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Posts published in “Day: December 18, 2021”

Betsy Johnson’s voters

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Most of the discussion around state Senator Betsy Johnson’s independent entry into the 2022 Oregon governor’s race concerns whether she might be a spoiler for the Democrats or maybe herself a winner of the race.

In evaluating that, the question to ask will be: How persuasive is she?

Start with the prospect that the Democratic state senator from Scappoose might win, which is not unreasonable. Neither major party is especially popular in Oregon; the number of Oregon voters registering neither red nor blue is unusually large. Oregon has chosen an independent governor before, in 1930: Julius Meier (of Meier and Frank fame). No Oregon indies since have come close, though one or two arguably were spoilers in battles of the major parties.

A few have won governorships, in recent times, in other states. In 2018 Bill Walker was elected governor of Alaska, though he was allied with Democratic forces that year. In 2010 Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island; he previously was a Republican U.S. senator. And in 1994 and 1998, Angus King was elected governor of Maine and since to the U.S. Senate there; the first time he won with 35.4 percent of the vote. (If you’re thinking about Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, remember that he was a Reform Party nominee.)

This article originally appeared on the Oregon Capital Chronicle, the first of a series of Stapilus columns on Oregon.

All these cases involved large dollops of luck and unusual circumstances.

Might those help Johnson?

Oregon’s big political wild card is the Independent Party of Oregon. Positioned as a home for disaffected Democrats and Republicans, it has in the past decade gained at times more than 100,000 members, scattered remarkably evenly around the state. So far it apparently has not been a major factor in top-ballot races. Could it be if - as may happen - it backs Johnson?

IPO members weigh in on endorsements - normally the party does not nominate its own candidates - and those choices have indicated more Republican support than Democratic. (Its one legislative member to date, Senator Brian Boquist, had been a Republican.) An IPO-backed Johnson campaign might draw from the Republican nominee (whoever that may be) as much if not more as from the Democratic. Much of Johnson’s fundraising and big-name support - such as 2018 governor candidate Knute Buehler, who endorsed her on December 7 - so far comes from Republicans.

Her positioning still is fuzzy: She has declared herself a centrist, but what does that mean? How would it apply in practice? What kind of people would she appoint? What would be her priorities? The answers that emerge could help or hurt her.

Johnson has a clear plus in fundraising, which has topped $2 million so far, more than any other candidate in the field so far. That’s proof of serious candidacy, but be wary of attaching too much importance to it; political battlefields large and small are littered with contenders who outspent their opposition and still got beat.

She is developing a large political network around the state, which may be more important than the money. So far much of that too seems to come from the Republican as from the Democratic side - which if true would mean a Democrat would still be well set. Whether she can draw heavily from less liberal Democrats may depend a lot on how those candidates campaign and who the nominee is.

I mention the partisan segments of support for this reason: In recent elections, Democratic candidates for governor have won an outright majority of the vote in most races (that was true in 2018 and 2016), which means that a non-Democrat would need to attract a lot of people who have been voting routinely for Democrats in recent elections.

That’s difficult. High political polarization is our lot today, and getting people to cross the line on the ballot is harder. Many voters, Democrats especially, are well aware of the Nader-Stein effect where a vote to a non-major candidate could throw an election to an unwanted winner. Few Oregon Democrats would want to toss this race to the Republican.

Johnson’s main hope must be that she catches fire - as a strong candidate on her own - and that either the Democratic nominee implodes, or that both major candidates do; that in other words she becomes perceived as a front runner; and that enough Democrats see her as an acceptable option. To win, Johnson has to peel off enough reliably Democratic voters to make a difference.

How convincing will she be? Her campaign probably rises or falls on that question.
 

What did they know, when did they know it

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It was the summer of 1973. Congress was struggling, amid tense and often angry partisanship, to understand who was really responsible for the break in a year earlier at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The story – quickly dubbed Watergate – unfolded over a period of many months, with details large and small emerging in news reports and, we now know, by leaks from a top official at the FBI, among others. Watergate would emerge as an example of massive political corruption – one of the great scandals in American history.

In those days the United States Senate was led by a flinty Montanan, a former Butte copper miner who became a university history professor and eventually majority leader.

Mike Mansfield was a Senate “institutionalist,” meaning he literally dedicated his 24-year career to elevating the institution he led, and he was always protecting the Senate’s prerogatives and reputation.

When it became impossible to avoid questions of whether Watergate’s crimes reached the White House and were perhaps being covered up by officials in the government, Mansfield acted in the interest of the Senate and the nation.

He went to Republican leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and proposed a select committee to investigate. Scott agreed. Then Mansfield made one of the most consequential decisions of his consequential career – he selected a drawling, elderly North Carolina constitutional lawyer by the name of Sam Ervin to chair the committee.

