As his party’s healthcare plan imploded Monday night, President Trump could look across the country to the state he seems to disdain the most and see success forged by the very thing he ran against: old-fashioned politics.
California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats worked with Republicans to craft a climate change measure that found just enough support among Republicans to pass even though many in the party continue to oppose it.
The victory was surely propelled by the Democratic advantage in the Legislature, but undeniably benefited from the singular focus of an executive steeped in government experience and willing to publicly plead and deliver concessions to get his measure over the line.
The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was marked by neither those executive attributes, nor the overwhelming partisan advantage. Together, that made all the difference.
Brown ran for his second set of terms as governor by promising to meld his outsider spirit with a realistic notion of how to govern, based on his tenures as mayor of Oakland, attorney general and, for 14 years now, governor.
Trump ran as an outsider who reveled in his lack of experience and insisted that he would be able to solve the nation’s problems — alone and easily. That has not proven to be the case, as demonstrated most potently by the destruction of the Republican healthcare plan at the hands of Republican senators.
“You can be anti-institution all you want, but you have to know not just how to run a government, but how to run a governing coalition,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman. “It would appear this is beyond, so far beyond, the president’s grasp. This is the danger of having someone as president who has never played in politics.”
On both coasts, the fights betrayed splits among Republicans. Trump repeatedly tried to blame Democrats for the failure of the repeal-and-replace bill, but schisms among Republicans were what doomed the measure.
The decision by Republican leaders not to work with Democrats meant that they could afford defiance by no more than two Senate Republicans — and gave them nowhere to go when more opposition arose.
In California, schisms arose between Republicans who found the climate bill a decent deal and those who scorned the Democrats’ concessions as insufficient. But enough Republicans — seven in the Assembly and one in the state Senate — sided with the Democratic majority to offset minimal Democratic nay votes and secure passage.
The willingness of some Republicans here to cooperate with Democrats — and the contrast between that compromise and the harder gridlock in Washington — involves differences between the national and state Republican DNA.
In many parts of California, and in statewide races, success for Republicans has often depended on moderation on certain issues, especially environmental ones. Nationally, that’s not been true for the party in the last decade.
Pete Wilson, a former U.S. senator and two-term governor, anchored much of his statewide success by taking moderate positions on the environment. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made climate change a key component of his tenure and continues to work on the issue, often needling Trump for positions such as abandoning the Paris climate agreement.
The need to come to terms with voters who put a high priority on environmental issues was enough to cause some Republicans in Sacramento to break with the party’s aversion to taxes.
The eight Republicans who voted with Brown accepted higher taxes as the price for extending by 10 years the cap-and-trade program, which helps regulate greenhouse gases. Many represent areas where the environment has long been a key issue.
By contrast, in Washington, the drive to cut taxes was a key element in the Republican healthcare package.
Schwarzenegger on Tuesday lauded what he termed a “courageous vote” and took a subtle dig at Republicans in Washington.
“I hope Republicans around the country can learn from the example … that we can fight for free-market policies to clean up our environment for our children at the same time we fight for a booming economy,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.
But the biggest difference between the somewhat bipartisan effort in California and the collapse of the Republican-only healthcare effort in Washington rested on the behavior of the chief executives.
Brown spent decades being derided by more conventional politicians across the nation for ahead-of-his-time pitches on topics like computers and state satellites — the genesis of the “Gov. Moonbeam” insult.
He has sometimes been outside the mainstream even for liberal audiences; he ran the precursor to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign more than two decades before Sanders did.
But in his long turn on the political stage, he has also honed a respect for what can and cannot be pulled off and for the sort of horse-trading that is central to accomplishing anything of note.
The cap-and-trade measure was opposed by some on the left and the right but succeeded by being acceptable to a larger middle. Both the GOP healthcare plan and the measure it was meant to replace, Obamacare, were fully partisan votes, which in both cases has contributed to lasting animosity from the other side.
Although Brown and his Democratic allies attempted to pick off Republicans with a unified front, in Washington, there appeared to be three sides to the healthcare equation: Democrats, Republicans and Trump.
Trump has been all over the map when it came to his goals for healthcare reform. After pledging in the campaign that he would protect the Medicaid program, which was expanded under Obamacare, and make sure those who couldn’t afford insurance would still receive care, he flipped on both those issues to support the GOP bill. He also went back and forth on whether Republicans should repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously or simply repeal it.
The president has seemed unaware of many of the policy details in the Republican plans. That cast the healthcare vote as something that he valued solely for its potential for victory, regardless of the impact it might have on Americans or his own party’s elected officials.
