Friday News Roundup — September 5, 2019

On Westminster, Washington, and Institutions vs. Populism; A Grand Old Exodus; Plus News You May Have Missed

Greetings and happy Friday from Washington, D.C. It’s been a short, but jam-packed, week following Labor Day, and, while we’re all sad to see summer depart, the annual pumpkin spice proliferation heralds the return of autumn.

As Hurricane Dorian continues its slow movement up the East Coast, we’re hoping and praying for the safety of those in the Carolinas, as well as for all of those suffering from the devastation in the Bahamas and the first responders and aid workers now undertaking rescue, relief, and recovery operations. If you would like to help the Bahamian people, this helpful list of reputable charities is a good starting point.

On the CSPC front, we are pleased to announce the publication of the 2018–2019 Fellows Review. This anthology is a product of the Presidential Fellows program, which CSPC started in 1950 to develop the next generation of public service leaders. Over the course of an academic year, the best and brightest students from colleges across the United States and around the world conduct research on the Presidency and Congress as part of this non-resident Fellowship. The Fellows Review is a collection of the best work presented by this year’s class. We invite you to explore their work and learn something new or gain deeper insights into subjects you are already following.

In this week’s roundup, Dan — still smarting after the Bears’ performance last night — looks at what the events in Westminster, Rome, and Washington, and tell us about how our shared political institutions are dealing with populism. Chris looks at the latest wave of GOP retirements in Congress and what that presages for 2020. As always, we wrap with stories you may have missed.

The Institutional Response to Populism

Dan Mahaffee

It’s Withstood Far Worse (Photo Credit: Mike Gimelfarb, Wikimedia Commons)

In some of the feedback I received about last week’s roundup, the most consistent theme I observed was the sense of just how dire the state of politics in the G-7 countries appears. As I noted, no leader was immune from the pressures of political populism and economic uncertainty roiling western democracies — all at a time when there is an intensifying geopolitical, economic, and technological competition between democracies and authoritarian regimes and a range of other global crises.

A key aspect of the turmoil that we have seen in western politics is the pressure that populist political movements — and the leaders they elect — place on our institutions of governance. This pressure follows a familiar pattern. First, a range of factors — political, economic, and, increasingly, cultural — drive populist movements to challenge existing institutions. The challenged institutions are decried as outdated, “controlled by elites,” or even “rigged,” and these denunciations are then echoed by populist leaders and partisan media. Then, as populists ignore how our political institutions are designed to deliver legitimate political outcomes, they direct the blame towards institutions and “the establishment,” rather than their own failure to govern.

As disheartening as this trend can seem — especially to those who are institutionalists — recent events have shown that institutions have the ability to push back. First, we have the example of the latest developments in one of the greatest comedies to come out of Britain: Brexit. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved last week to prorogue parliament — basically putting it into recess until just before the Brexit deadline — it was originally seen as a move to out-maneuver his parliamentary opponents and put pressure on Brussels to avoid a no deal. However, that maneuver has spectacularly backfired, as 21 Tories bucked the government so that parliament could require the Prime Minister to seek a delay to Brexit rather than a no-deal. Now, the path forward is still unclear, but it looks increasingly likely that Britons will once again return to the polls, as a snap election looms.

Similarly, there is the example of last week’s events in Italy, where the leader of the populist and Eurosceptic Liga Nord Party, Matteo Salvini, the then-deputy Prime Minister, sought to force elections by bringing down the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Salvini — known for his strong anti-immigration stance — likely thought that such an election, combined with concerns about migration from Africa, could deliver him the Prime Ministerial post. However, rather than forcing an election, Salvini was outmaneuvered by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. In the Italian constitution, the president has the pseudo-monarchical role of appointing the Prime Minister to form a government, so, rather than calling the election, President Mattarella asked Conte to form a new government with Salvini in the opposition rather than the cabinet.

As Max Fisher notes in The New York Times, Prime Minister Johnson’s maneuver was one of “constitutional hardball…a hallmark of the populist era.” In the cases in London and Rome, Johnson and Salvini directly, albeit legally, challenged their nations’ institutions, and the institutions pushed back.

