The Has-been

House Wrecker

Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday, June 30, 2006

Flying Saucers: If the Founders got together for a reunion this July 4, they’d have much to celebrate. Trading King George III for George Washington turned out to be the greatest straight player swap of all time. Bailing on the British Empire in favor of the American experiment showed investment foresight worthy of Warren Buffett. The Declaration of Independence changed the world, and even if the current administration sometimes forgets it exists, the Constitution is still going strong, too.

But if the Founders could do it all over again, might they look at the House of Representatives today and wonder, “What were we thinking?”

The Founders had high hopes for the House’s contribution to democracy. They made House members stand for election every two years so they would reflect popular opinion. Senators were given the luxury of six-year terms so they could deliberate with less eye to electoral whim. The Senate was the saucer to cool the House’s coffee.

For better or worse, that’s more or less how Congress behaved for the first couple centuries. Fifty years ago, the biggest obstacle to social and political progress in America was the U.S. Senate. Back when it took 67 votes to break a filibuster, the Senate was less the saucer than the little round hole in the Starbucks trash bin where the House’s coffee was thrown out.

In the last decade or two, however, the House and Senate have reversed roles. Because Senators are elected statewide and Senate rules force members to work out their differences, the Senate tends to more accurately reflect the broader public’s view. Because House members are elected in increasingly polarized districts and House rules forbid members from working out their differences, the House has become the world’s greatest deliberative trash bin.

Red Card: To make matters worse, in recent years, the political ethos of the House has infected the rest of the body politic. Take-no-prisoners politics began wrecking the House in the late ‘80s. It sank to unimaginable depths with impeachment in the late ‘90s and evolved into a brass-knuckled shakedown under Tom DeLay in the early ‘00s. When House members graduated to the Senate, some of them brought its harsh partisan instincts to the upper chamber.

In the House, DeLay launched an unprecedented and successful effort to redraw congressional districts year after year to maximize partisan advantage. If DeLay had gone on to the Senate, he no doubt would have tried to rewrite state boundaries every few years to achieve the highest possible number of red states.

The Supreme Court’s refusal this week to overturn the DeLay gerrymander in Texas suggests that another firewall has fallen. From now on, both parties will feel compelled to take the same politics that has brought down the House to every state capital in America. Instead of doing the job people elected them to do, state legislators will spend all their time fighting over how to write safe congressional districts so that members of Congress don’t have to do the job people elect them to do.

Redistricting was at the root of DeLay’s downfall, and may well be at the root of Washington’s as well. In recent years, redistricting has made districts more polarized, homogeneous, and friendly to entrenched incumbents. Competitive districts in which incumbents actually have to earn re-election are becoming an endangered species.

What Would Thomas Jefferson Do? As Juliet Eilperin noted, Rep. John Tanner, a thoughtful Democratic congressman from Tennessee, has proposed legislation to require every state to take the politics out of redistricting. Under Tanner’s plan, each state would have to appoint an independent commission that couldn’t take partisan outcomes into account.

Stopping the spread of DeLayism may demand even more far-reaching measures. When Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Tom Davis proposed a bipartisan plan to give new House seats to both the District of Columbia and the state of Utah, they suggested avoiding a middecade redistricting battle by having the new Utah member run statewide.

Why not go all the way and turn half of all House seats into at-large districts? If half of every congressional delegation had to run statewide, it would sharply reduce the potential for gerrymandering, and every member would have to compete in a bigger, less homogeneous district.

Such a system would likely have little or no predictable impact on the partisan breakdown of the House. In the seven small states with at-large members today, both parties have done proportionally better at breaking the red-blue barrier in the House than in the Senate. Two of the five at-large members from red states are Democrats, compared with just 16 out of 62 Senators from red states. One of the two at-large members from blue states is Republican, compared with only nine out of 38 Senators.

Running statewide or in larger districts would make all candidates work harder to earn their keep. This year, Democratic Senate challengers face an uphill battle, but they have Republicans on the run in tough states like Missouri and Tennessee. In the House, Democrats could end up running a great campaign, win the popular vote, and still fall short of a majority because of the way districts are drawn.