In recent days, the president publicly put Senate leader Mitch McConnell on notice about passing the bill, yet complicated McConnell’s work by going after Republican senators. Earlier, after House Republicans voted for their version of the healthcare plan, one that was risky for dozens of them, Trump cut off the limb behind them by calling their plan “mean.”
On Tuesday, Trump declared that the failure was not his.
“We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it,” he said of the nation’s healthcare system, which he described as failing.
Brown took the opposite tack, going so far as to appear before a legislative committee as the climate bill progressed — a position usually deemed beneath the state’s chief executive. He was vehement in demanding the measure’s passage.
“I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about,” the 79-year-old governor said. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you.”
That spoke to some central truths about politics: Americans want it to be about them, not about the politicians. And they also value effort, successful or not.
Brown succeeded on both fronts. Trump did not, and in his flippant remarks amid the wreckage, he gave little indication any lesson had been learned.
The mayors of Baltimore, Charlotte and Salt Lake City wrestle with some of the most contentious issues dominating national policy conversations, including health care and improving public school systems.
These city leaders also all happen to be female – and are tired of having some of their cities’ most thorny issues singled out as “women’s issues.”
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“I think we diminish the issues and we diminish our role when we have to always tie women to certain issues,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts of Charlotte, North Carolina told POLITICO editor Carrie Budoff Brown in the latest episode of the Women Rule podcast.
During a roundtable discussion in Miami Beach, Florida, Roberts and others criticized the framing of some policy topics – including education and reproductive care – as strictly “women’s issues.”
“Everybody cares about schools – just because more teachers are women doesn’t make it a women’s issue,” Roberts said. “And everybody cares about health care. And women’s health care.”
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, who also joined in the Women Rule interview, added: “It’s not just our issue. It’s everybody’s issue.”
And Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski jumped in: “There is nothing about the work I’m doing that is women’s issues.”
Underscoring that point, the trio of mayors also shared experiences leading communities after officer-involved shootings – a subject that all three cities have grappled with, including the aftershocks of sometimes violent protests.
Roberts said she specifically sought out her fellow female mayors when asking for advice in dealing with the issue of police force.
“I reached out to some men as well,” the Charlotte mayor said. “But I knew that they wouldn’t understand how hard it is to walk that fine line between looking like you’re in charge, but also having to work with the police and the police chief and having to understand the community disruption, which had been building across the nation.”
In the wide-ranging roundtable discussion, the three city executives also discussed how the Trump administration has affected their ability to lead, and what the future holds for their political ambitions.
For more takeaways from the conversation with women mayors, read below:
1:05 Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, the third consecutive black woman to lead the city, assesses the state Maryland politics and why women have featured prominently in the state’s political landscape in recent years.
“When women chose to lead in Baltimore, it’s okay because we’ve seen it,” Pugh says. “There’s not a question of whether a woman can lead or does she have the capacity or can she galvanize supporters and can she be heard when she speaks — because we’ve had a long history of women in position.”
2:46 Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts discusses the disconnect in the conversations men and women leaders were having on education and the public school system in North Carolina.
Of participation in local schools, Roberts said, “it still is by and large the moms who are more involved than the dads.”
4:25 Roberts and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski consider the benefits competitive sports and what athletes have taught them about politics.
“The fact that there are people saying bad things and trying to cut you down; it’s part of the game,” says Roberts, who played volleyball for the University of North Carolina. “You can’t take things personally. You can’t be depressed by things. You can’t worry about the opposition that gets personal. Because they get personal.”
7:30 The mayors stress the importance of interagency cooperation, especially at the local levels.
Pugh discusses how a bus ride with her city government’s department heads spurred collaboration, while Biskupski notes how Salt Lake City’s Public Works Department works with the Streets Department while also working with NGOs.
10:42 Does this group of local lady bosses have ambitions for higher office?
Baltimore’s Mayor Pugh says “I absolutely have none,” while Charlotte’s Mayor Roberts says “nothing is guaranteed” in politics.
12:15 The three women discuss dealing with prominent police-involved shootings and the backlash at the local level.
Pugh spoke about her own role – before her tenure as mayor – in the demonstrations following the death of Freddie Gray, and Biskupski revealed how her city’s police force learned to reward officers who deescalated situations rather than using their firepower.
17:46 The mayors discussed the impact of the 2016 election on local politics and what Hillary Clinton’s loss meant for women in public office.
“There was this vacuum of strong female leadership in my state,” Biskupski says of Utah. “So for Hillary to lose, that was just another ‘oh’ moment.”
