Friday, April 20, 2018

Paul Ryan, the short-distance runner

IT HAD BEEN going so well, or, at least as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The Washington Post reported recently how, days earlier, political advisers to Rep. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives “announced he had already raised $54 million over the last 15 months, $40 million of which was directed to ... GOP campaigns through the National Republican Congressional Committee.”

The speaker’s reputation as a top-tier fundraiser was soaring, even if his cred as herder of fractious cats — leader of the Republican caucus — was under fire and his ability to navigate the turbulence of the Trump White House was always in question.

But then he went and spoiled it all by saying something shocking like “I’m outta here.”

Ryan, who replaced John Boehner in 2015, announced April 11 that he would not seek re-election to either his leadership role or his congressional seat. His reasoning is as understandable as it is commonplace in today’s Congress: Ryan, the father of three children, said he wants to spend more time with the family, a rationale for retirement lately invoked by everyone from Orrin Hatch to, well, whoever drops out next.

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“This was really about two things,” Ryan added. “I accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids are not getting any younger. And if I stay, my kids are only going to know me as a weekend dad and that is something I cannot do. That is really it right there.”

Since then, Ryan has been circling the wagons in his own camp, doing what he can, maybe whatever he can, to husband his powers as a short-timer that everyone knows is a short-timer.

And the House itself is still in a wait-and-see mode. When Ryan’s bombshell dropped, House members went into hair-on-fire mode contemplating a successor. Today? Not quite so much. Last week’s slam-dunks to succeed Ryan may not be such a sure thing after all. In short: it’s business as usual in Washington.

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WITH RYAN set to exit the scene, we can start the protracted farewell to one of the more reliable (and reliably ham-fisted) shapeshifters in modern Washington politics. Ryan has been an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late New York Republican whose political equipoise — balancing centrist social policy, “big-tent” party aspirations, and conservative economic principles — would be mighty damn refreshing on Capitol Hill today.

But Ryan the student fell a long way from Kemp the teacher. Since he assumed the speakership in October 2015, Ryan has practiced a sometimes clumsy situational politics, hitting just the right optic tone in moments of social crisis — the NFL protests, Charlottesville — but failing to follow through when it otherwise counted. Like in photo-ops with, and political support of, a president whose naked bigotry and dogwhistles to white supremacy have gone a long way to polarizing this nation.

The pending exit of the speaker, amid the woofers and tweeters loose in the nation’s capital, endangers the Republican House majority in some important ways. First, it compromises, at least in the short term, the fundraising that Ryan did superbly well. His ability to grow money for the GOP was the result of relationships cultivated over time, relationships that won’t be easily or immediately transferable to his successor.

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Second, Ryan’s walkaway is an optical disaster for the GOP, sending the signal that the despair disease infecting numerous Republicans earlier in the year has now been contracted by the Speaker of the House. The incumbency factor Republicans have employed to great effect in solidifying GOP objectives, identity and majorities in both houses of Congress has been nullified, thanks to this wave of Republican resignations — of which Ryan’s is among the latest.

It keeps getting worse: The day after Ryan announced, Florida Rep. Dennis Ross said he wouldn’t seek re-election either. On April 17, moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, already planning to retire at ear’s end, announced plans to hang ‘em up “in the coming weeks,” presumably by the end of April.

John Bresnahan of Politico observed in an April 12 podcast: “The message, the image it gives — ‘the Speaker is leaving, why should anybody vote Republican?’ The Democrats are already spinning this. ... How can he lead them if he’s leaving? ... I think Ryan has a big problem.”

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FOR HIS part, Ryan is in a mindset to soldier on. “I want be clear here,” he told reporters on April 11. “I’m not done yet. I’m going to run through the tape.”

Maybe. Ryan’s professionally reflexive desire to Finish The Job may be — will be — complicated by a desire among some in the GOP House majority to show Ryan the door sooner rather than later, as a strong signal of continuity to the base, an announcement of an intent to start fresh with a new speaker before the predictable headwinds of November. The thinking: Better to deal with this now and all at once than to endure the longish goodbye of Speaker Paul Ryan for another eight months.

Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei said as much to The Post, when he called for advancing the timetable for the leadership elections. “No disrespect to Paul,” he said, “but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election.”

