Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Minnesota Two-Step



Let's start with some stuff that is important to understand, although not enough people do:

U.S. senators are elected to six–year terms, and the terms are arranged so that one–third of the Senate is on the ballot in any given election. In 2018 the electoral map has few Republicans facing the voters as the senators who are up for re–election won their current terms in 2012, the year Barack Obama was re–elected. That was a pretty good year for Democrats.

If those senators were re–elected in 2012, their previous election would have been in 2006, which was a big year for Democrats. That was the year they seized control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than a decade.

The Democrat senators who are on the ballot in 2018 had favorable winds at their backs the last two times their seats were on the ballot. Their party gained two Senate seats and eight House seats in 2012 — five Senate seats and 34 House seats in 2006.

The political terrain wasn't as favorable for Republicans in those years as it was in others, and fewer were successful. As a result, fewer Republicans hold the Class 1 seats that will be on the 2018 ballot.

Senate terms are also staggered so that no state must elect both its senators in the same election year — unless there is a midterm vacancy that needs to be filled.

Sen. Al Franken's stated intention to resign in January puts Minnesota in that comparatively rare category in 2018.

Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota's senior senator, is seeking a third six–year term in her Class 1 seat. Franken's seat is a Class 2 seat that would be slated to face the voters again in 2020, but because he is leaving the Senate, his appointed successor will be on the ballot in the next election. The voters will decide who will represent them until 2020 — at which time the winner of the 2018 race will have to decide whether to seek a full term.

Such two–fer Senate elections are rare — some states have never had one — but this will be the second time for Minnesota. The first time was 40 years ago — in 1978. Then, as now, both seats were held by Democrats.

Does that 40–year–old election have any relevance to 2018?

One of the seats had belonged to Sen. Walter Mondale, who was elected vice president in 1976. Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson resigned so his lieutenant governor could become governor and appoint Anderson to fill the Senate vacancy for the last two years of the term.

The other seat had belonged to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was elected to the Senate after leaving the vice presidency and then re–elected in 1976; then he died of cancer in January 1978. His widow was appointed to the seat until an election could be held later that year. The winner would hold the seat until 1982. Muriel Humphrey chose not to run, and Minnesota Democrats selected a rich trucking firm owner to be their standard bearer.

Minnesota has a reputation as a deep blue state in 2017, and it was quite blue in the '70s, too, although it did vote for Richard Nixon in 1972 and had voted for other Republicans for president in the first half of the 20th century; still it hadn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1952.

Republicans used that to their advantage. They made the point that Minnesota's leading statewide offices were held by people who had not been elected to them — and the seats would all be on the ballot in 1978. That was the voters' big chance, the Republicans said, gleefully asserting that Minnesota's Democrats would face "something scary" in 1978 — "an election."

That wasn't entirely fair. Democrats had been elected to all those offices the last time they were on the ballot, and Democrats were appointed to fill the vacancies. It wasn't as if someone was circumventing the political will of the voters.

(The party affiliation may have been the same, but the philosophy wasn't always. That trucking firm owner who was nominated when Mrs. Humphrey decided not to run was more conservative than most Democrats were then or are now.)

In 1976 Minnesota gave the Carter–Mondale ticket nearly 55% of the vote. The voters knew that, if the ticket won the election, someone would replace Mondale in the Senate. They voted for the Democratic ticket, anyway. When Humphrey was re–elected that same year, it was no secret that he was sick; nearly three–fourths of Minnesotans voted for him, anyway.

What hurt the Democrats in 1978, though, was Anderson's blatant move to gain Mondale's seat. I suppose it hinted of entitlement to many, and the voters clearly didn't like that. Only 42% of them supported Anderson in November.

Muriel Humphrey, by her own admission, was no politician. She was a politician's wife, and she played that role graciously for decades, then dutifully kept the seat warm until the election. Would the magic of the Humphrey name have carried the day and kept the Senate seat in the Democrats' hands if she had not decided to step down?

We'll never know, but that businessman who won the party's nomination when Mrs. Humphrey declined to run only got 36% of the vote in November.

When the Senate convened in January 1979 Minnesota was represented by two Republican senators for the first time since the Truman administration.

Republicans completed the sweep by winning the governor's office as well, and the 1978 election came to be known as the "Minnesota Massacre."

Now, to an extent, voters throw tantrums in these special elections and vote contrary to their usual patterns. Like a fever, though, it passes, and voters return to their roots by the time the next election is held. We saw this in the early part of this decade when Massachusetts elected a Republican to serve the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term, then chose a Democrat when the seat was on the ballot for a full six–year term.

I suspect we will see that same phenomenon — albeit in reverse — in Alabama in 2020, when Democrat Doug Jones must decide whether to seek a full six–year term.

The dynamics were different in Minnesota 40 years ago, though. The Republican who was elected to complete Humphrey's term, David Durenberger, went on to win two full terms and then retired after 16 years in the Senate. Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican who defeated Anderson, was re–elected once.

If Minnesota threw a tantrum in 1978, it had staying power. It remains to be seen whether the voters of Minnesota will throw a similar tantrum in 2018.

Political tantrums require catalysts, and those catalysts vary from state to state. The circumstances that led to Scott Brown winning Ted Kennedy's seat in 2010 were different from the ones that propelled Doug Jones to victory in the race for Jeff Sessions' seat or led to the Minnesota Massacre.

At present there appear to be no storms on the horizon for Minnesota Democrats, but as I observed more than a year ago, in spite of voting Democratic in 10 consecutive presidential elections, deep–blue Minnesota wavered a few times and was a candidate for flipping to the other party in 2016.

It didn't, but it came close. A week after I posted that, Minnesota voted Democrat for the 11th straight time — but Hillary Clinton's share of Minnesota's vote was the smallest for a Democrat since her husband in 1992.

And Bill Clinton could point to the presence on the ballot of a credible third–party candidate who took nearly a quarter of Minnesota's vote.

Who knows which issues may emerge in 2018 to help or hurt Tina Smith, Franken's appointed successor? Smith, who was once regarded as a gubernatorial prospect, will become a senator as an indirect result of the emergence of sexual harassment as a political issue and a direct result of credible accusations that were leveled at her predecessor.

But what if not–so–credible accusations are made that cast a shadow over the issue? That could lead to voter backlash.

Are there any Tawana Brawleys lurking out there in Minnesota?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Noteworthy Day in American History



Today is the anniversary of two noteworthy events in American history.

They are noteworthy for different reasons — and, on the surface, appear to have little, if anything, in common. But bear with me.

Now, something has happened on every day in the calendar — even if it was nothing more than people were born on that day and people died on that day. For a long time I believed that nothing of note ever happened on the day of my birth — other than the fact that a few famous people were born on that day and a few died — but I later learned that there were some historic — albeit minor — events on my birthday.

There are 365 days in a year (366 in Leap Years); in a few thousand years of recorded history it stands to reason that something, however great or small, must have happened on each at some time.

Dec. 19 is the anniversary of two significant events in American history, separated by nearly two centuries, but they both speak to the purpose of America.

The first event was on this day in 1777. Gen. George Washington and his men began to set up their winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pa.

Even if you never learned the specifics when you were in school, you almost surely learned of the Continental Army's struggle to survive that winter. They had been engaged in a battle with the British in early December, and Washington sought some place where his men could spend the winter.

There were several considerations — Washington needed a location that would support wartime objectives. Valley Forge was far from ideal, but it was easy to defend and had plenty of timber that could be used to build huts.

Everything was in short supply — food, clothing, shelter.

As for shelter ...

It was on this day 240 years ago that construction of the first hut at Valley Forge began. It was completed in three days. By February, 2,000 huts had been built.

Having shelter against the elements helped, but it did nothing for the food and clothing shortages. Contrary to popular belief, Valley Forge had comparatively little snow that winter, but the conditions were still frigid, the men were ill–clothed and underfed.

Why did they endure such hardship? Because they believed in the concept of freedom.

Fast forward 195 years.

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17 returned to Earth. It was a little more than three years since Apollo 11's historic voyage to the moon.

Consequently most Americans probably expected to see men walking on the surface of some other object in the heavens — even though Apollo 18 had been canceled more than two years earlier and no further space landings of any kind were on NASA's schedule. No such missions have been launched in 45 years, and no such missions are planned although the notion has been given plenty of lip service.

Most people probably didn't recognize it at the time, but America was in a truly transitional period. The idea of American exceptionalism had been taking a beating due to the Vietnam War and Watergate. There was a crisis in American confidence that continues to this day.

After Richard Nixon cruised to re–election as president in 1972, things began to change in American politics. In the next two decades, three incumbent presidents would be rejected at the polls by the voters (for comparison purposes, three incumbent presidents were rejected by the voters in the previous 80 years), and the only destinations for American space travelers were space stations.

