By Susan Grigsby
Sunday Jan 14, 2018 · 11:30 AM EST
Republicans seem to specialize in ruining everything they touch, from bipartisanship to the norms of governance and impeachment. They have also managed to ruin the prospects for any responsible Democratic celebrity who wishes to run for the presidency.
It was the Republicans who destroyed the ability of the two political parties to work together on bipartisan budget negotiations. All because Newt Gingrich had to take the rear exit of Air Force One in 1995. Really.
Gingrich had been invited aboard Air Force One last week to fly to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With a budget crisis pending, he expected Clinton would take time out during the flight to talk about a possible solution.
But Clinton, who seemed to be genuinely grieving over Rabin’s death, stayed up front in a cabin with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush on both the outward-bound and return trips.
Then, when the plane landed at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole were asked to deplane by gasp! the rear door. […]
To Gingrich, the professor of history, this was one of the snubs of the century, ranking, he said, with the time Charles Evans Hughes stiffed Hiram Johnson of the California Progressive Party back in 1916, a slight that cost Hughes the California vote and the presidency. And it was this disrespect, Gingrich continued, that caused him to send the President two temporary financing and spending bills he knew that Clinton would have to veto thus shutting down the federal government.
Now, Gingrich can, and did, dress it up with all of the insignificant historical references (Charles Evans Hughes??) that he chooses, but basically, he did not get the respect and adulation to which he felt his honored position entitled him. And so he felt free to shut down the United States government.
Granted, Gingrich was the first Republican speaker in forty years, so perhaps his understanding of the position was somewhat limited, but Democratic speakers had successfully worked with Republican presidents for decades before he took over the House. After lying to the House Ethics Committee which was investigating his use of a tax-exempt organization for political purposes (back when it was illegal) he resigned the speakership and then his House seat.
He was replaced by a man described as “amiable” and “avuncular,” who proceeded to destroy the regular order of Congress and whose judge referred to as a “serial child molester.”
Dennis Hastert leaving the federal courthouse in October 2015, after pleading guilty to covering up the hush money he paid to one of his victims.
I am old enough to remember the Congress before the Hastert rule, which requires a majority of the Majority Party’s votes before bringing any legislation to the floor, excluded the voices of the minority party in the House. The tenure of Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House, set us on the road to where we are now and allowed the GOP, under John Boehner, to refuse consideration of any Democratic proposal made by the sitting president or other members of his party. According to Norm Ornstein, among Hastert’s other destructive measures, was the fact that he “blew up” the regular order of the House.
The regular order—a mix of rules and norms that allows debate, deliberation, and amendments in committees and on the House floor, that incorporates and does not shut out the minority (even if it still loses most of the time), that takes bills that pass both houses to a conference committee to reconcile differences, that allows time for members and staff to read, digest, and analyze bills—is a mainstay of a functional legislative process. To be sure, it is frequently subordinated to larger political exigencies, under the majorities of both political parties, especially in recent decades. No speaker has entirely clean hands.
But no speaker did more to relegate the regular order to the sidelines than Hastert. As Tom Mann and I describe in detail in our 2006 book “The Broken Branch,” Hastert presided over one of the worst moments for a deliberative body in modern times, the nearly three-hour vote in the dead of night to pass the Medicare prescription-drug bill—a vote that under the rules was supposed to last 15 minutes. The arm-twisting on the floor turned to something close to outright extortion, resulting in yet more admonitions for Tom DeLay. Under Hastert, amendments from Democrats and Republicans alike were squelched by a strikingly pliant Rules Committee; conferences were rarely held, and if they were, it was late at night and they were closed to input from all except loyal lieutenants; and provisions were sometimes added to conference reports that had never been in either House or Senate bills without notice to other lawmakers, among other indignities. And, of course, Hastert presided over the informal “Hastert rule,” doing whatever he could to avoid input from Democrats, trying to pass bills with Republicans alone. The House is a very partisan institution, with rules structured to give even tiny majorities enormous leverage. But Hastert took those realities to a new and more tribalized, partisan plane.
Norm Ornstein wrote that in 2015. Today, actions like the prescription drug bill’s passage, which were so shocking when they occurred, have become normalized.
In addition to ruining regular order in the House, Dennis Hastert was speaker when the impeachment procedure became a purely political and partisan tool. There will always be some political aspect to any impeachment proceeding, there always has been. But never before was it so blatantly political. There was no threat, real or imagined, to our government or to our democracy because Bill Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern. Nor did his lie about it within a deposition for a case that was dismissed as without merit, qualify as an egregious case of perjury or obstruction worthy of impeachment.
But so thirsty for partisan scalps were the members of the Republican caucus, so great was their hubris, that they laid claim to this as a high crime and misdemeanor. No matter that so many of them, Bob Livingston, proposed as speaker to replace Gingrich (also an adulterer), Dan Burton, Helen Chenoweth and Henry Hyde, the chief manager of the Senate trial were all guilty of infidelity as well. And Hastert himself knew he was guilty of far greater sexual crimes. But this was their opportunity to destroy a Democratic president and they gladly took it in order to take what they could not win at the ballot box.
