Be Right or Do Right? Zach Friend & Paul Shone on the New Congress

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Can we look at the top priorities for the new Congress without talking about likability, who curses more, or a dancing video?

Yes we can. On Dastardly Cleverness: Politics Edition it's not about the horse race, or the latest outrage, but how to make politics do what it’s supposed to do: make our lives better, not just more entertaining — or depressing.

In this episode host Spencer Critchley brings brings back a previous guest and introduces a new one to talk about top priorities for the new, Democrat-controlled House — including if and when it should launch impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Dastardly Cleverness veteran Zach Friend is an alumnus of the John Kerry and Barack Obama campaigns, the Democratic National Committee, and Congressional staff, and is currently an elected Supervisor in Santa Cruz County, California.

New guest Paul Shone is a Boston-based Democratic political consultant. He's had senior roles on presidential campaigns in nearly every cycle since 1976.

You can find a transcript of the episode below.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Spencer: Hi, Paul. Hi, Zach.

[00:00:01] Paul: Hi, Spencer.

[00:00:02] Zach: Hey Spencer. Thanks for having us with you.


[00:00:04] Spencer: Sure. I want to start off this time talking about impeachment. We've got the new Democratic Congress that's come in, and there are a lot of Democrats who are thinking, "OK, let's get on with it. Let's impeach this guy." How do we look at this? Paul, how do you see it?

[00:00:16] Paul: I don't think that the Democrats should be pushing and impeachment in any way, because in the end there are not the votes. You need sixty-seven votes in the Senate to impeach somebody and I think that impeachment itself really has to be pushed by the Republicans. If it isn't bad enough already, it is going to be so bad that the Republicans will end up having to push this. What the Democrats need to be doing is passing bills that actually help people around the country.

[00:00:45] Spencer: So I'm going to push back and make the devil's advocate case on this because to a lot of people that would sound like, "Wait a minute. That's the problem with Democrats. They never fight. They just roll over and they try to compromise with Republicans." So Paul or Zach, I'd like to hear why shouldn't, especially with this new crop of energized young Democratic members of the House, why not go in and take advantage of this political capital they have right now in this energy they have right now and get moving on this?

[00:01:13] Zach: Well, I don't, I don't think actually it's a question of whether it's fighting for something or not. And I agree with Paul, but in a sort of, ah, slightly different and broader sense about whether the Republicans need to lead it. I mean, I think that it's actually you would need, in essence, a national consensus that whatever is defined as a high crime or misdemeanor is worthy of impeachment. Ultimately, that's a legal question. But ultimately, this is a political question. As Paul notes, if you're going to go through an exercise, just to have the Senate not follow through with a conviction, so to speak, the question is to really what was the necessity of the exercise when I believe that people put the Democrats into the house for a couple of reasons. One of them, I think, was actually healthcare and preservation of health care, which is a legislative agenda. Two, was to have an adult in the room when realistically, there hasn't from a legislative side been such over the last couple of years. You've got a lot of chaos, but not a lot of governing. And the third was for a legitimate check and balance, which was not happening in a Republican-dominated Congress, especially with Congressman Nunes basically whitewashing, in many respects, some of the information that was coming out. But I also believe it was, in many respects, in that order. And, I think that while I believe there should be investigations, I think that that the check and balance system, constitutionally-mandated check and balance system should occur that is, exercising the strength and prerogative, there's still a realistic component to it, though, that absent a national consensus, which I think existed maybe more in the Nixon case, even if it's clear that somebody has an impeachable offense, you still have to make the case from a political side of whether it's worthwhile to move forward if it's going to hit a roadblock in the next chamber, because at that point I'm not sure what the purpose is. And I don't think that's a lack of fight. I think that's more of a two years is a short amount of time, not just until 2020. But while we have the house right now, two years is a short amount of time to actually try and get a realistic legislative agenda that helps the American people out. I would say that over the last couple of years, very few people benefited from the legislative agenda that has come out, not through the president and the Republican-led Congress.

