Thanks for Nothing, John Boehner

Those who believed John Boehner was an ineffective Speaker may soon learn an important lesson in democratic leadership. You can’t lead where others are unwilling to follow. His successor will likely be a leader who believes more fervently but to no greater effect. The cure to ineffective government resides not with more effective congressional leaders but with unified government and overwhelming majorities. Given contemporary political divisions, this is unlikely; but even if such a government were to emerge in 2016, it would likely be fleeting, lasting only until the 2018 midterm elections.

We may not like dysfunctional government, but we like functional governments empowered by democratic majorities even less.

More generally, American politics is currently plagued by widespread misperception the only thing needed to make democracy more effective is louder, more forceful, and less compromising leadership. It is view almost entirely divorced from the realities of a political system which divides, checks, and limits political power. It is a view curiously unaware of a divided and polarized electorate. And, it is a view almost completely untethered from a historical understanding of the U.S. Constitution.  If you have policy goals other than shutting down the federal government, political compromise isn’t a sign of weakness in the American political system, it is a necessity.

Perhaps more dangerously, it is a misperception that explains the appeal of Donald Trump and a deeper longing for leadership that ignores political constraints in the name of expediency and efficiency.  Too many of us believe that democracy should reflect our views while ignoring the perspective of those who disagree with us. Too many of us believe that persuasion should occur via political bluster rather than through thoughtful deliberation, that forcing the other side to back down is the definition of democratic leadership.

This leaves us at a curious impasse. Our expectations for how government should function are disconnected from the actual functioning of government. In a political system that demands compromise, we elect uncompromising representatives and then express surprise and dismay when the system grinds to a halt.

John Boehner, for all his faults, tried to make that system function. He was duly punished for his efforts. In a few months, we will miss him but we’ll be too busy blaming his successor to realize it.


The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.

For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.

Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.

But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”

The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate  –  is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.

The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.

Who Will Stand Up to Trump in the Second GOP Debate?


Watching Kim Davis, the erstwhile Kentucky County Clerk attempting to thread the needle between free speech, doing her job, and contempt of court, I am reminded of this quote from the socialist leader Eugene Debs.

“I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.”

Debs was speaking in Canton, Ohio, in protest of World War I. Unlike Davis, he understood that free speech is not speech without consequence. Debs knew well he might spend time in prison for exercising his First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction in a case that temporarily narrowed the definition of free speech.

Davis’ political protest, supposedly grounded in a deeply held religious belief in the sanctity of marriage (despite multiple divorces), appears to stop at the jailhouse door.

Kim Davis, Eugene Debs, and First Amendment Consequences


You can acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is smart and talented while also conceding that she is not a very good candidate. While some of her struggles undoubtedly reflect broader culturally engrained gender stereotypes, her most pronounced flaw as a candidate is that she lacks charm. The more she campaigns the fewer people support her.

I say this, by the way, not as a critique but as a fan.  Clinton politics – pragmatic in its aims, fiscally responsible, and moderate in its approach – has great appeal. In another era, Hillary Clinton was and would have remained a liberal “Rockefeller” Republican, committed to liberal social policies and responsible governance.  Her pragmatic moderate politics is no small part of her problem. The Democratic left has never trusted her or, for that matter, embraced the Clinton legacy. Disappointed by the moderation of Presidents Clinton and Obama, they continue to pine for a “true” liberal.  Hillary Clinton is not that candidate.

This is her second time down the road from inevitable juggernaut to vulnerability to crisis mode and, perhaps, defeat.  The problem she confronts is that – as in 2008 – the most powerful arguments for her campaign are electability and inevitability. When that veneer is stripped clean – when she is exposed as electorally vulnerable – her support crumbles.  The comparison to 2008 is instructive. In September 2007, Clinton led President Barack Obama by 21 points (46 to 25). His victory in Iowa gave Democrats the chance to reconsider her candidacy and her inevitability. The decline in her support from over 60 percent to under 50 and the rise in her unfavorable numbers this early in the campaign are causes for alarm.

Her current challenger – Bernie Sanders – is less formidable. Charlie Cook’s assessment of Sanders is spot on: “Has any mem­ber of Con­gress dur­ing the past 23 years been less con­sequen­tial, less ef­fect­ive, and taken less ser­i­ously than Sanders? Is there any Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or less able to win a na­tion­wide gen­er­al elec­tion?” Though one might recall that at the start of 2008, Senator Barack Obama was inexperienced and not well known.

Her current challenge -overcoming her own weaknesses as a candidate while convincing the Democratic faithful that she has more to offer than electability – remains. Worse, as she looks less and less inevitable, the challenge of making a case for her candidacy grows.

Despicable Me: Hillary Clinton’s Challenge Remains


Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court: The Fight Has Only Just Begun

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision today on gay marriage is unquestionably historic, just do not believe the issue is settled. Here is why.

