Senate Republicans beginning confirmation hearings today with the goal of pushing the nominations through as quickly as possible to avoid what could be some very contentions and uncomfortable fights around some of Trump’s nominees. Trump will assume office next week as one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of this country, and Republicans know that many of the characteristics that Americans can’t stand about him are reflected in his cabinet picks. If Republicans line up in lock step behind these nominees, Democrats lack the power to stop all but one nominee. The political objective for Democrats will be to focus on particular nominees where there is a chance of picking off three Republicans as well as making the confirmation process as painful as possible for Republicans desperate to assert power behind their new president.
Look the Gift Horse in the Mouth (in this case)
Democrats can stop Trump’s pick for the Defense Department due to the National Security Act requiring seven years between military service and assuming the Secretary of Defense position. Retired General James Mattis retired in 2o13 and is well short of that legal requirement. To serve he would need to be confirmed by the Senate by a simple 51 vote majority, but a waiver to the 1947 law would also needs to be passed that could be filibustered and require a 60 vote majority. If the Democrats want to play hardball, this is one place they could exercise power.
The problem with this is that Mattis is probably the most qualified and widely respected cabinet selection Trump made. As much as I know Democrats are spoiling for a fight and ready to enact revenge upon Republicans for eight years of unprecedented obstructionism, this is not the place to do it. As much as I personally think the principle of civilian leadership of the military has been a great benefit to our country, Mattis’s record warrants an exception and blocking him would be look like petty politics. In addition, Trump could do a lot worse in a replacement nomination. Democrats should let their members vote freely on a one-time exception and whip only if votes are needed to break the filibuster. This way the party avoid the appearance of politically opportunistic obstructionism and will still make a principled point that our tradition of civilian control of the military should be preserved in the future.
Democrats on Offense
Democrats know they will not be able to stop most of the nominees, but they have already publicly identified eight nominees where they are willing to grind the Senate to a halt for weeks if Republicans refuse robust hearings. Leader Schumer has told Leader McConnell that he expects at least two days of hearing for each of the eight identified nominees and none of them scheduled on the same week. He is also demanding ten-minute question periods for each committee member with possible multiple rounds of questioning and witness panels to address past records of the nominees. Schumer intends to command the news cycle for the first several weeks of Trump’s presidency including the Sunday morning shows. Part of that probably includes aggravating Trump and coaxing him to call into some of the shows and likely say something stupid.
Rex Tillerson – Secretary of State
Of all of Trump’s nominees, Tillerson could be the one Democrats are drooling over as they prepare to feast. Trump has isolated himself on the Russian election hacking issue as there has been strong bipartisan support in Congress for some level of serious investigation. It is well known that Tillerson has a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin and business dealings with the Russians. The key focus for Democrats should be Tillerson’s past position on sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Crimea. As head of Exxon Mobile, Tillerson opposed sanctions because it hampered business with Russia. He would have undue influence in a decision to lower or eliminate sanctions, a move that appeases aggressive Russian military action in the former Soviet states. If Tillerson won’t back off of this position or even if he is noncommittal, that could raise serious concern with defense hawks such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham. There are several other Republicans in the full Senate that may vote against Tillerson if it is not clear that he will take a strong stand against Russia. This is probably the Democrats best chance to stop a Trump nominee, so don’t take the foot off of the gas.
Jeff Sessions – Attorney General
By the time I post this, Sessions hearing will probably already be underway. Fellow senators typically have a bit of an advantage when facing their colleagues in a nomination hearing, but Sessions should not expect a free pass. This battle is probably less about Sessions and more about Trump himself. Sessions has questionable positions around the Voting Rights Act and some questionable statements expressing tolerance of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists. While it might be argued that Sessions positions are in response to his state of Alabama previously being subject to Justice Department review for changes in state voting laws under the Voting Rights Act, Sessions paints the perfect picture of the Republican Party standing for white rural America. For Trump, the Sessions pick reinforces the platform he gave to white supremacists during his campaign and highlights the fact that his strategy to win the election was built upon a foundation of hatred, racism and xenophobia. Sessions probably hates being called a racist and in his heart, probably doesn’t believe that he really is. The problem for Sessions is that when it comes to politics, perceptions are reality. My guess is that Republicans are too terrified to stand up to the portion of their party base harboring racist ideology and once again, they will be perceived as lifting up an individual who is racist in the eyes of many Americans.
Mick Mulvaney – Office of Management and Budget
This is interesting because the nominee is usually a bean counter that you hide in a back office of the West Wing. This person often engages with Congress in the budget process to press the priorities of the White House, but doesn’t often act as the strongest surrogate. Mick Mulvaney is a member of the House Freedom Caucus that is largely responsible for the intra-party fights that boiled over during John Boehner’s time as Speaker. Mulvaney is a staunch fiscal conservative and Democrats may smell blood in the water as he has never shown any true policy chops when it comes to responsible governing. It is doubtful that Democrats will be able to stop him, but it is clearly an opportunity to remind Americans of when Republicans took us to the brink of debt default and have a big fight over the Affordable Care Act. If the ACA is repealed outright (a position Mulvaney has supported), it will blow up the budget. It should be interesting to see how Mulvaney squares his fiscal conservatism with his dozens of votes to repeal Obamacare with no replacement.
Betsy DeVos – Education Secretary
Democrats are targeting DeVos for two reasons: to highlight Trump’s propensity to pick plutocrats when he fashioned himself as fighting for the working man and to tee up and take a swing at policies representing the most extreme conservative agenda against public education. DeVos is a champion of school vouchers and privatization of the education sector. She was involved in setting up the Charter School system in Detroit that has utterly failed to raise educational performance in the city with some of the lowest reading and math scores in the country. In truth, the Department of Education is one of the weakest federal agencies because so much of the education system is controlled by states. This fight however should provide a springboard for what faces state legislatures throughout the country.