If they could visit America today, the veterans of Valley Forge might wonder what has become of the country for which they sacrificed so much. What has happened to the courage that sustained them through Valley Forge and the seemingly impossible revolution against British rule? What has become of that "what's next" spirit of exploration that led Americans from the eastern shores of the continent to the western shores — and from there into space?

While it is true that President Donald Trump recently signed Space Policy Directive 1, which provides for a return to the moon — and beyond — Ethan Siegel writes for Forbes that ain't happening.

"With no plans for adequate, additional funding to support these ambitions," Siegel writes, "these dreams will simply evaporate, as they have so many times before."

Perhaps Siegel is right. Perhaps the objective needs to be more targeted. The scattershooting approach of returning to the moon then jumping to the next goal (Mars) and beyond may not be the way to go, as Siegel suggests.

"If we want to go to Mars, we should make that our goal and invest in it," he writes. "If we want to go to the Moon, we should make that our goal and invest in it. Pretending that one has anything to do with the other is a delusion."

Maybe so. But it also seems to me that the spirit of Valley Forge has taken a beating since the days of Apollo 17.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Does It Mean?



Barring a reversal by recount, it appears that Democrat Doug Jones has defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions' appointment as attorney general.

Jones did not win a full six–year term. He was only elected to finish the unexpired portion of Sessions' term. If he chooses to seek a full term, he will have to do so in 2020.

In that regard, he is much like Republican Scott Brown, who won a special election in Massachusetts in 2010 to complete the term of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy died in office in August 2009, and Brown was elected to serve the last two years of his term.

The dynamics of the elections differ, but the overriding similarity is the fact that both states elected nominees from the parties that had not been successful in those states for a long time. It was especially shocking in Massachusetts, I suppose, since that Senate seat had been held by Kennedys for more than half a century — and Massachusetts had given nearly 62% of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 — but it is no less shocking in Alabama, where Donald Trump received 62% of the vote in 2016.

Pundits are looking for clues to the political future, just as they did in 2010. I am inclined to reach the same conclusions now as I did then.

In 2010 I wrote the following: "I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year." I feel that way today — but I have no more of an idea of the extent than I did then.

The circumstances could hardly be more different. A cloud of controversy hung over Moore in the last month of the campaign; the extent to which that contributed to his defeat remains to be determined, but its influence cannot be denied. There was no such cloud hanging over Martha Coakley when she lost to Brown in 2010; apparently she simply took victory for granted. She tried unsuccessfully to correct her shortcomings a few years later when she sought the governor's office and lost to the Republican nominee. Was Coakley the problem? Or was the party the problem?

The same question could be asked about Moore and the special election in Alabama.

As a harbinger of things to come, the Massachusetts election may have given Democrats — who had been anticipating seizing full control of the government after Obama became the first black man to be elected president and they achieved filibuster–proof status in the Senate with the election of Al Franken in Minnesota and Arlen Specter's party switch in Pennsylvania — a glimpse into a grim future.

The Democrats didn't lose control of the Senate in 2010, but they came close. Going into the election, the party held 58 seats (which, when combined with two independents who caucused with them, provided them with their filibuster–proof status) and emerged from it with 51 seats — still a majority but greatly diminished — and fully vulnerable to a Republican filibuster.

The 2010 midterms are not remembered in history for the outcome in the Senate races, though. What is remembered is the fact that Republicans turned a 79–seat deficit in the House into a 49–seat advantage. They have held the majority in the House ever since.

As a harbinger of things that may be yet to come, the Alabama election may have done the same thing for Republicans. The question is whether the GOP will be wise enough to heed its warning.

I don't know if Democrats can be competitive in enough House districts to pull off the kind of wave the Republicans achieved in 2010. Based on what I have seen, they may be fortunate to grab a narrow majority if they claim one at all.

Republicans don't need to lose as many Senate seats in 2018 as Democrats lost in 2010 to lose control of the chamber — and, as I have mentioned before, the historical tide of midterms runs against the party in the White House.

But until Tuesday, the Democrats faced an uphill struggle in trying to capture the Senate. Only one–third of the senators are on the ballot in a given election year — unless a special election has been called because a senator died or resigned before his/her term was completed. In this cycle, the vast majority of senators whose seats are on the ballot in 2018 are Democrats. Of those senators whose seats must be defended in 2018, only one incumbent Republican senator comes from a state that voted for Hillary Clinton whereas 10 incumbent Democrats must face the voters in states that supported Donald Trump.

With their upset victory in Alabama Democrats need only two more seats to claim a majority in the Senate for the last two years of Trump's term. That is more plausible now — but not necessarily more probable.

Regardless of whether Democrats can seize a Senate majority next year, even a short–term one, the Republicans' agenda is in jeopardy. If American politics has made anything clear in the last decade or so, it is that the voters want a change; as Republicans seemed to offer what they wanted, the voters gradually turned over the levers of government to them.

But the political pendulum is always moving in America. The Republicans' already slim majority in the Senate will shrink in January when Jones is seated, which gives them a few weeks to accomplish whatever they can with the seats they currently hold. Given their track record this year, though, getting anything done seems unlikely.

Voters seem to have developed a rather limited tolerance for political performance in recent years. Nonperformance may fare worse.

Until Tuesday, I had not seen anything in any of the special elections that surprised me. All the House seats that were vacant because their representatives had been appointed to positions in the administration were in red states. Democrats made a lot of noise about being competitive in those districts, but ultimately they lost every special election.

Then in November the first statewide races in the Trump era were held — in New Jersey and Virginia, states that elect their governors in the years immediately following presidential elections. After decades of voting for Republicans, Virginia (where governors are prohibited by law from seeking re–election) has been trending blue. Three of its last four governors have been Democrats, and it has voted Democratic in three consecutive presidential elections. Even though Republicans put up a good front about being competitive in the governor's race, I wasn't surprised when the Democrat won.

Nor was I surprised when the Democrat won in New Jersey. Term–limited Republican incumbent Chris Christie is about as popular as Richard Nixon was just before he resigned the presidency, and the Republican nominee had to carry that toxic baggage. No, I wasn't surprised by the outcome there, either.

But Tuesday's special election in Alabama did surprise me.

I realize that the circumstances had a lot to do with it. The decades–old charges of sexual harassment against Moore appear to have done enough damage to permit Jones to win by about 20,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast — even though no charges were substantiated and most were suspect.

Perhaps, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter observes, this outcome opens the door for Rep. Mo Brooks to reclaim the seat for the Republicans in 2020.

That wouldn't be unprecedented. Two years after Brown won Kennedy's seat, he was defeated in a bid for a full six–year term — by Elizabeth Warren, who is now considered a leading contender for the Democrats' next presidential nomination.

I'm not saying Brooks is a future presidential prospect. But in 2020 he would have Trump's coattails to ride in the general election — and that will almost certainly help in Alabama.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

O, Captain, My Captain

When I was in college, it was my honor to study reporting under a professor who truly lived the adage that journalism is the first draft of history.

His name was Roy Reed, and he once worked for the New York Times; in fact, he was there when the landmark Times v. Sullivan decision was rendered, and he enthralled us in class with stories of that time. He also worked for the Arkansas Gazette before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas.

He was on the front lines of history in the 20th century.

He covered Orval Faubus at the Gazette. In the Times job he covered the civil rights movement in the South of the 1960s.

I will always remember the stories he told in class about covering marches that were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and how he feared for his life when he and the rest of the reporters came under the hate–filled glares of the whites who watched the marches from the sidewalks of sleepy Southern towns.

The folks at the Times didn't think that was hazardous enough, I suppose, so they sent Roy to Northern Ireland to cover the Protestants and the Catholics.

After doing that for awhile, life in Fayetteville must have seemed positively placid by comparison. I never saw anyone as completely happy as Roy was when I was enrolled in his class. He had lived a life to which many — myself included — aspired, and he told us all about it — the good, the bad and the ugly. He was paying it forward, as they say today, sharing the things he had learned in a lifetime in the profession with the next generation.

He didn't give away A's in his class. You had to earn them. And it has always been a source of pride for me that I earned an A in Roy's reporting class. It isn't exactly the kind of thing you can put on a resume. But I'm proud of it, and I carry it with me.

Roy had an aneurysm yesterday and died at the age of 87.

As I understand the sequence of events, he lapsed into a coma on Saturday and was kept alive for a time, but life support was removed today and he passed away.

Roy's life was all about communication and information — so it was fitting that it was through social media, which didn't exist when I was in Roy's class but is the method for spreading information in the 21st century, that I learned of his death. There is a Facebook page where my friends and former colleagues post news of interest, and the tributes to Roy have been pouring in over there.

