By Chuck Conconi
There is an unavoidable level of cynicism that comes from watching politicians who have traded insults with Donald Trump during a campaign rush to the White House seeking the president’s blessing and, just maybe, an impressive appointment.
How else could anyone explain Sen. Ted Cruz with his wife and children dining at the White House with President Trump? During the Republican primary campaign, Trump’s attacked Cruz by sending out an unflattering photograph of the Texas senator’s wife Heidi, next to a glamour photograph of Trump’s former model wife, Melania. He also at one point threatened, “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. (magazine) shoot in his ad. Be careful Lyin’ Ted or I will spill the beans on your wife.”
An angry Cruz responded that the photo didn’t come from his campaign and countered: “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely and Heidi is the love of my life.” He later called Trump “a sniveling coward,” and told him to “leave Heidi the hell alone.” He also called Trump a “small and petty man who is intimidated by strong women.”
After such a virulent exchange that went beyond the usual, “it’s just politics,” it is legitimate to ask how could Cruz and the president have a cozy family dinner at the White House? And, why would Heidi attend after being so publically insulted? Although Trump is now the most powerful man in the world, why would a man like Cruz go to the White House with his family to dine after all the venom between the two men?
Some speculation is that Cruz, who has had presidential ambitions, is aware that that office is probably not in his future—but there is always the possibility of a Supreme Court nomination.
Cruz does have useful credentials—he was a law clerk to J. Michael Luttig of the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and in 1996 became the first Hispanic to clerk for then Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He has the requisite right wing conservatism and he could help Trump with Hispanic voters in 2020.
Cruz, however, is not alone in seeking presidential appointments, even after intense public clashes with Trump. Look at what Trump has said about former governors Rick Perry, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., and Mitt Romney—who was also the Republican candidate for president in 2012.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of Trump: “He offers a barking carnival act that can best be described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean spirited nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.” Perry is now part of the Trump cabinet. He is Energy Secretary.
Romney traveled to Trump Tower in New York amid speculation that he would be rewarded by being named Secretary of State. It was a futile trip. Trump termed the former Massachusetts governor “a lightweight,” and said that Romney had begged Trump for his endorsement when he ran for president in 2012. “I could have said, ‘Mitt drop to your knees,’ “and he would have dropped to his knees.”
This was Trump’s revenge for Romney saying, “He’s a phony and a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Why did Romney want a cabinet position so badly that he embarrassed himself by going before Trump as a supplicant?
But what also seemed mystifying is that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a practicing Mormon who was offended by the news of Trump boasting about groping women, decided he would want to be part of the Trump Administration.
Huntsman said at the time: “In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom—at such a critical moment for our nation—and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Governor Pence to lead the ticket.”
It seems, however, that Republican Huntsman, who also once tried to run for president and served the previous administration as its ambassador to China, still covets another title. He met with Trump and apparently, all has been forgiven—Huntsman is to be nominated as ambassador to Russia.
If a couple of fourth graders talked to each other in that manner on the playground, someone would probably get a bloody nose. 10-year-olds understand that words have meaning and can be hurtful. Politicians no longer seem to understand that. But maybe I’m just being cynical.
It certainly isn’t important in the present scheme of things that President Trump has made a petulant decision not to attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His decision upset some of the dinner planners, but he may have inadvertently accomplished a good thing for Washington journalism.
Over the years, presidents have found time, often reluctantly, to attend the glittery, black-tie dinner, inelegantly known as the Nerd Prom. The dinner boasts the good deed cover of raising money for scholarships. It also is an opportunity for reporters to have a convivial evening with people they cover and to have a good time.
In recent years, however, the Correspondents’ Dinner became a showbiz celebrity event with respected media organizations vigorously competing to bring in as many Hollywood and entertainment world celebrities as could be fitted at a table. The dinner probably reached its nadir when reality television stars, like the Duck Dynasty hillbillies were sought after celebrity guests.
And to continue the Los Vegas glitter, a big-name comic emcee was necessary who often wasn’t as humorous as the President who has his speech writers and outside New York/Los Angles talents working overtime coming up with funny lines. And partly because he is the President, he often received the biggest laughs, his jokes dutifully picked up by television the following day.
Having been both a guest and also having covered the red carpet arrivals for television, it was often disheartening to see respected Washington newsmen acting like 13-year-olds catching sight of Justin Bieber.
The more affluent media organizations like NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair host impressive cocktail parties, as do several other media organizations with more shallow purses. The dinner is also a big money raiser for the Washington Hilton where most of the parties are held and where the largest ballroom in town is jammed with as many tables and people that the fire marshal will allow.
It is often argued by journalists that this hot ticket dinner, and the more prestigious Gridiron Dinner (President Trump also declined an invitation to attend), exists mainly to get newsmen and political leaders to get to know each other better and to have a better understanding of the roles of each.
There is some rationality to that reasoning, but conscientious journalists are expected to maintain some distance between themselves and the people they cover. Politicians, by their innate nature can be likable, and it is sometime difficult for a journalist to be tough when necessary on someone you cover and enjoy meeting with over dinner and drinks.