Ultimately, the Senate vote to create the committee was unanimous, but only after Republicans tried to get a committee divided equally among GOP members and Democrats – Democrats held a healthy majority in the Senate at the time. Florida Republican Edward Gurney – shades of current Republican congressional tactics – attempted unsuccessfully to broaden the investigation to include the 1964 and 1968 presidential campaigns. The focus would be Watergate.

Ervin was no one’s idea of telegenic. His fleshy face sported big jowls and a double chin. His white hair was often untamed. His black horned rim glasses perched uneasily on a big nose. Ervin was a throwback, a conservative southern Democrat and dead-end segregationist suspicious of too much government and too much racial equality.

But Ervin also revered the Senate and the Constitution, particularly that concept that no one is above the law. Importantly for Mansfield, Ervin was in his last term. He wasn’t running for anything.

Mansfield surrounded ol’ Sam with what appeared to many at the time to be a lackluster group of Senate second-stringers, but they had been selected with purpose. None had national political ambitions that might get in the way of a serious investigation of serious crimes.

Ervin’s investigation became critical to unraveling Watergate and forcing a presidential resignation.

Republicans, meanwhile, selected a handsome, articulate senator from Tennessee by name of Howard Baker to co-chair the Watergate committee. Baker was the son-in-law of the legendary Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, who had operated in a highly cooperative, bipartisan way with Senate Democrats, especially Mansfield.

Still, it was widely expected that Baker would be a loyal defender of President Richard Nixon, whose role in Watergate was always at the center of the investigation. And for a long time Baker was a defender. And then he wasn’t.

On June 29, 1973, Baker asked a simple question of former White House counsel John Dean that came to define Baker’s Senate career. Dean had been fired by Nixon and was now cooperating with the Senate committee.

“My primary thesis is still,” Baker asked, “what did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Baker posed the question believing he was helping Nixon, who had repeatedly denied knowledge of the Watergate break in or any effort to cover it up. He was hoping the question would exonerate Nixon, or at least make the issue one of Nixon’s word against Dean’s.

But Baker did not yet know there were tapes – many tapes – of Nixon’s conversations with White House aides orchestrating the cover up, including trying to get the CIA involved.

All this history is worth remembering in light of the increasingly apparent role of the former president in stimulating many of his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6. No Watergate analogy is perfect, but Donald Trump clearly egged on the attackers, delayed responding to the chaos aimed at Congress and his own vice president, and is now attempting to use every avenue to prevent the fully story from coming out. It’s very Nixon-like.

Text messages released this week to former Trump chief of Staff Mark Meadows – a 21st Century variation of sorts on Nixon’s White House taping system – seem to show that the former president was very involved in events leading up to and including January 6.

Trump’s own son begged Meadows to get the president to do something to stop the attack. “He’s got to condemn this s@#t ASAP,” Don, Jr. messaged.

The turd polishers at Fox News even weighed in imploring action from Trump to stop the carnage. Meadows knows all this. He also knows what Trump said and did. It’s why his contempt of Congress is so important.

One text to Meadows really stands out: a House Republican messaged him, even before several states had finalized vote counting, that Republican legislatures in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania ought just ignore the voters and name their own slate of Trump electors.

This was an early example of the political weaponizing of the “big lie” that the election was stolen. January 6 was a follow on.

Here’s a way to think about updating Howard Baker’s classic question: not only what did Trump know and when, but what did your member of Congress know and when?

It’s clear some members of Congress were communicating with the organizers of the attack and with the White House. What did they know and when? We deserve to know. If there is nothing nefarious about the actions of members of Congress who swore an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution then so be it, but we need to know.

Most House Republicans, including every member from the West with the exception of Liz Cheney of Wyoming has tried to hamper the January 6th investigation, labeling it “partisan,” and voting to let Meadows and others get away with stiffing Congress. But all that is a smoke screen.

Congress has every right – indeed an obligation – to investigate such fundamental and dangerous abuses.

Congressional power to investigate and hold accountable the executive branch was established as long ago as 1792 and has continued through the Civil War, the sinking of the Titanic, war profiteering during World War II, Watergate and Benghazi.

By undermining the ongoing investigation of January 6, Republicans may be protecting themselves from the wrath of Donald Trump and his most fevered supporters, but they are putting partisanship ahead of American democracy. We need to know what all of them knew and when they knew it.

Meanwhile, it seems worth noting that a detailed Associated Press survey of every single claim of voter fraud in six contested states found fewer than 475 questionable votes out of millions cast. “The findings build on a mountain of other evidence,” the AP report said, “that the election wasn’t rigged, including verification of the results by Republican governors.”

Yet, the lies continue. Holding to account those involved on January 6 has truly become the urgent necessity of democracy.