[00:03:35] Spencer: Yeah, and you know that the way I would look at this is there's always a difference between being right and being effective. And in this case, I think it's because there is a case to impeach Trump, I would say, technically and legally, it's important to do it right and do it effectively. If you did just look at it from the point of view of, "Should he be impeached?" and that's the way you understand the question only in the legal and technical sense, well, yeah, I mean, he's "individual one" in in a couple of federal crimes, one of which might very well have changed the result of the election, the paying off of the two women. You know, he commits an obstruction of justice in plain sight. There's these repeated plain sight violations of the emoluments clause and what looks like just all kinds of self enrichment and corruption, the constant lying and then the increasing likelihood of collaboration with a hostile foreign power. So I can hear people saying, "Well, what more do you need?" But to me, it's a mixing up of the difference between being right and doing it the right way would be a way of saying it, and I think it's the removal of president is so important that it it's nowhere near enough just to be technically right and legally right, you have to get the politics right. You have to get it so that it there is broad based support for this.

[00:04:51] Paul: There's plenty of things that the country could agree on. And the Legislature and the Congress can agree on. And they ought to do those things. You could do infrastructure. You could do pharmaceuticals, both in the sense of doing something about the opioid crisis and doing something so that people pay less for their whatever medicines they need. I bet that there'd be a consensus to repeal the part of the latest tax bill that says that you can no longer to deduct whatever you're paying for local taxes. So there's plenty of stuff that they can do and that should be the focus of the Congress, and that's that should be the message of the Democratic party. While that's happening, there's committees that are investigating and there's committee who are, I believe, going to be shoring up whatever Muller has to say. It seems as though his presidency is impeachable. But, not only do you need a consensus in the Senate, and you need a consensus voters among the voters in this country, so that after it's done, as Spencer said, after it's done, we have a consensus that, "Yea, well, he wasn't really, It wasn't a coup. Whatever happened, happened the way it was designed to happen and the way it was supposed to happen,

[00:06:11] Spencer: Right, and I think that was obviously an important part of the way the impeachment process was designed back at the founding. And if you contrast the way America supposed to run anyway, versus the way dictatorships run, using any kind of legal process against an elected official as an absolute last resort because that happens all the time in non-free countries where you just, you do have the attorney general in the pocket of the president or the dictator or whatever he's called, and you do have law enforcement in that guy's pocket and they are basically just doing what he tells him to do. And that's just obviously the opposite of the rule of law. If, Paul, if the Democrats go ahead with what you're recommending and they don't have, what I think the three of us would think of as a rush to impeachment, do you think it'll get him anywhere if they're actually doing the good government thing? Obama always used to say that good policy is good politics. I think maybe he and some of the rest of us might be a little sadder but wiser after the Obama administration, given the incredible obstructionism he was met with, even on things that Republicans had previously endorsed. Do you think if they do what you're recommending, they're actually gonna be able to make some headway?

[00:07:26] Paul: I think if you can get some effective laws passed, that's a good thing. They should not, in any way, be like the Republicans and not be bipartisan about it. And, uh, allow bills to be passed with both Democrats, uh, Republican voting for it. In fact, not just allow it, which the Republicans did not do, but encourage it. And I think that if that if that happened, that's going to be good for the country, and it's going to be known by the country. As far as Trump goes, when whatever happens happens, we'll look back at this and say, "Well, that was always gonna happen" because Mueller or because of, you know, one of the thousand other things. If Trump somehow had to leave office or was thrown out of office without everybody saying, "Well, yeah, of course! Of course, we had to throw him out of office. What do you think we're going to do here?" That's that's that's the place we need to get to. I think a fairly small amount of the populace is thinking, "No, he's doing exactly the right thing every day and he needs to do more of it." I think it's like a usual minority. Maybe a little more than a usual minority, but not not anything approaching 50%.

[00:08:41] Spencer: Yeah, that's usually I think, you know, people with experience in politics recognize that around 30% of voters is the noise floor, meaning you could get 30% of the population to support almost anything. Zach, what do you think? Is Paul right, is Paul right about this? If Democrats essentially do the right thing in Congress and just try to pass some good laws and let the process take its course, that that could actually work in this environment?

[00:09:05] Zach: Well, I think that there's no better organizing tool than Donald Trump as president of the United States for the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the midterm specifically not just in purple districts or purple states, but actually in relatively unfriendly territory where the party is significantly outperformed. Now, we actually had good candidates running in a number of these races, even those that we didn't quite pull out. But again, there was no question that it was this interesting dichotomy between a nationalization of him. Meaning while he wasn't on the ballot, he was on the ballot, and the Democrats ability to localize these races to things that were important on either health care, or the economy, or whatever it may be. So in that case, the reality is, is that the process is going to play out irrespective of what the Democratic Party or, excuse me, the Democratic leadership does in the house. So I think that the Democratic Party, or Congress in general, I hate to just use it as an individual party because it be nice if there could be some bipartisanship on this can unite over something, some policies that actually are good for the country on legitimate tax reform and infrastructure and health care and other things. I think that the Democratic candidate is going to be rewarded. If you can show you can govern, all the noise is going to continue to play out still, in the day to day basis. That noise may actually elevate into something criminal. For all we know, it may also not, but all the same, the noise in the chaotic presidency that we have will still play out. And I think that then, when faced with the choice, come '19 into '20. You know, a lot of these states that flipped in '16, I think, were soft flips, and I think that they can definitely be won back as long as we actually have a candidate can articulate that they can govern something that would advantage people live in the states.

