I wrote a couple of days ago about the structural gap that opened up in Washington, D.C. with the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Trump didn’t come into town plugged in to a political network: a fully integrated industry for ramming through major policy legislation in Congress. And although many Republicans on Capitol Hill have been plugged in to such a network (i.e., they could reactivate their live circuitry if it would make a difference), the network can’t operate to do hard things – like repeal Obamacare – if the president himself isn’t sitting at its apex.
For most legislation, the president just has to be accessible to the network. That’s typically through his aides, and probably some of his cabinet and agency heads. The president doesn’t have to be a creature of the network, as Obama basically was.
But for the really big things – again, like repealing Obamacare – it does take active participation by the president and his staff. He has to be able to wield the network, not just take questions from it at crucial waypoints.
I invite your attention once more to Ari Berman’s description, in a 2011 article for The Nation, of how the Obama White House ramrodded Obamacare in the final months before its passage. Obama’s team was pulling the strings on both of the key network groups: the activist organizations, and the industrial lobbying organizations. And Obama was ruthless with both of them. Obamacare could not have happened without a fully engaged White House, whip-cracking the network.
Why? Because the network is how Washington has come to do the two big things the Hill Republicans can’t get done in their attempts to repeal Obamacare. The network is how pressure is brought to bear on our elected representatives, to accept the brokered terms of legislation, and to keep their votes marshaled.
This excerpt is a bit extended, but you won’t regret taking it in. You’re not going to be depressed when this is over. Hang in there. Here is Berman:
In March 2009 the Campaign for America’s Future, a top progressive group in Washington, launched a campaign called “Dog The (Blue) Dogs” to pressure conservative Blue Dog Democrats to support President Obama’s budget. When he heard about the effort, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was regarded as the Obama administration’s designated “fixer,” called CAF’s leaders into the White House for a dressing down, according to a CAF official. If the group wanted to join the Common Purpose Project, an exclusive weekly strategy meeting between progressive groups and administration officials, CAF had to drop the campaign. We know how to handle the Blue Dogs better than you do, Messina said. Not wanting to sour its relationship with the White House at this early date, CAF complied, and the campaign quickly disappeared from its website. Despite Messina’s assurance, however, the Blue Dogs would remain a major obstacle to the realization of the president’s legislative agenda.
The hardball tactics used by Messina against CAF exemplified how the Obama administration would operate going forward—insistent on demanding total control, hostile to any public pressure from progressives on dissident Democrats or administration allies, committed to working the system inside Washington rather than changing it. …
The administration deputized [Jim] Messina as the top liaison to the Common Purpose Project. The coveted invite-only, off-the-record Tuesday meetings at the Capitol Hilton became the premier forum where the administration briefed leading progressive groups, including organizations like the AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress, on its legislative and political strategy. Theoretically, the meetings were supposed to provide a candid back-and-forth between outside groups and administration officials, but Messina tightly controlled the discussions and dictated the terms of debate (Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake memorably dubbed this the “veal pen”). “Common Purpose didn’t make a move without talking to Jim,” says one progressive strategist. During the healthcare fight, Messina used his influence to try to stifle any criticism of Baucus or lobbying by progressive groups that was out of sync with the administration’s agenda, according to Common Purpose participants. “Messina wouldn’t tolerate us trying to lobby to improve the bill,” says Richard Kirsch, former national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the major coalition of progressive groups backing reform. Kirsch recalled being told by a White House insider that when asked what the administration’s “inside/outside strategy” was for passing healthcare reform, Messina replied, “There is no outside strategy.”
The inside strategy pursued by Messina, relying on industry lobbyists and senior legislators to advance the bill, was directly counter to the promise of the 2008 Obama campaign, which talked endlessly about mobilizing grassroots support to bring fundamental change to Washington. But that wasn’t Messina’s style—instead, he spearheaded the administration’s deals with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, particularly the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), one of the most egregious aspects of the bill. “They cared more about their relationship with the healthcare industry than anyone else,” says one former HCAN staffer. “It was shocking to see. …”
So this is what is not happening in Trump’s Washington. And here is the very important thing you need to understand:
Obama didn’t have to do the work of putting pressure on Capitol Hill himself. What Jim Messina did was make sure that the industrial lobbying organizations had a free hand to do the work for him.
THAT’S what is not happening in Trump’s Washington.
It’s not about failures because Trump is bad at it. It’s about this not happening at all.