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Rep. Peter T. King begs to differ. The reliably combative New York Republican wants to let Ryan ride it out. “Depending on how the elections come out, we can see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and that can determine who should be the speaker,” King said to The Post. “There will be some maneuvering behind the scenes, but we don’t need a public campaign right now.”

But the operative phrase in that whole passage is “[d]epending on how the elections come out.” It’s conditional by definition, an endorsement of a roll of the dice that everything’s gonna come out all right in the end, maybe. A lot depends on the willingness of the Republican caucus to get behind that idea.

It’s not as if there aren’t people already waiting in the wings. Ryan’s announcement had barely hit the interwebs before the names of possible successors emerged.

On the short list: California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who bid for the speakership in 2015, and who is now championed by Ryan himself; and Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip whose survival of and triumph over gunshot wounds suffered in a 2015 incident in Washington, make for a compelling personal comeback narrative that could be emotionally galvanizing for a House majority on the ropes, if not on the rocks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

4/4/68: What was taken and what remains (republished)

Fifty years ago today was one of the most pivotal days in the history of black America, and just another day in black America. The fact that the same date could occupy two spaces, accommodate those two realities at once is some kind of testament to the power of African American identity against the backdrop of the nation as a whole. The essay below was first published April 5, 2013, just after the 45th anniversary of his assassination. I'm bringing it back today, five years later, fully aware of its ironies -- and fully believing in its necessity -- in the time of House Trump. — MER
FORTY-FIVE years ago, a skinny, rusty-butt African American boy left school and came home to find the lights down and his mother crying. His brothers, both of whom were younger than he was, were absent, somewhere else in the house that seemed larger than before. But his mother’s tears jarred and frightened him. He hadn’t seen that for a while. At least three years. Or four.

His father emerged from one of the rooms, his eyes bearing the rheumy sheen of someone who’d been crying too. Pops had just retired from the army the year before, after 22 years in, and he was no pushover, no lightweight. So to find him in the same condition as his mother filled the kid with alarm. Something big must have happened.

His mother, finally regaining her self-control, wiped the tears from her face long enough to get maternal again. She stepped to her son, the oldest of three, and spoke softly.

“You boys don’t go to school tomorrow.”

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It goes without saying that when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis this date in 1968, the nation lost its most populist moral compass, and African Americans lost their distilling messenger, the one who, since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, articulated and defended the aspirations of black America in every precinct of the national life.

In the years since, the social and political advances this country’s made have rightly been viewed against the metric of King’s own aspirations for his nation — measured against the particulars of the “I Have a Dream” speech that's part of the double helix of the spiritual DNA of our modern United States.

From the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, from the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009, to the still-emerging legislative evolution on marriage equality, our nation’s leaps or lurches toward social justice and personal freedom have used King’s vision as a benchmark.

'It Is Still 1968: 50 years after, the struggle continues (Mother Jones)

What remains of King’s “dream” is more than the grainy newsreel footage of the man speaking truth to power at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s percolated heartily into the bedrock of reality. In the last 45 years, African Americans have achieved pinnacles of leadership in the worlds of entertainment and the media — taken summits whose importance isn’t defined by mainstream America, but on its own terms, sufficient unto itself. They’ve seen America elect its first African American president, a signal event King would have praised with tears in his eyes.

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BUT THERE’S more work to do. What also remains is the persistence of old inequities, imbalances of race, culture and class. We’ve only to look at the protest today by about 400 workers at several different fast-food restaurants in New York City — a protest sparked by people who’ve had enough of minimum wage, everyday people pushing back against the same economic injustice that King made his last mission.

We only have to consider the fact that the Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of his career, is thought to be targeted for dismantling by conservatives in Congress and, quite possibly, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said in 1965, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an 19th-century abolitionist whom King admired. And what was true in Parker’s distant day and in King’s more immediate lifetime is a fact today. But that arc doesn’t bend all by itself.

What we lost 45 years ago was irreplaceable; what’s left 45 years later is inescapable: It’s left to us to further the “Dream” and make it both closer to reality and more of a reality than it already is. It’s up to us to be the weight that makes that arc bend.

Image credits: Detail from King statue, Washington: BBC News. Times Square fast-food worker protest: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.
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