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The GOP Convention In Cleveland: Opportunity Or Hazard?

WASHINGTON — The Republican National Convention in Cleveland two weeks away looms as an opportunity for Donald Trump to reverse his slipping fortunes. Either that or it may be a formidable new hazard on his path to the presidency.

It all depends on which Donald Trump shows up. If he turns out to be the new Donald of smoother edges promised earlier by his new top strategist, Paul Manafort, following a script off a teleprompter, that would be one thing.

But if the Donald in the spotlight proves to be the same free-wheeling barn-burner continuing his take-no-prisoners assault, that would distinctly be another matter. The evidence so far has not suggested much transformation, as Trump insists that the style of the old Donald has worked just fine so far

His previously demonstrated contempt for the buttoned-down Republican Party leadership and apparatus, as represented by conciliatory GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus, so far signals Trump’s determination to march to his own drummer.

His recent declaration that he could win the White House with or without the Republican National Committee, and that he didn’t much care which it would be, wasn’t encouraging. It didn’t do much to ameliorate his relations with the party establishment he so distinctly disposed of in the primaries.

The so-called Bush family dynasty was left by the roadside with the broken-down Jeb Bush tin lizzie, along with Mitt Romney, John McCain and other recipients of his contempt and abuse.

All Trump has, as Huey Long might put it, is the people, who will flock to Cleveland as delegates pledged to him. In their anger at the status quo, they’re not likely to be talked off the meat wagon of Trump’s undefined vision of an America made great again.

So the big question is whether the Trump who shows up in Cleveland will be the same egomaniacal Donald who continues to serve up the raw meat that got him there, or the supposedly refashioned candidate of substance, reason and good will, turning the page to a more conventional bid for broader public acceptability.

Even to entertain that possibility is to invite a major horse laugh. The temptation to a man like Donald Trump, to seize the stage of an American national political campaign and pull out all the stops, will be irresistible.

Trump has already told the Republican National Committee he wants to turn the Cleveland convention into a “showbiz” extravaganza of sports stars, addressing the multitudes in the arena where LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers only last month dramatically captured the pro basketball championship.

Trump, according to the Washington Post, said, “It’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention, otherwise people are going to fall asleep.” Disparaging the RNC staff, he added: “We don’t have the people who know how to put showbiz into a convention.”

For most presidential nominees of both major parties in the past, the national convention has been regarded a special opportunity to put the party’s best foot forward, in terms of its standard-bearer, its political principles, agenda and most of all solid party unity.

But having a flashy sports veneer isn’t likely to paper over the severe split in today’s Republican ranks led by the combustible force known as Donald Trump. The potential for the convention turning into a factious pep rally for him, devoid of much of the old GOP inspiration themes of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan, seems a better bet.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, as the convention chairman, will have his hands full generating a true sense of celebration out of the witch’s brew he’s being left with after this year’s bizarre and divisive sorting out of presidential prospects. Ryan knows he’s now fronting for a glorified snake-oil salesman, which no doubt makes him wonder anew what he’s gotten himself into, in taking the speakership he never wanted in the first place.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada June 18, 2016.   REUTERS/David Becker/Files

A Year Consumed By Obamacare Fight, With More To Come

WASHINGTON — As the end of 2013 approaches, seldom has a domestic issue so dominated the political center stage as Obamacare did this year. The president’s health care insurance law has ridden a policy rollercoaster and will still have a huge question mark hanging over it in 2014.

From the very start of Obama’s presidency, the Republicans in Congress took dead aim at what became the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Obama was able to get it enacted only with solid Democratic support in 2010, while his party was still in control of both the House and Senate.

Thereafter, the Republicans looked to the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional, but were surprised and disappointed when Chief Justice John Roberts led a 5-4 decision upholding it. After recovering from that blow, Republicans set out to “repeal and replace” the law, which they hoped to stigmatize by attaching the president’s name to it, with considerable success.

In 2012, Obamacare became a battle cry in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, despite the fact that the health care law he enacted as governor of Massachusetts was a model for it. That reality made Romney a poor pitchman against the federal version, and Obama was re-elected. He seemed home free on the single most significant and hard-won legislative victory of his first term.

