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A Government Relations Overview: Postmortem

- January 2017

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

If anyone had predicted a year ago that a billionaire reality TV show star would breeze past current and former governors, senators, a businesswoman – even a pediatric neurosurgeon – to secure the GOP nomination for president of the United States, they would have been thought to have lost their mind.

On the other hand, everyone predicted that former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Clinton would secure the Democratic nomination – but who knew that a 75-year-old, curmudgeonly self-avowed socialist would give her a serious run for her money for that nomination?

Throughout the general election campaign, political pundits universally predicted a big Clinton win. News media experts stood in front of maps of the U.S., predicting an Electoral College sweep for Clinton, saying that “Donald Trump’s only path to victory is . . .” But in the wee small hours of the morning on November 9th, those still awake and watching election returns stared open-mouthed at their televisions when those same experts stood in front of those same Electoral College maps, clearly stunned themselves, saying “Secretary Clinton’s only path to victory is . . .”

If it’s true that the past is prologue, it’s important that we – not just leaders of the political parties, but the business community as well – understand what happened.

A disgruntled electorate:

It became almost a cliché in the campaign that the American electorate was angry, almost as if that anger itself explained everything. But that cliché missed the far more important question: WHY were the voters angry? A few quotes from focus groups may provide some answers:

The separation between haves & have-nots has gotten too wide; the middle class is disappearing.

Take care of the United States for now. Don’t worry so much about everybody else. Take care of the people that pay the taxes.

Our standard of living is not as good as our parents had. It’s not as much the jobs going overseas, but corporate greed.

I don’t see them doing anything for Americans in America. We’re doing for everybody else, but not for America. [Jobs are] being taken by 11 million illegal aliens

It’s corporate America and the government. We used to control our borders and our economy was run just by the United States and what happened here. We are so greatly affected now by this global economy that I think it is . . . no longer within our control. I think that’s what makes the upper corporate levels so greedy.

We really need some new thinking, new leaders to come from somewhere. We need something that we’re not getting.

Sound like comments from folks at a Trump or Sanders rally? They could have been, but these quotes are from focus groups conducted in June, 2006 – more than a decade ago. NAW and allied trade associations commissioned those focus groups after a meeting with the Senate GOP Leadership to try to ascertain why Americans were then – already – frustrated and worried, even though at that time the economy was doing well and job creation was strong.

So, yes, Americans are angry, but that anger has been building for decades. What is most disappointing and surprising is that it has gone unnoticed – and unaddressed – until last year when those voters took out the anger on the political establishment that had ignored them for so long.

Very few Democrats seemed to understand that the middle class was struggling and that frustration was building across the country. So Democrats did not change their policies or attempt to address that middle class angst with anything other than their traditional proposals to raise taxes on the “rich” and businesses in order to expand government programs.

Republicans similarly did not acknowledge the national anxiety. NAW and trade association colleagues shared those 2006 focus group results with GOP leaders in Congress and the Bush White House, urging them to take notice and address the problem. But the GOP also failed to address the middle class concerns, continuing their traditional calls for tax cuts, reduced government spending and deficit reduction.

And that brings us to the 2016 election. Who can forget Peter Finch’s furious tirade in the 1976 classic film Network?

I’m a human being, goddamit. My life has value. I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

In 2000 the Library of Congress deemed Network “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 2016, Donald Trump deemed it electorally significant.

RECAPPING THE 2016 ELECTION:

The 2016 election cycle was remarkable in no small part because it was a cycle in which virtually everybody got virtually everything wrong. A quick smattering of media headlines tells the story.

Trump absolutely cannot win the nomination or the election:

Calm Down, Donald Trump won’t win the GOP nomination, Business Insider, Sept, 2015

5 Reasons Trump Can’t Win the GOP Nomination, US News, Sept. 15, 2015

No, Trump can’t win, Washington Examiner, April 11, 2016

Trump won’t win. In fact, the US could be on the brink of a liberal renaissance, Guardian, June 11, 2016

Relax, Donald Trump Can’t Win, The Nation, June 21, 2016

Why the Donald Trump who appeared on stage Monday can’t win, CNBC, Sept 27, 2016

And obituaries for the post-election GOP were common:

Republicans May Be Staring at a Total Collapse, Media Matters, Oct. 10, 2016

The GOP is history. What about the country? Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2016

Trump’s nomination signals the collapse of an ideological movement and a political party, Salon, July 22, 2016

5 Signs that the Republican Party is on the Verge of Collapse, Forward Progressives, Sept. 24, 2016

Will the Republican Party Survive the 2016 election?, The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2016.

The predictions of Trump’s defeat, the collapse of the Republican Party, the end of conservative ideology, and a “liberal renaissance” . . . all proved totally wrong.

The Atlantic, dramatically asking a year ago if the GOP would survive, asked after the election, Does the Democratic Party Have a Future? The leaderless party is beset by structural disadvantages and policy defeats.

Today the Democrat party, not the GOP, is picking up the pieces from their unimaginable loss to Donald Trump. And the GOP has the no-less daunting task of figuring out how to build a governing coalition with him.

AND THE AFTERMATH:

The immediate aftermath of the election has been as unprecedented as the election itself: street protests across the country, progressive activists pushing electors to change their votes, demands that the Electoral College be abolished, threats to disrupt the inauguration, continuing effort to deny the legitimacy of the Trump election. And more to come.

