week they worried about the court getting too far ahead of public opinion on same sex marriage. To many of the demonstrators gathered outside, the court was in dire need of being dragged to the conclusion that gay marriage should be proclaimed once and for all the law of the land.  They think the court is behind the times, not with it.

Chief Justice John Roberts, shown here in 2009, is said to be concerned about the Supreme Court’s legacy. Photo: AP

The Supreme Court is unique among Washington institutions.  The justices don’t hold news conferences and the oral arguments for their cases are not televised, though there are audio recordings that are released for the big cases.  The justices are grilled by senators during their confirmation hearings about everything from their legal beliefs to their backgrounds to their favorite authors.  But once they are confirmed, they are in effect unanswerable to the press and public and serve for life or until health issues force retirement.

Being in the court during oral arguments is like being thrown back in time to the 1800’s.  A strict code of decorum is observed to the point where I recall then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist asking a woman to remove her hat inside the courtroom during a case in the late 1990’s.  Many of the press seats have an obscured view of the bench so reporters have to rely on their hearing to know which justice is speaking at any given time.  Those in the know are often asked for help by others who attend cases infrequently.

Another surprise is that the lead attorneys on both sides of a given case are continuously interrupted by the justices asking questions and challenging their legal arguments.  You might think it rude at first until you realize the justices have already read all of the legal briefs in the case and have little interest in listening to attorneys verbalize what they have already submitted in writing.  So the justices pepper both sides with questions and hypothetical arguments to either punch holes in the case or discern new bits of reasoning that may inform their eventual decision.

 

Clues to the Outcome

Reporters love to guess how a justice will vote in a given case based on the questions he or she has asked.  But often the justices challenge both sides and it can be tricky to base a prediction on how the oral arguments have gone.

As far as the two gay marriage cases this past week go, most analysts see a real chance for a majority of the court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which would open the door to gay couples becoming eligible for the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples now enjoy.

But the prediction game is much riskier for those trying to figure out what the court will do in the Proposition 8 case.  The justices have hinted at a range of possible outcomes there but the betting among many Supreme Court scholars is not to expect a sweeping ruling on gay marriage.

More likely what may come is a limited ruling that could knock down the Proposition 8 ban on same sex marriage but keep the impact limited to California alone.  We’ll know within three months.

 

 

 

Budget War Pause

Posted March 25th, 2013 at 8:35 pm (UTC+0)
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President Obama, shown here meeting with newly sworn in U.S. citizens Monday, March 25, is enjoying a brief respite from the budget battles with Republicans. Photo: AP

Bracing for a Summer Showdown

Members of Congress are away for the next two weeks, but before they left town they approved a law that will keep the federal government funded through the end of September.  Passage of the funding measure avoided a government shutdown and includes the $85 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts known as the budget sequester.

Republicans are celebrating.  They finally got some of the spending cuts they’ve been demanding for months and are now heading home to claim victory to their conservative supporters.  But they also may face some questions from angry voters concerned about the local impact of some of the sequester cuts such as those on military bases and small airports where the cuts will begin to have an impact soon.

Both sides in Washington’s budget battle can now claim victories.  President Barack Obama and the Democrats won the battle for higher taxes on the rich back in January.  Republicans staged their comeback in the battle over the sequester cuts and now present themselves as a major obstacle to any hope the president has of boosting government spending in the near future on priorities like early childhood education or infrastructure improvements.

 

Another Battle on the Horizon

 

The next major skirmish is likely to come in July or August and will again involve the need for Congress to raise the debt ceiling so that the government can pay its bills.  House Republicans have said they will not approve another debt ceiling increase unless there’s an agreement to cut an equal amount in government spending.  Democrats are warning they will not go along with more cuts unless Republicans agree to raise more revenue by raising taxes on the wealthy.

As with any battle over the debt limit, there is an element of economic risk here.  If one side or the other overplays its hand in the debt limit skirmish, it could have an impact on world markets and set the stage for a political backlash for the party perceived to be at fault.

It’s too early to know which side has the upper hand heading into the next budget battle.  Liberal Democrats are already disappointed that President Obama didn’t fight harder to prevent the sequester cuts from taking hold.  Conservatives are happy they got their way in the sequester battle, but see it as only a small step in the larger struggle to balance the budget within the next 10 years.  For now, the public probably welcomes the stand-down in the budget war, however temporary.  But on whose side will they be when the war heats up in a few months?

