Martin Frost and Tom Davis on “The Partisan Divide”

The Partisan Divide

The Partisan Divide

Good morning Austin:

Martin Frost was a Democratic congressman representing a Dallas-Fort Worth district for 26 years. Tom Davis was, for 14 years, a Republican congressman from a Virginia district just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Frost served four years as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and four years as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Davis was the House GOP campaign chair for the 2000 and 2002 cycles. He was a notably centrist member, one of what Frost said is now “one of the vanished breed – not vanishing breed – vanished breed of moderate Republicans.”

Today, Davis said, “The most liberal Republican in the House is now more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.”

Following redistricting, Frost lost a bid for another term in 2004 to Republican Pete Sessions in a newly drawn district.

Frost and Davis have now collaborated on a book – with the assistance of Richard Cohen, an accomplished journalist (and not the Washington Post columnist of the same name) with tremendous experience writing about Congress – entitled, The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis.

The Partisan Divide

The Partisan Divide

The book opens as follows:

We are both longtime baseball fans, so we honestly feel Casey Stengel’s famous quote about the inept 1962 New York Mets provides an ideal summary and query for this book. The Mets were in the midst of their first year as an expansion team, when they ultimately lost 120 games. Stengel was their manager and in an exasperated moment he said, `Can’t anyone play this game?’ The same can be said about the woeful 113th Congress, derided as one of the least productive in the history of our country.

Well, this is an imperfect comparison. I was an eight-year-old on Long Island when the Mets were created. They remain my team, through thick and thin. The early Mets were historically bad, but completely endearing.  According to the narrator of the old promotional clip below, even as the Mets were losing at a record pace, they were attracting bigger crowds than the New York Yankees. As Casey Stengel notes in the clip, their fans seemed to respond in inverse relation to their success. “Papa” and “mama,” had been supplanted as a New York baby’s first words by “Metsy.”

But Congress draws no such terms of endearment. Where are the Republican Marv Throneberrys? Where are the Demoratic Ed Kranepools. John Boehner is no Richie Ashburn. Nancy Pelosi is no Choo-Choo Coleman.

And with the Mets, fans knew things could, and would, only get better.

But, with Congress, Davis said yesterday, “It gets worse, it doesn’t get better.”

And, Frost said, no one is cheering them on.

Martin Frost at The Headliners Club

Martin Frost at The Headliners Club

“People in the country don’t like what’s going on,” he said.

Davis and Frost were in Austin yesterday as part of their book tour, speaking at the LBJ School midday, and then talking to a few reporters at The Headliners Club in the early evening.

What follows are some of what they had to say there.

The Problem

Davis – A major cause of polarization and gridlock is the growth of single party districts.

Fully 80 percent of House districts are safe. We know which party is going to win in November. That means members worry about their primary election. That’s their concern. November is just a constitutional formality. They devote all of their attention, their votes, their rhetoric, to their primary voters who are narrow, thin ideological slice of the electorate and they act accordingly when they get to Congress.

The single member districts, he said, are a consequence of:

1 – Gerrymandering with the touch of Picasso. (creative line-drawing)

2 – Geographic sorting. The tendency of people who think alike to live with each other. Davis cited Bill Bishop’s book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

There are some areas you couldn’t find a Republican district. There are 92 precincts in New York where Romney didn’t get a single vote.

(Frost recalled the African-American woman who corralled votes in a West Dallas precinct, at different times both for and against him, and who said she always made sure that “at least two votes were cast for Republicans.” When he asked her why, she said, “Well I don’t want people to think I was stealing.” Davis recalled the story of the votes being counted in a black precinct in the Anacostia section of D.C., and how perplexed they were when a Republican ballot showed up. When a second appeared, the man in charge of the count said, “That clinches it, somebody voted twice.”)

3 – The unintended effect of the Voting Rights Act. The reality is all you have in the Deep South is white Republicans and black Democrats. Nobody needs to talk to the other side.

Davis blamed cable news for contributing mightily to the divide.

Fox and MSNBC are just simply business models, they are not serious news. They have to feed the beast every night. If you ever watch both the same night they are on parallel universes. They don’t have huge audiences but these are the activists in the party. This is the echo chamber.

The Internet, where there are no filters, contributes to the divide. In the Republican cloakroom it’s the Drudge Report, in the Democratic cloakroom it’s the Huffington Post. The crap-to-content ratio coming over the Internet is just exceptionally high.

Members don’t dare buck the cable-and-Internet fed activists in their party.

We had one Republican from Virginia who announced  he was going to reopen the government after the last shutdown. Fox put him up there as one of 18 traitors, and he had to walk it back.

Through skillful redistricting, Republicans have a lock on the House, while, because of the interplay of the Electoral College and demographic changes, Democrats have a built-in advantage in presidential races.