But Biskupski, along with Roberts and Pugh, noted that the Trump administration meant that “we had to take the lead at the local level.”
Pugh added of working with federal agencies: “These are agencies that you need to figure out how do you get in, get what you need, get your congressional folks to focus in on what your needs are.
26:30 Pugh addressed the lack of female leadership even in spaces where women were supposed to be celebrated, pointing out the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami Beach.
“I went to a workshop that’s being held here, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Women’s Leadership Workshop,” the Baltimore mayor recalls. “I walk in the room and I peak in and I come back out and I said, ‘I thought this was a women’s leadership meeting.’ And so when I came back, they said, ‘Well, it is.’ I said, ‘But there’s a man speaking.’”
The mayors also with quibbled with the framing of some issues as “women’s issues.” Biskupski joins in: “Even the women’s organization at the U.S. Conference of Mayors highlighted their segment as women’s issues and there is nothing about the work I’m doing that is women’s issues.”
32:27 What advice would these mayors give to women considering careers in politics?
Salt Lake City’s Mayor Biskupski says not to delay plans: “You need to set an example for your own children or your siblings’ children or your friends’ children, that women should not wait. That the time is right, that there is never a perfect time.”
Charlotte’s Mayor Roberts agreed: “You do have to get started early…the guys get into it in their late 20’s, you know… We should be telling women they can do the same thing and if they’re just married, don’t have kids yet, they can have kids in office.”
Baltimore’s Mayor Pugh, who says she has already lost two elections in her lifetime, had these parting words: “If you lose, never be afraid to try it again.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, in an almost empty office in downtown Detroit, the youngest and least politically experienced candidate for governor of Michigan is tossing a lacrosse ball against the wall. Abdul El-Sayed is full of nervous energy, fueled partly by lack of sleep because he was up late observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and partly because for the past couple of hours he’s been welded to a phone doing tedious but essential fundraising calls. But the thing that has him really keyed up is the big goal for the afternoon and the reason that he is standing in front of two campaign aides in a room decorated with nothing more than a couple of “Abdul for Michigan” posters: He needs to learn how to get his message across to large crowds, specifically large crowds of people who he knows are more likely to vote for Donald Trump than a progressive Democrat, and a Muslim one at that.
At 32, El-Sayed has amassed an impressive resume. He was a three-sport athlete in high school and then played on the lacrosse team the University of Michigan. He won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, got his medical degree at Columbia and then taught at the university’s Mailman School of Public Health before returning to Detroit to serve as the executive director of the health department for the city of Detroit, the city’s top public health official. But he’s got one big gap on his CV: He has never held elected office.Energetic or not, he knows he has a lot to overcome if he has a prayer of winning the Democratic primary in August 2018. Hence the public speaking lesson.
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“Let’s pretend,” El-Sayed tells the two staffers, “that I’m speaking to Democrats in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.” If there is a district that demonstrates the challenges ahead for a political novice with a Muslim surname it’s the 11th. Predominantly white collar and affluent, (it includes Bloomfield Hills where Mitt Romney grew up), the district is reliably Republican. Butit’s the kind of place where El-Sayed knows he will have a hard time making the case that his progressive economic agenda can win statewide. Setting down the lacrosse stick and projecting over the heads of his campaign staffers sitting in front of him, El-Sayed launches into his stump speech.
“I want to tell you about what people are telling me are the challenges in their lives. They talk about feeling locked out of their economy. They talk about knowing that their children are getting a substandard education in their public schools. They talk about their fear for the Great Lakes and whether or not they’re going to just have clean water to drink. They worry about whether or not they’re going to lose access to their health care,” he says.
El-Sayed is just getting warmed up when Adam Joseph, his communications director, pulls a little surprise. He hits play on a Youtube video of Trump supporters chanting loudly, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” El-Sayed’s features harden. “And those are the challenges that people focus on all over our state,” he continues, his voice rising just enough to remain audible without coming off as angry. “Let me tell you a little bit about my background. I was the health commissioner of the City of Detroit. In that role I tried to solve for my city some of those challenges…” As Joseph continues to goose the volume, El-Sayed runs through his resume—how he gave students glasses so they had “the best opportunity to see the blackboard,” how he stood up against corporate polluters, and that how his department took precautions to prevent another Flint water crisis from happening in Detroit.
There’s an earnest but youthful naivete to this practice session—and really to El-Sayed’s entire campaign. The idea of speaking before a packed arena, much less a crowd filled with chanting protesters, is somewhat wishful thinking for a candidate who has almost no name recognition. And a loud video on a laptop doesn’t really prepare you to outwit a heckler. But this session does speak to a certain self-awareness—that in a state that surprisingly embraced Trump’s nationalist, anti-immigrant message, being an observant Muslim might present challenges that most candidates don’t have to deal with.