 

Republican Rumblings

 

The surprise winner in the post-Obama re-election contest to see which Republican can garner the most national attention is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.  Paul narrowly won the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) straw poll vote for president over Florida Senator Marco Rubio.  Paul also staged a 13-hour filibuster, drawing attention to the Obama administration’s drone policy, and has emerged as one of the few Republicans with a national profile who can appeal to both Tea Party types and mainstream conservatives.

Senator Rand Paul, pictured here during a speech in Frbruary, was the surprise highlight during a recent conference of Republican party conservatives. Photo: AP

Senator Rand Paul, pictured here in during a speech last month, was a surprise highlight at a recent gathering of Republican Party conservatives. Photo: AP

Republicans are clearly looking for new, younger alternatives on the national scene to their two most recent presidential nominees—Mitt Romney last year and John McCain in 2008.  Both Paul and Rubio fit the bill in terms of appealing to young conservatives.  The question is which one is better positioned to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party beyond conservative activists and make the party truly competitive in the next presidential election contest.

There is a lot of time between now and 2015 when the next group of presidential candidates begins to get ready for 2016.  And don’t forget New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who probably has more potential for appeal to centrists than all of the other Republican contenders combined.  Christie was not invited to speak at the recent CPAC meeting of conservatives, but if anything, that probably helped his standing with political moderates who may be in a mood to shop for a Republican alternative in the next presidential election.

 

Supreme Court Takes on Gay Marriage

 

The nine U.S. Supreme Court justices take on two cases related to gay marriage this week.  First, the court is being asked to consider whether California’s ban on same sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, is constitutional.  If the court were to rule that states may not enact laws that bar same sex marriage, traditional marriage proponents believe the flood gates would open around the country on efforts to ensure gays and lesbians have the right to marry.  However, the court could confine itself to a smaller bore ruling that might only pertain to California, so we are a way off from knowing just how sweeping a ruling might come out of the divided court.

Sandy Stier, left, and Kris Perry of Berkeley, California visit the tourist sites in Washington Monday, March 25, a day before their gay marriage case is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: AP

The second case involves a challenge to the 1996 federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  This law bars federal recognition of state laws that allow gay marriage.

The cases come before the court at a time when public opinion seems to be shifting in favor of legalizing gay marriage.  A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found support for allowing same sex marriage has jumped to 58 percent, with 36 percent opposed.  Back in 2006, those numbers in the same poll were reversed, a remarkable shift in just the past few years.

It will be interesting to see to what degree the Supreme Court either reflects the recent shifts in public opinion or rejects it.  The traditional conservative-liberal split on the high court will likely come into play here.

Four of the justices tend to be reliably conservative, while four others tend to come down on the liberal side of arguments.  The swing vote is usually Justice Anthony Kennedy and he could be again in the two cases this week on gay marriage.  The high court will issue rulings in both cases sometime before its term concludes at the end of June.

Republicans Study Autopsy Report

Posted March 19th, 2013 at 9:33 pm (UTC+0)
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus talks about the party’s need to change its image during a television appearance March 17, 2013. Photo: AP/CBS Face the Nation

Party May Need Heart Transplant

Like all smart political parties, Republicans have been spending some time looking in the mirror after last November’s dispiriting election results.  In a report called the Growth and Opportunity Project, Republican leaders studied what went wrong last year and offer up some general ideas about improving the party’s electoral prospects in the future.

The report includes focus group feedback that described the Republican brand in terms that included “scary,” “narrow-minded,” “out of touch”  — a party of “stuffy old men.”  OK, sounds like nowhere to go but up from here.

But the heart of the Republican problem could be, well, heart.  Too often Republican candidates are seen as negative and driven purely by economic concerns, especially cutting government spending.  Those behind the report believe the party has to do more to counter the perception that Republicans simply don’t care about people.

 

A Need to Reach Out

 

Stuffy old men? Some Republicans think that about veteran party stalwarts such as Senator John McCain (L) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, shown here at a political fund-raising event in 2010. Photo: AP

The report also described Republicans as being in an “ideological cul-de-sac” and said the party must find a way to appeal to groups beyond older white males.  The recommendations include reaching out to minority voters — African-American, Hispanic and Asian-Americans—and calls on Republicans to back comprehensive immigration reform.  But whether that should lead to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country is left open.  And obviously that is an issue that will be divisive for Republicans in Congress in the months to come.

