ENPR: Week of August 8, 2007
August 8, 2007
Vol. 42, No. 16b
To: Our Readers
- Congressional Democrats stumble in judicial battles and House parliamentary wrangling
- Feinstein stuns Judiciary Committee
- Republicans Square off in Iowa With Straw Poll Looming
- Democrats’ debate at DailyKos convention shows influence of Net Roots
- Barbour Easily Wins Re-nomination in Mississippi
Special Note to Readers: This issue marks an exciting change for the Evans-Novak Political Report. I am pleased to announce that Tim Carney, who did stellar work as a staff writer for ENPR during the 2002 and 2004 elections, has returned to the newsletter to serve as the senior reporter. Tim is the best political reporter among the many fine journalists who have worked for me throughout the years. I’m glad he’s come home to the Evans-Novak Political Report, and I expect you will be, too.
- With congressional Republicans’ morale in a steady decline, the adjournment for the August recess found the GOP in high spirits thanks to winning the anti-terrorist eavesdropping bill. That trumped Democratic passage of an energy bill in the final House session last Saturday night. The importance is that Democrats still flinch when they come face to face with President George W. Bush on terrorism.
- In contrast, the GOP is on the run on health care. Both the Senate and House have passed the SCHIP expansion that constitutes another step toward nationalized health care, though not with enough backing in the House to override a presidential veto there. The odds of passing a conservative alternative based on harnessing market forces looks remote.
- Last Saturday night’s session also featured another round of largely ignored votes supporting earmarks. There is no real sentiment in Congress to slice away at pork. The climate of corruption particularly bothers reform Republicans and may lead to an effort by reformers in both the House and Senate to step away from the party leadership.
- The big lead in the USA Today/Gallup national poll for Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination is illusory. She is in a virtual tie with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the key early delegate contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
- Similarly, the poll underestimates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination. He may not even be at a double digits nationally today, but he will be there is very soon if he can win in Iowa and New Hampshire — which is a strong possibility.
The House and Senate entered recess for the summer last week, capping off a mixed first semester for the Democratic majority with an unprecedented and rowdy breakdown in the House as well as a shocking confirmation victory for Republicans in the Senate.
The two most startling developments of the end-of-semester action — the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of a maligned 5th Circuit nominee and the cut-off vote on the Agriculture bill — play to the Republicans’ advantage. The White House pulled out a win on renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Otherwise, Democrats won victories in expanding government.
Southwick Nomination: Last Thursday, Judiciary Committee Republicans and Democrats alike were caught off guard when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) voted in favor of Mississippi Supreme Court Judge Leslie Southwick‘s nomination, giving Southwick a majority in the Judiciary Committee and sending his nomination to the floor.
- Southwick, nominated for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, was a prime target of the liberal groups behind the Democrats’ filibuster campaign that began with Miguel Estrada‘s nomination in 2002. Southwick was targeted in good part because of his rulings on homosexual issues. For the groups in the liberal coalition fighting over nominees, homosexual issues are second-most important behind abortion — and these priorities are reflected in Democrats’ fundraising sources. The public arguments against Southwick usually rest on assertions he was racist. Feinstein, in voting in favor of his nomination, rejected those accusations outright.
- Southwick’s victory was a surprise and a real failure for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy scheduled the Thursday vote in part to punish Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for “grandstanding” by offering an amendment calling for a floor vote on Southwick. Leahy had been honoring a GOP request to delay the vote, and when he scheduled the immediate vote for Thursday, it looked like a death sentence for the Southwick nomination.
- Leahy expected a party-line defeat of Southwick in committee, but Feinstein’s switch, together with nine Republican senators’ staying in line, gave Southwick a 10-to-nine victory. This was a serious embarrassment. While Republicans were never excellent at enforcing party unanimity in committee or on the floor, committee chairmen were almost never sandbagged this badly — scheduling a vote expecting a win, and then losing. The closest thing in the GOP Congress was when Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) sank John Bolton‘s nomination to be UN ambassador in 2005, shortly before a vote.
- Besides being a failure of Democratic leadership, Southwick’s win is also a victory for McConnell and President Bush. McConnell’s persistence paid off, and he succeeded in keeping Republicans in line. Southwick’s win gives the White House some hope on future nominees — including a possible Supreme Court nominee. But on that score, nobody should read too much into Feinstein’s flip.
- Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, has an undeserved reputation as a hard-core liberal. Ever since her tight reelection in 1998, she has amassed a somewhat moderate record, though none of the true moderate Democrats have seats on the Judiciary Committee.