First, while the Court is the final arbiter of constitutional meaning, it is has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”  The Supreme Court can issue rulings but it cannot enforce them. When faced with a ruling like, President Andrew Jackson famously declared “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Within this context, it is perhaps helpful to recall Brown v. Board (1954) which declared that schools should desegregate “will all deliberate speed,” opening the door to obstruction and delay.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, for example, has already declared Louisiana not recognize or offer gay marriages. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott will issue a directive designed to protect religious freedom against today’s landmark ruling. More than sixty years after Brown, and after making considerable progress from 1960-1980, American public schools are as segregated today as they were in the late 1960s.

Second, Supreme Court decisions often spur the losing side into political action. Consider, for example, the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and the politics of abortion. This landmark decision mobilized pro-life advocates. Pro-choice advocates, believing the battle was permanently won, demobilized. The result has been a long series of state government restrictions followed by court decisions whittling away at the core protections provided via Roe v. Wade.  States currently with bans on gay marriage may well explore ways to limit this newly minted protection, and the decision will have other unanticipated and unintended consequences.

Regardless of what follows, this is a landmark decision worth celebrating today.  But tomorrow, the political groups and organizations that made this decision a reality will need to get back to work. The fight over equal rights has just begun.


Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley in 2016? (No, Not Really, But Maybe?)

Instead of talking Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton in 2016, maybe we should discuss Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley. I am not entirely serious about this but here is what we know:

  1.  The Republican Party will have a crowded field but will essentially be competing for two sets of voters. Conservatives appealing to the ideological base versus establishment candidates appealing to moderates and “practical” conservatives. Scott Walker, elected in blue-state Wisconsin and the survivor of union-led recall election, has the potential to appeal to both sets of voters.  In 2000, Republican money and organization very smartly united behind George W. Bush early in the campaign process minimizing competition. The only wrinkle was John McCain who apparently didn’t get the memo and made the nomination look potentially interesting until getting decimated by negative campaigning in South Carolina. The Republican Party heading into 2016 is considerably more chaotic making such a strategy untenable, the process far less predictable, and Jeb Bush far less inevitable.  Bush unquestionably brings a lot to the table in terms of money and organization, but he is no sure thing when it comes to the nomination.
  2. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable but it is worth remembering that she also looked unbeatable in 2008. The ideological base of the Democratic Party never really embraced the Clintons (Bill or Hillary) and the politics of compromise and triangulation, and has ongoing doubts about a Hillary Clinton presidency. Those doubts are starting to emerge and will be expressed more loudly and clearly as we move closer to the nomination.  The email scandal and the reemergence of Monica Lewinsky are just the beginning. While it is tempting to believe these stories will be pushed solely by Republicans, there are plenty of Democrats willing to play along.  Assuming no other serious candidates emerge, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has the potential to capture this dissatisfaction and mount a serious challenge. How serious may well depend on the deftness of the Hillary Clinton campaign and her ability to reassure doubters and unite an uncertain base.

Neither of these outcomes is particularly likely, but the field for 2016 is hardly set, and voters may well be in a mindset of rejecting “politics as usual” which means rejecting the obvious and safe political choices.


The Declining Power of the Political Press

Interesting story in the Columbia Journalism Review noting the increased influence of PR professionals in Washington and the declining influence of the press. This is an ongoing theme, reflected also in complaints that the Obama Administration has limited access even beyond the Bush Administration.

In the contemporary media environment, elected officials have a range of tools to communicate directly to voters making reporters (traditional or online) less important to their communication and political strategies. Who needs a reporter when you can send your message directly to supporters and followers?  This is true regardless of whether the “news” is online or in print or on television. Even when government officials do interact with journalists, they have more leverage to set the rules for the exchange, tightly controlling content.

The late Tim Cook, a former colleague, wrote about the “negotiation of newsworthiness” in his seminal and still very relevant work Governing with News.  While journalists wrote the stories, government officials controlled their access to reporters making the process of creating the news a two-sided negotiation in which each side had some leverage. In this exchange, digital media. which many thought would democratize politics, can become a tool of the powerful. With institutional resources and immediate access to followers, tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provide an avenue to communicate directly to constituents. They can be used to counter news stories reported in the mainstream media in real time or to simply limit media access to the candidate or public official. The key for public officials, political parties and candidates  is to make sure they have developed strong enough social networks allowing this direct line to their supporters.

It is hard to see how political reporters regain their footing in this environment. One line of thought suggest reporters be harder-nosed, refusing to cede to the demands of limited access. According to this line of thought, the politician needs the journalist more than the journalists needs the politician. Here the news marketplace may serve as a competitive disadvantage by empowering competitors to gain inside access on important news stories. (Of course, that access comes at a cost to their independence). Tougher reporting also likely assures less access as politicians increasingly decide their strategic interests are better served by going around rather than through journalists.

More to the point, political parties, candidates, and interest groups will continue to devote resources to developing the information and communication infrastructure necessary to communicate independently of an independent and objective press.  This reality portends poorly for the future of independent and objective news and is yet another indicator that our sources of political news and information will likely become ever more partisan and politicized.