We all have our own memories of Roy. For me, there are too many to count, but one stands out. I was in his class in an election year, and he recruited several of us to do volunteer work at the county courthouse on Election Night. I suppose many, if not all, of us were motivated by the lure of extra credit, but I was genuinely interested in participating in the process on an Election Night — which, in those days, required us to spend most of the evening on the phone taking down vote totals from precincts by hand and passing along the totals to others, who would compile them. When all the precincts had been heard from, the numbers were passed on to the secretary of state's office in Little Rock.

After I graduated from college, I participated in similar work for newspapers on Election Nights to come. Whenever I did I always thought back to that night during my college days. Among other things I owe that to Roy.

He influenced so many of us — and he will never be forgotten.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

This Isn't a Party Problem; It Is a People Problem



It is a lesson we insist on learning over and over again.

These sexual harassment cases that have been flooding the airwaves in recent months are merely manifestations of the latest symptom of something that was stated clearly and eloquently many years ago:

Power corrupts — and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And that is what these cases are really about, isn't it? Power. Who has it and uses it.

That is the thing all these cases have in common. People with power feel entitled to things, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) that sense of entitlement tramples on someone else's rights.

Today the subject is sexual harassment. That — or a variant on that subject — has been a recurring theme over the years, but in the past the subject has also been racism, religious intolerance and anything else that offends people.

Sometimes the offense du jour is silly, but other times it is not and should not be treated as if it is. This is one of those times — although I will admit that sometimes it threatens to veer off in that other direction. That is something that every American should hope we can avoid. If we do not, it will trivialize and demean a serious matter that has long deserved a serious public examination and discussion.

It is certainly not funny when reprehensible behavior forces someone to pay a heavy price — as it has with Sen. Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live funnyman who resigned from the U.S. Senate today amid allegations of sexual harassment. It is a tragedy for Franken and his family.

But neither is it funny when a false accusation destroys someone's life. Thus we must exercise due diligence in such cases.

One thing we need to stop doing is treating matters like these as if they are party problems. They are not. Neither party has a monopoly on offensive behavior. And neither party is morally superior to the other.

If these recent revelations have proven nothing else, they have proven that there are offenders in both parties. Yet I have seen many examples of people who were clearly willing to overlook such offenses in those with whom they agreed on issues but all too ready to condemn those with whom they disagreed.

Even Franken indulged in some of that in his farewell speech to the Senate today.

"I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony," Franken said, "that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has preyed on underage girls is running for the Senate with the full support of his party."

Sexual harassment is wrong; those who are willing to overlook it in their friends but condemn it in their foes take their position entirely because of politics. It has zero to do with defending victimized women and men.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Crystal Ball Is Foggy



I have observed this year's special elections to fill vacancies created by Trump administration appointments with a kind of amused bewilderment.

The special elections were all billed as referendums on the president — but all the vacancies were in clearly red states with red voting histories in good years and bad. I suppose if any of those races had gone for a Democrat, that would have been big news. But the fact that no Democrat won a special election is non–news. Kind of a "dog bites man" story. When the man bites the dog, that's news.

The same is true in reverse of the gubernatorial elections that are traditionally held in Virginia and New Jersey in the odd–numbered years following presidential elections.

At one time Virginia had the longest streak of support for Republican presidential nominees in the entire South. It was the only Southern state that voted against Jimmy Carter in 1976, but shifting demographics led it to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then Hillary Clinton in 2016. Today it is regarded as dependably Democratic.

Thus, while polls in this year's gubernatorial race suggested the Republican nominee might have a chance at an upset, it was no surprise when the Democrat won.

Nor was it a surprise that a Democrat won in New Jersey. The outgoing Republican incumbent was extremely unpopular, and New Jersey has a history of shifting political allegiances. No, that wasn't a surprise.

Now the scene shifts to Alabama, where a special election will be held next Tuesday to choose a successor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate. Republican Roy Moore has been beset by sexual harassment charges that narrowed the gap between him and Democrat Doug Jones — for a time. Recent polls suggest things are returning to form in Alabama, and Moore's lead, while closer than one usually sees in Alabama elections, is expanding.

I know there are still some Democrats, perhaps many, who believe Jones can pull off an upset, but what they fail to comprehend is that Alabama is a really red state — not pink or purple like some states but deeply red — and polls suggest that the voters in Alabama are gravitating toward issues now. My guess is it would take a sexual bombshell eclipsing everything that has come before in order for Jones to win this race.

One issue in particular seems to be driving Republicans and independents who had been wavering — abortion. Jones holds a liberal position on abortion; Moore's position has been more in line with average Alabama voters

Many folks up North like to belittle Southerners as backward, ignorant, uneducated. But that is an unfair stereotype, and the voters in Alabama are smart enough to know what the margin in the Senate looks like. They know which party and its candidates hold positions closer to their own and which do not, and this, one of the reddest of the red states, is not likely to send a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a quarter of a century.

I know Democrats are eager to seize control of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections, but they would be better advised to pin their hopes on races in more centrist states.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What's Past Is Prologue



Charles Manson died the other day, and I have struggled with my thoughts about that.

He was, after all, 83. He was in his mid–30s when his "Family" committed the 1969 Tate–LaBianca murders on his behalf, not quite 40 when he was convicted and sentenced to death, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was abolished in California.

Clearly he lived a lot longer than he probably expected when his conviction was handed down.

And he was the notorious mastermind of murders that shook the nation then but would hardly merit a passing glance from today's media.

There is no reason to mourn his passing. And yet I am conflicted.

In the past I haven't regretted feeling no sorrow over the deaths of those who were responsible for much suffering and showed no remorse for it. Haven't regretted it at all.

I even sympathized with those who celebrated when Ted Bundy was executed or Jeffrey Dahmer was killed by a fellow inmate or the Night Stalker died of apparently natural causes.

But it's a problem for me. It goes against my upbringing to rejoice when a fellow human being dies. I guess I was able to rationalize it better when I was younger. Not so much now.

I'm sure that when he died, Manson was no better than he was when he terrorized Southern California. Every time that I heard a comment he had made from prison, he seemed just as twisted as ever — and I suppose he will always be a textbook case for the argument that some criminals are completely irredeemable — and thus, there is no real point behind incarcerating them for a lifetime.

Except to preserve a life.

I understand the need some people have for revenge, and I don't want to minimize that. There is something to be said for an eye for an eye. I could even support it if I felt it guaranteed closure for the survivors. But it doesn't — not always, maybe not even a majority of the time.

And as Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Power of Anti-Incumbency

I have written here before of the advantages of being an incumbent officeholder in an election year. There is clearly a strong motivation for people to support the re–election of an incumbent. An incumbent has experience doing the job. His or her every move gets attention from the media back home, and free press coverage has a lot of value.

I have also written here about the hazards of midterm elections for the president's party (whoever the president may be).

The power of incumbency isn't always so powerful.

But often the ramifications of neither are apparent until after the elections have been held. Democrats realized too late what they were up against in 2010 and 2014; likewise Republicans didn't see the wave that was upon them in 2006.

Sometimes — but not always — you can get clues ahead of time through party primaries.

Because of their strengths, incumbents usually prevail in their parties. In a typical election, whether it is a presidential year or a midterm, most incumbent senators win renomination; at worst, one may be defeated by a challenger from within the party. Between 1946 and 2012, nearly 1,000 incumbent senators ran for re–election instead of choosing to leave office for one reason or another, and only 46 (or 5%) were denied renomination by their party's voters.

When more than one incumbent senator loses in the primaries, the problem is not confined to a single state or perhaps even region. If the number of incumbents who seek re–election and lose renomination gets higher than that, it is usually — but not always — a harbinger of things to come.

The worst year for Senate incumbents during the primaries was in the first election after the end of World War II. Thirty senators sought re–election that year, and six were denied renomination by their party's voters. That's 20%.

Harry Truman had become president following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death the year before. Even though the Allies had won the war, Truman was wildly unpopular — perhaps in part because Democrats had been in charge of everything for well over a decade but also because of his controversial handling of some high–profile postwar labor strikes — and the midterm election was, as it often is, a referendum on the president.

Truman was seen as such a liability, in fact, that he campaigned for few Democratic candidates — if any. The same phenomenon has been seen in recent years. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were kept at arm's length by their parties' nominees.

Republicans also benefited from what is considered a "good map" — in which the other party has to defend the majority of the seats on the ballot. Incumbents tend to benefit from such maps; open seats typically are much harder to defend.

As it was, the Republicans won seven Senate seats from incumbents who were on the ballot that fall — and captured six others, seizing the majority for the first time since 1930.

The next–worst year for postwar incumbents seeking another term came in 1950.

In the intervening four years, Truman scored his upset victory over Tom Dewey, and Democrats retook control of both chambers of Congress.

