When History Overtakes a Campaign Promise

The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.

The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”

In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”

If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.

But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”

Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.

He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”

About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”

(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)

Changing times

While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.

Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.

Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.

But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.

Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.

I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”

Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.

Getting worse

If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.

The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly  — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.

The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.

Running Against Pelosi May Not Save the GOP This Year

It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.

The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.

Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.

In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.

For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.

But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. BoehnerPaul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.

Will it work?

Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.

Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.

Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)

Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.

Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.

Who’s being judged?

History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.

In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.

Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.

Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.

Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.