A Trying Week for Washington

Well, too bad there is nothing to write about this week! Where do we start—perhaps with the apoplectic Democrats during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It’s hard for me to feel much sympathy watching this kabuki dance; Senate Democrats know full well that Kavanaugh is going to be confirmed, and that it is mostly their own fault.

One almost forgets that Democrats, led by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid and frustrated by GOP opposition to many of President Obama’s nominations, voted in 2013 to change Senate rules to lower from 60 to 51 the threshold number of votes required for confirming executive and judicial nominees below the Supreme Court. Had Democrats, in their infinite wisdom, not lowered that threshold then, it would have been more difficult and, I think, unlikely that current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican majority would drop it last year for the high court as well.

By temperament, McConnell is much more of an institutionalist than Reid was. On the floor that day, then-Minority Leader McConnell prophetically told his Democratic colleagues, “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this, and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.” On a largely party-line vote, 52 Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats voted for the rule change, all except for Sens. Carl Levin, Joe Manchin, and Mark Pryor, all of whom opposed it. Democrats know they screwed up changing the Senate rules, but they still have to raise hell to placate their base, who seem to think that if they stomp their feet hard enough, the nomination can be stopped.

One of the most important lessons in politics is, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Five years ago, Democrats did it because they could; now with the shoe on the other foot, it’s payback time. Some of the more-imprudent actions by House Republicans over the past few years may well trigger a comparable payback over the next few. Moderation, patience, and self-control may not be terribly exciting, but in the long haul, it often is a wiser course than self-indulgence.

Another hot topic this week has been the rash of Democratic incumbents and front-runners losing primaries, most recently Rep. Mike Capuano losing to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District—a reprise of Joe Crowley’s June loss in New York’s 14th District to activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Also fitting into this pattern of surprises was the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary upset of former Rep. Gwen Graham, daughter of former Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham, by Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee.

There is a passion and energy within the Democratic base that is upsetting the establishment’s apple cart. The specific circumstances in each of the upsets have varied, but the common thread is big change. In some of the upsets, we saw a generational contrast, pitting younger, underdog candidates against middle-aged or older front-runners. In some, the dynamic is racial, with minorities knocking off white candidates (Pressley and Gillum are African-Americans, Ocasio-Cortez is a Latina, and Capuano, Crowley, and Graham are white). In many cases, women have beaten men, and in most, insurgents have toppled the establishment.

In some ways what we are seeing is a mirror image of what happened on the GOP side during Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. Many conservative Republicans had such intense animosity toward Obama that it radicalized some elements of the Republican Party, leading to the creation of the tea-party movement. We saw an energized effort that upset a number of more-conventional Republican favorites. That in turn yielded the nomination of exotic and problematic Senate candidates in 2010—such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada, and two years later Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri—that ultimately cost Republicans Senate seats they should have won. That is the downside risk for an energized party, sometimes choosing either unelectable or unproven nominees.

The upside opportunity for a party is that this energy and passion can channel strong midterm-election turnout, as it did for the GOP under Obama, resulting in Republicans capturing the House in 2010 and Senate in 2014. For Democrats this year, some upsets have happened in safely Democratic seats with little chance for Republicans to capitalize, but in others, it might cost Democrats the seat.

Finally rounding out the week are revelations of longtime Washington Post reporter and editor Bob Woodward’s new blockbuster book, Fear and The New York Times’ publication of an anonymous op-ed written by a senior administration official about inside efforts to thwart many of the president’s more “misguided impulses.” I must admit to wincing when I read such accounts. The president doesn’t display much discretion and loyalty to those serving under him and they reciprocate, dishing on him and expressing concerns, usually privately, that you never would have heard from officials in the Obama or George W. Bush administrations.

Trump’s approval numbers have been both low and resilient, routinely below those of other elected first-term presidents at comparable points, but with developments and disclosures that would have been disastrous for his predecessors hardly dinging his ratings. But suffice it to say, things are not getting better for Republicans.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on September 7, 2018