[00:11:02] Spencer: Paul, did you want to get in on that?

[00:11:04] Paul: Well, I just think that the election of 2020 is the important thing; not so much whether whether Trump is somehow thrown out and the next two years, which, if we started today and had all the successes that you could have, would take probably almost that long anyway. So that's one way to do it. The other way's just have him doing what we want him to do, or new to him in some other way through peeling off of a little bit of the Senate at, uh, very special times for very special bills, four or five of which I think we could, I think we could get down there in the next year, let's say.

[00:11:45] Spencer: And I think that I'm not the only one to point out that if he were somehow removed from office, whether it was impeachment or indictment or even something more far fetched, I think the 25th Amendment being invoked because of incapacity, it lets the voters off the hook. And I think that voters need to go through a process of coming to terms with so many of them having voted for this person. And I think they need to get a chance to try to make that right in the next election frankly.

[00:12:17] Paul: Not only are they on the hook in the sense of, you know, they did they did this, we did this, the organizers are on the hook too, I think.

[00:12:26] Spencer: Yeah, but well, you know, Democrats have to accept some of the responsibility through losing the election, an election that in many ways was stacked against them. But still, they lost against probably the worst presidential candidate in history.

[00:12:41] Paul: You're not supposed to, you know, if you lose these things that you reap what you sow.

[00:13:04] Spencer: It's so popular to demonize politicians as a group. But in a democracy, any elected official was put there by voters. And so ultimately, it's the voters who are responsible for this guy. Blame the person who basically gave him the job.

[00:13:20] Paul: And, you know, the most important thing is, is that the voters have to come to terms with this. They may like it. What do we know? If they like it, you may win forty states. You never know.

[00:13:32] Spencer: That's another painful truth. That's another painful truth about democracy is that even people who are wrong get to vote.

[00:13:39] Paul: Well, yeah, you know, that's God's way of punishing punishing people who hurt other people. He makes them believe that they're right.

[00:13:48] Spencer: Yeah.

[00:13:48] Paul: So these folks who voted for Trump, they all think they're right. They may not all think they're right today. There might be less of them, but it's not something that it's our job or that we ever even could hope to change their mind. They have to change it themselves based on the facts they see.

[00:14:06] Spencer: Right.

[00:14:07] Paul: But we have to either change what they see or we'll have to show them something different.

[00:14:13] Spencer: I think that, too, is such an important point. It's deceptively simple, but again, it gets back to how important is it to be right versus to do the right thing or to have a functioning democracy, and in fact, trying to run things just based on what you're sure you're right about is the pathway to intolerance, in my opinion. You know, that's essentially Jacobanism from the French Revolution, where you figure you have scientifically figured out where history is going. And anybody who would just who disagrees with you is either ignorant, stupid or evil. And, I think you're right. You know, I was kind of joking when I said, in a democracy, you have to accept that even people who are wrong get to vote. But this is what I mean by that. You may be convinced these people are wrong, beyond any doubt in your mind, but you cannot dictate to them the right answer, even if you're sure you have it. As you say, Paul, you have to try to persuade them through the democratic process to see it.


[00:15:10] Paul: Yeah, you can't. They think we're wrong. They totally think they think we're totally, totally wrong. And then I do think on a set on a separate issue, I do think that a lot of his 30% or 34%, whatever it is, I think that some of that is just people that have kind of tickling us. "Let's see, let's say this and see how they like that. Oh, that'll really kick him off, you know?" You know, for legitimate reasons and especially from their point of view.