A similar challenge looms in the United States. On Wednesday, the Department of Defense announced the first reallocation, worth $3.6 billion, of funds for construction of a wall on the southern border. These funds — taken from programs ranging from maintenance for West Point to continuing reconstruction efforts from last year’s hurricanes — are being reallocated as part of the February emergency declaration announced by President Trump following the 2018–19 government shutdown. This maneuver is yet another example of “constitutional hardball,” as the White House is directly challenging the constitutional prerogative of the power of the purse through legal powers that it has related to national emergencies. While challenges to this emergency declaration are pending in the courts, Congressional opposition to the administration’s actions has tended to fall on partisan, rather than institutional, lines. In March, a dozen Senate Republicans crossed the aisle to condemn the emergency declaration — though this was not enough to override a presidential veto — and Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee introduced legislation to limit presidential emergency powers.

Obviously, the constitutional dynamics of the British and Italian systems are very different from the U.S. system, but the United States now faces a similar constitutional showdown that will likely be resolved by the Supreme Court, as the prospects for a GOP rebellion on the scale of Tories’ is remote.

However, the tension between populism and institutions will remain. Our politics has changed such that our political parties and identification with them seem bound in cultural identity as much as philosophies regarding the size and role of government. Such tribalization fuels, as Mr. Fisher notes in the Times, these institutional showdowns:

Constitutional hardball…is encouraged by political polarization, which leads supporters of one party to see their opponents as so dangerous that stopping them is more important than safeguarding democratic norms. It is favored by populist leaders who see strong-handed rule and smashing the system as upsides in their own right.

But it can be dangerous. It forces opposition parties to either fight back in kind, risking a tit-for-tat cycle that has led democracies to erode or collapse outright, or to show restraint at the cost of accepting a potentially permanent disadvantage.

The urgent challenges we face cannot be solved via “yes-no” referenda, shouting matches in the streets, or political stunts — nor will they be solved if we fail to understand that our institutions are designed to function only when building consensus, rather than entrenching partisanship. Even with their limitations, these institutions remain the best avenue for achieving long-term political solutions. Populism may provide the body politic with a quick fix for its anxieties, but it cannot deliver the consensus required to turn anyone’s proposals—prudent or pablum—into policy. If our institutions do need to change, look to efforts to defend, reform, and rebuild them, rather than destroy them — for they are needed more than ever.

GOP Retirements Complicate 2020

Chris Condon

Rep. Will Hurd speaks on DACA (Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Wednesday night, long time GOP Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner became the 13th House Republican to announce his retirement ahead of the 2020 election. As one of the longest-serving members in Congress, it is not necessarily a surprise that the septuagenarian congressman has decided to exit such a fractious political environment. Considered alongside larger political trends, however, it could spell trouble for the Party in the coming year. Many of Rep. Sensenbrenner’s retiring colleagues are fairly young and moderate, which has allowed some of them to hold on to swing districts. In other cases, retirements of representatives from safe Republican districts may indicate a larger dissatisfaction with the direction of the Party.

For this analysis, I have split the 13 retiring GOP members into four categories: seasoned members in swing districts, younger members in safe districts, seasoned members in safe districts, and younger members in swing districts. The first is the smallest; Kenny Marchant is one of the five Republican members from Texas alone that have announced retirement. He won reelection in 2018 by only 3%, and without the incumbency advantage, it may be an uphill battle for the GOP candidate to replace him. This is compounded by demographic changes that have been shifting Texas toward swing-state status in the past few cycles.

Martha Roby and Paul Mitchell are both relatively young members who are retiring from safe GOP districts. At 43, Rep. Roby has been a reliable conservative vote in the House during her tenure, but pundits have speculated that the friction between her and the president has frustrated her. She has also expressed frustration with the vitriol in Washington, but says the reason for her departure is entirely personal. Paul Mitchell is brand new in governmental terms; first elected in 2016, he decided after only three years that the House was not a good environment for him. However, he did win reelection by 25% in 2018, which leaves a very safe seat for the Republican candidate to replace him.

Seasoned representatives retiring from safe districts make up a large chunk of the retirees. This is also perhaps the most conventional group, members that are 65 and older hoping to retreat from public life to spend time with family or for other personal reasons. After long careers in the House, people such as Rob Bishop (R-UT), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and John Shimkus (R-IL) are leaving safe districts simply because it’s time. Perhaps the reason is the same for Mike Conaway and Bill Flores, but as Texas Republicans, their departure could be a harbinger of a purple Texas.