Still the Republican opposition continued, with party orators from the noisy Tea Party wing leading the fight against the law. But the naysayers miscalculated this year in allowing the 16-day government shutdown over the budget. Polls consistently blamed the Republicans, and Obama appeared to be coasting toward the new year with the wind at his back.

But then, like some ghost out of the political past, Obamcare came rushing back as an issue with its calamitous rollout failure, fanning new life into the opposition.

All through the president’s successful re-election campaign and thereafter, he had been busy touting the act’s benefits and castigating its opponents as bearers of inaccurate information about how the law would work. Suddenly, the tables were turned on him as he was caught overselling parts of it. His oft-quoted line — that if you liked the insurance plan you had, you could keep it — backfired on him. Insured Americans started receiving cancelation notices from insurers whose plans did not meet ACA standards.

Obama found himself scrambling to assure them that they could qualify for better coverage at less cost, a claim that he was hard-pressed to justify. Obamacare foes were thrown a lifeline with which to resurrect their opposition.

As a result, as the president approaches his last three years in office, more of his own political energies are being required to get Obamacare back on track, by cobbling together a more workable registration website and a renewed and revamped sales pitch on the details of the law.

As for the Republicans, fearful before the rollout fiasco that their ill-conceived role in the government shutdown would cost them votes in next November’s congressional elections, instead are looking optimistically toward them. The chances are good that the midterm voting will be seen as a referendum on Obamacare, obliging the Democrats to fight all over again the battle they thought they had won in Obama’s re-election.

If so, the president’s year-end objectives of reviving such stalled legislative initiatives as immigration reform and tougher background checks on gun purchasing may have to give way. Much, to be sure, will ride on the public response to the efforts to re-sell Obamacare in this suddenly more uncertain climate.

Optimistic Democrats cite similar early glitches in the introduction of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid before they were widely embraced and lauded by recipients. But none encountered the storm stirred up so far by the law that bears this beleaguered president’s name.

Those programs, regarded the heart of the social safety net, have been a magnet for Democratic support from poor and middle-class voters. So it’s not so surprising that Obamacare has become such a fierce partisan political battleground for so long.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

A Congress Divided

WASHINGTON — The Senate provided the country a rare and modest glimpse of bipartisanship in its 68-32 passage of the comprehensive immigration reform bill laboriously accomplished by the Gang of Eight — four Democrats and four Republicans. But overcoming the rigid and obstructionist partisanship of the House Republicans will be another matter.

House Speaker John Boehner, like a chief lemming leading his followers over a cliff, warned in advance of that Senate vote, in which 14 Republicans broke party ranks, that his flock would continue its obdurate ways on the politically explosive immigration issue.

“For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House,” Boehner proclaimed, “it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members.” He obviously was referring to the GOP side alone, as if the House Democrats weren’t members of what senators call “the other body.”

It’s a party position that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert often insisted upon in his abbreviated tenure. It was designed to assure that the House Republicans would work their will on the full House in an our-way-or-the-highway invitation to stalemate.

Boehner in adhering to this posture endangers not only the prospect for meaningful immigration reform. He also jeopardizes his party’s political outlook in 2014 and 2016 and his own speakership. He continues to genuflect before the most conservative House Republicans, driven by Tea-Party recalcitrance, who nevertheless increasingly favor his disposal.

The 14 Senate Republicans apparently hope their support of the bipartisan compromise will ameliorate their party’s problem with Hispanic voters, so graphically demonstrated by their 70 percent vote against GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney in 2012. But the Senate version, heavy on fattened border security but allowing a path to American citizenship for undocumented aliens, will mean little politically if their House brethren refuse to buy into key elements of it.

President Obama did not hesitate to goad the House Republicans to follow the lead of the small band of Senate Republicans who followed GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida in getting off the naysay trail for once.

In all the Republican post-mortems after the Romney defeat, a deafening chorus was heard arguing that the party should address the wide loss of Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters in the 2012 election. Boehner, an astute and practical politician, surely got the message, but appears throttled by the Tea-Party constituency that now dominates his flock.