“The biggest challenge that we face right now is a politics of fear, a culture that tells us that we cannot reach across racial or religious or regional divides and come together as a state to face the problems that we face,” El-Sayed says.
“That’s good,” Joseph says to El-Sayed, shutting off the video. But El-Sayed isn’t entirely satisfied though. “So one of the thing we have to start doing is we have to start getting hecklers, like interns that come in” and make a ruckus, El-Sayed tells his aides.
If El-Sayed has received any heckling at all so far it has been from the political class, including from within his own party, that guffawed at his audacity when he announced his candidacy on a chilly February morning in downtown Detroit. Too young, too inexperienced, they said. But since then, El-Sayed has established himself as an unlikely factor in the Democratic primary. Polling is still scant because it’s early, but El-Sayed is moving out of the single digit zone while undecideds remain high and frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer’s support has been roughly constant at around 20 percent. And on Tuesday, a prospective heavyweight in the Democratic primary, University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, decided not to run for governor, throwing his support to Whitmer. It’s unclear though if voters hopeful about a Bernstein run will follow his lead or look to El-Sayed. El-Sayed’s base, if he has one, is probably located inside the city limits of Detroit, but he has a lot of work to do in the farther reaches of a state that tends to get more conservative the farther you get from its biggest cities.
“It’s easy to point at him and laugh, but I think you laugh at your own peril,” Democratic strategist Joe DiSano, who is not affiliated with the campaign, said of El-Sayed. “Because this guy has more actual real world experience than almost anyone.”
El-Sayed is hoping that he can model his campaign on another candidate who was mocked early by the party establishment:Bernie Sanders.The Sanders vibe is obvious everywhere: His staff is made up of former Sanders campaign workers (who still wear Bernie 2016 stickers and clothing), a bunch of college-age interns and campaign manager Max Glass, a veteran of a number of come-from-behind congressional campaigns. Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster who has advised New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, recently started advising the campaign as well. He even got a shoutout on Twitter from actress Eliza Dushku who has 1.85 million followers:“this guy is a star, check him out.” (But Larry Cohen, chairman of the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, conceded: “Don’t know much. Great record.”)On a whiteboard in the campaign’s main office is a Sanders quote that reads: “You only go around once, you may as well make history as you go around.”
The goal, Glass explained, is to replicate how Sanders’ insurgent campaign simultaneously energized anti-establishment Democrats and also bring in outside voters to the party’s primary. For that to actually happen though El-Sayed can’t just focus on safe Democratic voters. He needs to attract and retain the support of swing voters and voters who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary at all–voters who picked Trump in 2016.
And that means getting out of Detroit.
On a recent Monday afternoon, as the weather toggled between rainstorms and sunshine, El-Sayed and his team drove out to a suburban cul-de-sac in southern Michigan. Oakland county is predominately white, wealthy and very narrowly went for Sanders in the primary before sticking out as one of the few counties that went for Clinton in the general election. There are no campaign signs outside the one- and two-story houses. Folks look inquisitively as three young brown-skinned men (the candidate, Joseph and a reporter) walk from door to door. El-Sayed, dressed in dark blue suit jacket and dress shirt, sporting a silver University of Michigan class ring (where he got his undergraduate degree in 2007), knocks on the front door of a one-story suburban house—the kind where you raise your two kids and a dog for two decades.
Tim Wardle, a retired home delivery manager for the Detroit News wearing a Michigan State shirt and an oxygen tank hooked up to his nose, comes to the door. He and El-Sayed makes small talk over the Michigan State-University of Michigan rivalry. When discussion turns to Wardle’s two sons, El-Sayed notes that he comes from a half-white, half-Egyptian household and describes his time as Detroit health commissioner as he hands Wardle a campaign pamphlet with his policy positions. Wardle, an Irish-Catholic who says he voted Democratic in 2016, would be a helpful vote to get. Even better would be his two sons who voted for Trump. After they talk, Wardle says he’s open to El-Sayed.
“I was impressed. He has his stuff together,” Wardle said. Wardle contrasted El-Sayed with Whitmer who, to him, didn’t offer a galvanizing message or energize him on policy. “I saw her in an interview and she just said some stuff that I didn’t care for.”
El-Sayed’s heritage and youth don’t bother him. “Goddamn, I’m an Irish Catholic, too. We got off a boat and we were discriminated against 150 years ago,” Wardle said.
