“The Sunday Political Brunch”—April 17, 2016
Sunday, April 17, 2016
“A Perfect Storm” – Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, and the post-Watergate class in Congress was a landslide for Democrats. You’d think Carter could have gotten anything done with that kind of majority. But Carter ran as a Washington outsider, and then tried to govern that way. At one of the Inaugural parties, he seated House Speaker Tip O’Neill way in the back of the room, instead of at the head table. It was a huge gaffe, and O’Neill never forgave him. It was a metaphor for a doomed, one-term presidency, even with Carter’s own party in charge of Congress.
“Insider-Outsider” – If anyone knew how to play the political game it was Ronald Reagan. He won the Presidency running as an “outsider” but knew how to play “insider” as soon as he got to Washington, DC. His days as Governor or California with a strong Democratic legislature taught him well. My friend – former California House Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown – used to tell me how Reagan was a master at wooing Democrats to his side, or at least to cooperation in Sacramento.
“Split Government” – Reagan was the most recent President to have a mandate when elected. He won in a landslide, and his coattails swept Republicans into control of the U.S. Senate. And, with Southern conservative Democrats on board with Republicans, he had at least a philosophical majority in the House of Representatives. Reagan got tax breaks and a huge defense buildup through a split Congress. It was political art (photo above).
“Third-time; Not the Charm” – In 1988 George H.W. Bush was elected President, in what was really “the third Reagan term.” But by then, the Iran-Contra scandal was full-fledged, and the Senate went back to Democrat control in 1986. Despite his popularity leading the victory in the first Gulf War; Bush caved to Democrats in Congress on his “no new taxes” pledge and it cost him reelection.
“You Won; Now Lead” – Bill Clinton almost fell into the same trap as Jimmy Carter in 1976. He won the White House with big margins in both chambers of Congress and figured he could do as he wished. He couldn’t. Congress is a huge kingdom, with lots of little “fiefdoms” everywhere. The Clinton team thought it could rush health care reform through Congress, but steamrolled some key Democratic committee chairman in the process. That doesn’t work. Congress is about accommodation; not domination. Health care failed, and Clinton’s first budget survived by only one vote.
“Divided Government Can Work” – In 1994 – in part due to a disastrous first two years of the Clinton term – Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in forty years. Despite the crushing defeat, Clinton masterfully co-opted the Republican agenda, passing welfare reform, the crime bill, and telecommunications reform, among others. He worked better with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole as his foils, instead of his Democratic allies. Clinton was almost as masterful as Reagan, in that regard, and won reelection in 1996.
“Bush II” – The Congressional relations of George W. Bush are hard to assess, since the September 11th attacks occurred so early in his term. While he came in to power with a Republican Congress, there was eventually a tie in the Senate that tipped in favor of Democrats when liberal Republican Jim Jeffords (I-VT) bolted his party. Bush had strong support from both chambers to engage war in Afghanistan, then Iraq, but Congress was later criticized as being a rubber stamp on both sides of the aisle. Republicans lost the House from 2006 to 2010; and lost the Senate until 2014.
“Obama ‘Rama” – When President Obama was elected, Democrats had restored majorities in both chambers of Congress. He had enough votes to pass his most significant legislation to date – The Affordable Care Act – known as Obamacare. But the backlash helped Republicans gain back control of Congress – the House in 2010; and the Senate in 2014. Little has been passed since.
“Why All of this Matters?” – A President has to be able to maneuver through the tricky, dangerous waters of Congress to succeed. Some have done that masterfully; others have failed miserably. No one in Congress owes Donald Trump any favors; some members despise Hillary Clinton, while others might work with her. Bernie Sanders is an independent, with few Congressional allies; Ted Cruz is widely disliked by his own party in Congress; and, John Kasich, as a twenty-year veteran has deep respect on Capitol Hill. Yet none of these traits - for any of the candidates - is a guarantor of success or failure in the White House. Our vote is a roll of the dice.
Which candidate do you feel could work best with Congress? Click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.
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