[00:15:37] Spencer: Yeah, well, I think that you know what they what they call owning the libs, a lot of that comes from if people have lost faith in the system, they figure, well, why not just screw with it? Why not just score a few points and piss off the other side? If if you've lost faith that it's ever going to work for you and in your particular group's interest, And I think that this raises tribalism right? Looking at what's happening with support for Trump, some of it is just flat out racism that's been there for a long time and that, frankly, I think the Republican Party has been exploiting for decades now, and some of it is something that looks similar but is broader and which I think shows up in everybody, even if they're sure they're, they're not bigots, which is just the sense of tribal identity. And frankly, I think that it's something that Democrats also underestimate the importance of. Whether we like it or not, people feel this sense of solidarity with their group. It's just wired into the way our brains are designed, and you can't just appeal to people's heads as to what would be the right policy. You have to build this sense of group identity, and personally, I feel like Democrats can build on inclusive and diverse group identity. They don't have to appeal on the basis of ethnicity or religion. They can do it based on the what really is the American tribe, which ultimately is faith in the Constitution. From my point of view, Democrats often overlook that just gut and heart level sense of identity and the importance of building that. And instead they come across as trying to appeal to a diverse coalition of separate groups. Instead of finding ways to unify all of those groups into that, that larger group, which to me, I think is the best group identity there has ever been that that one, that you become a member of the American tribe just by becoming loyal to the Constitution.

[00:17:31] Paul: Yeah, and it's a loyalty to sense of fairness.

[00:17:35] Spencer: Yeah, when people are agonizing over, "What's the Democrat's message?" it drives me crazy because I think it basically just comes down to that, that basically, Democrats think everybody should have a fair shake. And you can say that multiple ways and you can get into detail if you want and go through all the policy details. But to me, that's what unites all of them. Speaking of issues, Zach, I'll go with you first. What do you think Democrats should be focusing on starting now with the new Congress? And as we transition into getting getting used to the fact we're going to be in a primary for the nex ten years?

[00:18:08] Zach: Well, I think that there might be a slight difference between the issues that can be talked about on a kind of macro policy level and then the bill's on the ground, so to speak. I think that there is consensus for an infrastructure investment across the country, which, by the way, actually would disproportionately help some of those states that we lost in 2016, so it sze good politics, but it's actually a heck of a lot smarter policy. But I do think that that just getting back to well, it may be kind of looked at as economic populism. To me, it's actually just what the Democratic Party has been about for quite some time from the Roosevelt era on which is again, people are overlooking the fact that this economic expansion that started significantly under Obama and has, well, in some respects, actually flatlined in the last eighteen months really has not helped out a lot of people in the country. So if this is the best situation that we can be in from an unemployment standpoint, in many respects, even interest rate standpoint. The fact that so many jobs are, still insecure wages are still disproportionately flat to inflation, very modest growth over the last two years in wages. I think that most people aren't buying this argument that everything is great and the superlative president, meaning that he hasn't found a superlative he doesn't like to use to describe how great of a job he's doing, irrespective of whether he did it or not. I think that that that I don't think people are feeling at home, and I think that there's a sense of insecurity. Now that the thing is that how do you you can play on people's fears in that situation? I think that's what he has been successful at doing. Ah, or you can kind of organize, organize, organize, which we're always better at doing, and then around a message of something that really does help out, you know, the working class Americans. I just think our I think about a lot of people in my family, by the way, that live in the Midwest. I was born in Minnesota, got a lot of family in those states. You know, unlike the coasts, they haven't seen their homes rise a couple hundred thousand dollars. Their homes aren't even worth a couple hundred thousand. They haven't seen their wages rise like they do in Silicon Valley. They've seen him barely keep pace with inflation. These are disproportionately the voters that will decide the twenty twenty election. And it would be crazy to not speak to them and especially because that's actually as a party who are core is anyway. Ah, so be nice to make sure that we're going back into that strong message. I think the real question is going to be who's the credible messenger for it over the next two years? Like it's the one good thing about a long primary, if such a thing could be good about a long primary, is that it probably will help shake out a pretty strong candidate when all sudden done. Because, I mean, they really have to go through a lot of vetting process through a lot of very unique states that air front loaded now that weren't front loaded in the system before. So I think in that case, that that almost good. But it's so back to the economics would be for me, I think It's almost the same message of the '91, '92 Clinton campaign, and it was much more up front in the '08 Obama campaign. But I think the '92 Clinton campaign messaging has come back again.

[00:21:39] Paul: I agree with Zach, as far as it being the economy stupid. I think it always I think it always is at base and the other stuff is all kind of fluff. Remember, that's what people really wrote on it most, most people, most of the time. As far as the 2020 election, it's kind of a race, which is almost almost like an open race. You know, it takes all kinds and you get all kinds and we've got all kinds in this, and I think that's good, you know that there are some that, you know, couldn't be president on their best day, and there's some, you know, they're just, you know, certainly more than more than a couple who could be a great, and unexpectedly great, president. So I'm gonna to see what the X rays look like.