But by 1950 Truman was unpopular again, and once again the election was a referendum on him. Thirty–two senators ran for re–election and five of them (16%) were denied renomination. When the votes were counted in November, the Democrats lost ground in both chambers but still retained majorities.

In the Senate, four Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats, and one Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican. (As an historical side note, future President Richard Nixon, a Republican, flipped a Senate seat that year, too, but he didn't defeat an incumbent. The incumbent, a Democrat, retired.)

In the 33 elections that have been held since, the portion of incumbents who were rejected by their party's voters has been 10% or higher only four times. Most could be said to foretell trouble for one party or the other, depending upon who was in the Oval Office, or both — but not all. For example, 14% of incumbent senators were defeated in party primaries in 1968; while Democrats lost part of their majorities in Congress that year, they lost nearly as many Senate seats two years later — but only 3% of incumbent senators lost their primaries in 1970.

In 1978, the midterm of Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency, 12% of incumbent senators lost their primaries, and 14% of incumbents lost their primaries in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. In all, Democrats lost 15 Senate seats from the time Carter took office to the day he left Washington four years later. In hindsight, the primaries of 1978 and 1980 hinted at the voter frustration that had been building in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam and the trouble that lay ahead for Democrats in the general election of 1980.

For the next 30 years, most Senate incumbents who chose to run for another term won their primaries. Then, in 2010, 12% of Senate incumbents lost their primaries, perhaps heralding an era of discontent. The Senate remained in Democratic hands (but just barely), and the Republicans gained 64 seats to claim a House majority they retain today.

And sometimes so–called wave elections happen even when incumbents don't run into problems in the primaries, and the 2014 midterm is a great example. Republicans won nine Senate seats from the Democrats that year, and the primaries were not factors.

In short, incumbency is usually an advantage, but sometimes it is a hindrance. I recommend keeping an eye on the primaries next year to see if you can get any early clues as to the voters' mood.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sorrow for the Victims



I recall an observation from Thoreau that the more that people accept a concept or principle as valid, the less interested they become in its many applications.

That isn't exactly how he phrased it, but it is a truth that remains so today — and, I suspect, will always be true.

There is always a time when something that was previously considered unthinkable happens, and it is shocking — but the more it happens the less shocked we are.

It has become that way with terrorist attacks and mass shootings. And now, I fear, it is becoming that way with sexual abuse cases.

Sex scandals involving prominent people are not new, of course. Even in sleepy Central Arkansas, the buckle of the Bible Belt where I grew up, such a scandal reared its head when my district's longtime congressman was caught in a relationship with a stripper.

That kind of thing was shocking at the time even though it wasn't new.

And sexual abuse and harassment cases involving vulnerable young women and minors isn't new, either — but with such rapid–fire revelations focusing on more and more prominent people, one begins to develop a sort of numb acceptance. The response is that the point has been made.

For some reason that makes me think of a time when I worked on the copy desk at the old Arkansas Gazette. In a short period of time, there were two high–profile and extremely grim cases of fathers murdering their families — one of which occurred one dark, rainy night (really) in Little Rock. It was so dark and rainy that neighbors who happened to be up that late probably mistook the sound of gunshots for thunder.

Even if they had known what they were hearing, no one could have done anything to save the victims. The patriarch of the family shot his wife and daughters in their heads before turning the gun on himself.

The other murder case occurred around Christmas in a rural setting. The murders were carried out over several days as family members arrived to exchange gifts.

Those murder cases sent shock waves through all of Arkansas, but in hindsight the reaction would have become more muted if more fathers had flipped out and started killing themselves and their families.

I guess my overwhelming emotion is as it was then — one of great sadness for the victims — of whom there are many.

First and foremost, there are the children who have been scarred by people they probably trusted. We all have to grow up and face a sometimes ugly world, and we each do it in a different way. It is a bargain that is made, and it usually comes at a cost. The children in these cases were compelled to pay too high a price.

Yes, I feel very sad for them. But I don't know what can be done — except to try to be more courageous about speaking up when I think something is wrong. Still you can't legislate courage, can you?

And that leads me to a second group of victims — the rest of us.

As polarized as this country has become in recent years, there is little tolerance for those who deviate from what is expected at either extreme.

Or even those who insist on that old–fashioned concept of innocent until proven guilty.

I know that means evidence, and the problem with sexual abuse cases is that there are seldom witnesses. But witnesses aren't the only kind of evidence. In fact, accusations are not proof, no matter how many accusers there are.

Physical evidence is preferred. There may be some kind of trail or some sort of forensic evidence. Finding it probably requires a lot more work than most criminal cases but to obtain true justice, isn't it worth it?

As Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo said, "Justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser, too."

That still holds, doesn't it?

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Politics of the Unusual



Tomorrow Americans in some places are going to the polls, but this being an odd–numbered year means that most elections will be held next year.

Which brings me to another point: There is conventional wisdom about everything, I suppose, but it only goes so far, and then you're in uncharted territory.

The upcoming midterm elections of 2018 are a perfect example.

On the one hand, there is the conventional wisdom that the president's party always struggles in midterm elections. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is something that has been happening throughout our history. It doesn't disproportionately affect either party. George W. Bush's Republicans suffered just as much in 2006 as Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994 or Barack Obama's Democrats in 2010.

Sometimes it is a very modest thing, with the president's party losing little ground, if any, on Capitol Hill; other times it is quite spectacular.

There are exceptions, of course, but those elections are usually preceded by a one–of–a–kind event — such as when George W. Bush's Republicans gained ground in Congress in the election a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There was no precedent for that in American history.

I guess the closest thing would be the election that was held the year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but that would not have been a good predictor for 2002. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats struggled in the 1942 midterms. Quite a different voter response. But it was a different world. Americans hadn't been able to watch the attack live in their living rooms in 1941.

There were other differences, too. Most, if not all, of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were in military service. They had agreed to put their lives on the line when they signed up. Their losses were tragic, but, to be honest, they came with the territory. Most, if not all, of the casualties on Sept. 11 were civilians. The folks who were working in the Twin Towers that morning took certain risks when they took their positions, too — there are risks with every job, aren't there? — but those risks had never before included the realistic possibility of an airplane deliberately crashing into your workplace.

Back to 2018.

On the other hand, while conventional wisdom can provide some helpful clues to voter behavior, recent elections have revealed an independent streak that was never seen before in the electorate — well, it had been seen before but never in the numbers we saw last year. Maybe the voters don't like being taken for granted and decided en masse — a la Peter Finch in "Network" — not to take it anymore. Folks in both parties have been guilty of taking voting blocs for granted. So if the voters feel taken for granted, it seems to me that candidates in both parties should be particularly sensitive to their constituents' concerns right now.

There are other things that usually contribute to the incumbent party's prospects — the pocketbook issues that directly affect people's lives. Is the economy thriving or sputtering? Is unemployment high or low?

The approaching midterms should provide fascinating research and lecture fodder for political scientists. They know the conventional wisdom, and they have been watching the news. They know that the polls indicate how unpopular the president is. That makes it sound like 2018 should be a big year for the out–of–power party. All the precedents of the last two centuries point to it.

Except that there is no precedent for 2018, either. Not really.

And that, I guess, is one of the consequences of the 2016 election, an election that was widely believed to be Hillary Clinton's to lose. And then she did precisely that.

We have rarely, if ever, had presidential elections like that one — in which one candidate seemed all but certain to win and then did not — and in my studies of history, I have found only a couple of elections that came close. One was the 2000 election in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the vote that has always elected America's presidents — the electoral vote. The other was the 1948 election, in which Gov. Tom Dewey was widely expected to defeat President Harry Truman — and then failed to do so.

But there were precedents for those elections, even if one had to go back a ways to find them. The 2016 election was decidedly not politics as usual — which, by definition, has no precedent.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton spent most of the 2016 campaign arguing that Donald Trump was unfit for office — but he won, anyway. Clinton in particular and Democrats in general have been quick to blame this on misogyny and, implausibly, racism, but that misses the greater point. I know many people who voted for Trump (before that some of them even voted for Obama twice), and I have yet to hear any of them say anything that could be interpreted as misogynistic motives behind their votes.

Those voters consistently expressed their concerns about specific issues — the economy and jobs — and they responded to the candidate who addressed those issues. Nothing new about that. Pocketbook issues are at the very core of politics as usual.

The voters knew Trump hadn't been a saint. They knew he had said and done things they didn't like, but they chose him anyway — which is a clear indicator that modern voters are more than willing to consider unconventional candidates to solve heretofore conventional problems. We are in a period of the politics of the unusual, and the 2018 midterms will tell us just how far the pendulum has swung, just how much the voters are willing to overlook in pursuit of a larger goal.

