The View From Washington: Where to Start?

GP ViewSo. I recall when writing one of my earlier “View From Washington” pieces that I struggled a bit to figure out what to write about. There were no imminent issues or events to write about, and there was little activity on perennial issues such as Keystone or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. In the end, I found something to write about and, judging from the reaction, at least some of you found it useful.

This time I have the opposite problem. There is SO MUCH going on. The presidential campaign, which includes a struggle for the heart, soul and future of the Republican Party. The struggle in the U.S. House to select a Speaker, which includes a struggle for the heart, soul and future of the Republican Party. The Democratic race for President, which does not include the same struggle, but which is a bit more “interesting” than most people thought. The conclusion of the TPP negotiations and the political fallout of that (disclosure: when I was President of Airports Council International – North America we advocated for including Canada in these important negotiations). Hillary Clinton coming out against Keystone and, sort of, against TPP. A (then serious) Republican candidate uttering the thought that we should build a border wall between the U.S. and Canada, which not even Donald Trump has (yet) advocated.

So, there is almost too much to write about.

The bottom line, I think, is what I have said all along: there is little in the political rhetoric, or even the private discussions in Washington, that leads one to think the next few years are going to be constructive ones with regard to U.S. attitudes toward international issues. In a way, Canadian issues are harder even than issues such as Russia or Syria, because policy makers and, more importantly the public, take the relationship for granted. And given the elections being held in Canada later this week (at this writing), it is even less clear since there are some interesting ideological and generational dynamics at play there too.

So, to answer my own question, “where to start” I think I will start in, what to me, is the most interesting place, the battle being waged both on the campaign trail, and in the U.S. House of Representatives, for the heart, soul and future of the Republican Party (and even if a new Speaker of the House is chosen before this runs, it won’t change what I am saying). In essence, the Republican party is even more divided than are Americans as a whole.

Several years ago, I was attending a Canadian Airports Council event. The dinner speaker was a prominent Canadian pollster. His talk focused on American attitudes toward Canada. All his polling data showed everything as rosy.

I was one of two Americans in the room. I raised my hand to ask about the emerging right wing movement in the U.S. (the term Tea Party had not yet been coined), and the fact that the folks adhering to that particular movement, and listening to their talk shows and commentators, did not have such a rosy view of anything foreign, including Canadians. The pollster frankly shot me down, replying cryptically that they had polled Republicans. I replied that a lot of these folks, while very conservative, were not really identifying themselves as Republicans, and that he should take this into account. He went to the next question.

In the end, we are seeing the fruits of this now. The top three Republican candidates, polling more than all the others combined, have a grand total of zero experience in public office. One is a celebrity businessman, married three times whose main claim to being able to do the job is that he’s (by his own account) smart and he’s built lots of stuff. The second is a businesswoman who was fired from the only CEO job she ever had, but who stands out because she knows and can state lots of facts. (A side note: she said she was fired because her board was dysfunctional. The dysfunctional board part is true but it didn’t go well, so how that prepares her for dealing with a dysfunctional Congress eludes me). The third is a neurosurgeon who separated co-joined twins and whose main qualification was criticizing the President’s health care legislation in front of him. He later compared the Obama health care law (unfavorably) to slavery, said Muslims should not be President even though our constitution specifically bars any religious test for public office and blamed the holocaust on the fact that German Jews of the time did not have guns.

Trailing them are what some (even some Democrats) have called the deepest and most talented Republican primary field in memory. There are some truly accomplished governors, and former governors, who ran critical battleground states with some success. There are some senators who are saying some interesting things. There are several serious people. But all of them trail the three non-politicians who claim America is somehow broken and facing an existential challenge and is somehow no longer “great.”

This fight is being replicated in the controversy over who will be the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. John Boehner, who by any historic measure is a conservative member of Congress, has been hounded out of the Speakers job by a minority of Republican members who are upset that, every now and then, the President gets his way on something. (A lot of these folks love to say that President Obama is dictatorial, while at the same time comparing him unfavorably to the likes of Vladimir Putin). The fellow who looked to be Speaker Boehner’s successor has been hounded from the race as well. Much of the commentary chalks that up to his committing a gaffe (which in Washington means unintentionally telling the truth) about the House Benghazi Committee’s success in tarnishing Hillary Clinton. But the real reason is an inability to convince four dozen conservatives that they will be able to dictate terms.