[00:22:27] Spencer: Yep, I agree. And you know, I'm not at all concerned that we have, at the moment, somewhere around twenty potential Democratic contenders. Ah, that's what primaries are for, as far as I'm concerned. You know, let there be a good, vigorous debate during the primaries. Let all these issues get explored. Let a consensus be built. My only concern is the circular firing squad so that while people, I think, should have even heated arguments with each other about this stuff, that's all okay. But anything scorched earth, you know where you're actually hobbling the person who emerges as the front runner, I think should be off the table. We'll have to see if Democrats can can meet that standard this time. Guys, ah, before we do wrap up, is there any one last thing you want to say before we come back and do this again?

[00:23:18] Zach: I think that we have an advantage of organization, and the Democratic Party's about has energized as can be in. One of the things that we should remember is that Obama actually didn't get a statistically significant majorrity of the white vote, especially white male vote, than John Kerry did. The difference between those two campaigns was this larger portion of the women vote, larger portion of the young vote, a larger portion, especially the Latino vote. It's a reminder that the party has an opportunity, especially with infrequent voters that are energized right now, to really build life-long relationships with these relatively new voters who, in some cases, were infrequent voters, in other cases, through organization and messaging and actually policy prescriptions that really do benefit them, and not just the few, which has been the case over the last couple of years. I think if we pull that off, as was pulled off pretty well in the 2018 campaign, there's a pretty remarkable opportunities for the Democratic Party moving forward in the 2020 Senate landscape to 2020 presidential landscape. Uh, and, well, one thing that never seems to be talked about at the state legislative and governorship standpoint where so much more policy, quite frankly, is actually done, the one good thing of a Trump presidency could be that it's a reset on apathy in the Democratic Party. The sense that people, really, I think, had rested on their laurels during the Obama presidency. They didn't organize the way they should have during the Clinton campaign. I mean, people have different reasons that rack now for what that may be. But this is now an opportunity that can really change the trajectory for quite some time.

[00:25:01] Paul: One of the things that I don't think they figured out yet is the behavior in the participation rate, a lot of different things about millennials. And I think this coming election is going to be their big one. You know, their big day. They're big one. It's what we've been talking about from the last four, five years. But I think there's been growing and getting bigger. Now, they're in prime earning years, you know, they left education pretty much behind. They're going to have families, and I think it's moving very, very quickly. There will in the system and their movement towards, you know, running, running all of the systems of our government and you know of American life and I think that's going to be really noticeable just in the next couple of years. I think it's noticeable in the Congress. It's this time and I think everything in the sciences, in business, and everything else. They at the point where they have been taken over. You know, as normally happens. They've been taken over for years, but they're really taken over now and and in the next couple of years. I think that's really going to be noticeable.


[00:26:21] Spencer: I think that's a great point. I just want to highlight that. That's because reality is so fluid, and we're always at risk of building an analysis based on the way the world was a few years ago. And a few years ago, Millennials were young and like most young people, they don't pay that much attention to politics. And that's always been true. They don't show up to vote in a lot of cases because they have less at stake. They don't own property. They don't have children. But you're right. Those with millennials are now well into their thirties, heading towards their forties. Those are going to be voters.

[00:26:53] Paul: Yeah, mid-30's and up. Another thing that's going to be a much bigger part of our life in two years as it is today is climate change. I think that's going to crowd out a lot of these other issues because I think we're just gonna have to face various aspects of it every day.

[00:27:12] Spencer: That might be another one of those that's an example of how reality is fluid and always changing. Climate change has been a tough sell in the past, and often it's been identified with a relatively elite constituency that has the luxury to care about the future of the climate. Whereas, you know, working class people might be more focused on, "Do I have a job or not? Or does that job pay enough to support the family?" But I think you might be right, Paul, that those sets of concerns are going to converges climate more and more affects people directly.

[00:27:47] Paul: As it effects the water in the streets of Miami, people are going to notice stuff. And we may not be too far away from that among other weather changes that we may have.

[00:27:59] Spencer: And who knows, if we see that, it might make some of the issues we've been talking about today seem kind of small by comparison. Paul and Zach, thanks for joining me. I hope we get to do this again soon.

[00:28:10] Paul: Sounds good!

[00:28:10] Zach: I appreciate it.