- For both parties, judge battles — especially at the circuit court level — are primarily about serving the parties’ activists. Voters are not tuned in to parliamentary squabbling on lower-court judges, but the groups that do much of the parties’ heavy lifting put more weight on this issue than on most. For Democrats, the added pressure is that these groups are also major campaign contribution pipelines.
Intelligence: For all their toughness on most issues and their harsh criticism of executive branch assaults on privacy and civil liberties, Capitol Hill Democrats surrendered to the White House on updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
- Both Republicans and Democrats wanted to modify FISA to close a “loophole” that excluded from the act — which allows for warrantless wiretaps of foreign entities — foreign-to-foreign conversations that are routed through the U.S. The White House, however, upped the ante by demanding FISA extend to conversations in which only one party is outside the country, and the other is here. Democrats on the campaign trail call this “domestic spying” by the administration.
- This “domestic spying” is one of the chief points of attack that the mainstream media and the Democratic base use against the Bush Administration. It’s telling, then, that Democrats caved and passed the White House bill.
- Although they are emboldened by the President’s low approval ratings and by the low approval of the Iraq War — and although they probably have the upper hand in foreign policy battles — Democrats are still terrified of looking weak on security. This fear, which dates back to the beginning of the Cold War, will play an interesting role in the presidential election next year.
House: In an unprecedented turn of events on Thursday night, as the House approached summer recess, Democrats ended a vote prematurely as Republicans appeared about to pull off a win. This incident further poisons the well on Capitol Hill and reflects on Democratic inexperience in the majority.
- The measure under consideration — a motion to recommit the Agriculture appropriations bill with instructions to add a provision prohibiting illegal immigrants from receiving food stamps — was more show than substance. Under current law, illegals are not eligible for food stamps, but it was a good red meat vote for the GOP. Losing the vote is in no way a setback for Republicans nor a victory for Democrats. In fact, it probably cuts the other way.
- On orders from his party’s leaders, Speaker Pro-Tempore Michael McNulty (D-N.Y.) gaveled closed a vote on the measure when it was tied 214 to 214, thus sinking the motion even as Republicans in the “Nay” column were visibly calling to change their votes to “Yea.” This sent Republicans into chants of “shame! shame!”, cries of cheating and a walkout. Tempers stayed high for the next two days until recess.
- The Democrats’ rush to end the vote reflected more disorganization and panic than out-and-out cheating. After closing the vote at 214 to 214, Democratic leaders called for the vote to be reconsidered, and they won that vote 216 to 213 — Democratic leaders had successfully flipped three of their own members. The question is: Why did they need such clumsy tactics to win the vote? Under the same circumstances in past congresses, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would have held the vote open long enough to flip their members and win — a move that would have evoked protestations but would not have smacked of cheating and theft. The answer is: inexperienced Democratic leaders panicked.
- While the dust-up was sparked by a Democratic stumble, the majority held firm as Republicans spent the next two days launching various protests. On Friday, when the minority tried to reject approval of the previous day’s Congressional Record because Democrats had scrubbed any trace of the original 214-to-214 vote, Speaker Pro Tempore John Murtha (D-Pa.) overruled the protesting Republicans and denied their call for a recorded vote.
- If there was any hope of a renaissance of civility on the Hill — and there wasn’t, really — it’s gone now. Things have been getting progressively worse for more than a decade, and the escalation will continue. Mainstream media anticipation of newfound congressionally civility was grounded in the hope that the Republican minority would return to its pre-Newt Gingrich docility. With the GOP caucus consisting mostly of Gingrich-era or DeLay-era conservatives, that’s not going to happen.
Ames: The Ames, Iowa, straw poll Saturday, August 11, revolves around former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will not take part.
- Romney is the hands-down favorite. His early popularity there was enough to scare away the other top contenders. Romney is the favorite in the straw poll for many reasons. First, he is generally strong in Iowa. He leads in most statewide polls, recently exceeding 25 percent and leading runner-up Giuliani by double-digits.
- Second, the straw poll, to an even greater extent than the caucuses, is a test of organizational strength. Romney, by far, has the best organized Iowa campaign — a symptom of his being the most organized of the candidates. A former consultant and corporate manager, Romney understands management.
- Third, more than management, the “organizational strength” required by the straw poll means mostly money. Romney is the GOP leader in that field, with $44 million raised at the end of the second quarter. With Giuliani and McCain not playing in Ames, Romney is orders of magnitude richer than his nearest competitors.
- The potential dark horses to watch in Ames are Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.).While the straw poll holds “make-or-break” promise for Huckabee and Brownback, it’s not clear what result would “make” either of them and what result could “break” them.
