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Republicans Canít Lead Ė Power Shifts To The Center

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
By Gary D. Halbert
May 31, 2005

Republicans Can’t Lead – Power Shifts To The Center

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Democrats Take Filibuster To New Heights

2.  The Republicans Procrastinated & Lost

3.  What Really Motivated The “Gang Of 14”

4.  Criticisms From Both The Right & The Left

5.  The “Extraordinary Circumstances” Provision

6.  Political Ramifications Of The Compromise

Introduction

On Monday of last week, the Republicans flinched and the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster of President Bush’s judicial nominees was avoided.  In seclusion, the so-called “Gang of 14” (seven Republican senators and seven Democratic senators) hammered out a compromise agreement which ended the showdown.

As you have probably heard or read, there are those who believe the compromise was a great achievement, and plenty of praise is being heaped on the 14 senators who made it happen (including a great deal of grandiose self-praise).  Yet there are others, on both sides of the aisle, who are steaming hot over the compromise.  Many conservative Republicans wanted the nuclear option.  Many liberal Democrats wanted to hold firm.   More details below.

Whether you agree or disagree with the latest Senate compromise on judges, the battle over the filibuster has not gone away; it was only postponed, and probably not for long either.  If the Dems don’t revert to the filibuster even sooner, it will no doubt be an issue again when President Bush nominates his first Supreme Court justice, which could happen this summer.  That is, of course, unless Bush nominates someone slightly to the left of center (which I hope he will not do), and maybe even then.

In any event, the latest compromise has shifted the power in the Senate from the supposedly conservative Republicans to the center.  The Gang of 14, including mostly moderate and some liberal Reps and Dems, is now where the power lies.  See them if you want to get anything done now.   This has far-reaching political implications, especially for the 2008 presidential election.  John McCain is now clearly the Republican frontrunner, for better or worse.

Because the latest Senate judicial compromise is so important, and because it is being so misrepresented in the media, I want us to focus on it and understand what has really happened.  But before we jump in, I rest assured that I will get a flurry of e-mail responses, many of which will be negative (the Bush haters also hate me).  While I am not a member of any political party, and never have been, I am a conservative on most issues, just so you know that going in.

Democrats Take Filibuster To New Heights

The roots of the Democrats’ escalation of the judicial filibuster go all the way back to the 2000 presidential election.  Many Democrats believe that Bush’s presidency was illegitimate because he lost the popular vote to Al Gore in the election.  Along that same line, the Dems decided that Bush’s judicial appointees should be blocked whenever possible.  So they filibustered for all four years of Bush’s term, hoping that he would not be re-elected to a second term.

It should be noted that Republicans also delayed certain judicial nominees during Bill Clinton’s presidency.  But the point is, the Reps never used the filibuster for years on end to block Clinton’s nominees to the high courts.

Many political observers expected the Democrats to cease the filibuster of at least most of the president’s judicial nominees following Bush’s clear victory in the 2004 election.  But they didn’t.  This is what finally brought the Senate Republicans to the point of actually using the so-called nuclear option, which would reduce the vote to a mere majority (51 votes) from 60 votes to end a filibuster.

The Republicans Procrastinated

While the media wanted us to believe otherwise, the Republicans had the votes to pass the procedural change that would end the Democrat’s filibuster for at least two weeks prior to the Gang of 14’s secret compromise. At the minimum, the vote would have been 50-50, and in that case Vice President Cheney would have broken the tie in favor of the change.  End of filibuster.

But because Frist procrastinated, McCain was able to convince two senators that would have voted for the nuclear option to join the Gang, thus making seven Republicans along with the seven Democrats.  They disappeared in seclusion and hammered out the compromise.  We are led to believe that Frist had no idea what they were up to. 

On Monday of last week, just hours before Frist was to bring the so-called nuclear option to a vote, John McCain (R-AZ) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) unveiled the super-secret compromise to the surprise of almost everyone.

What Really Motivated The Gang Of 14

As noted above, the members of the Gang of 14 have been applauded roundly for their courage, commitment, vision and bipartisanship.  But was “saving the Senate” their real motivation to compromise, or could it really have been about saving themselves?  I say the latter!

I’m not the only political observer out there who believes that most of the senators in the Gang of 14 – including both Republicans and Democrats – simply did not want to have to cast very difficult, very public votes on the nuclear option.  So both sides compromised for the very purpose of heading off the vote to end the filibuster.  (What, you didn’t hear this in the media?)