The other large group, and perhaps most worrisome to Republican leadership, is young members in swing districts. The most famous of these retirements in Will Hurd, who has built a reputation as a bipartisan moderate willing to work with Democrats on border policy. Since he represents a border district in Texas, perhaps it is the administration’s hard-line stance on immigration that has convinced him to retire. As the only black Republican in the House, his departure will be a blow to the diversity of the party as well. Susan Brooks (R-IN) just entered the House in 2013; she leaves a suburban Indiana district which is the second reddest in this group, but its suburban nature may make it a target for Democrats.

Sean Duffy (R-WI) leaves a strong Trump district, but many voters there voted Obama-Biden before switching to the president and may be tempted to switch back if a moderate candidate clinches the Democratic nomination. Pete Olson is yet another Texas member to leave his district, but he won his reelection in 2018 by less than 5 points. This might make his district another target for the DCCC. Finally, Rob Woodall was first elected in 2010 in the suburbs of Atlanta. Over time, this area has become increasingly Democratic as demographics shift and suburban voters react to President Trump. In 2018, Woodall won his race by only 0.2%, making his district especially vulnerable without the incumbency advantage.

Retirements are a part of every election cycle. Once in a while, an older representative may need to retire from a swing seat jeopardizing their party’s chances there. This cycle, like in 2018, a large number of members of all ages and in all types of districts are retiring at once. Democrats made massive gains in the 2018 midterms and flipped the House. If early general election polls are correct, President Trump will not be able to carry Republican newcomers in vulnerable districts, which may lead to another large Democratic gain in the lower chamber. If President Trump is able to outperform polls as he did in 2016, congressional Republicans may be able to hope for a stronger performance in these districts. However, such a mass retirement may be a sign of a larger dissatisfaction among GOP politicians with the direction of the party, which will likely create a battle among factions in the coming years. Regardless, Republican leaders should not get comfortable.

News You May Have Missed

President Xi Jinping Speaks of Looming “Decades-Long Struggle”

Speaking to Communist Party cadres, Chinese President Xi Jinping extolled them to prepare for a “decades-long struggle” to “achieve the ‘Chinese Dream’ of national rejuvenation.” While not mentioning the United States, or any of the trade tensions, President Xi referenced the upcoming 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China to encourage party leaders to achieve Chinese “national greatness” by the 100th anniversary in 2049. Repeatedly using the term “dòuzhēng, 斗争”—which can also refer to combat or a battle—President Xi’s remarks reflect the growing siege mentality in Beijing, where hardliners routinely cite China’s past “centuries of humiliation” as the model for western antagonists seeking to halt China’s rise.

Suspect in Berlin Murder of Chechen Dissident Linked to Russian Security Services

Last week, German authorities arrested Vadim Andreevich Sokolov for the execution-style murder of Chechen dissident Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. Khangoshvili had fought against the Russian military during the early 2000’s Second Chechen War, and was murdered just before noon in a Berlin park on August 23rd. Sokolov was arrested after he was seen dumping a bicycle and gun into the Spree River. In a new development, investigative journalists from Der Spiegel, Bellingcat, and The Insider have linked Sokolov’s passport number to a tranche of passport serial numbers issued to the Russian military’s GRU intelligence service. These investigators discovered the passport number sequencing — and linkage to the GRU — when previously investigating the Russian agents identified in the attempted poisoning of retired Russian military agent, and former British intelligence asset, Sergei Skripal.

European Regulators Will Not Accept FAA Findings on 737 MAX Safety

Following the scandal over the process undertaken by Boeing and the FAA to certify the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX and its fatally-flawed Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), European regulators have announced that they will not defer to the findings of the FAA on modifications designed to address the flaws responsible for the crashes of Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian Airlines 302. Therefore, the Boeing model will require additional and independent review by European regulators before returning to service in airspace subject to their jurisdiction.

Walmart to Halt Ammunition Sales, Call for Stricter Background Checks

Walmart will discontinue sales of multiple types of popular rifle ammunition and all types of handgun ammunition after a recent string of mass shootings. The chain will also completely discontinue handgun sales entirely, although the only state in which Walmart still sells the weapons is Alaska. Stores will also ask that customers other than law enforcement officers do not openly carry weapons in stores in states where the practice is permitted. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon waded into the gun debate in announcing the move, saying that: “We’ve also been listening to a lot of people inside and outside our company as we think about the role we can play in helping to make the country safer. It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable.” He also called for Congress to enact universal background check legislation.

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