Journalistic organizations are aware of this problem and understand that regular beat reporters can get the good day-to-day stories, but if there is a need to dig beyond the daily news events, it takes a reporter who is outside the news beat structure. The Watergate expose by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein is the obvious example where many beat reporters, even at the Washington Post, were opposed to the digging by the young newsmen who eventually brought down a president.
There is no question that the White House is a prestigious beat, but too often the famous newsmen who cover there are more like stenographers taking news information fed to them in press briefings and announcements. It’s a great beat because you get to travel the world with the President and be part of televised press conferences and maybe be seen by people back home.
President Trump, with a greater antipathy toward the press than perhaps even Richard Nixon, has injected new energy into the White House press corps. No reporter there is going to readily accept the often alternative fact information from the White House press office. And that is a good thing. The media and the politicians from municipal governments to Washington, need to have a respected adversarial relationship.
Both sides need to develop a trust for the role each plays and President Trump deciding not to be part of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner may be off to a good start. Obviously, the thin-skinned president would not have enjoyed the friendly jibs from the head table speakers and he knew that even the powerful media organizations would have difficulty producing glittery celebrity world guest if he attended and he would be blamed, not that he cared. All one needs to do is look at the paucity of Hollywood celebrities at the Republican National nominating convention in Cleveland.
President Trump wasn’t trying to do Washington journalism a favor, but by not attending the Correspondents’ Dinner, he has. Maybe the dinner can truly focus more on its earlier established roll of promoting responsible, ethical journalism. Good journalism is and should be hard work, and just maybe, a dinner focused on responsible, First Amendment journalism, is a move in the right direction.
Ron Faucheux is a political analyst, author and pollster. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a daily newsletter on polls. He also runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan survey research firm that has worked for the Advocate and WWL-TV.
After the bloodletting of last year’s election, most of us aren’t ready for another one. But, in fewer than 20 months, America will elect a new Congress and 39 of the nation’s 50 governors. The future of both parties hangs in the balance.
If the intensifying Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump has any success, it most likely would happen in gubernatorial and U.S. House races. The U.S. Senate will be much tougher for them.
Republicans hold 33 governorships and, with that, set state policy in 60 percent of the country. If they can maintain this advantage, it will give them decisive influence over the reapportionment of congressional and state legislative seats after the 2020 census.
This year and next, Republicans have 28 of those governorships up for election and Democrats have only 11. That’s why Democrats are trying to gin up what they call an anti-Trump “tsunami” to exploit their opposition’s broad exposure.
In November, Democrats are aiming to retake New Jersey’s governorship and keep Virginia’s, two states with term-limited incumbents. These are often interesting indicators.
Next year, Democrats will focus on flipping at least nine potentially vulnerable GOP-held governorships, including those in big states such as Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. Republicans have far fewer opportunities.
Looking at Congress, Republicans hold a 43-seat majority in the House. Taking into account the five vacancies, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to shift control.
We’ve seen the president’s party suffer losses of this magnitude twice in recent times. Republicans lost 30 House seats in 2006 when President George W. Bush’s popularity was sinking, and 26 seats in 1982 after the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency when the economy was still sluggish. We’ve also seen bigger shifts in 1994 and 2010, when first-term Democratic Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton lost 52 and 63 House seats, respectively.
It’s too early to tell whether Democrats can take the House. There are now about 30 Republican seats and half that many Democratic seats at potential risk, which gives Democrats more running room.
In the Senate, Democrats have the exposure problem. Twenty-five seats on the ballot in 2018 are Democratic-held, and only nine belong to Republicans. To make matters worse, Democrats also have to defend five vulnerable incumbents in strongly pro-Trump states.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, for example, must overcome forces that produced a 42-point Trump win in his state to win re-election. Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, Jon Tester, of Montana, and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, represent states that gave Trump victory margins of between 19 and 36 points.
Democrats now appear to have only two shots at Republican incumbents, Sens. Dean Heller, of Nevada, and Jeff Flake, of Arizona. Either could be vulnerable, but neither will be easy pickings.
Other GOP Senate incumbents up for election are in the Republican strongholds of Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. It would take Category 4 winds at their back for Democrats to have a chance at any of those seats.
In the end, Trump is the wild card. As the central force in American politics, what he says and does matters.
However, some Republicans theorize that even if Trump loses support, it may not have much effect on GOP candidates in state and district races. As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reasons, Trump is seen as a separate and distinct entity, and his personal controversies won’t rub off on other Republicans.
Maybe so. But Trump and congressional leaders still have to hack their way through the controversial details of thorny issues, from health care, tax reform and budget cuts to funding infrastructure and dealing with immigrants. If they flub their chance, Republican candidates across the country could tank. But if they deliver, and if Trump follows up on his successful speech to Congress, the Democratic resistance would flop.
It’s an understatement of biblical proportions to say a lot of water must still flow under the proverbial bridge between now and November 2018. But, it’s no understatement to say Republicans — in the stormy, unpredictable era of Trump — are already checking the skies, hoping the levees will hold.