Until the 14 Senate Republicans cast their votes for the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform package, conservatives in both houses had at least the comfort of knowing they were all in the same boat. The challenge for Boehner, after one-third of the Senate Republican membership voted with the Democrats, is to prevent further leakage in his foundering House craft.

Obama and fellow Democrats, frustrated throughout the president’s first term by Republican congressional roadblocks, are looking to next year’s midterm elections to break the jam, expecting enhanced support from minority voters. The same elections could likewise determine Boehner’s political future if he continues to allow the most extreme elements of his constituency of the right to set a stubborn and resistant course to genuine immigration reform.

At a minimum, Boehner needs to get off his insistence that the House must and will go its own way on the issue, writing a package that can capture “a majority of the majority” membership. Such an outcome will only end in negating a rare example of Senate bipartisanship achieved in a Congress that once marked its most productive and laudatory days under both Democratic and Republican presidents.,

Last November, the Republican brand suffered a body blow with a presidential campaign that only reinforced its image as the party of the white and the well-off. The continuing fight over immigration reform can be a GOP opportunity to combat that view, but not unless Boehner and Co. seize it as their 14 Senate brethren have done.

(Jules Witcover’s latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

Avoiding A Death Spiral

WASHINGTON — South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the bipartisan Gang of Eight seeking historic reform of American immigration policy, has warned his party colleagues they’d better get aboard or forget about electing one of their own to the Oval Office in 2016.

While predicting the eventual bill will get more than 70 votes in the Senate, Graham said the Republican Party is “in a demographic death spiral” after having lost more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election. He argued that the main reason was its opposition to immigration reform urged widely among Latino voters.

One prominent member of the gang, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, has been a leading figure in the reform negotiations, pushing for a path to American citizenship for Hispanics in the country in conjunction with stronger security along the Mexican border.

But a political hangover from the 2012 campaign, in which GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney became a target of Latino activists for clinging to what was inartfully referred to as “self-deportation,” still hovers over the debate. That is, the notion that illegal aliens residing here would have to return to their country of origin and get to the back of the line of applicants for legal entry and eventual citizenship.

Graham insisted on Sunday’s Meet the Press on NBC that “if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016.” He went on: “And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community in my view is (to) pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run.”

That assessment is a reasonable one, but it seems to suggest that enactment of a more dependable gateway to citizenship for Hispanics already here and their family members will in itself throw open the floodgates to millions of such ethnic voters ready and eager to vote Republican.

More probable is that such immigration reform will only enlarge the pool of Latinos voting Democratic, based on past patterns and the general damage to the Republican brand by the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency and the hapless Romney campaign of 2012.

The junior George Bush won the 2000 Republican presidential nomination with strong Latino support as governor of Texas, having advocated policies that held promise of much greater progress on the national level. Those promises went largely unrealized, and the increasingly unpopular war policies that eroded Bush’s support among the general electorate in his second term also took their toll among Hispanics.

Then came the 2012 presidential campaign, in which the Republican Party stumbled through a marathon of primaries that only underscored its internal divisions. In order to secure the party’s nomination, Romney was obliged to sound more conservative than his previous record as governor of Massachusetts had suggested.

Graham’s warning of a Republican death spiral was an unusually harsh appraisal from a loyal party member. It could be dismissed as an overzealous shot across the bow of fellow Republicans to get behind the immigration reform, for which he has worked long and hard. At the same time, he predicted a political breakthrough in its passage, which smacks of putting all of the party’s eggs in that one basket.

Graham said he thought former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would have a good chance of winning if he were to run for president in 2016. Doing so likely would help with the Hispanic vote, inasmuch as his wife is a Latina, he is fluent in Spanish and he built a pro-Hispanic record in Tallahassee. But this Bush’s stronger suit may be his comparably more moderate and congenial posture than that of his brother George.

In any event, it’s notable that Graham has put the issue of immigration reform in uncommonly cataclysmic terms for his party, after it bet all in 2012 on getting rid of Obama and Obamacare as the ticket to returning to power — and lost.

(Jules Witcover’s latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

Photo: Secretary of Defense via Flickr.com