I moved from Arizona several months ago and Senator Steve Yarbrough was my local member of the upper house in the state legislature. He is as strong a supporter as DeVos for school vouchers but hides them behind a non-profit structure that uses tax credits to fully reimburse contributors that provide funding for private school tuition. Yarbrough has sponsored and passed numerous laws in Arizona that have built up this system, but the bigger it gets, the more it robs state coffers resulting in massive cuts to public education that serves more than 80% of Arizona children. I encourage my friends in Arizona and anywhere else where this is happening to leverage this federal fight and showcase how it is playing out in local politics.
Tom Price – Health and Human Services Secretary
This is a simple fight over the Affordable Care Act and Medicare. Along with Mulvaney’s hearing, Democrats will use this opportunity to make their opening case against the repeal of the ACA. Democrats need to flip public opinion on the ACA in order to protect it. Price has been a long time opponent of the ACA and Democrats can force him to address the consequences of repeal. They also have the opportunity to put Price on the spot regarding Speaker Ryan’s unpopular plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system. Democrats won’t stop Price, but a tough fight is an important preemptive strike against the extreme agenda Republicans are going to try to impose upon the American people.
Andy Puzder – Labor Secretary
This one is aimed directly at Trump. I don’t think Trump could have appointed a Labor Secretary less supportive of Labor. Puzder is a fast food CEO (Hardees and Carls Jr. in case anyone wants to boycott) who actually advocated replacing his cashiers with self-service machines. Puzder is the classic plutocrat appointment by Trump, and Democrats will use this appointment to make the case that Trump fooled blue collar wage earners into believing he is fighting for them by highlighting Puzder’s opposition to raising the minimum wage, expanding overtime pay and paid sick leave. This is the beginning for Democrats to take back the populist economic argument that we lost in the 2016 election.
Steve Mnuchin – Treasury Secretary
It shouldn’t come with shock or disbelief that a president would pick somebody from Wall Street to head up the treasury. After the economic meltdown of 2008, it was probably a good thing that we had Wall Street veteran, Hank Paulson at the helm when crafting TARP to immediately recapitalize the devastated banking system. All of that said, there are two things to remember in this fight: Goldman Sachs and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Mnuchin has been a Trump loyalist from the beginning and has spoken in support of rolling back the Dodd-Frank act. This is an opportunity for Democrats to show the American people how Dodd-Frank and the CFPB protect the American people from abusive practices in financial industry. This is the classic Wall Street vs. Main Street fight and once again Democrats can find their way back to the right side of this argument while Trump builds his inner circle from millionaires and billionaires.
Scott Pruitt – Environmental Protection Agency
Again, probably no chance Democrats can stop this nomination, but the fight will be taken directly to younger Americans who are deeply concerned about the threat of climate change. Pruitt flat out rejects the science of climate change and as Oklahoma’s Attorney General is involved in a federal lawsuit over the Clean Power Plan against the agency he is now tapped to take over. Climate change is an issue where a significant majority of Americans agree needs to be addressed, but political candidates have struggled to turn it into a winning strategy since it typically ranks as a lower priority. Fighting Trump on this issue is now less about winning on practical solutions, but raising the importance of the issue among voters. If Americans would assign the importance to the issue that it deserves, it would become more difficult for moderate Republicans to ignore the threat and hide behind the “I’m not a scientists” excuse.
One area Democrats don’t seem to be focusing on is requisite experience of some of the nominees. This was a key argument against Trump in the 2016 campaign and one that I think Democrats should continue to highlight. Trump is really not prepared for the office he assumes next week and I am confident he will make some very serious mistakes. When it comes to nominees like Nikki Haley, Ben Carson, Linda McMahon and Rick Perry, there is an opportunity to demonstrate Trump picking people who have little or no experience for what they are being asked to do.
Haley is a popular governor that is being tapped for United Nations Ambassador. The hearing should pepper her with foreign policy questions because that is what she is going to be doing for the next few years. I actually have confidence that Haley will be a quick learner and serve adequately, but it doesn’t mean that the committee should go easy on her. Trump could have made a much better pick.
Ben Carson is not at all qualified for Housing and Urban Development. Trump used racism to win the presidency and ironically, he is now using it to justify this pick. Just because Carson grew up as a black child in inner-city Detroit doesn’t make him an expert on urban issues. I think it is possible that the Carson nomination could blow up due to his penchant for making outlandish and stupid statements. If it does, Democrats should be ready to pounce.
Linda McMahon is almost as much of a buffoon as her insane husband. I don’t think World Wrestling Entertainment is a model for small business development in this country. If she wants to point to the success of WWE and advocate for a regulation free environment, then perhaps she should be questioned on rampant steroid use and early deaths among the performers they employ.
I can think of two questions for Rick Perry. When he tried to say (and failed miserably) that he wanted eliminate the Department of Energy, what does he plan to do with its most critical responsibilities, like overseeing our nuclear arsenal? Finally, if he gets the nomination, does he know where the office is or can we expect him to be wandering aimlessly around Washington DC for the next few years.
What to Expect
If you think Democrats can stop Trump from getting most of the people he appointed confirmed, think again. It is possible that all of them will be confirmed, although I think we have a pretty good chance at stopping a couple of them. That does not necessarily represent failure if we can’t stop them. I think Senator Schumer is looking at the policy fights down the road where Democrats can block Republican efforts to undo much of what we have gained under President Obama. He has picked his battles based on this. If we get to the debate of Obamacare, climate change and financial reform with Republicans on the defensive, these hearings will have served their purpose.