Actually, things aren’t that bad in the House — yet

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 33-

This week:

  • What Ryan should demand in exchange for taking the speakership
  • Biden needs to hurry up
  • What’s behind Trump’s apparent continued lead?

Congress 2015

Speaker’s race: The media were full of hot takes after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., abruptly and unexpectedly dropped out of the race for Speaker.

Can the GOP still function as a party?

Um, yes. How many Americans do you suppose have even heard of Kevin McCarthy or could pick him out of a photo lineup? Five percent? His withdrawal, as surprising as it was (Dick Cheney had just announced the night before that he was endorsing McCarthy) has very few implications for the party. This might be chaos, but it’s a healthy, democratic chaos.

Yet the Republicans certainly do have a problem they must address goiing forward. It has little to do with McCarthy’s exit — which may or may not have had much to do with the state of play in the caucus, in any event. The continued problem is the lack of trust between the party leadership and the conservative wing, and the voters in the Republican base. They’ve heard so much of this limited government Reagan-era rhetoric, and what they see is a bunch of people intent on reauthorizing the Export-Import bank and returning to the higher levels of spending that preceded sequestration.

Even the decision to halt the closed-door caucus election upon McCarthy’s exit reflects an aspect of that distrust. After all, there were two candidates running, and if either of them had dropped out, the election still would have gone forward. Boehner wanted to leave the House in hands other than those of Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, or of  Dan Webster, R-Fla., the latter  being the choice of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

The clamor now — from Boehner, from conservatives, and from nearly everyone else is to get Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to run for Speaker. So far, at least, Ryan has had other ideas.

In The Republic, Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth the following explanation of what motivates good men to rule:

[T]he good are not willing to rule either for the sake of money or of honor….But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse, if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do…as a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves.

Ryan has been very reluctant to take the Speaker’s gavel. Not in the usual sense of the politician who feigns reluctance in order to seem endearing, but in the very sincere sense that he doesn’t want the job at all.

If Ryan does choose to place himself in the running, this very fear of suffering under an inferior leader might be what motivates him. That, or the attempts by nearly everyone (including his old running mate, Mitt Romney) to persuade him.

For his own part, he genuinely seems to prefer the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Nearly every House Republican has other ideas. Ryan is perceived to be the perfect consensus Speaker, even if he isn’t part of the consensus. (Based on a literal reading of the rules of the House Republican Conference, there is no requirement that he consent to his own nomination, although he could refuse to serve if elected.)

Ryan commands respect from enough conservatives and from the party’s establishment wing that everyone wants him to step up. But his dream all along has been to be the chairman who finally gets tax reform through the House. Others’ ambitions for him seem to put that dream at risk.

Should he do it, from his own self-interested perspective? Probably not, under the current conditions. If he does, it will be a real sacrifice on his part, and he risks becoming a political human sacrifice within the first few months. The fact that some conservatives (although not most House conservatives) are already denouncing him as an establishment moderate is evidence enough of that. This is Paul Ryan we’re talking about — the young congressman who, starting from zero support, convinced House leadership to pass a budget that included an entitlement reform plan.

The job of Speaker is currently as thankless as it ever has been. Party discipline is non-existent on the Republican side, which means the next Speaker will be in an impossible position from Day One. About one-fifth of his (or her) caucus will be demanding a government shutdown for one symbolic vote or another. About one-fifth will be working with Democrats to surrender the small conservative gains of the Boehner era, such as the sequestration-level spending and the expiration of the Export-Import bank (42 Republicans signed a discharge petition this month to that end).

In both cases, that’s enough votes at each end of the 247-member caucus to undermine whomever holds the Speaker’s gavel in the coming months. Moreover, in the midst of dealing with this double-headed threat, the new Speaker will be expected to play the important role of top House fundraiser and architect of the agenda that helps the caucus maintain its majority in 2016.

The only way for Ryan (or any other Speaker) to avert disaster is to demand, as a condition of taking the post, that Republicans reach a consensus about the set of goals they want to pursue during the remainder of the Obama presidency. It will have to be a short list, and a list that doesn’t please everyone, but it has to be a list they can all reluctantly accept. Ryan is one candidate for Speaker who is universally wanted, such that he would have leverage to demand concessions from everyone. As someone who genuinely doesn’t want the job, he has the unusual luxury of threatening not to take it unless it’s on his terms. He would be very unwise to take it without doing so.

As we have noted here in the past, what Congress does this year is largely symbolic and unimportant. No grand plans can be passed into law.

But no matter how it seems now, the emergence of a rebellious conservative wing since 2011 will ultimately be a positive thing for the GOP. Conservatives have finally acquired a counterweight to the small moderate GOP segment that once dictated the agenda in both houses of Congress by holding the margin that gave the party its majorities in the Bush era.

