Bloomberg’s Counterattacks May Just Resonate with Democrats

I was struck by a Mike Bloomberg tweet responding to President Donald Trump Thursday morning.

Trump tweeted: “Mini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy who does not want to be on the debate stage with these professional politicians. No boxes please. He hates crazy Bernie and will, with enough money, possibly stop him. Bernie’s people will go nuts!”

To which Bloomberg responded: “We know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence. I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will.”

Bloomberg adviser Tim O’Brien had his own response to the president’s attack on the former New York mayor: “Translation: I’m a gelatinous pile of greed and revenge fueled by low-boil resentments, burning insecurities, an empty wallet, and constant reminders to myself that my dad was self-made while I was born with a silver foot in my mouth. Where’s my cheeseburger?”

The Trump tweet is nothing out of the ordinary, but the responses were.

Democrats have been bemoaning Trump’s language and style for years now, complaining that he is vulgar, crude and undignified. He is all those things, of course. But hand-wringing about checks and balances, the power of an unbridled executive, the independence of the judiciary, the Founding Fathers and the role of the attorney general is one thing. Taking on Trump by calling him a fool, a liar, a fraud and an uneducated clown who failed in business is entirely something else.

Many Democrats are looking for a fighter, someone who won’t fold like a cheap deck of cards. The responses Thursday by Bloomberg and O’Brien demonstrate a different approach than that followed by most or all of the other Democratic hopefuls.

That is: Don’t ignore Trump or simply complain about his behavior. Mock him, belittle him and fight back on his lies.

Risks and rewards

Of course, this approach has risks. One Twitter follower responded that “much of the world is suffering from ‘Trump fatigue.’ They want inspiration and maturity not more name-calling.”

And Michelle Obama famously urged Americans to respond with dignity, with her “When they go low, we go high” comment.

Both of those views are thoughtful and understandable. Most Americans don’t want to engage in trash-talking and demeaning an opponent. Most of us were taught to be gentle with others, to encourage people to be kind and dignified. Disagreements shouldn’t degenerate into mean-spirited attacks and rudeness.

How has that worked out so far? While the Democrats are following Marquess de Queensberry rules, Trump is playing by the “rules” of WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment.

I’m not suggesting the Democratic presidential hopefuls adopt Trump’s language or his mendaciousness. They shouldn’t attack their Democratic colleagues the way Trump attacks them. Bloomberg certainly hasn’t.

But when Trump attacks, they ought to fight back, just like Bloomberg and his team are doing. They should fight fire with fire, or as some have put it, “You shouldn’t go to a knife fight with a nail file.”

Aggressive style

I’ve been skeptical about Bloomberg’s chances and remain so.

He has plenty of assets and liabilities as a Democratic candidate. But I’m at least a little less skeptical after seeing his counterpunching when attacked by Trump. Polls show that Democrats are “angry” with Trump, and a take-the-gloves-off approach has its appeal.

Bloomberg has serious potential in the Democratic race because he has the financial resources to answer Trump’s attacks — but also because he seems to have the will to do so.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters may never embrace Bloomberg because he is wealthy, and we’ll certainly have to see how the Democratic race unfolds with at least a handful of serious contenders still in the race after New Hampshire.

But Bloomberg’s aggressive style just might help make him a top-tier contender — and those billions don’t hurt either.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 14, 2020.

How Will Kavanaugh Shape the Midterms?

Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.

Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.

Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.

Open House?

The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.

There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.

Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.

Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.

Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.

Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.

Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.

He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.

The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.

Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.

Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.

According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).

Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.

Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.

Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.

Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).

So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.

On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.

Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.

Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.

That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.

 

I’m Just Tired of All of It

I’m tired of all the noise and hype. I’m tired of the daily crises. I’m tired of the drama that is produced by President Donald Trump. I’m tired of the suffocating coverage by the national media of the chaos that swirls around the administration. I’m tired of the obvious partisanship on Capitol Hill. I wish it would all stop, but I know it won’t.

I’m tired of the stupid tweets from the president of the United States that wouldn’t be appropriate for a 12-year-old school yard bully, let alone someone who is supposed to be a world leader.

I’m tired of the lies and efforts to misdirect that come from Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other members of the White House and friends of the president.

I’m tired of Trump’s ridiculous rallies — his attacks on the media and the “deep state,” his misstatements about the economy, and his efforts to undermine important institutions such as the Department of Justice and the FBI.

I’m tired of all of those people standing behind him, wearing their MAGA hats and waving signs, and cheering mindlessly when he mocks his adversaries, attacks America’s allies and brags about his alleged accomplishments.

I’m tired of much of the media coverage. While I agree with most critics of the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill, I wonder why the major cable networks can’t take a break once in a while from talking Trump (or more recently, Judge Brett Kavanaugh) and instead give me some other news.

Something else MUST be going on around the world.

Could we get some more coverage of Venezuela? The nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary? The change in leadership in Australia? China’s economy and foreign policy efforts? Africa? Something must be happening there.

I’d even like to see or read pieces on how the states are dealing with health care or economic issues.

I’m unbearably tired of the endless panels on CNN and MSNBC going over the same topics all day. And I’m tired of cable television guests who talk about the midterms but know as much about elections as I do about nuclear physics.

I’m tired of the cable shows that feature panels/guests who are only on one side of the argument, and I’m tired of cable shows that have two guests from different parties yelling at each other rather than trying to be analytical.

I’m tired of Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to comment on and criticize stupid things the president says or does.

Nobody can ever answer a question with “yes” or “no.” I’m tired of that, too.

I’m tired — really, really tired — of the hypocrisy. I’m tired of Republicans expressing shock that Democrats are trying to delay the confirmation of Kavanaugh and apparently forgetting that they wouldn’t take up the nomination of Merrick Garland, for no other reason than Barack Obama nominated him.

I’m tired of Democrats acting as if they wouldn’t do the same thing that Republicans are now doing if they were in the majority.

You see, I watched Democrats avoid criticizing Bill Clinton when he had his scandal, and I saw former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid begin the slippery slope of undermining the filibuster.

Oh, and I’m seriously tired of people complaining about “false equivalence.”

Sure, I’ll admit that I’m not equally tired of everything.

I’m most tired about Trump’s misstatements about the 2016 campaign, his complete lack of understanding about trade and deficits, his ignorance of American history, and his bragging and narcissism.

And, of course, I’m really tired of his lies and misstatements — and his constant efforts to accuse people of doing things of which he is guilty.

By now, you certainly want to know why I’m still writing about politics if I’m so tired of it all.

That’s a fair question.

Part of the answer is that I’m not certain what else I would do.

Part of it, I’m sure, is force of habit.

I have been watching the evening news since I was a child.

We were a Huntley-Brinkley family. And my family got two newspapers delivered each day — The New York Times in the morning and the Journal-American in the afternoon.

I’ve been watching and reading about politics for at least 60 years. I still remember how excited I was right before the 1960 election and how I enjoyed watching the national convention coverage when it was on broadcast TV.

I loved watching Frank McGee and John Chancellor and Bruce Morton.

So you can say that, in part, I’m addicted.

But I also remain fascinated and entertained by the game of politics.

Maybe I will get so tired of all the tumult associated with Trump that I’ll simply walk away.

But not today.

Not at least until after the midterms, when we see more winners and losers, and when the truly bizarre story we are all now following may show signs of coming to an end.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on September 26, 2018.

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.