December 31, 2018
Well, this awful year is just about over with, so I figured I ought to at least record a few thoughts about recent developments in the wonderful world of politics. (See note at bottom.) So we had a big election last month, and the American people made their (hopelessly divided) collective voice heard! As expected, the Democrats picked up enough seats to retake control of the House of Representatives, but the Republicans held on to the Senate, and actually picked up a couple seats there. The widely-heralded "blue tsunami" in favor of the Democratic Party fell short of what anti-Trump people were hoping for. Midterm elections typically go against the party of the incumbent president, and as such reversals go, this one was pretty mild.
Nevertheless, the Democrats did regain a majority in the House for the first time since 2010 (with a 233-200 margin), and in three more days, Nancy Pelosi will become speaker of the House once again. (She previously served in the last two years of the Bush Jr. administration, and the first two years of the Obama administration.) It was amusing to see the Democrats bicker over who should lead them during the next two years, as the division between the mainstream and "progressive" wings of the party is nearly as great as is the corresponding division on the Republican side. Pelosi will turn 79 on March 26, and it's not very often that someone continues such a leadership role in Congress into their eighties -- much less a woman!
The fight among Democrats was in part a reflection of the fact that they lack any semblance of a coherent policy agenda, and there is zero consensus on which way the party should head in the years to come. (Of course, the same thing could be said of Republicans.) What unites Democrats is not so much a commitment to a particular course of policy action but rather a fervent attachment to the politics of "identity," drawing attention to all sorts of perceived injustices that hardly anyone even dreamed about ten or twenty years ago.
On the Senate side, Mitch McConnell is straining to maintain a semblance of order in the face of a continued onslaught of disruption brought about by the White House. As the archetypal insider "establishment" figure, he symbolizes the "Swamp" upon which Trump supporters routinely heap their scorn. As a central figure in the Senate Republicans' decision to block the confirmation process for President Obama's Supreme Court justice Merrick Garland in 2016, he his hated with a passion by many Democrats. I have no strong opinion on him either way; he usually gets the job done, and that's what's most important. With a 53-47 majority in the Senate (up from 51-49 before), he won't have quite as much trouble getting bills and procedural motions passed as before.
It is fitting to pay (ironic) respect to outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Eight years ago he was the up-and-coming face of a dynamic policy-focused leadership in the Republican Party. Six years ago, he was candidate for vice president on the ticket with Mitt Romney. Three years ago he replaced John Boehner as House speaker after a rebellion by the GOP Tea Party faction -- the precursor to the Trumpista movement. And then two years ago, he turned into the symbol of the hopelessly ineffectual mainstream Republican leaders who were blindsided by the Trump movement. From one day to the next, he wasn't sure whether to resist Trump or try to work with him, and in the end he was consumed. I had such high hopes for him at one time, so I try to be a little more charitable than the many analysts who bitterly deride him for appeasing Trump.
So did President Trump drag Republicans down to defeat? In some cases yes, but for the most part, the Trump Effect was relatively muted. His unpopularity among suburban Washington establishment types no doubt led to the defeat of incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock, but that is merely a manifestation of the long-term trend toward intensified polarization in the American body politic. The largely white, rural, southern and midwestern America of yesteryear feels besieged by the multi-ethnic, urban, Atlantic/Pacific America of the (apparent) future. As well it should. But that theme of this year's election campaign will have to be explored at some other time...
Virginia was among the notable exceptions to the general trend of a mild shift toward the Democrats. Here in the Old Dominion, it was a veritable Blue Tsunami. The Democrats "flipped" three of the state's eleven House districts in their favor: in the 2nd District, Elain Luria beat incumbent Scott Taylor 51-49%, in the 7th District, Abigail Spanberger beat incumbent Dave Brat 50-48%, and in the 10th District, Jennifer Wexton beat incumbent Barbara Comstock by a stunning 56-44% margin. These results may reflect the court-ordered redistricting, and indeed the aggregate statewide voting percentages did not swing nearly as sharply as the number of House seats (7 R, 4 D before; 4 R, 7 D now) would indicate. But when you consider that both U.S. Senate seats are firmly under Democratic control (Tim Kaine easily beat back a challenge by Corey Stewart), and all three executive offices in Richmond are in Democratic hands, the magnitude of the reversal in political fortunes since 2012 or so is almost incomprehensible.
|2||Taylor *||48.83%||FLIP --> Luria||51.03%|
|3||(write in)||8.78%||Scott *||91.22%|
|7||Brat *||48.43%||FLIP --> Spanberger||50.32%|
|10||Comstock *||43.74%||FLIP --> Wexton||56.09%|
Asterisk ( * ): incumbent; Winning candidates are highlighted with an orange background.
The Politics in Virginia page has been updated to show the new and returning members of the House from Virginia as of next January.
In the November 2017 elections in Virginia, Democrats made a spectacular gain, going from a near-hopeless 2-1 disadvantage (66-34) to virtual parity (51-49). Hardly anyone expected such a huge swing in the balance of party power. The Republicans retained a 21-19 majority in the Senate. In the governor's race, which was expected to be close, Ralpha Northam easily beat Ed Gillespie, by a 53.90% to 44.97% margin. In the race for Lieutenant Governor, Democrat Justin E. Fairfax beat Republican Jill H. Vogel by 52.72% to 47.18%, while incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring (Democrat) beat challenger John D. Adams (Republican) 53.34% to 46.56%; (see virginia.gov). Gillespie had been weakened by a stiff challenge from Corey Stewart, a big Trump supporter who recently announced he will leave the statewide political scene.