In the new journal Democracy, former Rep. Brad Carson reviews a new history of the House, which he says “reads like a chonicle of degeneration, a well-wrought record of the decay of American politics and, perhaps, of American character.” Carson proposes another solution: Send members home for good, let them vote electronically from their districts, and increase the size of the House to reflect that the nation has tripled in population since the House reached its current size.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Moose and Squirrel: Stop the presses—Karl Rove is switching parties.

For a quarter-century or more, Rove has been telling friends that he would be the next Mark Hanna—the industrialist turned political boss who elected William McKinley president, only to see his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, become a reform crusader. Three years ago, an old friend of Rove’s told Ron Suskind of Esquire, “Some kids want to grow up to be president. Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna. We’d talk about it all the time. We’d say, ‘Jesus, Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?’ “

When George W. Bush ran for president, Rove used his fancy for McKinley and Hanna to distract reporters from more obvious historical parallels—such as that Bush’s father was a failed, one-term president, or that the elder Bush would nickname his son “Quincy” in honor of two other failed, one-term presidents.

In Rove’s mind, McKinley was the first compassionate conservative. “He saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the 1860s had sort of worn themselves out,” Rove told the Washington Postin 2000. “Neither party could successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances.” Bush and Rove weren’t in any rush to put the Civil War behind them, so compassionate conservatism was the next best thing: flying the Confederate flag, but at half mast.

The urge to elect another McKinley (and to be the next Hanna) was a strangely mediocre ambition. It’s hard to imagine the late Lloyd Bentsen winning a debate by declaring, “I knew Bill McKinley. Bill McKinley was a friend of mine. And governor, you’re no Bill McKinley.”

Nonetheless, Rove stayed loyal to the 1896 analogy. As James Traub noted last week in the New York Times, Rove gave a speech in 2002 about how much McKinley had done to draw new voting blocs to the Republican Party. Earlier this month, Rove’s eye wandered a bit, when he told the New Hampshire GOP that his favorite presidential quote was from Warren Harding. Yet Harding was in the McKinley-Hanna mold—all three were undistinguished Republicans who might have done more damage had they not died in office.

But as Jacob Weisberg foresaw last November in a piece called “Karl Rove’s Dying Dream,” you can’t party like it’s 1896 forever. Instead of the Republican realignment Rove had promised, Bush began dragging his party down with him. In effect, conservatives were telling Bush the cruelest words Rove had ever heard: “You’re no Bill McKinley.”

Bullies: This week, we have proof that Rove’s dream is as dead as McKinley. In fact, Rove wrote the obituary himself.

In a fawning Time essay that would make Mark Hanna roll over in his grave, Karl Rove finds a new hero—Hanna’s nemesis, Teddy Roosevelt, who left the Republican fold in 1912 to found the Bull Moose Party. Rove sounds as Bully as Marshall Wittmann: “Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most remarkable figures in America’s story. … He was among our most consequential Presidents.”

Rove tries hard to portray TR with the official White House talking points about Bush: character, leadership, animated by big ideas, “makes ardent friends and bitter enemies.” But as even Rove must realize, that moose won’t hunt. Roosevelt is consequential for all the reasons Bush is not: Unlike the current president, TR stood up for the common man, took on established interests, and showed a boundless energy for solving the nation’s problems.

Why, nearly a century after McKinley’s and Hanna’s deaths, would Karl Rove suddenly throw them over? Unlike Roosevelt, Rove never stopped any bullets, but he has been sweating plenty of them. Perhaps all those grand jury appearances made Rove see the light and realize that Hanna was wrong to worship what goes on behind closed doors.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday, June 23, 2006

Then and Now:Slate has always been about far more than politics. But the 10th anniversary of what has become the nation’s best-read political magazine is an excuse to reflect on the less impressive fate of the political world it covers.

Slate arrived on the political scene at a propitious moment. Today, we look back on the decade of the 1990s as a period of great economic and social progress—especially compared to the domestic paralysis and ineptitude of the Bush years. But at the time, the 1990s didn’t actually begin to feel like glory days until the summer of 1996.