These fights and controversies would have seemed astounding to Republican leaders 36 years ago when I first got here. One of the true impacts of the Reagan years is that (even though Reagan governed as a pragmatist) the political spectrum has absolutely moved. recently did a study showing that the most conservative Republicans from that era would be the most liberal now. We used to have a system in which there were some Democrats in Congress who were more conservative than some Republicans, and some Republicans who were more liberal than some Democrats. Frankly, in a system like ours, which is NOT a parliamentary system, that kind of overlap is absolutely essential to getting anything done. But what we now have is two parliamentary parties, with no overlap. The spectrum on the Republican side has moved to the right, but the spectrum on the Democratic side has moved left. The overall spectrum includes no real middle, at least the spectrum on which elections are fought. The question is whether the Republican base will allow their elected officials to get things done, or not. (The Democratic base is upset when things get done they don’t like, but they do allow things to get done.) And this includes issues like TPP which should be a slam dunk on the Republican side of the aisle but is now anything but.

Reading this so far you might think I am giving the Democrats a pass. After all, I’m one of them, I have a biography, which one can never outrun. But I am not, though I do think the lion’s share of the explanation for what has happened to our politics in the last 10-15 years lies with the dynamics on the right.

Hillary Clinton was supposed to waltz to the nomination, but there is a rumbling on the left flank of the Democratic Party among those who believe the Democrats should attempt to match what is happening on the Republican side, (the Democratic nominating process tilts heavily left). Or at the very least that Democrats are too cozy with business interests. Indeed, this last dynamic is a new one in American politics. It used to be accepted truth that Republicans were the party of business. But this new populist strain on the right is also anti-business – some of their candidates even run against groups like the Chamber of Commerce and institutions like the Export-Impact Bank. So now the business community is in danger of being “without a party,” though a Hillary Clinton win would be much better for them that would a win by some of the current Republican front runners.

So, now Mrs. Clinton is facing a much tougher than expected challenge from a 74 year old socialist who doesn’t seem to own a comb. (A Trump-Sanders race may force some barbers and hairstylists to commit suicide!). I think she will see this challenge off, though his message seems much more genuine to most people than does Mrs. Clinton’s. She seems too calculating to many folks, which is why the email controversy seems to stick to her. There was a political cartoon last week showing a Clinton advisor telling her it was now safe to take a stand on an important issue. The next frame shows her announcing her support for McDonalds’ decision to serve their breakfast menu all day. This is Mrs. Clinton’s biggest problem, indeed she lampooned herself on this recently on Saturday Night Live. Democrats seem to be looking for authenticity even more than ideological purity. They know Mrs. Clinton will get the nomination (barring any surprise revelations) but they are not yet comfortable. Hence the attention being placed on Vice President Biden and his intentions. [Editor’s note: Since this piece was written Vice President Biden has announced that he will not be seeking the nomination.]

The Economist recently ran a piece called “Neither Leading nor Ceding”. The point of the article is that in the current political environment the United States does not seem ready to lead, but also does not seem ready to cede leadership either. It uses one of my favorite quotes, from Averill Harriman after World War II when he said that all Americans wanted to do was go to a movie and have a Coke. They wanted to take a breather, to have nothing to do with the wider world. Yet that is also the era that produced probably the best, and most important, spurt of American global leadership in history from the Marshall Plan, to the establishment of NATO, to the founding of global economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The United States, as Churchill said, always does the right thing – after exhausting all other alternatives. But we always search for the right thing. And usually, eventually, find it.

When you listen to the political rhetoric from our side of the border – if you are brave enough to tune in – you may come away disappointed and concerned. Trust me, a lot of smart people down here come away the same way. But I am confident we will find our way, eventually. We will not build walls and start defining ourselves by who and what we are against. We will exhaust many other alternatives on the way. But when Hillary Clinton faces off against Marco Rubio next year (prediction alert), a sign of sanity will have returned. And we will have one of the most interesting presidential campaigns in generations.

Greg Principato

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