Republicans are likely to concede that African-Americans will remain largely in the Democratic Party column.  They would like to focus on winning over some Hispanics and Asian-American voters.  Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group and census projections show they could make up 10 percent of the population by mid-century when whites are projected to fall into minority status.

 

Conservative Blowback

 

But outspoken conservatives and Republican activists known as the Tea Party immediately lashed out at the Republican self-analysis.  The Tea Party Patriots released a statement that said voters don’t need an “autopsy” from the Republican National Committee to know that the party failed to promote Tea Party principles and lost because of it.  Talk show host Rush Limbaugh said the party was “totally bamboozled” and he was part of a chorus of conservative firebrands who saw the party document as a retreat from core principles.

Even in the aftermath of last November’s election, Republicans were divided as to why they had lost.  Some accepted the conventional wisdom that the party had strayed too far to the right and that Mitt Romney appeared to be held hostage by the conservative and Tea Party wing of the party.

But many conservatives slammed the Romney campaign for abandoning core conservative positions, like deporting illegal immigrants, and have vowed to never again nominate “an establishment Republican” to lead the party.  If the various factions within the party can’t agree on the cause of defeat, how can they be expected to agree on a set of solutions and then implement them?

 

Conservatives Debate the Way Forward

The recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) confirmed what most experts already knew.  The Republican Party is in a state of disarray at the moment and how it all gets resolved is far from certain.  What is clear is that there is no shortage of voices eager to chime in on what ails the Grand Old Party and how to fix it.  The question is: are they even listening to each other?

Republican Senator Rand Paul, a highlight speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference March 14, 2013. Photo: AP

Among the stars at the recent CPAC conference were Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Paul bested Rubio in the fun to watch but meaningless straw poll of potential presidential contenders for 2016. That suggests an appetite among conservatives for fresh faces as they consider their options for the next election.  Palin’s main role seemed to be one of providing comic relief through snappy one-liners.  Maybe she’s had so many people laughing at her in recent years she’s figured it’s better to have them laughing with you.

On the other hand, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain did not fare as well at CPAC.  If Bush is considering a presidential run in 2016, he realizes he will have to get at least a passing grade from this conservative group in order to placate the right.

I said if he’s running.  I’m still not convinced Bush has what politicians like to call the “fire in the belly” to go through the gauntlet of primaries, caucuses and debates necessary to win the party nomination.  The Washington Times reported that former Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth actually heckled Bush during his CPAC speech on issues including tax increases and immigration reform, areas where Bush has indicated he may be willing to go further than most conservatives.

As for Senator McCain, he came under fire from Senator Cruz, among others, for labeling some younger conservatives as “wacko birds.”  McCain later apologized for the comment, but some boos peppered his speech before CPAC and he and Jeb Bush are clearly seen by a younger generation of conservative activists as part of a Republican establishment that is out of touch with where the party is heading.

 

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The man who wasn’t there: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, shown here at a news conference February 8, was not invited to last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo: AP

That would be Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey.  Christie was famously not invited to the CPAC meeting but still managed to finish fourth in the straw poll ballot behind Paul, Rubio and former senator Rick Santorum.

Christie is out of favor with many hard core conservatives because they believe he helped President Obama win a second term in November after the two men appeared together and toured the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast.  Despite this perceived faux pas, Christie is enormously popular in his home state, with a recent Quinnipiac poll showing his approval rating at 74 percent.

The fact is, potential candidates like Christie and Jeb Bush still represent the Republican’s best hopes for appealing to moderate and swing voters in 2016.  Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have their champions to be sure.  But they seem to have little to offer moderates looking for a Republican alternative in a matchup against, say, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden three years from now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conservative Restart

Posted March 15th, 2013 at 9:05 pm (UTC+0)
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President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner are all smiles after talks on the Budget at the White House last November 16. Photo: AP

Looking for the Next Reagan

Thousands of election-weary conservatives gathered at a resort hotel outside Washington this week, trying to figure out what went wrong in last November’s election and how to fix it for the future.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, is a kind of melting pot for the conservative movement and a testing ground for future Republican presidential contenders.  Conservative activists from around the country make an annual pilgrimage to Washington to attend the event to rub shoulders with conservative icons, radio talk show hosts and television anchors from the Tea Party Television network (yes, it exists!)