Politically, the first half of that decade was as volatile as any in memory. In 1990, the first Bush’s decision to raise taxes and the House bank scandal savaged both parties in Washington. Clinton and Perot together won 62 percent of the vote for their respective reform agendas in 1992, then Gingrich and his fellow Republicans swept Congress with a radically different reform agenda in 1994. Those political tectonic plates collided in the winter of 1995-96, and by the following summer the magma was just starting to cool.

Economically, the long boom was well under way by 1996, but Americans hadn’t noticed yet. Anxiety lingered from the deep recession of the early ‘90s, and the Dow was only halfway to 10,000. Not until the end of that summer, after Clinton signed a landmark bipartisan welfare reform bill, would a majority of Americans concede what they believed with increasing conviction throughout the rest of the decade—that America was on the right track.

Slate’s first issue appeared on June 24, 1996. That same day, a front-page story in the Washington Post declared, “Democrats’ Agenda Aims for the Middle.” The Post reported that House and Senate Democrats had unveiled a 21-point congressional campaign agenda designed “to move the party to the political center and appeal to swing middle-class voters in an effort to regain control of Congress in this fall’s election.”

A few weeks earlier, the Post’s congressional correspondent wrote a story under the headline, “Democrats Credit GOP ‘Extremism’ for Their Newfound Bonding.” The article declared, “President Clinton and congressional Democrats have made peace—and Democrats give Republicans most of the credit.” The story quoted DLC chair Joe Lieberman (“Their excesses have reminded us there is more that unites us than divides us”) alongside a supportive Rep. Barney Frank (“The Republicans freed Clinton to make a sensible defense of Democratic principles without having to worry about the Democratic left”).

This week, as Slate celebrates its 10th anniversary, the only story on Democratic ideas ran on the Post’s federal page. As the Post reported, the bigger news—despite five long years of GOP extremism that could have brought Democrats together—was the attempt by “lefty bloggers” to “knock off Joe Lieberman.” Apparently unaware of the irony, a Democratic strategist was quoted in the same paper the next day declaring, “The old centrist-liberal debate in the party is to some extent dead. I think people have lost interest in that.” Advantage: Then.

In June 1996, in a bitter slap to the Republican Senate majority leader’s presidential ambitions, a rebellious faction of House conservatives forced their leadership to drop its ideological demand for poison pills that would doom welfare reform and instead work with the White House to negotiate a bill that President Clinton could sign into law.

This week, in a bitter slap to the Republican Senate majority leader’s presidential ambitions, a rebellious faction of House conservatives forced their leadership to accept their ideological demand for poison pills that will doom immigration reform and refused to work with the White House to negotiate a bill that President Bush can sign.  Advantage: Then.

A few days before Slate’s launch in 1996, the lead story in the New York Times was, “Clinton’s Surprising Strength Forces Dole to Court South.” A New York Times/CBS News poll that month showed Clinton leading Dole in the South by 47 percent to 41 percent.

Ten years later, after elections in 2000 and 2004 in which Democrats failed to carry a single Southern state, The New Yorker reported that DNC chair Howard Dean remains confident that hiring a few organizers will one day make the party competitive again in the region.  Advantage: Then.

In the first issue of Slate, Jodie Allen wrote a piece (complete with charts and graphs) titled, “The Temptation of Bob Dole,” warning him not to fall into the supply-side trap by endorsing a tax cut the country couldn’t afford. The archived version of her article offers this charming stage direction: “[NOTE: JODIE HAS SUPPLIED this graph].”

Ten years later, the supply-side temptation remains—but there aren’t any taxes for the wealthy left to cut. [NOTE: GEORGE HAS SUPPLIED this graph ].  Advantage: Then.

So, while Slate is even better than it was 10 years ago, American politics cannot make the same claim. But the news isn’t all bad: The country once again seems to be growing restless for the kind of progress it made a decade ago, when both parties were forced to work together for awhile against their wills. The tectonic plates may not be finished with each other yet, but they look pretty spent.