In effect, what they did was split the baby on the most pressing nominees, giving three of the nominees an immediate vote, with possibly two more to follow, while rejecting two others on what seemed to be entirely arbitrary grounds.  That way, they not only avoided a public vote on the nuclear option AND both parties could then claim victory.  And now they are the darlings of Washington!  Yet in my opinion, they were just looking for cover and a way out of their individual “advise and consent” responsibilities.

Criticisms From Both The Right & The Left

Many conservatives are outraged that the Republicans squandered the chance to rid the Senate of the 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster.  I feel the same way.  Most conservatives were aware that the Republicans had the votes to pass the procedural change, and were excited about the prospects for getting Bush’s nominees confirmed in the near future.  Bill Frist is not the strong leader that the Republicans need. 

Many conservatives are also angry at President Bush for remaining largely silent as the nuclear option loomed closer.  Even worse, just after the compromise was announced, the White House released a statement saying it was pleased with the deal and praised the Gang of 14 for their efforts.  Many conservatives were outraged even more.  I don’t blame them.

On the Democratic side, there is similar outrage.  Obviously, many on the left feel that their senators should have forced the Republicans to take the ultimate step with the procedural change, so the use of the nuclear option would be a big issue in the 2006 mid-term elections, and maybe even in 2008.  

Many on the left are also angry that the first three judges to be confirmed under the new deal – Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owens and William Pryor – all have anti-abortion beliefs to some extent.  Judge Pryor once denounced Roe vs Wade as, “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”  And during his confirmation hearing, he didn’t back off of that characterization of Roe vs Wade.

However, as an appellate court judge, it will be Pryor’s job to apply precedent, not change it. His tenure as attorney general in Alabama gives ample evidence that he’s a careful lawyer who adheres to decisions even when he strongly disagrees with them. But he’s precisely the sort of judge that the activist left wants to keep off the bench.

The  “Extraordinary Circumstances” Provision

Some on the left believe the compromise eliminates their right to filibuster in the future because the agreement states that senators will not filibuster judicial nominees unless there are “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the nominee or in his/her past.  Yet the agreement offers no definition of what ‘extraordinary circumstances’ might be.  Very nice loophole, I’d say!

You can just imagine how many hours and days and weeks will be spent in the future arguing what is, or is not, an extraordinary circumstance surrounding judicial nominees.  And just to be fair, the Republicans could abuse this vague provision just as well in the future when a Democrat is in the White House.

One thing is for sure: future judicial nominees to the high courts will face increased scrutiny because Democratic senators will be digging harder and drilling deeper to find any possible dirt on nominees, precisely in the hopes of finding that extraordinary circumstance.  This will mean increased scrutiny and searches into their personal lives.

The downside is that some of the most qualified judges will not put their names in the hat because they do not want to put their families through such intense scrutiny.  Honestly, I wouldn’t blame them one bit.

Political Ramifications Of The Compromise

Because politics is the ultimate “zero-sum” game, John McCain’s lead role in brokering the compromise on judicial nominees makes him the big winner in this deal.  Well, sort of.  McCain has received a ton of media coverage due to the compromise.   Since most in the voting public will never understand that the compromise was actually just a way to avoid a difficult public vote, and shirk responsibility, McCain’s media frenzy will help him with Republican moderates and swing voters in his run for president in 2008.

It does not help him with conservative Republicans, however, who are outraged by the compromise.  But actually, few of these conservative Reps would have supported McCain in any event.  McCain had to know that when he made the decision to organize the Gang of 14.  So, on balance, McCain probably vaulted himself to the front of the pack for the Republican nomination in 2008, at least for now. 

McCain certainly lowered the value of Bill Frist’s stock at the same time, not only in terms of his bid for the White House, but also for control of the Senate.  As noted in the introduction, power in the Senate has shifted to the Gang of 14, and especially to McCain.  Word around Washington is that if you want to get something done in the Senate now, you go to McCain and the Gang.

There are some political observers who believe John McCain would be Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare were the two to become their party’s nominees in 2008.  McCain is conservative on certain core issues: anti-abortion, tax cuts, the military, the War On Terror, etc. 

But in many ways he is also the “anti-Republican” in that he votes like a liberal on certain other issues (spending, tax increases, immigration, etc.).   Let us not forget that John Kerry asked McCain to be his running mate in the 2004 election.  For these reasons, he will not get the support of conservative Republicans, but as discussed above, he wouldn’t have gotten their votes anyway.

McCain is clearly the media’s favorite Republican, so they will have trouble trashing him.  He is clearly a maverick (some would say a “whacko”), but McCain will play this up as an indication of his fierce independence. 