This tendency to back an underdog is something of a hallmark of Michigan’s recent political history, especially its gubernatorial races. Jennifer Granholm was hardly the favorite in the Democratic primary before going on to become governor. Rick Snyder, the current term-limited two-term governor, had no political background before but running on his “one tough nerd” moniker he ascended from the rear of the Republican primary.
At the next house, El-Sayed has similar success, talking to Cheryl Willette. Willette, who is white and a community activist, quickly contrasted El-Sayed favorably with Whitmer. She’s still open to Whitmer but El-Sayed’s offered another viable option so now she has to decide, she says.
“It’s so important to me that we have diversity in our government, that we don’t have all white men anymore. That was one of the reasons that I was eager for Gretchen. And then I see Abdul and that’s interesting to me too. When I hear of his background and the thing that he’s done and the success he’s had in Detroit now I’m very intrigued,” Willette tells me after El-Sayed finishes pitching her.
A few doors down, a 20-something blond man in a raglan baseball shirt and flip flops eyes him cautiously as he puts hockey gear into his car. With some prodding from Joseph, the young man walks over and asks what’s going on. El-Sayed explains that he’s running for governor and collecting signatures to get on the ballot. The man, who only gives his first name, Scott, tells El-Sayed he’s worried about Michigan losing its place as an automotive manufacturing hub to the West Coast and driverless cars. El-Sayed concedes it’s important, points to the importance of integrating Michigan manufacturing driverless cars. Handing a policy pamphlet to Scott, he asks if he would sign his petition to get on the ballot. Scott declines.
It’s unclear what Scott’s political persuasion is, if he’s interested in voting for Democrats at all, or whether he’s ever been politically active. El-Sayed senses that this exactly the kind of voter he wants to bring into the fold, so he presses gently, assuring Scott that signing doesn’t commit him to voting for El-Sayed. It’s just to get him on the ballot. “I have to do some research first,” he said, shaking his head again. He folds the pamphlet in half and goes back to packing up his gear for his hockey game.
Not so long ago Michigan was regarded as reliably blue, but in recent years Democrats have seen a decline in power. Besides Snyder’s two terms in the governor’s mansion Republicans control both the state House of Representatives and state Senate as well. Republicans have won five of the last seven gubernatorial elections, have held a majority in the state senate for more than 30 years, and control nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats. Nevertheless, in 2016 Michigan was considered one of Hillary Clinton’s firewall states that Democrats expected her to dominate in both the primary and general election. In another sign of the state’s penchant for defying predictions, Clinton didn’t win Michigan either time. Now, Michigan Democrats are obsessing over how to recapture voters who are electing Republicans throughout the state in areas that Democrats once controlled.
“Look, I agree with the analysis that Democratic candidates really need to show a vision in an energetic way that connects authentically with disgruntled voters,” said former Rep. Mark Schauer, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, who lost to Snyder with about 51 percent to 47 percent.“It’s a balancing act because we do have to connect with our traditional base and we’ve seen in the 2012 turnout a significant portion of our base has gone down. So we’ve got to rally our base while making the case of why we understand the economic plight that a huge swath of the electorate are going through. That we understand it, care about it, and we have ideas that are compelling, that help people with the challenges that they face every day.”
El-Sayed is trying to walk an especially precise balancing act—offer specific liberal policy positions to tap into liberal grassroots energy without alienating more conservative potential voters outside the party. He wants to expand the field of voters beyond the currently registered Democrats and attract people who don’t usually vote. Most of his online fundraising pitches focus more on policy rather than offering a compelling biography. But earlier this month he also sent out a fundraising pitch that noted his campaign had received threats because he’s Muslim. Other times he highlights his public health expertise by warning about Republicans’ Obamacare repeal efforts.
“The vote for Trump was not a vote for hope or a vote of inspiration, it was a vote of cynicism and frustration with the status quo,” El-Sayed said while riding in the campaign’s Ford Explorer to knock on more doors. Later, in a separate interview, El-Sayed noted that he has family who voted for Trump. “They didn’t vote for Trump because of some animus for Muslims, they voted for Donald Trump because they felt that he was at least speaking to an experience that they faced. For a lot of people they’ve been told that, statistically, our economy has gotten better, it’s recovered. But actually if you look at over the past 10 years you’ve seen this increase in corporate profits, the stagnation in labor participation and an overall decline in wages. And that speaks to peoples’ real experiences.” It’s a somewhat counterintuitive strategy: validate the underlying reason voters picked Trump but critique their choice.
