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Wednesday, January 04, 2017


Light 'em up

by Tom Sullivan

Yesterday's swift reversal by Republican House members of an effort to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics showed just how primed Republicans are to overreach and how swift public opprobrium can put on the brakes. Monday night, the GOP caucus had signaled its intent to go back to the good, old days of Tom DeLay, as Josh Marshall explained:

... the House GOP Caucus voted to put the OCE back under the authority of the Ethics Committee, which of course has a GOP Chair. Basically that means abolishing the OCE since the whole point of the OCE is that it's independent of the Committee. One of the sales' points for this new set up is that it "provide[s] protection [for Members of Congress] against disclosures to the public or other government entities" of the results of any investigations. In other words, if wrongdoing is found the newly-neutered OCE can't tell anyone. Awesome. They can't have a press person, issue reports, do anything without the say of the Ethics Committee. In other words, the whole thing is a joke, both the new version of the OCE (now the "“Office of Congressional Complaint Review") and this whole move. But it's the Trump Era. Members want to get down to business, get their piece of the action and not have anyone giving them any crap. Just like the big cheese down Pennsylvania Avenue. It's the Trump Era.
Well, not so fast. By the time Donald Trump consigliere Kellyanne Conway finished defending the gutting Tuesday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” phones were already lighting up on Capitol Hill. Later in the morning, Donald Trump tweeted displeasure not at the House's effort, but its timing, tweeting, "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority." By just after noon, Republicans reversed course. Politico adds:
“The Trump tweet amplified the discomfort that our members had,” said a senior House Republican aide. “It didn’t change the course where things were already heading.”

[SC Rep. Mark] Sanford said Trump elevated the issue "beyond-the-beltway" and further stoked public outrage. "It became an outside of Washington issue." Members discussed the president's feelings among themselves and at a hastily called meeting, according to several people present.

"It was everyone lighting up the phone lines, and then Trump's tweet," [NY Rep. Chris] Collins said. "President-Elect Trump's tweets totally shifted the mood of the conference."
First off, Democrats tend to underperform Republicans in the calling-your-congresscritter department. The T-party deployed this tool very effectively, driven by missives from conservative think tanks and astroturf groups as well as rants from talk radio. This episode demonstrates just how powerful public pushback can be, and it's a tool the left absolutely must learn to use better and right now.

This also brings up an instructive chicken-and-egg question: Did the Trump tweets prompt the swift public outcry or did swift public outcry prompt the Trump tweets? Politico's account and the timing of Conway's “Good Morning America” comments suggest it was the latter. If so, this provides one model for pushing back against the GOP agenda in the Trump era.

We heard in August, "Trump tends to echo the words of the last person with whom he spoke." We saw it again after Trump's first post-election meeting with President Obama at the White House. Trump softened his position on gutting the Affordable Care Act, "a jaw-dropping demonstration of just how easily influenced he is," Jordan Weissmann wrote for Slate. Citing the Obama meeting, William Saletan observed, "Having a fragile, approval-craving narcissist as president isn’t the end of the world. It just means that to get him to do the right thing, you have to pet him." Saletan continued:
The second model is Times columnist Tom Friedman. In the group session at Times headquarters on Nov. 22, Friedman worked Trump like a horndog in a bar, trying to get him into bed on climate change. “You own some of the most beautiful links golf courses in the world,” Friedman told Trump. “I’d hate to see Royal Aberdeen underwater,” the columnist added. When Trump ragged on windmills, Friedman whispered sweet nothings: “General Electric has a big wind turbine factory in South Carolina.” Trump, eager for approval, told the Times staffers about his “many environmental awards” and bragged, “I’m actually an environmentalist.” By the end of the session, Friedman had Trump eating out of his hand.
The assumptions in these earlier accounts was that people who could get physically close to Trump would be powerful influencers. But as we've seen, Vladimir Putin sends him a flattering letter and Trump melts into a puddle. As much attention as Trump pays to social media and as much as he echoes what he hears, this House ethics episode suggests that, if we are disciplined about it, those of us outside the Beltway might be able to move the new president and quickly without needing a White House audience, just a telephone and his Twitter handle.

Saletan wrote:
That’s how you move Trump. You don’t talk about ethics. You play the toughness card. You appeal to the art of the deal. You make him feel smart, powerful, and loved. You don’t forget how unmoored and volatile he is, but you set aside your fear and your anger. You thank God that you’re dealing with a narcissist, not a cold-blooded killer.
Ponder that, with a combination of lighting up phones on Capitol Hill and Trump on Twitter, we might steer both him and a Republican Congress in ways that didn't seem possible just days ago.