Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tom Fina's Letter from Washington, August 2015

To Democrats Abroad
30 August 2015
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Our political stage has been tumultuous all summer. September will be both tumultuous and consequential. Congress reconvenes on September 8. The Iran agreement comes up for its first vote on the 14th. The second Republican primary debate is 2 days later. The Pope addresses Congress on the 24th. China’s President, Xi Jinping, pays a state visit to the White House. Federal funding to keep the government open runs out at the end of the month. The debt ceiling will need to be raised later in the year. Oh, there is also highway and infrastructure funding, criminal justice reform, re-authorization of the Ex-Im Bank and renewal of various tax breaks demanding congressional action.

McConnell and Boehner want to avoid another unpopular government shut-down like that engineered by Ted Cruz in 2013. But, the anti-establishment faction of their party has now latched on to the defunding of Planned Parenthood as its price to keep the Federal government running after September 30. To avoid that debacle, McConnell and Boehner will probably again be forced to rely on Democrats to keep the government running – and Democrats will not cooperate on that unless Planned Parenthood funding is protected as is Obamacare and the Iran agreement.

The stark conflict within the Republican Party that has crippled its majority Congressional leadership’s efforts to govern is also up-ending its planned presidential primary process. A de facto third party leader has emerged who no longer seems likely to flame out. Trump’s non-ideological demagoguery has made it impossible for any of the other 16 Republican candidates to stand out or to get a footing. In the latest polling (26 August) Trump has a 15 day average approval rating almost 3 times that of his closest competitor – Jeb Bush. The best analysis of his success attributes it to his personality, his wealth that frees him from dependence on Wall Street, his disdain for politicians and disdain for good political manners. The substance of his positions is not what sells him.

At this point, the other candidates appear resigned to waiting for Trump to collapse. But, there is now some disbelieving suspicion that he just might get the nomination. No political pro of whom I have heard thinks that he could defeat Hillary Clinton.

The Democrats are having their customary primary scramble with 74 year old Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders turning out breathtaking crowds of liberal supporters across the continent. His success, as surprising as Trump’s, is shaking the campaign of 68 year old Hillary Clinton. She, like the main-stream Republican candidates, is faced with the problem of being attractive enough to party militants to win the nomination without alienating the less political voters who will decide the election.

But, Clinton is less threatened by Sanders than by the new right-wing attempt to Swift Boat her as it did candidate Kerry. The character destruction campaign began with charges about her responsibility for the murders at Benghazi. That has merged with claims that as Secretary of State she mis-used private email for official business jeopardizing state secrets. Right-wing organizations have more than a dozen suits active in the courts that guarantee a steady stream of accusations until, and after, election day. Republican congressional leaders and all of their presidential candidates fan the flames of distrust of her honesty. Republican reminders of their earlier exploitation of Whitewater, Travelgate, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky feed public suspicion.

The email issue is too complex and multifaceted for your observer on the Potomac either fully to understand, much less to explain. However, as one who spent nearly 3 decades writing and working with all levels of classified government material in the Department of State, I do have several observations. First, security classification is highly subjective. The classifications that I attached to my reports could have been judged too high or too low by the next reader. Second, Mrs Clinton and her immediate predecessors since email became as common as tap water in the late 1990's, are caught in the communications revolution for which the Federal Government has yet to develop adequate security policies – witness the April 2015 hacking of OMB accounts. Third, no one but the political attack dogs claims that Mrs Clinton would be criminally liable for her official use of private email.

Finally, Mrs Clinton’s handling of the attacks on her honesty is unnerving some Democratic operatives. In the latest Iowa poll she leads Sanders by only 37% to 30%, with Biden in third with 14%. Nervous Democrats are looking for a Plan B Candidate. There is none. Competing with the other Democratic candidates at the Minneapolis DNC meeting this week, she made a fiery presentation that, in the opinion of the veteran Washington Post reporter, Dan Balz, left her as the seriously unchallenged front runner. That despite blistering criticism of the DNC leadership by both O’Malley and Sanders. Biden is much beloved by Democrats but, at this point, it seems unlikely that he will challenge Clinton.

Unlike any of her likely Republican opponents, Mrs Clinton is steadily rolling out substantive policy positions. She has made proposals to combat racial discrimination, gun violence, income disparity, barriers to voting, student debt and endorsed Obamacare, the Iran agreement, the reestablishment of relations with Cuba, Obama’s steps to control climate change and the Trans Pacific Partnership. She firmly endorsed Planned Parenthood after the recent barrage of attacks upon it and reminds that her entire life has been committed to women’s, children’s and other liberal causes.

After 11 debates the Republicans will choose their candidate in Cleveland between July 18 and 21. Democrats will chose theirs in Philadelphia between July 25 and 28 after 6 debates.

Then, the campaign can begin! But, to quote Shakespeare (and the National Archives Building), “The past is prologue”.

Send comments to: Thomas Fina at

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