The problem for conservatives is that they have to be a lot more patient than they seem willing so far. Their newly acquired clout won’t be terribly useful until there’s a Republican president for them to keep in line. That’s when they gain credibility and start making demands that might actually amount to something.

Conservatives missed the boat when Obama was reelected in 2012. But if they find themselves in a unified party government situation in 2017, they can grab their longstanding legislative agenda off the shelf and start making demands and passing bills that will matter.

President 2016

Hillary_Rodham_Clinton_at_Center_for_Global_DevelopmentHillary Clinton: According to the new CBS News poll, Clinton remains the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, at least on a national level. In a head-to-head, she leads Bernie Sanders, 56 to 32 percent. In a three-way race, she leads Sanders and Joe Biden, with each receiving 48, 27, and 16 percent respectively.

Yet at the same time, her favorables among the broader electorate are in terrible shape — much worse than they were eight years ago. In mid-October 2007, her fav/unfav was positive at 43/41. Today, she’s at an astounding 33/53 — twenty points underwater.

This week, it was reported that Clinton burned a CIA asset in Libya. Democrats have been having their fun watching the unelectable Donald Trump dominate the GOP race, but it seems they might have an even worse problem.

Joe Biden 2Joe Biden: If they can somehow shake off Clinton, this leaves Biden as the Democrats’ great hope. The CBS poll suggests he wouldn’t start off in a great position at just 16 percent among Democrats, but perhaps that will change.

At least for now, Bernie Sanders seems to be sucking up most of the oxygen in the anti-Hillary Democratic space, and he’ll have still another chance to show her up (perhaps over her newfound and transparently opportunistic opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal) in this week’s Democratic debate.

Ryan Lizza broke the news in the New Yorker that staffers for Vice President Joe Biden have met with DNC staff about what a presidential run would involve — a service the DNC reportedly provides to all potential Democratic candidates. That might sound like it means he’s running for sure. And he probably is. But this graf also really jumps out:

The D.N.C. source, who was briefed on the meeting, said that the information conveyed seemed eye-opening for Biden’s aides. “They probably thought they had a lot longer,” the source said. “The deadlines for qualifying on the ballots for key states haven’t passed yet, but are fast approaching.”

What are those filing deadlines? The earliest one is Arkansas on Nov. 9, and several other states follow closely. The deadline for Texas — a delegate-rich state — is Dec. 14. In some states, ballot access is relatively easy (like New Hampshire, where there’s a simple $1,000 filing fee). In others, a complex signature-gathering operation might be required. And of course, there’s a lot more to it than just getting on the ballot — you need a team in place if you want to win.

As we’ve noted here several times before, this is a very late date to start assembling a presidential campaign. Biden has more wiggle-room than the average candidate because he isn’t starting from scratch. President Obama’s donors will back him if he runs, and in fact there’s already a SuperPAC there, aspiring to run obnoxious ads about his personal tragedies (Biden asked them to stop) on his behalf.

But the last time a presidential candidate joined the race in October of the off-year and went on to be president, it was Bill Clinton. He jumped into a 1992 field that didn’t contain a clear frontrunner or really anyone terribly formidable who would be analogous to his wife in this year’s contest.

What’s more, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s presence in that race made the contest in Iowa meaningless. That effectively gave Clinton one extra week before meaningful contests began. And the caucuses that year were an additional week later than they will be in 2016, so make that two weeks. Assuming he would succeed and become president, Biden is near the point of being the latest announced successful candidate in history.

Which is just to say, if Biden really wants to run, he’d better hurry up.

Donald Trump: Yes, he leads the polls, but which ones?

Here is the average of all recent polls:


Here is the average of non-Internet polls.


Here is the average of non-Internet polls of likely and registered voters (not just “adults”):

CaptureThis is a short way of pointing out that Trump’s nominal lead seems to depend suspiciously upon the least reliable forms of polling — the kind that include low-propensity voters and use untested methods. The more traditional and historically reliable (although still certainly imperfect) kinds of polls point to a sharp and sustained Trump drop-off right after the second GOP debate — and perhaps also to a Rubio surge behind Ben Carson’s rise.

At the same time, note that Jeb Bush does better in the low-reliability polls as well.

Again, the smart money is on Rubio, although we are not the gambling types.

Senate 2016

New Hampshire NewsNew Hampshire: The recruitment of Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, to run against Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R, represents a real coup for Democrats. It puts another race on the table, in addition to Florida (open), Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and (just barely) Pennsylvania. That puts Democrats in a position where a Senate takeover is very much on the cards, even if it can’t be considered likely at this point.