Beginning in January 2018, Kirk Cox replaced the retiring William Howell as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.
All of the political information pages have been updated:
President George Herbert Walker Bush passed away on November 30, a little over seven months after his wife Barbara died. It was not unexpected, as Bush had a health emergency during the early summer, and at age 92 he had already led a very full life. The funeral and related memorial observances were a touching reminder that, not long ago, this country was united by certain basic norms and customs. The awkward presence of President Trump at the funeral in Washington National Cathedral served to punctuate just how badly frayed our body politic has become.
The elder President Bush (#41, in slang parlance) was born into wealth and privilege but answered the call of duty in World War II, becoming a Navy pilot who was shot down after flying many combat missions. After the war, he chose to seek his own fortune in the oil business, taking his wife Barbara to raise a family on the hot plains of Texas. He had mixed success in business, but struck it rich in politics, where he battled his way into the U.S. House of Representatives, refusing to be discouraged by an early defeat. Impressing people in the Nixon administration, he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as Director of Central Intelligence. He ran for president in 1980, representing the moderate faction of the party, and after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the primary campaign, he accepted the #2 position as vice presidential candidate. He didn't seem to have a great deal of influence in the Reagan administration, but he was rewarded by "inheriting" the presidential nomination in 1988, handily beating Democratic Mike Dukakis.
As president, Bush assembled one of the finest group of cabinet officials and advisors that this country has ever had: James Baker as Secretary of State, Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense, Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brent Scowcroft as National Security Advisor. (I had a great deal of admiration for Cheney back then, and I often wonder if he became more harsh and conniving as a result of the 9/11 attacks.) That team was the subject of Bob Woodward's book The Commanders, which focused on the decision-making by the first Bush administration following the seizure of Kuwait by Iraq in the summer of 1990, leading up to the triumphant military liberation campaign known as Desert Storm in January and February of 1991. But for all his strategic acumen, Bush lacked political savvy, and turned a blind eye to the emerging economic problems in 1992. His challenger in that year's election campaign, Bill Clinton, capitalized on Bush's Achilles heel with the simplistic but effective slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." And that's how Bush went into early retirement.
As president, Bush was the subject of bitter Democratic scorn, notwithstanding his repeated efforts to meet the opposition half way. He was responsible for landmark policy initiatives such as the Clean Air Act and reform of the financial sector, but every time he paid a heavy price. The widespread cynical response by many Democrats to his uplifting exhortation about "1000 points of light" was just plain awful. I bet they regret that now. It may not be too far off base to suggest that the origins of the fury toward Democrats exhibited by many contemporary Republicans was the unfair way that Bush Senior was treated. It was while he was president that I began shifting from the Democratic side to the Republican side, and to this day I regret not voting for him at least once.
The last former president to pass away was Gerald Ford, on December 26, 2006. (See my tribute December 27, 2006. I updated my Presidency page accordingly.
George H. W. Bush was the only president (or president-to-be) whom I ever saw clearly with my own eyes. I may have caught a distant glimpse of Ronald Reagan at his second inaugural (January 20, 1985), but I definitely saw his second-in-command, George Bush, during a parade in honor of the hostages freed from Iran, along Pennsylvania Avenue a few days after the 1981 inauguration. Bush was standing on the steps on the side of one of the buses carrying the freed hostages, waving in a gleeful way that struck me as just a little awkward given the circumstances.
As a final note, Bush the Elder may represent the last of a dying breed: the male White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Episcopalian!) Eastern Establishment Republicans who used to run this country. Most Republicans today look down upon the privileged elites, and in return, most elites regard Republicans with deep disdain or even contempt. It is another manifestation of the ongoing flip-flop in party identity, as the populist strain in the conservative movement seeks to recruit from a demographic segment (e.g., coal miners in Appalachia) that was once solidly in the Democratic camp.
In late August it was announced that Senator John McCain was ending treatment for his brain tumor, about a year after his condition was made public. Within a few days came word that he had passed away at the age of 81. As a former war hero (having been captured by the North Vietnamese after his jet fighter was shot down), McCain commanded a degree of respect that few other politicians in Washington enjoy. He was not the smoothest of characters, and his temper got the best of him from time to time, but for the most part was was good-natured and well-liked. On several occasions, he was able to serve as a mediator in the U.S. Senate, such as when the "Gang of 14" forged a compromise in May 2005.
But the very word compromise has come to be regarded as inherently evil by many people these days. Indeed, the fact that McCain has been alternately praised and scorned in the wake of his passing says a lot about the fractured polity in the United States today. McCain was always regarded with suspicion by many in the Republican Party's right wing, and I myself had my doubts about him. His vote not to repeal Obamacare last year was regarded as unforgiveable by many, but without a replacement plan at hand, such a policy move would indeed be risky. He wasn't the ideal presidential candidate in 2008, and the economic circumstances probably doomed his chances in any event, but I was still proud to vote for him. May he rest in peace.
Coincidentally, when Jacqueline and I were in Annapolis last August, we saw a photo of John McCain in a display at the visitor center of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1958. Unbeknownst to me at the time, McCain had decided that his final resting place would be at the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery. Next time we go there, I'll make sure to pay respects at his grave site.
I was surprised to realize that I haven't blogged on politics since January 28, 2018, almost a year ago. Maybe I'm taking my song "Better Left Unsaid" too seriously! Truth be told, I'm among those who has become deeply discouraged about American politics in the Era of Trump. Is there a place for independent-minded people who try to find points of common purpose in the ongoing political melee? I often wonder. Perhaps in another year things will get better, but for the mean time, I do not count on my opinions carrying much weight.