Tom Fina's Letter from Washington

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON 
To Democrats Abroad
26 December  2015
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus
 
The year closes, and the new year approaches,  both with a surprising mix of good and bad political news.
 
The re-opening of relations with Cuba, the multi-national nuclear deal with Iran, the world-wide Paris agreement to combat climate change, the unanimous UN Security Council agreement on a road map for a cease fire and democratic elections in Syria were all successes  driven by Obama and all fought by the Republican Congress. 
 
Even more surprising, and unexpected, Obama and the Republican Congress hammered out compromise legislation unblocking a Republican logjam of necessary government action. The biggest deal was the 2016 budget allocating almost $4 trillion in a 2000 page bill that included almost countless good measures and probably as many bad. The items are emerging only slowly as the press teases them out. Among them was a long needed increase in the budget for the NIH which has languished for more than a decade. The budget bill had two overarching benefits: it avoided a government shutdown and Democrats combed out literally hundreds of ideological Republican riders.  But, there was more! The long stalled five year $305 billion transportation infrastructure bill was enacted opening the way for work on our failing transportation infrastructure. That’s good. But, the Congress lacked the guts to raise the gasoline tax from its 1993 level, while gasoline at the pump has dropped almost 50%, to pay the bill. That’s bad. There was also adjustment of the No Child Left Behind legislation, re-authorization of the Ex-Im Bank and, despite Democratic opposition, approval of fast track legislation to clear the way for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) reciprocal trade agreement.
 
The legislative accomplishments were possible because the Establishment Republican leaders in the Senate (McConnell) and in the House (Ryan) were able to get the support of enough of their Republican members to accept Democratic votes to enact compromise legislation. And that was the product of months of behind the scenes negotiation among Republicans in both houses, between the Republican Senate and the Republican House, between the White House and both Democrats and Republicans in both houses. Obama, McConnell, Ryan, Reid and Pelosi all applauded the compromises as essential to democratic government.
 
That embrace of compromise was singularly absent from the Republican competition for the presidential nomination. The front runners have leap-frogged each other in condemning not only their own national committee but also the Establishment Republicans in the Congress. 
 
Thus far, the Republican presidential candidates have been running a Chicken Little campaign. They have been nastily competing with each other to show that the sky is falling because Obama and Hillary refuse, and is incompetent, to hold it up. Muslim terrorism, immigrant invasion, taking our guns, imposing job killing healthcare, selling baby parts, caving in to Communist Cuba, authorizing Iranian nuclear weapons, killing jobs with government over-reach to combat fraudulent claims of climate change. For the Republican front runners, foreign threats, military weakness, failed homeland security, the abandonment of traditional values (read same-sex marriage, gays in the armed services), the need for NSA surveillance are all the fault of Obama (of uncertain birth and religion) with the connivance of Establishment Republicans. Lincoln’s “better angels” are not hovering over this platform!
 
Those Establishment Republicans controlling the Senate and House march to a different drummer. McConnell and Ryan distance themselves from the extremists. Ryan repudiated Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. McConnell called for nominating Republicans for the White House and Senate who are ”electable” - unlike bomb throwing Trump, Cruz and Carson and 2014 Tea Party candidates for the Senate.
 
The Democratic side is very different. Despite media efforts to tease out significant conflict among Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley, they have been very respectful of each other and are pretty largely aligned on the issues. Sanders and O’Malley do claim that the Democratic National Committee is helping front runner Clinton. But, like Congressional Democrats, they see this election as about strengthening the middle class, reducing gun violence, protecting women’s choice, regulating campaign money, closing the income gap, raising the minimum wage, reining in Wall Street excesses, expanding educational opportunity, protecting the environment. Their approach to eliminating ISIL is ending the civil war in Syria. Clinton insists Assad must go before that can happen and that the  UN roadmap Resolution is the way to get there. Sanders and O’Malley think the priority is getting Muslims to fight ISIL and oppose a no-fly zone proposed by Clinton. All are far from the bombing to extinction approach of their Republican counterparts.
 
There are hints that even in the approaching election year, Obama and the Congress have a fair chance to enact reform of the criminal justice system and maybe some kind of tax reform. Obama insists that he will get Guantanamo closed, preferably with Congressional cooperation or, faute de mieux, by Executive decision.
 
The nomination debates resume with Republicans on 14 January and Democrats three days later. The first primaries will be in Iowa for both parties on February 1 and in New Hampshire eight days later.
 
Those two state primary elections will pretty much re-set the presidential campaign for both parties. They are the test that moderate Republicans hope and pundits expect will save that party from nominating Trump. But, his loss may well be Cruz’s gain.
 
The bottom line is that the President and Congress accomplished more in 2015 than expected, reviving hope that our constitutional government can work. And, the November 2016 election is shaping up to be a choice between Republican revival of the  Know Nothings, the Red Scare and McCarthyism and Democratic continuation of the New Deal.