Further complicating the situation is that the economy is humming along. Like him or not, Trump's administration has presided over some of the results the voters wanted. Democrats can argue that the pieces of the recovery puzzle were put in place by the previous administration's policies, but the voters don't tend to think of things in those terms. They remember who was president when unemployment dropped below 4% or GDP exceeded 3%.

In other words, all bets are off for next year — and for 2020 — and for elections as far as the eye can see.

My major in college was journalism. My minor was history. I studied a little political science in college, and I have studied it informally for years, but I have never heard a lecture or read an entry in a textbook that discussed how an unsuccessful candidate for public office who had been expected to win should behave.

Instinct tells me that such a person would foster considerable good will by being gracious and sincere — and mostly silent.

But rather than acknowledge her own failings as a candidate, Clinton and her subordinates have spent the last year casting blame on others, the lion's share of which has been directed at Donald Trump and his alleged collusion with Russians — which, it turns out, was based on manufactured material from a dossier that had been paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

That revelation led to the uncovering of what could well turn out to be a veritable rat's nest of, to say the least, unsavory activity. While the full extent of it may not be known by Election Day next year, the fact that this has been causing some Democratic angst is clear in the fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, regarded as one of the leading candidates for the 2020 nomination, criticized the Clinton campaign and the DNC literally within hours of online publication of Donna Brazile's explosive allegations in Politico.

It is important for political observers not to get carried away with the idea that open seats — in which the incumbents, for whatever reason, are not running — represent opportunities for the parties that do not hold them. It is true in some instances, not true in others.

Take, for example, the congressional district in which I live — Texas' Fifth District, which has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since January 2003. Hensarling announced recently that he won't be running for another term next year.

I have already heard some Democrats speak of how this is an opportunity for them to grab a House seat from Texas, especially since Dallas County (where the Fifth District is located) was one of the few counties to support Hillary Clinton a year ago.

I read an article in the New York Times over the weekend that didn't go so far as to say that vacancies meant easy opposition pickups but it strongly implied that the midterms will "reshape" the House.

That may be true in districts where the incumbent barely won the last time, but Hensarling has a long record of winning by wide margins. So, too, do Republican presidential candidates in the Fifth District. I feel safe in predicting that Hensarling's successor will be a Republican. The question is whether the district will choose a constitutional conservative like Hensarling or more of an establishment candidate.

Still, as I say, we're living in the age of politics of the unusual.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Tribute to My Mother



It will be my great honor and privilege later today to be a guest at a special ceremony honoring my mother.

Mom was a first–grade teacher in many places but exclusively in Dallas, Texas for the last dozen years of her life. It is also where my parents were brought up so when she and my father moved back to Dallas, they already had a built–in network of friends since most of their friends had remained in Dallas all their lives or, like my parents, had returned after living somewhere else.

I think that appealed to Mom's sense of order. She was back where her life began, helping a new generation gets its start. She might not have articulated it quite that way, but I think that is as good an explanation as any.

Mom also had a flair for the dramatic.

After she died, we received a letter from an old friend, who observed that Mom probably belonged on a stage — and I couldn't argue with that — but in the absence of a career on the stage, the next–best profession would be teacher. And I know how good Mom must have been at that. After all, she raised me. I know how she was with kids. When I was a child and my family took road trips in the summers, Mom always picked out a book to read to my brother and me to help kill the long hours in the car. She was very engaging, and although we always saw incredible things on our family trips, I always thought the best part of the trips was the trips themselves and Mom's spirited narrations of the works of C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some of her friends undoubtedly will be in attendance later today. Unfortunately some of her friends have passed away in the 22 years since Mom died in a flash flood.

I don't know how well those still–living friends remember the weekend of that flash flood. I will never forget it. I was living in Norman, Okla., about a three–hour drive from Dallas, and I was about to wrap up my third year of teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Looking back, I can see that I wasn't as good at teaching as I fancied myself to be, but at the time I liked to think of myself as carrying on a family tradition (my father's parents were also teachers).

It was a rainy Friday night in this part of the country. The spring had been unusually wet, and the ground was saturated. When the storm went through that day, there was no place for the water to go.

My parents were caught in a flash flood at a spot that had a history of vulnerability to rising water. My father was pinned between the car and the guardrail, which probably saved his life but left him with a pinched nerve in his left arm (and he is left–handed). My mother was swept away. Her body was found a few hours later.

Today's ceremony includes the presentation of a redesigned bridge at the spot where she was swept away. These changes are expected to prevent tragedies like the one involving my parents.

That flood changed everything for me. My mother was killed, and my father was disabled. I spent that summer helping my father and making plans to return to Dallas when my commitment to OU ended after the next academic year.

It also changed the way I think of death. I used to think a lingering death was the worst way to go, at least as far as the survivors were concerned. But after Mom died, I realized that an out–of–the–blue death is just as difficult but in different ways.

After a long period of painful reflection I concluded that loss is loss. Whether you see it coming or not. I also concluded that what matters is not how a person died but how a person lived.

I'm glad that time is behind me, and I am glad to be able to honor my mother today.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia



Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you must know that there was a special election in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District this week.

The district has been in Republican hands for nearly 40 years.

Democrats have been eager to anoint the new House majority that they expect after the midterm elections in 2018, and every special election to fill a vacancy that was created when President Trump tapped someone to join his administration has been billed as a preview of coming attractions. After Democrat Jon Ossoff grabbed 48% of the vote in April's so–called "jungle primary" in the Georgia Sixth, millions of Democrat dollars flowed into the district from out of state, much of it from as far away as San Francisco, for the June 20 runoff.

There were high expectations. As it was in most of last year's Republican presidential primaries, Trump has emerged the winner in every special election so far. The margins have been narrow, but close doesn't count. Democrats were hungry for a victory.

And Democrats, who have gone into each contest convinced that public resistance to Trump and the Republicans was just waiting to rise up and be counted, are sounding like the fabled boy who cried "Wolf!"

They have awfully short memories.

I don't know if Tip O'Neill was the first to say "All politics is local," but I know he used the phrase as the foundation of his campaign strategy — and he knew what he was talking about.

O'Neill, a Democrat and five–term speaker of the House, represented a House district in Massachusetts for more than 30 years and rarely faced a serious challenge when he ran for re–election. In that sense, there was nothing particularly remarkable about his re–election in 1982.

But it was only two years, after all, since Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, and the presidency wasn't the only thing the Democrats lost. After more than a quarter of a century of being in the majority in the Senate, Democrats had lost that majority, and their majority in the House was drastically reduced — by nearly three dozen seats. To say there was a certain amount of anxiety among Democrats at that time would be an understatement.

There needn't have been.

The elections in 1982 were the midterms of Reagan's first term as president — and a clear pattern of American political history is that midterms in general almost always favor the out–of–power party. We've grown accustomed in recent times to the possibility that a president's party might not lose ground in one or both of the chambers of Congress in a midterm election, but that is a rare phenomenon that usually requires unique circumstances.

George W. Bush's Republicans, for example, benefited in 2002 from the national mood following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, winning two Senate seats and eight House seats. It was the first time in nearly 70 years that a president's party gained ground in both chambers of Congress in a midterm election.

You have to go back to the 1930s — when America was in the grip of the Great Depression — to find the previous example of a time when the president's party prospered in both chambers in a midterm election. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats picked up 10 Senate seats (at a time when there were only 96 members of the Senate) and nine House seats. (FDR's midterms of 1938 and 1942 went against the president's party, and what would have been his fourth midterm, which he did not live to see, was a total disaster for his successor, Harry Truman, in 1946.)

While 9/11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor, FDR did not benefit the way Bush did 60 years later. In the 1942 midterms FDR's Democrats lost nine Senate seats and 45 House seats. In spite of what had happened in Hawaii less than a year earlier, voters were anxious about American involvement in World War II.

In the last century, a few presidents have seen their party make midterm gains in one chamber but not both.

Bill Clinton's Democrats benefited in 1998 from a national backlash against the Republicans' partisan impeachment proceedings. They neither won nor lost seats in the Senate, but they won four seats in the House.

Richard Nixon's Republicans lost 12 House seats but won two Senate seats in the midterms of 1970. There was still a certain amount of backlash against the Vietnam War and the Democrats' participation in its escalation.

In 1962 John F. Kennedy's Democrats gained ground in the Senate but lost ground in the House. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred a few weeks before the election, may well have played a role.

In 1914, Woodrow Wilson's Democrats gained five seats in the Senate but lost a staggering 59 seats in the House. The Republicans were more united than they had been in 1912 — when the party's two factions, led by former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the 1912 presidential election, reunited with a common purpose. They also gave themselves pats on the back for the booming economy — the result, they told the voters, of policies passed by Republicans in the previous quarter of a century.

Eight years before that, Teddy Roosevelt's Republicans gained seats in the Senate but lost seats in the House (although they retained a significant majority).