Most of the people I spoke with at the gathering say they draw a lot of energy from fellow conservatives.  That’s probably even more important this year in the wake of last November’s election results that saw President Obama winning a second term in the White House and Republican losses in both the Senate and House of Representatives.  But strolling the aisles at CPAC you also feel how relaxed these conservative activists are, excited to be among fellow true believers and not having to explain themselves to what Sarah Palin likes to call the “lame-stream” media every few minutes.

 

In search of a leader

That being said, there is some angst among conservatives about what the future may hold.  They realize 2012 was a bad year for the movement, but they’re also wondering how they can make themselves more appealing to the electorate at large without compromising on key conservative principles like smaller government and individual rights.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was a rising star at the CPAC meeting March 14. Photo: AP

Many of the older activists I spoke with still like to invoke the name of former president Ronald Reagan, a popular CPAC fixture going back to the 1970’s.  But for the younger crowd, Reagan is a figure out of the history books.  They’re much more interested in shopping for a new leader among a younger generation of Republican hopefuls that includes the likes of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.

Rubio and especially Paul got enthusiastic receptions from the CPAC crowd.  I’ve heard Rubio speak several times now and I always get the sense he feels compelled to prove his conservative credentials no matter what group he’s speaking to.

Paul on the other hand has a legitimate following, especially among younger conservatives.  They love his focus on constitutional principles.  And his recent Senate filibuster focused on the drone issue won him plaudits not only from conservatives but even from some liberal groups concerned with the civil liberties implications of targeting U.S. citizens with alleged links to terrorism.

Paul seems further ahead of Rubio in seeming to gear up for a presidential run in 2016.  Paul would inherit the fervent supporters who stuck with his father, Ron Paul, during his presidential runs. He also has the potential to develop a younger following of his own.  Rubio, though, would theoretically have wider appeal in the electorate and would give Republicans a chance to draw in some Hispanic voters, moderates and women.

Last year’s losing presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, got a warm reception when he spoke to CPAC.  This is kind of ironic because Romney never could convince a lot of conservatives that he was truly one of them.

Romney did have some advice for conservatives and the Republican Party, even though he acknowledged it might seem strange coming from a losing candidate.  He said one path to political success in the future is for Republicans nationally to emulate the 30 Republican governors in the states, some of whom are having success in trimming budgets and building popular support for conservative programs.  As Romney departed the stage you couldn’t help wondering how much of a role he’ll play in the party’s future.  The guessing here is not much.

 

Obama into the Lion’s Den

Safely tucked away in his multi-vehicle motorcade, President Barack Obama sped by our office window this week on his way to meet Republican members of the House of Representatives, one of several meetings with lawmakers from both parties and both sides of Capitol Hill.  It’s the latest step in a charm offensive that the president hopes will make some sort of grand bargain on the budget more than just a pipedream.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan presents the latest Republican budget proposal March 12. Photo: AP

Even as Mr. Obama met with Republicans on the Hill, congressional budget leaders from both parties released opposing plans aimed at cutting the budget deficit.  The House Republican plan put forward by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan would balance the budget in 10 years by cutting deeply into government spending and reworking key entitlement programs like Medicare.  Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee.

His counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington, unveiled a Democratic Party budget plan that would not balance the budget anytime soon, but would raise taxes by almost $1 trillion over the next decade.  The Democratic plan would also protect entitlement programs from sweeping changes and the added revenue from tax hikes would be used to ease some of the sequester budget cuts already in effect.  President Obama is expected to release his own budget proposal in early April.

 

Coming Together or Pulling Apart?

The question is do these competing budget plans help or hurt the effort to eventually get to a “grand bargain” on the budget that would end the month-to-month political wrangling in Washington.  Political experts are split.

On one hand, both parties need to get out their best budget shots to the public at large — what they would do in a perfect world.  It’s important for both parties to establish their core principles and values through budget priorities to keep faith with their base voters.

On the other hand, there are hopes that once each side has put out its budget plan that there would be some movement toward a compromise in the middle.  So far, though, there hasn’t been too much of that.

President Obama began his outreach earlier in the month by having dinner with several Senate Republicans. The readout from that confab was generally positive, at least in terms of tone.  The president old ABC News that his subsequent trips to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers were part of an effort to find what he called a “common-sense caucus.”  It could also help his approval ratings, which have been down in recent polls.  The public generally wants the president and Congress to work together to get things done.