For example, in Pennsylvania, Democrats got more votes in House elections than Republicans in sum, but Republicans have a 12 to 5 edge in districts.

(Frost: In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio the majority voted Democratic in congressional contests, but Democrats got 30 percent of the seats.)

Davis; With the Electoral College, there is a Democratic edge. They have what’s called the Blue Wall – 18 states and the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic six straight times. They start out with 242 electoral votes and they need 270.

The net resul, is that members of Congress, beholden to primary voters in contests mediated by cable and social media, no longer act as free agents.

Davis: A lot of members would love to sit here be a part of the deals but they just can’t.

Davis recalled when he was a whip for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a colleague told him,”I hope this thing passes, but I can’t vote for it. I could never explain this back home.”

Davis: Then why are you here. If  you can’t take a tough vote, why are you here? Members like to survive. They like to get re-elected. They are the Hope Yes, Vote No Caucus.

We have great leaders now, we just don’t have any followers because everybody’s nervous.

It used to be the State of the Union, members would line up three, four hours in advance to be on the center aisle and have a chance to shake the hand of the president of the United States. For some of them, it was the only time they would get on national television. The center aisle is now all Democrats. Republicans won’t go near it. You get your picture with Obama, that’s the kiss of death.

Martin Frost: There are some Republican members of the Texas delegation, who I know personally, who would like to be in the middle some place, and would like to work across party lines, but they live in mortal fear that they will be defeated by somebody from the far right in a primary so they don’t do that.

In winning passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, LBJ put together a bipartisan coalition that defeated a Southern Democratic filibuster. I don’t think it would be possible to do that now.

Solutions

Martin Frost

1. Congress could require states to have non-partisan commissions to draw their congressional districts.  California, Iowa, Arizona, New Jersey and Washington already do.

2. There’s no way to undo Citizens United until the Supreme Court changes, but Congress could require full disclosure of every contribution to any organization of any kind that mentions a federal candidate by name during a two-year election cycle.

3. A modified return of earmarks. Unfortunately, earmarks in the past were abused. Former Rep. Randy Cunningham, a California Republican, went to prison for selling earmarks to  defense contractors. Members ought to be able to earmark funds, put their names on it and they could only do it in their districts or their state if they’re a senator. Years ago in Dallas the business community came to me and asked that I get an earmark to create the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which I did.  And Dallas now has a very successful above-ground light rail system. Absent an earmark that might not have been built.

Even at its height, earmarks only accounted for about two percent of federal spending, but it gives members some skin in the game. Because members, if they have something in that bill they want, it makes it a little harder to vote “no.” Gives party leaders some additional leverage with recalcitrant members.

(Davis: In a Congress without earmarks, “leaders have given up best leverage they have. They have abrogated that to the executive branch, a huge transfer of power … they’ve given up their greatest power of the purse, they’ve just handed that over to the president because somebody out here in tea party land thinks earmarks are just terrible, even though they don’t add a nickel to the deficit.”),

Here is Jeffrey Birnbaum in the Washington Times on earmarks:

Maybe lawmakers are out of practice. The previous Congress that ended last year – the 113th – notoriously produced record levels of inactivity. Members of Congress may have simply forgotten how to write and pass real laws. Certainly they’re rusty.

So it makes sense for them to relearn by taking baby steps. At least those efforts, if unsuccessful, won’t shutter the entire federal government or major parts of it.

One option is to jump on the beginner’s slope of legislation: earmarks.

That’s a bad word in some quarters, but it’s also a fundamental building block of legislation. If one lawmaker needs a bridge or a highway, that’s a small price to pay to win an entire highway bill that will help restore the nation’s infrastructure.

High school civics books call trading narrow benefits like these logrolling.The term isn’t used as an epithet. It’s a matter-of-fact explanation of how things get done on Capitol Hill among lawmakers who otherwise disagree with each other.

Such cooperation has been given a bad name lately by the increasingly polarized partisans in Congress. Ideologues were once a tiny minority in the House and Senate. Now they comprise sizable, obstructive voting blocs on both sides of the aisle that make getting anything accomplished a chore.

The hard right also believes that providing direct government assistance to constituents is blasphemy. But that’s misguided. Stubbornness like that needs to be softened with a dose of self-interest, the motivation that used to be catnip for politicians eager to be reelected.

Constituent service should be revived as a worthy goal and, eventually, as a primary focus for lawmakers. Earmarking a few dozen dredged waterways and overpasses is a good way to start a movement in that direction.

And here is former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, defending earmarks on the floor the House, back in 2009.

Ron Paul: Thank you, Madame Speaker. I would like to address the subject of earmarks today. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding here among the members about exactly what it means to vote against an earmark. It’s very popular today to condemn earmarks and even hold up legislation because of this.