I could go on, but you get the idea, don't you? (Those were the best midterm years for incumbents in the last 110 years, and, in 2017, Democrats have seen the special elections to replace members of the House who were picked to join the Trump administration as targets of opportunity. Sort of a kickoff to the resounding rejection they are certain Republicans will receive next year. Only one real problem with that line of thinking — Republicans have won every special election this year. If you want to have a revolution, you have to have some victories.)

But back to O'Neill.

Even with that history, Democrats were edgy heading into the 1982 midterms. And O'Neill, facing a challenge from a Massachusetts lawyer whose campaign was being financed by out–of–state contributors (primarily oil interests in Oklahoma and Texas), emphasized that point in his campaign.

In November O'Neill won with 75% of the vote, and Democrats recaptured more than two dozen seats in the House, padding the majority they had held since 1955.

But going into that election year, Democrats were anxious. They had taken a beating two years earlier, and, even though O'Neill had won 15 straight congressional races, he was a consummate politician who knew all too well that Massachusetts — the only state to reject Nixon's bid for a second term in 1972 — had voted (narrowly) for Reagan in 1980 (Massachusetts voted for Reagan again in 1984). Was it a symptom of an emerging shift to the right in a state long known for its liberal politics?

Reagan's approval rating in late 1982 was hovering around 40%. It went up when the economy started roaring back to life, but that was after the midterms.

In hindsight it is easy to see the uphill climb that was facing the Republicans in 1982, but it wasn't so easy to see from ground level at the time.

O'Neill took the campaign to the voters. The people who are backing the Republican in this race, he told the voters, don't live here, but they think they can tell you what to do. And he addressed the district's kitchen–table concerns while his opponent — and his opponent's backers — spoke about more national themes.

Does that sound familiar? Democrats wanted to make the Georgia election about cultural issues. The Republicans and their candidate, Karen Handel, wanted to make it about the issues that affected the daily lives of Georgians — taxes and jobs.

On top of that, Ossoff didn't even live in the district.

It wasn't surprising that he received about the same share of the vote that he received in the first vote.

Many Democrats were fooled into believing Ossoff had a good chance to win by his showing in that first vote. The previous congressman, now–Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, was re–elected there last year with more than 61% of the vote. Ossoff already had done better than any of Price's challengers.

Except in his first election.

Price needed a runoff to win the GOP nomination when his predecessor, now–Sen. Johnny Isakson, decided to run for the Senate. After winning the runoff, Price was unopposed in the general election. He won all his re–election bids without breaking a sweat.

And that is really what is so deceptive about special elections. They are held to fill vacancies — which means there is no incumbent.

Incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat. They have all the advantages of incumbency at their disposal. Their primary obligation is to be aware of and responsive to the needs of a typically concentrated geographical area. As long as they do that, they tend to win re–election with little trouble.

The best chance to "flip" a House district usually comes when the seat is open.

I have heard all the talk of how Handel will face another tough challenge when she seeks a full term next year, but as long as she keeps her focus on her district, I predict that she will win re–election easily.

It's the way it is.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Remembering JFK



It is hard to imagine John F. Kennedy at 100, but that is what he would be if he still lived on this day in 2017.

Of course, Kennedy is not still living. He has been dead nearly 54 years. He was assassinated in the streets of this very city.

His image is frozen in memory, a vivid yet moving figure for those old enough to remember him, a youthful image in the history books for those who are not. He is still 46 years old and will continue to be 46 years old for all who study history — even though all who are 46 now or will be 46 in the future were born after he died.

He will always be youthful, a naturally dark–haired president with two young children and a beautiful young wife. But that wife and one of those children are dead now, and the surviving child will be 60 later this year.

Time certainly does march on.

I observed on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination that so much has been written about that event in American history that it is hard to think of anything new to add. It is the same with the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth. (Excuse a little musing here, but since today is the centennial of JFK's birth, wouldn't it make sense, for consistency's sake, to call the 2013 anniversary of his assassination a semicentennial?)

Only a few months before her own death, Marilyn Monroe serenaded the president with a breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday." Even though he is not with us, perhaps that is the best we can do — wish him a "Happy Birthday" in absentia.

It is easy to think of the Kennedy highlights — his inspirational speeches, his vigorous and reassuring demeanor. It is tougher to challenge preconceived notions about Kennedy that have had decades to harden in the public mind.

So without wasting much time on discussions (bordering on debates) of his strengths or weaknesses, it is probably best to remember that John F. Kennedy was a man. He wasn't perfect and certainly didn't seem so to the people of his time, but no president has been, even those presidents we honor and admire today — like Washington or Lincoln. He had his flaws, like all of us, but he also had a moral compass, like most of us, and it was to the great fortune of this nation that his compass did not mislead either him or us.

As today is Memorial Day, I would just like to observe that all who serve our country are deserving of our gratitude — from those who serve in the Oval Office to those who serve on the battlefield and all those who serve and have served in between. Man of them are also in absentia.

To those presidents like Kennedy who served in both the Oval Office and the battlefield, we owe a special debt for their service.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

This Is Not Watergate Redux



People who compare Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey to the Saturday Night Massacre show a stunning lack of knowledge of history. Recent history, at that. This isn't ancient history.

If you want to talk about ancient history, let's go back a couple of centuries to the time when the Founding Fathers were designing the system of government for this new country. Chief among their concerns was due process for people who were accused of crimes. They realized that, no matter how utopian they believed their new land to be, people are still people, and some of them will commit crimes. They wanted a government that would treat all who were accused of crimes to be treated fairly.

There had to be an actual crime, not speculation about what may or may not have been done; there had to be evidence showing that a crime had been committed (if, for example, a person disappears under suspicious circumstances, that disappearance cannot be treated as a homicide unless a body has been found). Witnesses were probably considered the best evidence at first, and they're still valuable, but as forensic evidence gained credibility, its stock in criminal cases rose considerably. When I was in high school, DNA was still in a limbo state, legally speaking. Today it is the coin of the realm.

Fast forward to Watergate.

Where shall I begin? Well, let's start with the fact that the Watergate investigation really began when Bob Woodward was covering the arraignment of the Watergate burglars in June 1972 for the Washington Post — more than a year before the Saturday Night Massacre. Burglary is definitely a crime. Everyone knew a crime had been committed when five men were arrested in the Democrats' national headquarters in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. That was certainly a suspicious thing, but curiosity was really aroused when a paper trail revealed that some of the burglars were linked to Richard Nixon's White House.

That was the root of the investigation. A crime. Not speculation that a crime may have been committed but evidence of an actual crime. Just as the Founding Fathers intended. Facts were deciding the case. Not emotion. Not rumor. Not innuendo. Not hearsay.

And it was the question of how potential evidence in the investigation of that crime was to be handled that ultimately led to the Saturday Night Massacre.

Let's back up just a little here.

In July 1973, it was revealed during the Senate Watergate hearings that there had been a taping system in the Oval Office, a system that was activated by sound. Only four people, I think, knew of the existence of this taping system, and one of them was Richard Nixon.

Anyway, this system had been secretly recording conversations Nixon had with his top aides for a few years. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox issued a subpoena for tapes of conversations believed to be relevant to the Watergate investigation, mostly based on testimony from former White House counsel John Dean; fewer than 6% of the tapes related to Watergate — many of the recorded conversations, for example, dealt with plans for Nixon's trips to China and Russia — and thus were irrelevant to the investigation, but the tapes Cox sought were expected to prove or disprove Dean's testimony, which had been remarkably specific as to the dates of conversations and what was said in those conversations.

Until the existence of the tapes became known, there seemed to be no way to break the impasse, but the tapes could establish who was telling the truth, Nixon or Dean.

Nixon refused to comply and offered a compromise. Mississippi Sen. John Stennis — who was notoriously hard of hearing — would listen to the tapes and provide a summary for Cox. Cox rejected the compromise.

Nixon's attorney general, Elliot Richardson, had appointed Cox earlier in the year and was the only one who could dismiss him. At the time of Cox's confirmation Richardson had promised the Senate that he wouldn't use his authority to interfere; some five months later, Nixon asked Richardson to fire Cox, and Richardson resigned. Next in line was Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also resigned rather than fire Cox.

Then it fell to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who carried out the order.

One thing that is not mentioned today — but was mentioned in Theodore H. White's book on Watergate, "Breach of Faith" — was the concern about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. In the Cold War atmosphere of that time, perceptions were critical on both sides, and a presidential order had been defied. Many in the federal government worried about what the Soviets would think.

That does not justify anything, but it helps to put the decision process into context.

That was the Saturday Night Massacre. If there is a comparison to be made between the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of James Comey, certain facts must be addressed.

In October 1973 everyone knew a crime had been committed. What was the crime in this case? I'm not talking about speculation. I'm talking about anything that would stand up in court.