A familiar face: former presidential candidate Mitt Romney tells his fellow Republicans March 15, that they should follow the lead of Republican state governors when it comes to budget issues. Photo: AP

But a key question is whether Mr. Obama’s opening to Republicans can be sustained now that both sides have issued vastly different budget plans that neatly encapsulate their clashing world views on the role of government.

There would seem to be some notable non-starters in the two competing budget plans.  The Ryan plan assumes the repeal of the president’s landmark health care reform law, which seems highly unlikely given the president’s re-election and Democratic control of the Senate.  On the other hand, the Democratic Senate plan to raise $1 trillion in new tax revenue would seem to be, in that classic budget phrase, “dead on arrival” as far as Republicans are concerned.

Many of the comments from Republicans in the wake of the president’s so-called “charm offensive” were mildly positive, though not necessarily suggestive that a big agreement on the budget was anywhere near.  Some Republicans grumbled that it didn’t seem to them that the president was willing to take bold steps necessary to rein in entitlement costs.

But Democrats countered that a large number of conservative Republicans have now ruled out any more tax increases as part of a big deal, fearing they would be challenged by a conservative candidate in a Republican primary election.

So yes, both sides are talking and that’s a good thing.  But the early signs are that for the moment, both sides appear to be willing to go only so far in search of a big budget deal.

Whether and how that dynamic might change remains to be seen.  But time is of the essence.  The closer we get to the 2014 congressional election cycle, the less likely it will be for both sides to agree on something that can pass both houses of Congress.

 

 

 

 

 

Washington’s Early Political Spring

Posted March 8th, 2013 at 9:12 pm (UTC+0)
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President Barack Obama, pictured March 5, 2013, has begun reaching out to Republicans who might work with him to solve the budget impasse. Photo: AP

Will Changes in Tone Lead to Action?

Like the warming breezes of an unexpected early spring, there was a subtle shift in Washington’s political landscape this week.  President Barack Obama took the unusual step of having dinner with a dozen Senate Republicans to open an informal dialogue on the budget issues that have crippled this town for the past few years.

Congressman Paul Ryan had lunch with President Obama March 7, as part of the White House’s effort to get Republican help in reaching a budget agreement. Photo: AP

By most accounts, this private dinner went well and the president followed up the next day by having lunch with the main budget honcho for House Republicans, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.  Ryan is preparing to reveal his 10-year plan that reportedly would balance the budget by 2023.

Of course the pitfall is that the Ryan plan will feature spending cuts in entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That could set off another partisan mini-war, with Democrats accusing the Republicans of being willing to throw grandma in the street in the greater cause of balancing the budget.

But the point is that the recent exchanges between the president and Republicans are the first real steps toward bipartisanship since before the 2012 election cycle.  At the very least, they offer the possibility of talks that eventually could lead to some sort of grand bargain that cuts the deficit, protects entitlement programs and ends the cycle of endless budget crises that have paralyzed Washington for much of the Obama presidency.

 

Why Now?

 

President Obama won re-election in November and all the political deep-thinkers agreed that gave him the upper hand in dealing with Republicans on the budget issues.  His re-election secure, the president got his way on higher taxes for the wealthy as part of the mix for deficit reduction.  Republicans lost that battle but vowed to wage a tougher fight for budget cuts.  Remember that in part thanks to the influence of the Tea Party movement, the Republican focus has really been on reducing the size of government, primarily through spending cuts. That means no rise in taxes.

Senator Lindsey Graham is another influential Republican President Obama hopes will help out with a budget deal. Photo: AP

This played out in the fight over the budget sequester cuts, the $85 billion worth of across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts that went into effect when Congress and the president couldn’t agree on an alternative set of cuts  to replace them.  The president warned about the impact for weeks and some of those predictions could still come true in time.

But for now, at least, the impact of the sequester cuts has been negligible.  The result is that a big leverage club seems to have been taken out of the president’s hands and the Republicans have declared victory. Their line is we told you the cuts weren’t going to be that bad and we are going to prove that deficit reduction is possible.

I think both sides have had their victories and are now in a stalemate looking for a way out.  The president and the Democrats are going to have to confront the realities of some sort of spending cuts and eventual changes in entitlements.  Likewise, Republicans have to realize that any real changes to entitlements will probably require additional revenue as well.  Some Republicans, like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham have already indicated openness to a big deal that would ease the cuts on defense in exchange for cutting some tax loopholes for the wealthy.

