For those whose lives revolve around the Capitol, the year’s final presidential debate offered two notable insights: Bashing the legislative process remains a pungent applause line, and Republicans may have found their newest liberal boogeyman.
Put another way, all the morning-after assessments of how the candidates performed in Las Vegas overlooked two standouts of particular importance to the congressional class. One of the biggest losers Tuesday night was Congress itself. And one of the biggest winners was, of all people, Charles E. Schumer. The more serious development, if not for the Republican Party than for the future of a functioning democracy, was the way in which several of the second-tier candidates who have positioned themselves as proud outsiders decided it was time to tee-off on their more front-running rivals actually in the business of making federal policy.
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The more curious data point was that New York’s senior senator — who’s on course to become the next Democratic leader in the Senate but isn’t close to being a household celebrity — got name-checked by the candidates more often than anybody else except the person they all assume they’ll be running against if they win their nomination, Hillary Clinton.
For those whose media diets include healthy daily helpings of CQ and Roll Call, one of the debate’s absolute highlights was the exchange about surveillance early in the evening among the trio of senators on the main stage.
It was detailed, wonky and nuanced — accurately reflecting the complexities and subtleties of the issues, from the reach of technology to the limits of civil liberties, that have bedeviled lawmakers from the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through the revelations of Edward Snowden.
The three were all intensely involved in the Senate deliberations that led to an update in May of the law regulating the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records by the National Security Agency. Texan Ted Cruz and 22 other GOP senators voted for the bill.
Floridian Marco Rubio and Kentuckian Rand Paul were among the 30 in their party who voted against it. All three explained their rationales in ways that might hearten the voter most cynical about the congressional work ethic (although Cruz may have unwittingly said more about the bill’s classified fine print than he should have.)
None of that mattered. Instead, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey scored his biggest moment of the night with an anti-Congress jape that remained in heavy rotation on the cable news channels all Wednesday.
“If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it's like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who've never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position,” Christie said, asserting that his experience as governor and prosecutor made him more qualified to shape federal policy than those who “continue to debate about this bill and in the subcommittee and whatnot; nobody in America cares about that.”
Carly Fiorina took a run at the same line of attack later, deriding a tense but substantive back-and-forth between Rubio and Cruz over immigration policy as “why the people are fed up with the political class.” And the former corporate executive, who’s never held elective office, made a sharper version of that sentiment her main talking point in post-debate interviews. “I think all the brawling between the first-term senators is why people are tired of politics,” she declared on MSNBC.
If the conventional wisdom proves true, and Cruz and Rubio solidify their positioning as the likeliest alternatives to current front-runner Donald Trump, then the other candidates and their partisans will be pressed to move away from their position that being in the Senate is a presidential disqualifier. (That said, it remains true that no sitting Republican senator has won the White House since Ohio’s Warren G. Harding 95 years ago.)
Whoever ends up the nominee, of course, will be looking to collect cash from every corner of the conservative constituency — hence the fascinating revelation from the candidates about their party’s preferred congressional Democratic straw man of 2016.
The GOP recasts the part every couple of election cycles, coming up with a new figure to insert into that section of the party’s fundraising appeal boilerplate that says something like: “Without your help, [Name] and the other left-wing Democrats will get to run the Capitol, raise your taxes, take away your guns and regulate your business into bankruptcy.”
For years the liberal lion Edward M. Kennedy was assigned the role, which since his death has gone to his senatorial successor in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, and top Democratic floor leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Now it seems the “Pelosification” of Schumer is getting started by the Republicans a full year ahead of his all-but-certain ascent into the floor leader’s seat once Reid heads home to Nevada.
While his strategic savvy and penchant for publicity have given him one of the highest profiles of anyone in Congress, Schumer still isn’t well enough known to prompt any national pollsters to collect job approval ratings. But that didn’t stop GOP candidates from dropping his name four different times at the debate — most often to criticize Rubio for being in the bipartisan "gang of eight" that wrote the path-to-citizenship immigration overhaul passed by the Senate two years ago. (Clinton got mentioned 21 times, by contrast.)
Rubio “has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and the liberals than he does on conservative policy,” Paul said, for example.
For the GOP, there’s one downside to raising up a single lawmaker as the personification of Democratic evil. As Kennedy, Pelosi and the rest have all proved, those bugbears really do have the power to fight back — at a minimum, by raising just as much money to combat the conservative scourge. And there’s no hardware better suited for a campaign finance war than a Chuckwagon.
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