So for some, McCain is the strongest candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary in 2008, on the assumption that he has the better shot at garnering swing voters than Ms. Clinton.  I’m not so sure about that.   Personally, I’m not a fan of John McCain.  I’m also not sure if his bad temper and hotheadedness will allow him to win the Republican nomination.  Well see.

109th Congress & Second Term Are A Bust

Based on the polls, most Americans don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Congress. Expectations are low.  If so, then the current 109th Congress has met expectations.  Very little of substance has been accomplished. 

So far this year, Congress has managed only to pass a bankruptcy bill that has been pending for 10 years and a watered-down class-action lawsuit bill.  They have not addressed Social Security reform, health care reform, and energy bill or making Bush’s tax cuts permanent – all of which were big issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

You would think such hot button issues would be on the table, especially since the Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress.  But instead, the House has been focused on ethics charges against Tom DeLay, and the Senate has been mired in the filibuster debate.  In short, nothing of substance is happening.

The Democrats are playing the obstructionist game at every opportunity, even though they know this is a high-risk strategy after seeing the fate of former senator Tom Daschle.  Bit it’s the only game they know as the minority party.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are making it easy for the Dems to obstruct because the Reps lack the courage to take a stand and lead.

The Republicans are betting that the public will focus on the obstructionism by the Democrats and send more of them packing in the mid-term elections and in 2008.  Yet what the Republicans apparently don’t understand is that many conservatives (and others as well) are equally concerned that little is getting done even though the Reps are in charge.  Some of them could be packing their bags as well at the end of next year.

President Bush’s Scorecard Isn’t Much Better

President Bush’s record on getting things done in his second term isn’t stellar either.  In fact, some argue it’s been a bust so far.  In terms of his domestic agenda, almost all of his major initiatives are stalled.  Public support for Bush’s  “Ownership Society” is at an all-time low, and any political momentum Bush garnered in the general election is rapidly evaporating. Don’t forget that second term presidents only have an 18-24 month widow to roll out their “legacy agendas” before true lame duck status sets in and their party begins to look ahead to the next general election.

Bush campaigned and was reelected primarily on the issues of Social Security reform, making the first term tax cuts permanent, the elimination of the estate tax and the continuation of the War on Terror.  He also has the GOP in control of Congress, so we wonder why he hasn’t gotten anything done so far.

The failure lies in the execution of the strategy and an over-willingness to compromise principles on these key issues. The finger, or in this case fingers, of blame are easily pointed at Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and last but certainly not least, President Bush himself.

From day one, I knew we were in trouble when the first big issue raised was immigration. Not that immigration isn’t important, but we were led to believe that the first order of business was to make the tax cuts permanent. This was troubling enough, but the next step was roll out his plan to reform Social Security, complete with a national tour to tout it. 

The problem was that Bush had no specific plan for saving Social Security, but he was insistent that private accounts be a major part of whatever reforms were enacted.  Without any specifics, Bush left himself wide open to criticism and as usual, the media attacked private accounts as another “risky scheme.”

Public support for Social Security reform, and in particular private accounts, has plunged.  It looks like Bush will have to abandon Social Security reform, barring a near miracle.  I don’t know if anyone could have convinced the public and a majority of Congress to enact real Social Security reforms, but we won’t know anytime soon because the Bush administration’s strategy (i.e. – no details) was flawed. 

In my view, Karl Rove, Andy Card and others have dropped the ball in a big way.  They have failed to articulate a coherent second term domestic agenda and in doing so have created a perception (if not a reality) of confusion and even chaos in the administration.

Conclusions   

The Republicans blew an historic opportunity to eliminate the filibuster.  Some believe they wanted to preserve it for the day when the Democrats once again have the majority.  I choose to believe that they simply didn’t have the guts. 

The Gang of 14 was not about saving the Constitution; they simply didn’t want to go on the record with a very public vote for, or against, the nuclear option.  So the filibuster will be back. It’s just a question of how soon.

Power in Congress has shifted to the center with the Group of 14.  John McCain comes out the big winner because the media loves him and the public doesn’t know the real story.  But now you do, if you didn’t already. 

Very best regards,

Gary D. Halbert

 

SPECIAL ARTICLES

The McCain myth.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/bminiter/?id=110006757

Hillary looks into the future.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/30/AR2005053001004_pf.html

Bush vs Hillary in 2008?
http://www.nypost.com/postopinion/opedcolumnists/47405.htm


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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, Halbert Wealth Management, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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