Today I met 1-on-1 with California Representative Henry Waxman of CA-30, the district that encompasses most of Los Angeles' highly liberal Westside (of which I am a resident); the meeting lasted almost exactly half an hour.
As you may or may not know, Henry Waxman is among the most progressive members of the house, and one of the leading lights of the GOP Counter-Revolution. He is the Senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, and has been recently profiled in both The Nation and Le Monde as the "Elliot Ness of Congress. Though he doesn't post on the blogosphere, the man has outstanding progressive credentials.
As the "Nation" article from February 14th, 2005 says:
For decades--literally--this Democrat from the Westside of Los Angeles has mounted high-profile investigations and hearings while churning out sharp-edged reports: on toxic emissions, the tobacco industry, pesticides in drinking water. But during George W. Bush's first term as President, Waxman, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, established himself as the Democrat's chief pursuer of purported wrongdoing within the Bush Administration.
Sounds like just the guy to talk to, leading into the 2006 "Culture of Corruption" campaign, eh? Waxman's credentials get even better: Waxman is "special investigation" king when it comes to pursuing this blackhearted MalAdministration...
He has mounted a series of "special investigations"--of Halliburton, Enron, the flu vaccine crisis, conflicts of interest at the Department of Homeland Security, national missile defense. He has produced reports on secrecy in the Bush Administartion, misleading prewar assertions made by Bush officials about Iraq's WMDs, Bush's politicization of science. And he has won considerable media attention for his efforts.
Working with Representative John Dingell, he sicced the Government Accountability Office on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force...More recently, Waxman released a headlines-grabbing report revealing that federally funded abstinence-only sex-ed programs peddle false information to teems...With all this muckraking, the 65-yaer-old Waxman has become the Eliot Ness of the Democrats.
In fact, some say that he has "developed the model" for attacking the GOP's schemes, and led the way for more aggressive pursuits of Republican wrongdoing:
Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education Committee, notes, "He's developed the model. It's what we would like every ranking member to do--to ask questions, be persistent and not accept silence. He's motivated other Democrats and has even created some discontent within the Democratic caucus because newer members on other committees sometimes don't think the ranking members are aggressive enough."
He seemed, therefore, like the perfect person to talk to about where Democrats were going in this election, and how best we intended to strike at the heart of the GOP to retake the House this year.
And my utter disappointment with his answers--the answers of this eminent man who should have been a groundspring of hope for progressives nationwide--is truly an indication of just how much work we still have to do to "crash the gate."
I got the meeting purely by accident (or providence!); about a week ago, while waiting for my time slot to take a tour of the Capitol in the early afternoon, I went into the Rayburn building (where many of the House offices are held) to get a bite to eat at the cafeteria. No sooner had I walked into the cafeteria, than who should walk in right behind me but Rep. Waxman himself, accompanied by two of his staffers. Not one to miss an opportunity, I turned and shook his hand, said that I was a constituent of his and a rather well-known blogger. When I asked him if he had regularly scheduled meetings with bloggers either in D.C. or in Los Angeles, he looked bewildered at one of his aides; the aide shrugged his shoulders. He asked me if I would like to schedule a meeting with me for today, which I eagerly accepted.
Unfortunately, the result of that very meeting left me as depressed and disheartened as I've been in a very long time. It almost immediately became clear that he just didn't get it--and if as eminent, progressive, politically secure, and politically aggressive a congressman as Henry Waxman doesn't get it, then there is little hope for the Democratic Party at large. We may make gains this year, but unless there is serious change on Capitol Hill, we will have squandered an incredible opportunity through passivity, cluelessness and disorganization.
When I first entered his office at 2:30PM today, he asked me again what capacity I was talking to him under; his first guess (probably because of my relatively young age at 25) was a staffer.
When I informed him that I was an independent private sector research consultant and a semi-celebrity diarist on the Daily Kos, he looked singularly unimpressed. He looked as if he had barely even heard of the Daily Kos. When I went on to say that congressmen and women like Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, John Conyers, Barack Obama and Louise Slaughter had all posted on Daily Kos, and that the site garnered well over a million hits a day, he looked surprised and said,"Really?"
I introduced the interview by buttering him up a bit, stating that he was one of the greatest progressive leading lights of our party, but the blogosphere and netroots did not know that much about him and his positions, and that I would like to get more of a feel for his important stances on some of the issues that matters most to the netroots.