That is due process, and every American citizen is entitled to due process.

Even the president, whether you like him or not.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Will Control of the House Flip in 2018?



I've heard a lot of talk recently — mostly from hopeful Democrats — that control of the House of Representatives will flip next year after eight years of Republican rule.

Given the current party division in the House, that would require the Democrats to make a net gain of two dozen seats.

Can it happen? Historically speaking, yes, of course. It has happened before. It is mathematically possible that it could happen again.

But will it happen again? Ah, that is a different question. To answer that question in May 2017 when the election won't be held for another 18 months requires a crystal ball — after all, who, at this point in the last election cycle (i.e., May 2015), predicted that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States?

No one knows in which kind of world voters will be living when they go to the polls 18 months from now, and that will play an important role in the elections.

Now, it is true that, historically, a president's party loses ground in Congress in a president's first midterm elections, but all midterms are not created equal. Sometimes a president's party loses ground in one chamber but not both — Richard Nixon, as disliked as he was even by many who voted for him, lost ground in the House but not in the Senate in the midterm elections of 1970. In fact, Nixon's Republicans actually gained a couple of Senate seats but remained in the minority.

Four years later voter backlash over Watergate led to a loss of 48 House seats for the Republicans.

And, while sometimes presidents lose House seats in bunches, as Obama did in 2010, other times presidents lose only a handful of seats. In 1990 George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only eight House seats. Four years earlier Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost only five House seats.

One–term presidents — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are recent examples — only have one midterm election. For presidents who have been elected to two terms, second midterm election results have been decidedly mixed. Barack Obama's party lost control of the Senate in his second midterm after losing control of the House in his first. George W. Bush's Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than a decade in his second midterm. But Bill Clinton's Democrats picked up seats in the House and saw no change in the Senate in the midterms of 1998.

Clinton's experience was rare for presidents and seems to have been fueled by voter backlash over the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. That is what seems to be necessary for a president's party to gain ground in the midterm elections — extraordinary circumstances that offset the natural enthusiasm that comes from being the party that is outside the White House looking in.

Prior to the Clinton years double–digit losses in the House — at least at the level that Democrats need next year — were uncommon in American politics. They did happen from time to time but not as regularly as they have since Clinton came to power.

Reagan's party lost 26 House seats in the midterms of 1982, but the party of his predecessor lost only 15 seats four years earlier. In between Reagan defeated Carter by 10 percentage points.

American democracy is a dynamic thing, always shifting in response to economic, social and political conditions — and the elected officials' responses to those conditions.

Such conditions are always changing. That is why it is a disaster waiting to happen if a candidate campaigns on the assumption that simply because a party has been winning for years in a state or district it will continue to do so. History is a pretty good indicator, but it is not foolproof, as Hillary Clinton should have learned on election night.

No modern president has faced an economy as horrendous as the one Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited in 1933, but the conviction that he was trying to right the ship enabled his party to make gains in both chambers in the midterms of 1934.

It runs deep in the American DNA to reject the notion of single–party rule in which one party controls all the levers of the federal government. Such a situation existed in the first two years of Obama's presidency — Democrats even held a seldom–seen veto–proof (and also filibuster–proof) majority in the Senate.

But the passage of Obamacare led to the voter backlash that resulted in Republicans seizing the majority in the House.

As much as Americans tend to reject the concept of single–party rule, though, it is important to remember that House races usually favor the incumbent. Congressional districts are concentrated, as small constituencies are wont to be, and tend to be the perfect examples of Tip O'Neill's pearl of wisdom that "all politics is local." Most House incumbents, regardless of party, keep their fingers on the pulses of their districts — if they don't they are almost sure to lose in the next election.

A few states have populations that are small enough that they are entitled to only one member of the House; in those instances, the House members are, essentially, statewide representatives like the state's two U.S. senators. But most states have more than one House member, thus concentrating the constituents' interests. A largely rural district can co–exist next to a largely metropolitan one — and, thus, different issues will matter to the constituents in each.

Even within districts, there can be pockets where the prevailing interests are different than in the rest of the district.

Currently Charlie Cook, perhaps the foremost observer of House politics, says Republicans hold 197 solid seats. That leaves 44 Republican–held seats, of which Democrats need to win 24 to seize a slim majority, that represent far more plausible takeover opportunities.

Of those 44 seats, though, Cook says 19 are likely to remain in Republican hands, which trims the Democrats' margin for error considerably.

Based on that, if the elections were being held today, Republicans most likely would hold on to a majority in the House.

But the elections are not being held today.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Death of a Patriot



"The thing that's so appalling to me is that the president, when this whole idea was suggested to him, didn't, in righteous indignation, rise up and say, 'Get out of here. You're in the office of the president of the United States. How can you talk about blackmail and bribery and keeping witnesses silent? This is the presidency of the United States.' But my president didn't do that. He sat there and he worked and worked to try to cover this thing up so it wouldn't come to light."

Lawrence Hogan Sr. (1928–2017)

One of my most vivid memories of the Watergate era is of Maryland Republican Lawrence Hogan, who died earlier this month at the age of 88 following a stroke.

Hogan was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1975. He left the House to run for governor of Maryland in 1974 — and lost his bid for the Republican nomination.

Maryland is known as a blue state today, but it had two Republican senators and four Republican members of the House (half of its delegation) at the time — and a recent Republican governor, Spiro Agnew, was elected vice president in 1968 but had resigned less than a year before the House Judiciary Committee considered Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon.

There was considerable backlash against Republicans in the 1974 elections, and Hogan may well have been a victim of that — but Hogan, while regarded as a strong challenger to incumbent Democrat Gov. Marvin Mandel, may have been hurt in the primary by the stand he took against Nixon's behavior in office.

Hogan, as I say, lost the party nomination, not the general election. He may well have been a more effective candidate in the general election — Maryland was part of the 49–state landslide that re–elected Nixon in 1972, but it had never supported Nixon for president before that time, and there may well have been Democrats who would have supported him against Mandel.

But the members of his party apparently believed, in spite of all that had happened since the Judiciary Committee's hearings, that Hogan had abandoned the president.

His son, who carries Hogan's name, now occupies that office.

Hogan's political career was essentially over by then — although he did serve as county executive for Prince George's County for four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But he left an impression on me in 1974. Although I now consider myself an independent, I definitely would have called myself a Democrat in 1974. I was raised by Democrats, and I shared their distaste for Nixon.

Then as now America was a polarized nation — just not quite as extreme as it is today. There were many Democrats who were eager to see Richard Nixon impeached, and there probably were just as many Republicans who tried to defend everything he said or did, even when defending Nixon made no sense. It does seem to me that there was more willingness on the part of some elected officials to seek compromise — on both the issues of the day and the question of Nixon's fitness for office.

On the latter, Hogan served on the Judiciary Committee, whose televised hearings were as widely watched as the Senate's Watergate Committee hearings, which laid the groundwork for the impeachment proceedings, had been the previous summer.

There were other members of that committee who gained more national notoriety, mostly Democrats — Peter Rodino, Barbara Jordan, Father Drinan, John Conyers — but I will never forget watching Hogan's anguished lament over the gaping difference between his belief in what should have been and his recognition of what was.

My memory is that Hogan was criticized by many in his party for being what would now be called a RINO — Republican in Name Only.

He didn't believe his obligation was to his party. He believed his obligation was to his country. He preferred principle to pandering — and most likely knew when he gave his eloquent speech denouncing Nixon that his political career was over.

He was vindicated when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the infamous White House tapes — and the "smoking gun" that proved Nixon's involvement was discovered. Many House Republicans who had opposed the Articles of Impeachment then said they were prepared to vote to impeach the president — and he resigned.

But Maryland's Republicans were still furious with Hogan.

We need more Lawrence Hogans today.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Looking Ahead to the 2018 Midterms



As they survey the carnage that was wrought by eight years of lurching ever more to the left, the Democrats' only immediate hope is to regain at least part of their control of Congress before Donald Trump seeks a second term in 2020.

If they can't accomplish that in the 2018 midterm elections, they will be unable to do anything except morph into the "Party of No" that they were fond of calling congressional Republicans during the Obama years. Unlike the Republicans of most of those years, though, they will not control at least one chamber of Congress.

And without a base of power, it is unlikely that the party can find a candidate capable of defeating an incumbent Republican in 2020 — which most likely means continuing Republican dominance in at least the early years of the 2020s.

There has been considerable rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among the Democrats' ranks, but it has not been exclusively due to Hillary Clinton's victory in the popular vote and defeat in the electoral vote. At least part, I am convinced, is because many Democrats recognize the enormity of the task before them.

If Democrats are to have any influence when House districts are redrawn following the 2020 Census, they need to win control of state legislatures, most of which are in Republican hands. If they can't do that entirely in 2018, they need to have a solid start toward an objective that can be realistically accomplished in the 2020 presidential election year.