However, worse than their attempt to destroy a man, was that their actions severely damaged the impeachment process, making it more difficult to use in the future. Impeachment should be a serious step, taken only in response to the most grave actions by a president that threaten our democracy. The Constitution dictates that it be used only for acts of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” It should never have been used to settle a political score. The result was that a few years later, the threat of this tool could not be used to rein in George Bush’s war-making ability or to prevent his office from further exposing serving CIA operatives. Nancy Pelosi knew her caucus and the nation’s mood when she took impeachment off the table in 2007.
“The question of impeachment is something that would divide the country,” Pelosi said this morning during a wide-ranging discussion in the ornate Speaker’s office. Her top priorities are ending the war in Iraq, expanding health care, creating jobs and preserving the environment. “I know what our success can be on those issues. I don’t know what our success can be on impeaching the president.”
Democratic Party leaders do not have the votes to pass an impeachment resolution. And Democrats could be judged harshly for partisan gridlock, just as the American people turned on Congressional Republicans in the 90s for pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton.
Now we are faced with an even greater threat to our democracy and a majority party that frankly does not care about our national security when the sitting president acquiesces to their fondest dreams of dismantling the federal government and siphoning off as many tax dollars into the pockets of their donors as possible. The threat posed by Donald Trump (“treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”) and the refusal of the GOP to act against him makes clear the highly politicized nature of impeachment and the destruction of it as a tool by the Republicans. The refusal of the House to even hold a hearing about the charges of sexual assault levied against Mr. Trump make even clearer their partisan hypocrisy.
But perhaps even worse, the Republicans have completely ruined the opportunity for any celebrity to run for the presidency. Because they have no moral center or an over-riding political philosophy, it has been easy for the Republicans to turn to celebrity name recognition to gain votes. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump, for instance.
When America put Donald Trump into the Oval Office, it destroyed the chances of any Democratic celebrity reaching the White House. Just as we don’t tolerate sexual predators within our ranks, we are unlikely to nominate any celebrity to represent our party in a presidential election. Because Donald Trump has filled that well with the poison of his avarice and incompetence.
I can argue both sides of the question of Oprah Winfrey running for the Democratic nomination. I can see the value of having someone who appeals to the demographics that we need to retake the White House, namely, white women, as well as having a candidate who looks like the base of the Democratic Party which is largely black women. It is hard to deny her intellectual curiosity, her executive ability and her faith in the principles of the Democratic Party platform. But most of all, she offers positive name recognition. And a lot of it.
On the other hand, I appreciate the viewpoint of Kelly Macias who wrote last week:
But we can’t afford to let our obsession with fame and wealth be a substitute for experience. We cannot afford to be distracted by a shiny new toy (or in this case, a shiny new idea). Leading in business is one thing, making millions upon millions and making an indelible mark on our culture is one thing. Yet leading a complex bureaucracy with multiple agencies and departments, agendas, budgets, priorities, and interests for more than 300 million people and our interests around the world is quite another. […]
Finally, it needs to be said that we have to stop expecting black women to clean up everyone’s mess. Oprah may give us comfort but she isn’t our mammy or wet nurse. There’s this strange fetishizing of black women that happens in our culture, which positions us as saviors and sacrificial lambs instead of full human beings with agency. In the last two months, many Democrats have bought into this narrative as they suddenly have seen the light about how black women are the heart and soul of the party, mostly because black women have been key to some electorally important wins in Trump’s America. Now its all “Rah Rah black women!”
The objections of those who feel we need an experienced political operative to clean up the mess being created by the idiot who currently is busily destroying the institutions that comprise the Executive Branch are valid. We need a grown-up in the office.
But to disqualify all celebrity candidates because they don’t have what we consider to be the necessary experience to govern gives the GOP yet another advantage, in addition to the Electoral College, during presidential elections. Because they only care about winning, not governing, they can propose any candidate they like, including a reality television star with the intellect of a flea and the curiosity of a pile of rocks, because he has huge name recognition. They have the donors who will foot the bill in order to buy the government they want.
As Democrats, we can only lay claim to thoughtful, well-read, intelligent celebrities. Men like George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Don Cheadle (co-founders of Not on Our Watch), Mark Ruffalo, or Jon Stewart. Women like Shonda Rhimes, Ashley Judd, Eva Longoria, America Ferrera, Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Emma Stone, Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. And even though this is their nation too, and they have very right to mount an election bid, they will find resistance within the Democratic Party.
Can we afford to ignore the growing appetite for celebrities, like Oprah, to run for elective office and to create Hollywood happily-ever-after solutions? Peter Grier, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor, asks:
Is America developing into a nation where fame becomes a prerequisite for high political office? That’s unlikely, but possible. The mixture of celebrity and power – common in some other countries, such as Italy – is entirely new in the US.
Perhaps the problem now is that many Americans view the established party structure as corrupt, or ineffective, or hard to get through to, says Steven White, an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University in New York.
“They see celebrities as something that can break through that,” he says.
It’s also possible that voters are less interested in the policy aspects of the presidency and more focused on its performative aspects. Under Trump, the Oval Office is indisputably more dramatic and showy.
The 2016 charges of a corrupt establishment and rigged elections likely still echo in the public’s consciousness. And Donald Trump is definitely engaging in some performance art, mostly as a distraction from his overwhelming personal incompetence and his tiny hands in the till.
A president with the intellect, ability, ethics, grace and poise of Barack Obama is a once in a lifetime occurrence. But, even he, during his 2008 campaign, was accused of being a celebrity. Remember? Turned out in fact, that even if a celebrity, he was ready to lead.
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