In truth--though I didn't say this directly--I wanted to get some insider information on the strategies and maneuverings of the House Democrats in general from a representative in a good position to know what's going on--and one supposedly aggressive and media-savvy enough to care.
Going into the interview, I was nervous to be in the solitary presence of a man I so greatly admired; but I was nervous above all that I would not be able to get any revealing information from him. I was nervous that he would be far too canny for even my professionally trained and considerable interviewing skills, and that I would get typically political, pablum answers. Unfortunately, I DID gain a great insight--and the insight I gained wasn't at all good.
Before I go on further, I should note that it is the practice of professional moderators of one-on-one interviews and focus groups not to take notes during the interview process, as doing so distracts from the actual interview. But I also did not want to record the interview, as I wanted the most candid responses possible from the congressman; and moderators usually do not re-watch or re-listen to the interviews they conducted before writing reports. Most moderators, therefore, have excellent recall memory, and the ability to remember above all the responses, phrases, and sentences that matter most, while separating the wheat from the chaff.
When the interview was over, however, I immediately went to the cafeteria and spent an hour writing down everything essential that I remembered the interview.
What I give you below, therefore, are not transcript-quality responses, but they are very close--and they certainly get the gist of the Congressman's responses.
My first question to him was something along these lines:
"It seems like every other day someone like Adam Nagourney of the NY Times comes out with a hit piece on "leaderless, messageless Dems."
There is awareness that Dems need to be coy and not show our cards before it's time, but the troops are getting restless. There's a lot of untapped potential and energy in the blogosphere, and it's getting frustrated and concerned.
Is there a set plan to unite the party with a common message under a common banner like the GOP did in '94, or is the plan to fight each race on a more local level?
His responses were anything but a delight to my ears.
"Well, I don't really know if there's an actual plan to do something like that or not. But I would take issue with the way you stated it: The Republicans didn't really come together unified and present any actual alternatives; they just hammered on the corruption issues with Bill Clinton and certain high-level other Democrats, who did at least give the appearance of corruption."
He went on to say that Republican successes had less to do with the GOP being organized so much as it had to do with public dissatisfaction with Democrats. I wanted to scoff, and ask him if he had ever read Off-Center or seen Rob Stein's Powerpoint on the VRWC--but I held my tongue. He stated further that the intent was just to keep a general spotlight on Republican Corruption.
When I asked him whether was any intent to nationalize the frames in a position of on-message solidarity among House Members, he said:
"We do need to nationalize the message, I think, but I don't know of any distinct plans or timetables for doing that.
You THINK we need to nationalize the message? Are you insane? Is this really the first time anybody has asked you about this, or even talked to you about it? Is this really news to you?
In large part, Pelosi is to blame for this. Hasn't Pelosi even once herded these cats together and talked about this? Even once? After all, Waxman's job is to investigate Republican corruption, and unified messaging is really more Pelosi's job. As he said:
Basically, I'm just trying to make sure that the truth about Halliburton dealings and the Iraq War and the abstinence-only programs and all this corruption are out there. And Pelosi is more the one in charge of those kinds of things you're talking about--she's very political[and he said this word "political" was a touch of sneer and condescension], coming out of San Francisco as she does...
The Republicans have made a mockery of fiscal responsibility with the people's money, and they've been pandering to corporate special interests with big legislative earmarks, and they've been incompetent as we saw with Katrina. I just think we need to let the people know that.
And with all due respect, Mr. Waxman, the people ALREADY KNOW THAT. Anybody who remotely cares to know, anyway. But they don't see Democrats as a viable alternative. And the only way to fix that is by getting, well, political
At this point I followed up with a question that went something like this:
If there is something of a unified message, will it be a set of policy initiatives or ideas, or more of a contract w/ America style focus on cleaning house on corruption issues?
The answer was deflating at best...
"I think we need to have some clear alternatives out there, but I don't' think there's really a unified plan to present specific ones nationally. On domestic policy, I think we need to achieve some sort of healthcare reform because the current system has been failing. On foreign policy, we need to get out of Iraq and clean up the Halliburton messes.