A day later he knocked on doors in the suburbs of Detroit, he delivered a speech to a group of liberals in Spring Lake village in Ottawa County, in the southwestern part of the state that isn’t as essential in the primary but very important to a candidate trying to tap voters outside reliable Democrats in the general election. To these voters, El-Sayed makes his unusual personal story the core message of his appeal.
He told the crowd of 150 about how his father, the first of six children to a vegetable salesman and a homemaker, emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt. He describes Thanksgiving at his dad’s, who is married to a woman whose family has been in Michigan since before the Civil War.
“You’ve got the turkey on the table, you’ve got the Lions losing on TV and then you’ve got my family,” El-Sayed says, mentioning his Grandma Judy, a deacon at her Presbyterian church, and then the “complete wildcard,” his uncle Piotr, a professor of Slavic languages and an avowed atheist. He calls his family “wholly uncommon and highly American.”
“We’re having conversations about all kinds of things. And you can imagine that these people come from fundamentally different walks of life. They have known different histories but they see a common future,” El-Sayed says.
“I’m relatively young, I’m relatively brown, and I’m relatively Muslim,” El-Sayed says, sparking laughter from the audience. “And so to a lot of people those would be disqualifying. But I also know that I’m a physician in a state that has suffered one of the single worst man-made public health disasters in recent memory. I’m an educator in a state with a faltering public school system. I’m a public servant in a state that is one of the least transparent and least accountable nationwide and I’m a young person in a state that has struggled to create economic opportunities for young people.”
When he’s done, the crowd gives him a standing ovation. Skeptical voters left the event perhaps not less skeptical but a little more curious.
“I just dragged myself over here because Joanne, my wife, persuaded me to. I was very skeptical and I was just blown away,” said Don Sheill, a physician.“I’m just so hopeful that he can get traction.” “Hmmm,” Sheill’s wife Joanne Patterson, a retired teacher, said pausing before pointing out that Barack Obama won conservative leaning cities in Michigan in 2008 “If the city of Holland voted for Barack Obama…”
Asked if being Muslim will hurt him in the most conservative parts of the state, Sheill and Patterson pause. “I think once people hear him though you kind of just forget,” Patterson said. To which Sheill added: “I think there’s some Trump voters that would vote for this fellow if they get a chance to understand.”
Now that Donald Trump Jr.’s emails reveal that the Trump campaign welcomed election interference by the Russians (“I love it,” Junior enthused at the promise of receiving intel on candidate Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-linked source), it might be a good time to turn the spotlight back to President Donald Trump and whether his actions since becoming president constitute obstruction of justice.
History does not necessarily repeat itself, but sometimes it smells the same. And once again, Watergate provides a useful yardstick for measuring Trump’s Russia-gate. A review of how events unfolded over the two years of disclosures during the Watergate probe suggests a pattern: President Richard Nixon was involved in a cover-up to protect people close to him, not necessarily himself. It’s very possible that a similar story is unfolding today—that Trump’s undoing isn’t direct involvement in Kremlin-backed election interference, but rather obstrution of justice to protect both his son and his son-in-law for their role in the Russia scandal.
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Let’s start with this simple fact: There is no evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it happened. All these years, tapes and Congressional investigations later, nothing has emerged to prove that Nixon had advance knowledge of the Watergate operation against the Democrats that was being run by Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt.
But Nixon’s good friend and former attorney general, John Mitchell, did have his fingerprints all over the Watergate operation, without question. The evidence is overwhelming that Mitchell, as the head of the Campaign to Re-Elect the President (known as “CREEP” to many) in 1972, approved the plans of Liddy and Hunt. And when Nixon found out about the break-in, he guessed as much.
It’s important to understand the nature of Nixon’s relationship with Mitchell to comprehend the president’s actions. The two were law partners in New York City after Nixon lost the governorship of California to Pat Brown, famously telling the press that he was done with politics. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said, “because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
But it wasn’t Nixon’s last press conference—largely thanks to Mitchell, who became one of the steadying forces that assisted the embittered Nixon in his journey back to public life. As a lawyer with a national bond practice (to finance public housing and other projects), Mitchell knew a lot of politicians across the country.These connections and Mitchell’s stone-faced authoritarian manner made him a logical choice for Nixon’s campaign director in 1968.
Nixon believed he would never have won the presidency without Mitchell’s guiding hand. He insisted that Mitchell take the attorney general job during his first term and then asked him to chair his reelection campaign in March 1972, just in time for the former attorney general to approve harebrained schemes of Liddy and Hunt.
