Community Forum: Capitol Commentary 2020 already looms large

By Fred Benson


With most election night uncertainties resolved, Senate Republicans are celebrating their strengthened majority while House Democrats gleefully consider what they might do to undermine the Trump presidency through oversight hearings and a blue wave of subpoenas. Meanwhile, a flailing president continues his attacks on anyone he dislikes as he ignores — or ignites — the critical domestic and international firestorms facing the nation.

Most political analysts suggest that the election results will not bring significant change to rampant partisanship in our political establishment. That does not mean nothing will happen — just the opposite. We’re in for a rough ride even if the end result is little movement in the primary legislative agendas of either party.

A stronger Republican majority will make confirmation of judges and other senior administration officials less troublesome, and may pave a slightly easier route to retaining control of the Senate in 2020. But the addition of two new senators still leaves the GOP well short of the 60 votes necessary to pass controversial bills.

As much as voters are pleased to have campaign ads and robocalls out of their lives for a while, the 2020 election is high in every politician’s mind, including the several Democratic senators — and maybe a Republican or two — considering a run against Trump. The next election looms large in the U.S. Congress and in the minds of party activists throughout the country.

It is hard to imagine that Nancy Pelosi, if reelected Speaker, will be eager to forge agreements with newly elected House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or President Trump … or they with her.

The Speaker will also face a party passionately divided, with progressive members and their supporters encouraging an impeachment vote while moderates fear a backlash for doing so. Tension between those two wings of the Democratic Party will most likely affect healthcare and other priority legislative issues.

When the subpoena floodgates open, issues that have been simmering will dominate headlines and trigger a nonstop counterattack of presidential tweets. These include Trump’s tax returns; the questionable appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General; his personal ties to Putin; the family separation policy on the US border and Trump’s protection of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the CIA suspicion that the prince ordered the execution of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Where does the president fit in this picture? In spite of his recently stated interest in working collegially on legislation addressing criminal justice reform, infrastructure, and prescription drug pricing, it is doubtful that these hinted shifts are real. His open warfare with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his order to prepare federal troops to fire on those attempting to cross the border, and the sidestepping of his own administration’s frightening climate change forecast should serve to remind all that Trump will not deviate from his contentious governing style.

That certainty, coupled with low expectations for inter-party cooperation to begin with, further reinforces the expectation that little will be accomplished before the next election. Suspended over this landscape is the pending Mueller report. A few miscreants will go to jail, but Trump will be impeached only if there are actionable criminal charges serious enough to extricate Senate Republicans from their sycophantic bunkers. Unfortunately, that appears unlikely.

Also of deep concern to a majority of Americans is Trump’s apparent failure to understand and perform his duties as commander in chief of the United States military forces.

My esteemed colleague and friend of 30 years, retired Army General Wes Clark, said it best in a Washington Post article last week: “Trump’s blustering and combative diplomacy on Korea, cozying up with a potential adversary who has consistently worked to undermine the United States, and his pattern of insulting friends and disrupting allies are all deeply unsettling to the middle-grade and senior officers who plan and execute U.S. policy. They need steady, consistent, reliable leadership … In his campaign, Trump promised that only he knew how to lead America. In the field of national security the jury is still out.” (Used with writer’s permission.)

The 2018 election was historic in many ways, the most significant of which was the extremely high turnout due largely to voter dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional federal government. This lesson should not be lost on members of Congress. If they can’t – or won’t – discharge the responsibilities they were elected to perform, we need to send them home in 2020, accompanied by a president who has failed in every way measurable to build trust, respect, and confidence in his leadership at home and abroad.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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