That's going to be a tall order.

The good news for Democrats is that, historically, midterm elections tend to favor the party that does not hold the White House, but to seize the majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats need to win about two dozen Republican–held seats. History suggests that, even if Trump's popularity remains below 50%, the odds are against that. It has happened before — recently, in fact — that the out–of–power party has won that many seats from the opposition party in a single election, but it is the exception to the rule.

And it almost never happens that a new president's party goes from being the majority party in the House to losing that many seats and control of the chamber in his first midterm election.

Trump is the ninth president since World War II to enter office with his party holding the majority in the House. Four of the previous eight — Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — saw their parties lose control of the House in their first midterm elections.

Ronald Reagan's Republicans never held the majority in the House while he was president, but they did lose 26 seats in Reagan's first midterm election.

Only one postwar president who entered office with his party controlling the House — George W. Bush — saw his party pick up seats in his first midterm. Bush's Republicans did so with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still fresh on voters' minds. If a similar event occurs between now and November 2018, Republicans might well add to their sizable majority in the House. They would almost certainly see gains in state legislatures.

On the other hand, if voters have a strong negative reaction to something the White House does — as they did with the passage of Obamacare in 2010 — they could punish the incumbent's party severely.

Either extreme is possible, but right now neither extreme is likely. Thus far, at least, Democrats have had no galvanizing moment, but neither have Republicans. Congressional approval is about twice what it was a year ago — still not great but about as sturdy as it ever is — and House districts, being the compact constituencies that they are, are much less likely to give their own representatives the boot — or even to shift parties if the incumbents retire.

Retail politics is what matters most in congressional districts.

To add another twist to the narrative, Kyle Kondik of Crystal Ball observes that, while Donald Trump won more congressional districts than Hillary Clinton, more Republicans hold seats in districts that voted for Clinton than Democrats hold seats in districts won by Trump. If Democrats can win those "crossover seats" that are in Republican hands — there are 23 — that would leave them only one vote behind the Republicans in the House.

"If a party can win the district at the presidential level," Kondik observes, "it's reasonable for that party to believe it can win the seat at the congressional level, too."

Before Democrats start thinking that taking back the House will be a slam dunk, it is important to remember that there are 12 districts that voted for Trump and are represented by Democrats. If Republicans can win those seats, Democrats will be, at best, only halfway to their goal.

Besides, "many of these 35 crossover districts may be more competitive on paper than in practice given that several have strong incumbents," Kondik writes, "and it's also possible that their Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump vote is not really an accurate gauge of their true partisan lean."

To seize even a one–vote majority in the House, Democrats would need to flip nearly 10% of Republican–held seats. Barring a galvanizing event or issue on the order of the 9–11 attacks or the passage of Obamacare, Democrats, as the out–of–power party, are more likely to benefit from the more typical losses sustained by the party in power — about five to 10 seats, give or take. Democrats may chip away at the deficit in the House, but, at this point, it seems that seizing the majority outright is a mountain too high in 2018.

It would seem — again, on paper — that Democrats' best odds for takeover are in the U.S. Senate, where winning just three seats from the Republicans would give them a majority. It would be a razor–thin one, to be sure, but it would still be a majority, and it would ensure divided government for the second half of Trump's term.

Capturing three Republican–held Senate seats is about 6% of Republican seats in all, which seems like a more manageable task — until you remember that only one–third of Senate seats are on the ballot in a given election. Sometimes special elections are held to fill the unexpired terms of senators who have died or resigned, but it is right around one–third in each election.

Mr. Kondik observes that flipping three Senate seats is "in keeping with the average midterm performance."

The Senate seats that will be up for election in 2018 are, for the most part, the ones that were on the ballot in 2012, when Barack Obama was re–elected and Democrats added to their majority in the Senate. Only nine Senate seats that will be decided in 2018 are in Republican hands.

Thus, winning three of the Republican–held seats on the ballot in 2018 would amount to flipping one–third — and all but one of those states voted for Trump.

Jeff Flake of Arizona: Flake was elected to his first term in the Senate in 2012 after six terms in the House. He only received 49% of the vote against two other opponents but one was a Libertarian who captured 5% of the vote, most of which probably would have gone to Flake had he not been in the race, and that would have just about matched Flake's share of the vote when he was first elected to the House in 2000. His share of the vote in his district never fell below 62% after that.

Arizona has been reliably Republican in nearly all presidential races since 1952, and it hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. It is true that the margins have been closer in recent years, possibly the result of a growing Hispanic population, but the margins still favor Republicans by hundreds of thousands of votes. Democratic efforts probably would be wasted there.

Roger Wicker, Mississippi: Wicker was first elected in 2006 to replace retiring Sen. Trent Lott, then was re–elected in 2012, defeating Albert Gore, a retired minister and distant relative of the former vice president. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he faced a challenge in 2016 that was comparable to the one the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will face in 2018. His party had to defend 24 Senate seats while Democrats had to defend only 10. Democrats picked up a couple of seats, but that was a fraction of what they were expected to win on Election Night, which has to be considered a victory for Wicker.

Mississippi has voted for Republican presidential nominees in 10 consecutive elections, and the last Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Mississippi was conservative John Stennis, who won his final Senate term in 1982.

Democrats would be wise to take a few pages from Wicker's 2016 playbook — and not even think about trying to take him down.

Deb Fischer, Nebraska: Fischer took out former Sen. Bob Kerrey in 2012 to win her first statewide election when incumbent Democrat Ben Nelson retired, thus returning the seat to Republican hands. I haven't heard whether she will seek a second term, but I presume she will. She has been described by many as a "true conservative," and her record in the Senate bears that out.

She seems like a good fit for the state she represents. In the last 100 years, Nebraska has voted for only three Democrats for president — Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Dean Heller, Nevada: Heller was appointed to succeed disgraced Sen. John Ensign, who resigned amid an ethics scandal in 2011. Heller won a full term on his own in 2012.

Heller could be open to electoral attack. He is conservative but less so on social issues, which seems like a good fit for Nevada. Democrats, however, may sense an opportunity. Nevada has been a bellwether state in presidential politics, voting for the winner in all but two elections since 1912 — and one of those elections was in 2016, when Nevada voted Democratic for the third straight time. That's something that hadn't happened since the FDR years.

What's more Heller has recently come under fire back home, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Caution, Democrats. Heller won a full six–year term in 2012 while Obama was carrying Nevada.

Bob Corker, Tennessee: Trump won more than 60% of Tennessee's vote. No presidential candidate in more than 40 years received a larger share of the votes that were cast in the Volunteer State.

That should benefit Corker, whose only political experience prior to his election to the Senate was four years as the mayor of Chattanooga. He received 65% when he won his second term in 2012; Mitt Romney carried the state with 59% of the vote that year.

If you think Corker will be tough to unseat ...

Ted Cruz, Texas: ... it will be virtually impossible to unseat Cruz.

There is frequently talk of how unpopular Cruz is with his fellow Republicans in the Senate — but they won't decide whether he gets a second term. Texans will, and Texans like him. His presidential primary victory there last year kept him in the race with Trump — for awhile.

Orrin Hatch, Utah: At 82, the longest–serving Republican senator apparently is considering seeking an eighth term next year, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. If he does, that's bad news for the Democrats. Hatch hasn't been held under 60% of the vote since his first campaign for re–election — in 1982.

John Barrasso, Wyoming: Originally appointed to serve until a special election could be held to fill an unexpired term, Barrasso won that special election with 73% of the vote in 2008, then won a full six–year term in 2012 with 76% of the vote.

That's even better than Ronald Reagan did in Wyoming when he ran for re–election.

So there you have it. Eight Republican–held Senate seats that are up in 2018. Add to that one more — Jeff Sessions' old seat now occupied by Alabama's former attorney general, Republican Luther Strange. Strange was appointed to succeed Sessions until a special election could be held. That special election will be held in June 2018, then the winner (presumably Strange) will be on the ballot again in November.

Not only has Alabama voted Republican for 40 years, it has given Republicans better than 60% of the vote in the last four elections.

Alabama, like most Southern states, once routinely elected Democrats to Congress, but it hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 — and he switched to the Republicans after the GOP seized control of Congress in 1994.

It seems that winning the Senate is every bit as elusive as winning the House for Democrats in 2018. They would be well advised to focus on returning Democrats to the 25 Senate seats they have on the ballot next year (that includes the two independents who typically vote with the Democrats). Not all are in danger, of course, but Democrats do hold 10 seats from states that voted for Trump.

And at least one of those senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has been rumored to be considering switching parties. That might not be a bad idea. West Virginia has voted for Republican presidential nominees in five consecutive elections, and it gave Trump nearly 68% of the vote.