In the week after the Watergate break-in, Oval Office tapes show thatNixon fretted most about whether Mitchell had been involved and what it might mean to him personally if he was implicated. Mitchell had his hands full with his mercurial spouse, Martha, who was threatening suicide if he remained in politics (ironically enough, they lived in the swanky apartments in the Watergate complex, and she told her husband that she intended to throw herself off a Watergate balcony in her manic moments).
In taped conversations with his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Nixon kept coming back to the same question: Was Mitchell involved? At one point in a conversation on June 21, 1972, Nixon’s second day back in the White House after the break-in, Haldeman and Nixon considered telling the truth and letting Liddy and Hunt come forward to plead guilty to the “third-rate burglary,” reasoning that as first offenders they probably would get suspended sentences.
Nixon observed that he was inclined to go with full disclosure because, as he said, “if that’s the truth, the truth you always figure may come out, and you’re a hell of a lot better doing that than to build another tissue around the God-damn thing.”
But then he backtracked. “Let me say this,” he said to Haldeman, “if it involved Mitchell, then I would think you couldn’t do it, just because it would destroy him, you know.” He then mused that Mitchell “probably knew” about the operation, but cautioned Haldeman not to tell him about it, allowing him to have “plausible deniability,” a term that came into vogue at the White House during the Watergate scandal.
This conversation and several like it took place just before Nixon agreed to a scheme to shut down the FBI investigation into Watergate. The tape of that meeting, dated June 23, 1972, became known as the “smoking gun” tape and played a crucial role in forcing Nixon’s resignation.
The story of Nixon and Mitchell casts Trump’s actions in connection with the Russian investigation in a new light: The president may not have known directly about details of the proposed Russian interference, but he likely knew that his son and son-in-law met with individuals who had Russian connections, and thus that they would be in jeopardy if the FBI continued to dig. By this logic, it is not hard to conceive that Trump’s string of startling and obstructive decisions—asking FBI Director James Comey to discontinue the Flynn investigation, firing Comey when the Russia investigation seemed to be expanding and asking the country to move on rather than sanctioning Russia—have been to protect his children.
Nixon did not have to lose his presidency over the bungled break-in. But his personal concern for his close friend was probably the main reason he became enmeshed in a career-ending cover-up that he had no rational hope of controlling. Think of how much easier it would be to fall into that trap with the reputations of one’s own children on the line.
In the end though, as Nixon said, the truth has a way of coming out. Now, we simply await the next shoes to drop.
Medicaid may be the next “third rail” in American politics. Resistance to cutting the health care program for the poor has emerged as a big stumbling block to Obamacare repeal, and Republicans touch it at their political peril.
“If they’d gone ahead … clearly I would think we’d be seeing a transfer of power in a year and a half,” said John Weaver, a GOP strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has called the Medicaid overhaul proposals of his fellow Republicans “unacceptable.”
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The repeal efforts in Congress actually aimed to do more than repeal Obamacare. The House-passed bill, H.R. 1628 (115), and the Senate counterpart that collapsed Monday called for the biggest changes and deepest cuts to Medicaid since its creation as part of the Great Society programs in 1965.
But an overhaul that would cut nearly $800 billion over a decade and have 15 million fewer people covered in Medicaid went too far for moderates like Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and created a backlash from several influential Republican governors.
“You can’t just over a very short period of time diminish the federal support level,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, one of several Republicans who saw the Medicaid cuts as excessive. “That’s just an unrealistic goal in the short term.”
That’s made the politics around Medicaid much more volatile. Republican strategists and pollsters say Medicaid’s rising stock will likely diminish the GOP’s chances to cap federal funds without huge blowback from voters. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fallback, a partial repeal bill which scraps Obamacare Medicaid expansion but leaves traditional Medicaid intact, encountered fatal opposition Tuesday, and it’s not clear what comes next.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much appetite to do anything [on Medicaid],” Weaver said. “What was the last entitlement program that we changed our mind on in this country? There’s not one.”
Jointly financed by Washington and the states, Medicaid has long been in Medicare’s shadow. It began as a program for poor kids and their parents, but it’s grown — and grown. It now covers more than 70 million people, or more than 1 in 5 Americans. Roughly 30 million of those covered by Medicaid are children and 7million are elderly, many in nursing homes. Medicaid covers millions of disabled people and is a big source of treatment for opioid addiction.
The opioid funding added to the concern of the GOP governors who objected to the Medicaid cuts, and it “clearly had impact,” noted Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “The level of funding that Medicaid now provides to combat the opioid issue provided another pro-Medicaid argument that was quite distinct from past battles about the level of funding and structure of Medicaid,” he said.
Several surveys have shown growing public awareness of, and support for, Medicaid’s role in health care.