Electoral College vs popular vote – “Trump didn’t really win the election!”

It’s an easy sound bite: Trump lost the popular vote so wasn’t legitimately elected, and we need to abolish the Electoral College and elect our presidents by a national popular vote. But the Electoral College is not an anachronism – an antiquated mistake of our founding fathers that needs to be corrected by the more-enlightened intelligentsia of the 21st century.

To the contrary, the Electoral College is the very-enlightened means our forefathers devised to ensure that the individual and separate states in our union are not made irrelevant by a national popular-vote democracy. To further ensure the continued viability of the individual states, the Senate was formed with each state having equal representation – 2 members from each state – regardless of the population of the state.

State population is not ignored in a presidential election, it is clearly recognized in the Electoral College. California has 55 electoral votes –more than 18 times the 3 votes of each of the 7 smallest states, and more than twice the votes of those 7 small states combined.

The Electoral College ensures that even the least populous states are not ignored by candidates seeking the presidency; if we had direct election of a president, the 30 states between the east and west coasts would become no more than fly-over country in a presidential campaign. And the issues that are important to middle-America would be ignored, and big-state and big-city issues pandered to. In other words, the Electoral College forces candidates to run national campaigns and appeal to voters outside of the highly-populous states and cities.

The map below showing the red states carried by Trump and blue states carried by Clinton in 2016 makes that point graphically clear.

Electoral College Map


Even more dramatic is a map showing the counties carried by the candidates in 2016; again, counties carried by the GOP are in red:

County-Level election map


The numerical election returns also make the point. Secretary Clinton got approximately 3 million more votes nation-wide than President-elect Trump; her margin of victory in California was more than 4.5 million votes. Without the Electoral College, California alone would have determined the presidency – the other 49 states would have been irrelevant. On December 21st, National Review published an excellent analysis of this issue with this headline: Hillary Clinton: President of California. That about says it all.

The stages of grief – shock, denial, and anger on the Democratic side:

To all the Hollywood stars, liberal pundits, young idealists and media elites who argue that Trump is not THEIR president, that he should step aside, and that he wasn’t truly elected because he did not win the popular vote . . . and even to President Obama who claimed that he would have been re-elected for a third term had he been running . . . acceptance, and a reality check, are in order.

While former President Obama did win decisively in both 2008 and 2012, the Democrats have lost electoral ground in the states as well as in Washington over the last 8 years. According to a Fox News report last December, Democrats lost a net of more than 1,040 state and federal elected offices since President Obama’s election: 958 state legislative seats, 12 governorships, 9 U.S. Senate seats, and 62 seats in the U.S. House. Democrats today control a historically low number of state legislative chambers, they control both houses of the state legislatures in only 13 states to the GOP’s 32, and the GOP now owns the “trifecta” – control of both houses of the state legislatures and the governorship – in half the states to the Democrats’ 6.

It is an academic question as to whether President Obama could have been elected to a third term, but Democratic losses in the states in the last 8 years point to a bigger problem for them than the loss of the White House for four or even eight years. State legislatures are the breeding and training ground for future state-wide and national candidates and the loss of almost 1,000 state legislative seats since 2008 leaves the Democrats with a very shallow and depleted “bench.”

President Obama has counseled President-elect Trump to continue the Obama polices and regulatory efforts for the sake of consistency, and has made it clear that – unlike most of his predecessors – he will not leave the stage but will continue to be an active presence in Washington and within the Democratic Party. But the President’s personal popularity has not been transferable to support for the Democratic Party as a whole, and his continued dominance on the national stage is unlikely to help his party rebuild its bench.

The Democrats do not have a monopoly on political challenges:

The fact that the Democrats face daunting challenges does not suggest that the national GOP is in much better shape. The GOP-led Congress has approval ratings that do not even break into double-digits. And the Trump presidency cannot be credited to the Republican Party; to the contrary, his successful campaign more closely resembled a hostile takeover of the GOP than a friendly merger with it. And while the GOP did retain control of both the House and Senate in the 2016 elections, that, too, is less a statement about the national GOP brand than it is about the success of the Trump campaign overall and a few particularly strong candidates running top-notch campaigns as seen in Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election in Pennsylvania.

President-elect Trump has no long-standing relationship with the GOP, nor has he demonstrated any reluctance to challenge and defy it. Some of his public policy positions are totally inconsistent with GOP policy orthodoxy – trade and tariffs come immediately to mind. And fiscal hawks in the GOP are deeply frustrated with the president-elect’s firm opposition to reform of our bankrupt entitlement programs.

There are certainly areas in which cooperation between the Hill and the White House is likely and welcome. For example, Trump’s promise to roll back the Obama regulatory assault is welcome on the Hill – and very good news for over-regulated businesses – and the Senate GOP majority will fight to confirm Trump cabinet nominees.

But whether and how the Congressional GOP majority and the incoming Trump Administration form a working partnership across a broader range of policy and personnel issues remains to be seen. And the chances of a Democratic working relationship with the new Administration seem remote.

It was a very frustrated anti-establishment public that sent the most unlikely of candidates to the White House. But running the country requires the advancing of a president’s policies through a governing process. It is not likely that early morning tweets will be an adequate substitute for a working relationship with at least his own Party allies on Capitol Hill. And being able to work with the loyal opposition would help as well.

The next chapters in this fascinating saga are yet to be written.

Stay tuned. We’ll tweet an update.