To put it together clearly: that’s the structural reason why a Republican majority in Congress has found itself unable to simply repeal Obamacare. Republicans are flailing to do something big, without the structure for it. They’re trying to have a cattle drive without the professional cowboys and the foreman. (And yes, I know there’s a movie for that. Of course, the cattle drive in The Cowboys did have John Wayne as the foreman, for most of the story. But in a larger sense, it gets you thinking, right? Hold that thought.)
There’s one more major thing at work. In the Conservative Treehouse series we looked at a couple of days ago, “sundance” referred to it. It’s this point, about what the network exists for:
Almost all of the K-Street institutions -which create the legislative priorities- are capable of producing a product that flows in [only] one direction.
There are no K-Street lobbyists demanding smaller/lesser government. There are no lobbyists walking in to House and Senate offices and asking for representatives to spend less money. The only people doing that are voters.
Think about that. Even if Trump were plugged in to the usual-suspect network, the network itself doesn’t “know” how to put pressure on legislators to roll back big government. It only knows how to be an organizational steamroller for big government.
Democrats and the media see all this as a big “Gotcha!” for Republicans. The tone of the mockery about Republicans being unable to repeal Obamacare tells you everything you need to know. It looks decisive, to their eyes, that the GOP has failed so spectacularly at trying to operate without the network.
Add the Obamacare failure to the border-wall failure in the latest continuing resolution, and it sure looks as if those stupid Republicans have entirely let down their most dedicated voters – because the Deplorables were stupid enough to elect Trump. Now it’s amateur hour, and Republicans are stuck without a network for getting Big Legislation done.
Indeed, the remnants of the network are still operating in the background, convincing some Republicans that it will hurt them in 2018 if they participate now in repealing Obamacare, or building the border wall. It’s that network that’s putting pressure on the waffling Republicans, and siphoning off their votes one by one.
The network is winning, right?
No. That’s what your eyes need to learn to see. The media, and the leading Democrats, know only how to see it in those terms themselves. But you don’t have to.
What your eyes should see is the promise of a Washington functioning without the network — or at least, with the people’s elected representatives back in the driver’s seat.
What we have here, with a broken, non-functional mechanism for Big Legislation, is a kind of opportunity we haven’t had for at least 100 years, and maybe even 200. This is bigger than individual pieces of legislation, and current policy issues. It is, as the president says, yuuge.
This is an incredible opportunity to do exactly what needs doing: learn again how to get legislating done without the legislation-industry network.
It took some doing, but there’s a Freedom Caucus in the House now, and senators like Ted Cruz , Tom Cotton , and Tim Scott . They’re not afraid to do jarring, paradigm-busting things. Now there’s a President Trump in the White House too – a comprehensive political oddity, but a guy who likes to get “big, big” things done, and who knows how to keep a big ship on a base course.
Although I’m sad to see Fox News apparently preparing to deconstruct itself, I also see even that as a healthy thing. It doesn’t help anything, to have the political right remain defined in the old-consensus terms of Washington conservatism. The Washington of 2017 is exactly what needs to be melted down, to harvest the precious ores and recover the shape and principles of Original Washington.
That isn’t going to look conventional and “right” to today’s old-consensus punditry. Even smart people like Krauthammer, Will, Hayes, etc. don’t know how to discern the narrative for that effort, and write it so people can see what’s going on. Instead, they’re mainly affronted when conventional things aren’t happening, as if convention is the measure of good.
The editorial staff and the leadership at Fox News are a mixed bag; some can see it, I imagine, and others can’t. Fox News has hung on too long accepting the outdated rhetorical terms of the so-called mainstream media. It’s time for a different media lodestone for constitutionalist republicans. Some of the on-air personalities will translate; others won’t. But as an organization, Fox is not the one to hymn for us a new beginning.
That’s where we are: today, already. In New Beginning Land. We can’t get back to the shore we came from now – which was the shore of 2016, not of 1776. But that’s a good thing.
For the next few years, the old Washington machine can only dog our steps and try to frighten us (as it is doing now by picking off Republican votes in Congress one by one, and applying relentless pressure on our spirits through the media). It can’t mount a massed counterattack. Now is the time to act. I suspect Trump isn’t the only person in Washington who sees that.
I also suspect that circumstances will intervene, in the next 12 months, to make it necessary to restore some function to Original Washington. Something will come along that absolutely must get done. People will perforce have to learn new things, like the boys who learn to run cattle in The Cowboys. They won’t do everything right the first time. But don’t bet against them.
The Mayflower has landed. An amazing prospect lies before us: of a yeoman people having the opportunity to peacefully do what Napoleon is said to have spoken of: “A crown lies in the gutter. One need only reach down and pick it up.” Don’t lose heart, and don’t be deceived. This is the chance of a millennium.