“The message that we got from our polling was that voters said, ‘If you vote for the new health care plan, you do so at your own peril,’” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “That includes cuts to Medicaid.”
A Quinnipiac poll released in late June found that 71 percent of voters oppose decreasing federal funds for Medicaid, including 53 percent of Republicans. Other surveys have found strong support for Medicaid — even among Trump voters.
“We’re finding that Medicaid has a constituency that may have been underestimated,” said Diane Rowland, a leading Medicaid expert and the executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, recently as opposition began mounting in the Senate.
Medicaid may not be quite as untouchable as Medicare and Social Security — the traditional “third rails” of politics that drive voter behavior. But “it’s become even more of a national safety net,” Rowland said. “And more people’s lives have been touched by it.”
The GOP senators who opposed the latest repeal plan — McConnell wants a vote on the same partial repeal bill that Republicans passed but then-President BarackObama vetoed two years ago — again cited Medicaid.
“I have serious concerns about how we continue to provide affordable care to those who have benefited from West Virginia’s decision to expand Medicaid, especially in light of the growing opioid crisis,” Capito said Tuesday in explaining her opposition. “All of the Senate health care discussion drafts have failed to address these concerns adequately.”
Medicaid has been a key concern of Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, too — whose pivotal opposition to McConnell’s earlier version of repeal came as a surprise given thatMoran’s state didn’t expandthe program under the Affordable Care Act, and Moran himself is not usually a maverick.
“Medicaid has significant value,” he said at a town meeting early this month.
“Kansas is a place that has treated Medicaid payments very conservatively, and if there’s problems with people receiving Medicaid that shouldn’t receive it, address that issue,” he continued. But don’t harm a program, he said, that both low-income people and the health care system count on.
The doubts expressed by Moran and others have led to a great irony: Obamacare didn’t create Medicaid, but it might shield it from an overhaul.
Republicans have angled for Medicaid spending caps since the Reagan years, and the idea even had some bipartisan support in the 1990s — although the two sides never agreed on the specifics. The conventional wisdom was that Medicaid would be the easiest way to tackle entitlement reform precisely because it didn’t have a politically well-organized constituency to protect it, unlike Medicare and Social Security.
The moment may have come and gone. Pollsters and health policy experts say the political environment for altering Medicaid was more favorable to Republicans two decades ago, when it covered roughly half the number of people it does now and voters had more of an appetite for deficit reduction and welfare reform.
“The battle is framed differently than it would [have been] in the 1990s. Not a welfare battle here,” said Robert Blendon, an expert on health policy and politics at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
The federal government and the statesin 2016 spent more than $550 billion on the program, costs that Republicans in Washington have long chafed to pare back. But state leaders and several senators were alarmed by the magnitude of the federal funding reductions included in the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act. It would have capped federal Medicaid funding beginning in 2020 and limited its rate of growth.
As they gathered in Rhode Island last the weekend, governors received independent estimates showing that states would see a 27 percent to 39 percent reduction in their federal Medicaid funds by 2036 under the initial Senate bill. The analysis, completed by consulting firm Avalere Health, concluded that states may be confronted with a series of unpalatable choices to make up for the funding declines — including limiting eligibility or raising taxes.
Trump administration officials, during a closed-door meeting, later tried to assuage governors’ anxiety about Medicaid coverage losses and discredit various estimates, but state leaders largely weren’t swayed.
“The proposed reductions in Medicaid would leave our state with a budget deficit we could not absorb without cutting health care services for the people who deserve them most, or significantly raise taxes on already overtaxed Vermonters,” Republican Gov. Phil Scott said Monday at a press conference with Vermont’s all-Democratic congressional delegation.
Medicaid’s favorability rating among the general public has remained steady since the mid-1990s, according to Bianca DiJulio with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The program, however, was much smaller the last time spending caps were debated. Medicaid covered around 35 million in 1996 — roughly half the current number.
“It was an easier target by the Republicans,” said Chris Jennings, a top health official in the Clinton White House who later worked for Obama.
Federal funding has also increased considerably since then, with the federal government providing states at least 90 cents of every dollar to cover the expansion starting in 2014. Those changes have rankled conservatives who argue that the government just can’t afford that. But because Obamacare expanded Medicaid, the public is likely to perceive changes as an attack on the 2010 health law, said Doug Badger, a former White House aide for President George W. Bush.
That will make entitlement reforms all the more difficult despite bipartisan support for some type of Medicaid spending cap in the 1990s.
“I would chalk it up to Obamacare derangement syndrome,” Badger said before the Senate repeal bill collapsed. “The emotional linkage is there.”