Let me repeat that. NO. UNIFIED. PLAN. Let me also repeat that: SOME. SORT. OF. HEALTHCARE. REFORM. You have got to be freaking kidding me. That's all you've got? One wonkish, vague semi-initiative about healthcare, in the face of polls showing that most Americans support a single-payer system? Not even a Howard Dean-style "Cover the Children" program? And what about the rest of it?????
I tried to help the Congressman out by mentioning, oh, I don't know--MINIMUM WAGE REFORM? I asked if there were any plans to ask for a bold, major increase in the minimum wage. The answer:
On a minimum wage increase? We've been fighting for that for a long time.
I said that I meant something really bold to capture the national attention, like a $2 increase. His reponse:
"Well, I don't know. As I said, we've been fighting on that issue a lot already..."
At this point I was getting a little frustrated. I was looking for something--ANYTHING-- that would communicate a progressive platform for voters and give them a reason to vote for Democrats. So I asked about the time bombs Bush had loaded into his 2001 tax cuts, and the coming AMT crisis, and how Dems intended to react to them. And again, the answer was deadening.
Well, we just need to say some positive things for Americans like "billionaires don't need tax cuts." Then we can maybe put some alternatives of our own on the table.
It was just so typical. Block Bush by spouting the same pablum we've been doing for six years, and THEN--Maybe--introduce some initiatives of our own. Have our congresscritters learned NOTHING from their experiences?
My next question was something similar:
Regardless of what we campaign on, has there been any agreement or unified discussion of what House Democrats are likely to put on the table in terms of significant legislation if we can manage to retake the House in 2006?
The answer here wasn't too far off the mark. He said that we needed to restart and revive some of the investigations that have been stalled under this GOP congress for the period of Bush's reign from 2006-2008: things like the leadup to Iraq, the mismanagement of taxpayer funds by Halliburton, the Katrina incompetence, etc. And, after all, this is Waxman's area of expertise. He also stated that we need to use our leverage to stop a lot of these things that Bush is doing. "And THEN," he said, "then we can begin to put our own policies on the table, like healthcare reform."
What is it with the "Stop the GOP, then come up with some ideas" crap? Don't these people understand that without bold messaging and ideas of our own, we're never GOING to stop the GOP? And then there was the vague talk of healthcare reform again...
My next question was a follow-up to that one:
Do Democrats plan on being as heavy-handed in their parliamentary tactics, if we retake the house, as the GOP has been over the last decade?
The response I got made my jaw drop.
"I think we should not use what Republicans have done as a template at all. We should keep our committees open, and the communication channels should be there. Obviously, we don't want to make it TOO open, because certain powers we want to have, but we need more bipartisanship, not less. What Republicans have done has really eroded democracy in the House, and we need to bring it back.
Excuse me, Congressman, while I step outside your office window, vomit, and jump to my death. More bipartisanship? I mean, I agree to a certain extent that we shouldn't do what the GOP has done, but how in the world can the man have any delusions about the idea of the GOP actually working with Democrats on anything? How often does that dog have to bite your hand before you stop reaching out to it???? Have we learned nothing, at long last?
But it was the Diebold question that put the most fear and amazement in my heart...
About the Diebold issue, I asked the following question:
I know that you cosponsored the HR550 amendment, which is an amendment to Hillary Clinton's Help America Vote Act, to federally mandate voter-verified paper ballots--and kudos to you for that. And obviously, voting integrity is a no-brainer issue.
My question is this: the Democratic Party in general seems to have sent out a directive to remain mum about the possibility of electronic voting fraud, despite substantial evidence to suggest it. Obviously, there are some politics involved in this, in the sense that we don't want to look like sore losers.
But I just wanted to get a sense from you about whether you feel widespread fraud may actually have taken place and you just can't talk about it for political reasons, or whether you simply feel that widespread fraud probably didn't happen?
When I first mentioned HR550, he looked at me completely blankly. When I mentioned the Help America Vote Act, his response to me was, "Oh yeah--that voting thing." When I mentioned that there was some sort of directive, he immediately said, "well, I'm not aware of any such directive at all. I just don't know that anybody really talked about it, that's all." I already knew I was in trouble--but the response was deeply troubling for reasons that I could not have guessed going in. He said the following:
I think getting every vote counted is an important isasue. As far as whether there was widespread fraud, we just don't know. But it's important to make sure that these things are gotten to the bottom of, and that we have accountability.