So the grand bargain is not in sight yet.  The fiscal cloud over Washington that produces one budget crisis after another has not yet dissipated.  But the recent meetings and outreach on both sides, at least, suggests that both sides are starting to realize they have pressed their advantages as far as they can go and that maybe it’s time for a little old-fashioned political wheeling and dealing to bring this paralyzing cycle to an end.

Rand Paul Attacks Drones

 

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who enjoys strong support from Tea Party activists, made a name for himself this week in Washington.  Paul took to the Senate floor in a good old fashioned filibuster for about 13 hours, pressing the Obama administration for a firm commitment that it would not use drones to target U.S. citizens on American soil suspected of terrorist ties.  In the end, a brief letter from Attorney General Eric Holder included the assurance Paul was asking for, and he declared victory.

The drone program targeting suspected terrorists has been very controversial overseas.  Libertarians in this country want assurances that the program won’t be used to target U.S. citizens at home, and Paul got support from several conservative Republicans during his filibuster and one Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.  Misgivings over the drone policy span the gamut from far right to far left, with Tea Party activists, Libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union all weighing in with concerns.

Republican Senator Rand Paul got a lot of attention March 6, when he spoke for 13 hours straight during a hearing to confirm the president’s nominee to lead the CIA. Photo: AP

Paul got some credit from commentators from both the right and left in the aftermath of his filibuster, which he had to end to answer a call of nature.  It certainly helped raise his profile and some Tea Party-leaning Republicans have been talking up the prospect of him running for president in 2016.

But the incident also showed some fissures within the Republican Party.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to the Senate floor the next day and criticized Paul’s drone attack.  The strains are growing between the libertarian group of Republicans, more focused on cutting the size of government, and the old line conservative defense hawks like McCain and Graham who applaud President Obama for continuing the anti-terror policies put in place by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Paul also went old school in his filibuster.  In recent years it was the mere threat of a filibuster by a senator that could keep important business off the floor for weeks at a time.  All a senator had to do was indicate he or she would oppose a bill or nominee and threaten a filibuster without actually having to do so.  Paul actually took to the Senate floor and held it by speaking for most of 13 hours, occasionally yielding to supportive colleagues for a question and munching on a candy bar and peanuts for sustenance.  The all-time record for a filibuster is held by the late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.  He held the floor for more than 24 hours back in 1957 in a failed attempt to block a civil rights bill that was strongly opposed in the southern states.

Even critics gave Paul some credit for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs for hours on the Senate floor.  Paul knew it would be a losing cause in a parliamentary sense because he was trying to block a vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director.  Brennan was easily approved, but Paul gained valuable attention and name recognition, especially if as some predict he decides to make a presidential bid in three years.

 

Presidential Auditions

 

Speaking of 2016, get ready for CPAC.  What’s that?  It stands for Conservative Political Action Conference, a key conservative group that fuels the Republican Party with ideas, energy and even a few prospective presidential candidates.

CPAC holds its annual meeting soon in Washington and it serves as an early opportunity for auditions for those considering a run for the White House in 2016.  Among this year’s speakers are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the aforementioned Senator Rand Paul and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey may have angered some of his fellow Republicans, but he is still considered a strong candidate for  the party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Photo: AP

Among those not invited this year is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the most popular state chief executives in the nation.  Christie offended conservative Republicans just before the November election when he toured coastal areas of New Jersey devastated by super storm Sandy with President Obama.  Some Republicans haven’t forgiven Christie for what they see as a betrayal by appearing with the president in the closing days of what appeared to be a close presidential campaign.

But Christie may have the last laugh.  A recent poll in New Jersey found his approval rating at 74 percent and Democrats have been scrambling to find an opponent to run against him later this year.  Quinnipiac University polling also found Christie was by far the most competitive Republican to put up against Democratic Hillary Clinton in 2016, if she decides to run.

CPAC is a conservative group and it’s an important test for any Republican thinking about a presidential run.  But it’s not the only hurdle for a prospective candidate, especially after an election in which the party’s main challenge would seem to be finding a way to broaden its appeal.  There will be a straw poll at the end of the three-day meeting in Washington that will, if nothing else, give an early indication of who conservative Republicans are looking at for the next election.

 

 

 

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.

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