The truth is that if you removed all the earmarks from the budget you would remove 1% of the budget. So there’s not a lot of savings. But, even if you voted against all the earmarks, actually, you don’t even save the 1% because you don’t save any money. What is done is those earmarks are removed and some of them are very wasteful and unnecessary, but that money then goes to the executive branch.

So, in many ways what we are doing here in the Congress is reneging on our responsibilities. Because it is the responsibility of the Congress to earmark. That’s our job. We’re supposed to tell the people how we’re spending the money. Not to just deliver it in the lump sum to the executive branch and let them deal with it. And then it’s dealt with behind the scenes. Actually, if you voted against all the earmarks there would be less transparency. Earmarks really allow transparency and we know exactly where the money is being spent.

You know, the big issue is the spending. If you don’t like the spending, vote against the bill. But the principle of earmarking is something that we have to think about because we’re just further undermining the responsibilities that we have here in the Congress. And if we want to get things under control it won’t be because we vote against an earmark and make a big deal of attacking earmarks because it doesn’t address the subject.

In reality what we need are more earmarks…

4. National primary days for House and Senate elections. With turnout so low, it is easier for the activist, extreme wing of the party to dominate the primary. A national primary might generate more publicity and a higher turnout.

Q and A

Davis and Frost were asked their take on the Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran signed by 47 Republican senators this week.

(From the New York TimesThe fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy. In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”)

Davis and Frost had different takes.

Davis: (putting himself in the minds of the 47) If I’m excluded from the decision-making, like I was on the executive order (on immigration), what am I supposed to do, twiddle my thumbs, while my base  on Fox News, my base out there in Twitter world, is going after us for doing nothing.  LBJ wold never have allowed this to happen, but you have a president who is totally disengaged from the legislative process… Clinton would be all over this thing.

Frost — Used to be, the holy writ was politics stops at he water’s edge. What the 47 senators did was outrageous. I think they are going to live to regret the day they signed it.

DavisPeople pay no price for it.

Davis: After Republicans nominated some unfortunate Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, “a bunch of Republicans got together and said, `You know what, we’re going to at least make sure we nominate mammals,’ though, he said, “in a deep red state you don’t even need a mammal, it’s a yellow dog thing. But in these purples states – Indiana, Nevada, Colorado – you need a good candidate to win.”

Of today’s Republican activists: Who are these people? They are not the people who live in leafy green suburban neighborhoods who participate in politics anymore, except in general elections, they put on their I Voted badge and go off and don’t realize the election was determined in the primary. The activists, we say, liberals and conservatives, have passions; moderates have lives.

Davis: Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader, was knocked off in a Republican primary because he started to show leadership. He voted to reopen the government, to raise the debt ceiling, he started to work on an immigration deal. These things have to get done. His constituents don’t want that. These are Southern exurban voters. They are pissed off people right now. They don’t want a legislator. They want somebody to be up in Obama’s face every day, giving him the finger and pounding on him. They were not interested in leadership.

Frost on Republican’s demographic dilemma: In presidential politics, Republicans are fishing in a diminishing pool of voters.  They can’t just run up the score with white voters and win a presidential race. They can do that in some states and congressional districts, but if the Republican Party doesn’t figure out how to appeal to Hispanics, they’re going to have a damn hard time electing a president. Now they may be able to pull it off this time, they have a narrow path to winning in 2016. Even so, that’s a narrow path, and the Republican Party as a presidential party risks going out of existence if they can’t appeal to minority voters.

Hispanics ought to be natural allies of the Republican Party. They are patriotic. They are entrepreneurial. They are pro-family. Their profile fits Republicans, except Republicans give them the stiff arm, and say, `We don’t want you. We want to kick you out of the country. We don’t want to pass any piece of legislation that deals with immigration.’

Romney got 27 percent among Hispanics. George W. Bush got 44 percent in his re-election campaign. But if the Republicans can’t figure out how to change that dynamic, they are going to have a real problem electing a president long-term.

DavisAnd Romney did worse among Asians than he did among Hispanics. Figure that out. Asians are whiter than the whites.

But what about especially low Hispanic turnout in Texas, where turnout across the board is at the bottom nationally?

Frost: In a number of states they are the swing part of the electorate. In Colorado and Nevada and New Mexico and Arizona, to an increasing degree in North Carolina today. You can’t just look at things through the lens of Texas. Texas is not the world.

Democrats have dropped as low as 39 percent of the white vote nationally. They haven’t dropped below that. Still a lot of whites do vote Democratic, not in Texas necessarily, but in other states. So if you don’t see things just through the eyes of Texas …

It’s going to be a long time before Texas is going to be a competitive state. I think it will happen. I hope it happens in my lifetime, but it’s going to be a while.