But we're all concerned. We really don't know. We suspect it, but we don't know.
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, CONGRESSMAN! PLEASE, POOH-POOH THE DIEBOLD THEORIES AS TIN-FOIL HAT! SAY THERE WAS A POLITICAL DIRECTIVE! ANYTHING!
But for the love of God, DON'T SAY that you SUSPECT that our democracy has been overturned in the biggest scandal of the last 150 years, say that you DON'T KNOW, and tell me that you were so weak-kneed that you and all your colleagues just sat there and SAID NOTHING LIKE DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS!
Is there any leadership here? Any at all?
I almost stopped the interview there and said that that was all of my questions, but I soldiered on.
My next question was about the calcified consultancy within the Democratic Party:
Politicians have begun to recognize the fundraising and organizational power of the netroots in coordinating large numbers of small donors, especially since McCain-Feingold and the rise of Howard Dean; furthermore, the netroots has been effective in constantly working on new, more powerful messaging.
Right now there are a lot of people talking about what they see as a calcified entrenchment in much of the Democratic party--this is best seen in the consultancy class, where Bob Shrum for instance has gone 0-8, but in a lot of other places as well. It's pretty clear from the track record of our strategists, and the way the right wing has managed to frame almost every debate on their terms, that there needs to be a shakeup of some kind. Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, and Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD.com, just came out with a book called "Crashing the Gate" that dealt with this subject in some detail.
The grassroots are trying to do their part from the bottom up; but my question is, what is being done at the top of the party to shake things up from the top down?? The grassroots are getting nervous that no such movements are being made, and a lot of people are going to stop giving money to the party if they don't see the party being as committed to changing things as much as they are.
Here, actually, he gave the most satisfactory answer and showed the most interest. He was actually interested in picking up a copy of the book--and I said I had an extra copy which I could give him for keeps, and I intend to do so within the next week--and he wrote down the title and authors.
Unfortunately, not only had he never heard of the book, he had never heard of the authors, either--and I had to explain to him how to spell Markos' name.
He did say, though, that he was very concerned about this issue, and there needed to accountability, but that old ways of doing things die hard. He also said that the Internet is obviously a powerful tool, as Dean showed, and he thinks that we need to use the technology available as well as we can, and he's not sure we've been doing that.
He did say one truly nerve-wracking thing in this discussion, however:
I don't think that the losses are necessarily the fault of the consultants, but if losses continue, we would need to look in other directions.
Certainly sounds like nobody's doing anything about this anytime soon...
My final question was about the Dean-Pelosi feud over the 50-state strategy:
This last question is going to be a little more difficult, and I understand if you have to be, say, diplomatic about it. Recently, as you undoubtedly know, there was a little dustup between Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi over Dean's 50-state strategy, and the allocation of resources. The argument was between, essentially, building the party nationally, or focusing effort on the most contested races.
We've heard both sides, but I wanted to know what you, as a representative who is about as politically secure as it's possible to be, think of the issue?
Fortunately, he wasn't diplomatic and didn't mince words. Unfortunately, he came down SQUARELY on the side of Pelosi--and didn't even know more about it than any of us!
All I know about it is what I read in the papers.
I think that resources are very limited, and that we need to keep our focus on retaking Congress first. I think what Dean was doing, funding things going on in Alabama where we have no chance, isn't a good use of resources. We should be spending more money in places like Ohio and New Juersey, and THEN we can worry about building the party in the rest of the nation.
Party building is important, to be sure, but we need to spend our resources as wisely as possible.
And here, again, we see the same syndrome as before: focus on the short term first, then win in the long term later. The Same Bob Shrum Mentality--and always putting the cart before the horse.
And this, Kossacks, is one of the best of the brightest that we've got on the national level. I've still got incredible respect for my congressman, and I don't think he should be challenged with a primary. But to see the cluelessness on these very important issues was mind-boggling and highly distressing.
We're going to have to do it OURSELVES, folks. From the ground up.
We're going to have to Crash Those Gates, and turn this party over from the inside out.
Because the Cavalry Isn't Coming.
There is no grand strategy--and we're pretty much the last line of defense for a national message, aggressive politics, and bold policies.
And we're going to have to redouble our efforts if we want significant victory in November.