- Paul has garnered excellent spontaneous grassroots support at every turn, but this hasn’t turned into more than a blip in polls or in media coverage. His fundraising, however, is surprising, and his breadth of support on the Internet is impressive. If he shows well in Ames, he could start garnering real media attention. However, campaign organization is not Paul’s strong point, making the straw poll a less-than-ideal venue for him to break out.
- Brownback’s campaign has dedicated itself mostly to chipping away at Romney’s support among pro-life Christian conservatives (see discussion of the debate below). This is Brownback’s base, and Romney currently occupies some of it (though he is inhibited by anti-Mormon bias). Simply within that base, Brownback could have a strong showing.
- Huckabee, however, has similar plans. He is trying to portray himself as the candidate of evangelical Christians — the most celebrated bloc of the GOP base. Fiscal conservative discontent with Huckabee’s Arkansas tax hikes has created something of an anti-Huckabee push — an extraordinary burden for a second-tier candidate to bear.
- A third-place finish for Brownback could be the end of the road for him, especially if it is paired with a robust Romney showing that demonstrates his support within the pro-life constituency. All of Brownback’s eggs are in the Iowa basket — his neighboring state.
- If Brownback comes in a strong second, blowing away Huckabee and pocketing a respectable portion of the vote, he could give his candidacy a boost. The same is true for Huckabee.
- Romney, as long as he wins as expected, cannot really suffer. A blowout win, however, would make him the undisputed front-runner in the nomination battle. A loss would be a very bad break.
- The best line of the night was Romney’s quip that Sen. Barack Obama, by expressing his willingness to use U.S. troops in Pakistan without Pakistani permission, had “gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week.” This critique resonated with the perception that Obama is in over his head on many issues. Still, however, Republicans are at a major disadvantage on foreign policy as long as they feel wedded to Bush’s policies. Because all Democrats — both those initially opposed to the Iraq invasion and those who supported it — have flexibility on the issue and license to attack Bush on foreign policy, any Republican will face an uphill climb on this issue (barring a dramatic change in circumstances).
- The GOP back bench tried to make a splash, especially with some of their hopes pinned on the Iowa straw poll on August 11. Brownback directly targeted Romney’s main weakness among conservatives — his total switch on the abortion issue. Huckabee and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), who months ago indicated he thought he would win the Ames vote, showed some spark.
- Perhaps the most important exchange of the debate — especially if it is a harbinger of things to come — was not a spat between candidates, but Giuliani’s challenging Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen on one of his questions. Yepsen asked Giuliani if he was willing to raise gas taxes in order to improve bridges (referring to the Minneapolis bridge collapse), and Giuliani rejected the “liberal assumption” of his question. This contrarian streak and self-confidence was part of what New York conservatives loved about Mayor Giuliani, and it’s something many conservatives have appreciated in President Bush. Especially with the threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency, Giuliani’s combativeness and willingness to challenge the media could be his ticket to the GOP nomination.
- Sen. John McCain still appears to be regrouping. In Des Moines, he did not yet seem to have caught his second wind.
- Hillary Clinton received a round of boos after she refused to reject lobbyist money. This was a poignant moment in the tense dynamic between the “Net Roots,” who appear to have risen in influence in 2006, and the Democratic Party establishment. First, Clinton has many critics among the bloggers, online organizers and grassroots leaders who helped push Democrats to victories in 2006. For the Net Roots, opposition to Iraq is the most important issue, and a harsh critique of Bush is the most important message. Clinton’s mixed message on the war irks these Democratic activists.
- More importantly, the Net Roots are trying to position themselves as the new power base in the Democratic Party. They see that money talks, which is why many of these websites have turned into small-dollar fundraising machines for electable candidates who may not be liberals, but who oppose the war and are often populist in tone. In other words, they see the battle for the heart of the party as a fight between the lobbyists and the people. Hillary explicitly sided with the lobbyists.
- Barack Obama has had trouble recently, as his inexperience and naivety has shown through, as was inevitable. The perception that he is too green or hasn’t done his homework is just beginning to stick. If this perception catches on in Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be a tough climb for the junior senator from Illinois, however strong his national poll figures, fundraising and name recognition are.
- Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) continues to show well in Iowa polls. His populist message strikes a nerve with many of the red state voters who switched to Democrats in 2006. Even if he is relegated by the media the back seat in these early days, he has a chance to be the nominee.
Eaves, who spearheaded a trial lawyers’ rebellion within the state Democratic party four years ago with an aborted primary challenge to then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), will run a populist, anti-business, socially conservative campaign. Eaves is certainly the underdog running against a popular governor in a state drifting Republican.