Below are the video and transcript to Kimberley Strassel’s speech at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 20th Anniversary Restoration Weekend. The event took place Nov. 13th-16th at the Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
A little bit more on me and my background. I do sit on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. We have a motto. We’ve had the motto, the same motto for decades, “Free Markets, Free People.” It used to actually be “Free Markets, Free Men,” but then folks like me worked there, and we had to switch it up a little. I’m the only member of the board who sits down in Washington and, from there, I write quite a few of the unsigned editorials that are the opinion of the editorial page. Most of those focus on laying out our views on policy. I separately also, under my own name once a week write a Potomac Watch column, and the idea of that is not to talk about policy but to try to explain politics which is, of course, infinitely harder, although infinitely more amusing. It always reminds me of that famous Will Rogers line, “I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.”
So, we just had an election. We are still waiting for a few last final results, Louisiana Senate race, some House seats, but the headline news is in and, of course, it is that the Republicans won and they won big. This marks the first time in four years that one party has owned both houses of Congress, and the first time in the Obama presidency that he has faced a united Republican front. In other words, after years of watching Harry Reid turn the Senate into an earthbound equivalent of the black hole, we are about to experience in Washington something very, very new, and I thought what I would do is just spend a few minutes talking about what I think we might expect. What can we expect from President Obama in terms of his interaction with Republicans? What can we expect from the GOP in terms of what they’re going to try to accomplish with domestic legislation and foreign policy and oversight?
Let me start with the President because I think that one’s pretty easy. There are some, we can call them the world’s bipartisan optimists, who think that perhaps President Obama has been chastened by this loss. They believe that he is like most Presidents, that he’ll be worried about his legacy, he hasn’t passed anything of consequence since 2010. He’ll want to move up those approval ratings. He’ll extend a hand to Republicans.
I’m a Conservative, and so I’m a born optimist, but I also try not to confuse optimism with insanity. I think if we’ve learned anything about this presidency it’s that this President is fairly self-satisfied. What you hear coming out of the White House is that he already believes he has written himself into the history books. He did Obamacare. He will take credit for restoring the economy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. There is a view in the White House that what will in fact determine President Obama’s legacy is his party’s ability to keep the White House in 2016 and therefore protect programs like Obamacare. And if that’s your guiding principle, then your impulse is going to be to spend the next two years trying to lay traps and create scenarios designed to make Republicans look bad, to make them look obstructionist and hostile to progress and therefore laying the groundwork for another Democratic President. And I point out that he’s likely to get a lot of support for that strategy from Congress. They are not chastened either.
One aspect of this recent midterm that has not been adequately noted is that most of the Democrats who lost their seats were the ones who at least claimed to represent the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party. So the Democrats who were going to be returning to Washington in January are not only going to be greatly reduced in numbers, they’re going to be a far more liberal caucus than that party has probably seen in decades.
And we’re already seeing the President’s approach. I’d like to point out to you for any of you who didn’t watch it or didn’t note this, the most telling line in the President’s press conference after his midterm thumping, “To all the Americans who voted, I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too.“ This is a story Democrats are already telling themselves. They didn’t lose this because it was a referendum on Obama. They didn’t lose it because people disapprove of their policies or their candidates or want to change. Oh, no. They lost because not enough people voted. In particular, not enough people on their side. And so the approach going forward is to double down, to reenergize the liberal base with more aggressive policies.
And that’s been the definition of Obama’s past week. In the ten short days since this midterm, the President’s announced he’s going to unveil a series of unlawful immigration orders to get the Hispanic vote back onside. He’s unilaterally cemented a new climate deal with China to get the Tom Steyers and the environmental base back onside. He’s pressuring the Federal Communications Commissions on net neutrality to get all those Silicon Valley donors onboard. And this in my view will be the definition of Obama’s behavior in his last two years in office. This is going to be a White House that continues to break in every form and fashion and to new levels of the boundaries of Presidential power. And the reason I think this is guaranteed is because I believe there is really only one lesson this President has learned in the last six years and that lesson is this. He has discovered, to his delight, that when he does this stuff, there really isn’t anything anyone can do to stop him.
So, what about Republicans. Republicans. It is sometimes easy to look at the Republicans over the past few years and not be filled with huge amounts of rousing confidence that they’re going to successfully navigate the next couple of years. But I think the glass-half-full side of all of this is that, in fact, the GOP has learned some very bruising lessons over the last couple of years, and they’ve learned them the hard way. And so they come into this majority with those mistakes under their belt a little bit savvier perhaps than in recent years. And their greatest insight, in my mind, and the one that their ability to remember I think is going to define their success, is that they can’t govern from Congress. You can’t govern from Congress. You can’t. You can push, you can demand, you can block, you can exert influence. They’re going to have a bigger megaphone than they did because they’ll now have both chambers. But it’s the other guy who has the veto pen, and they know that this President is going to use that pen to draw lines around certain of his priorities and to protect them at all cost. And so the trickiest thing the GOP is going to have to handle over the next two years is expectations management. They cannot afford to go out and promise to repeal Obamacare because they can’t. And they can’t reform Medicare. And they can’t abolish the EPA. That’s just not going to happen.
What they can do, and what they must do, is instead lay out on the national stage an optimistic, creative, pro-growth, problem-solving agenda by moving a steady stream of targeted, sometimes smaller legislation, to the President’s desk and daring him to say no to that. Set peace battles in which the GOP highlights very specific positive changes and then forces congressional Democrats and President Obama to make choices. And note this President has never had to do that before. For six years he’s been protected by the Democratic Senate which spent its first two years only sending him his priorities, and the last four years shutting down the entire chamber to shield him from any controversial bills. And by the way, most of the Senate has never had to take a difficult vote. Do not underestimate the power of simply forcing the left to have to vote on some issues.
Look at Keystone. I think this is a fabulous example. It has been delayed for six years. The House has passed legislation authorizing it nine times, and Harry Reid acted like the subject never existed, never had binding vote on it. But now, Democrats came back and they realized that this was going to be one of the first things that Republicans took up when they took over the Senate. They realized that 70 percent of Americans support the idea of the Keystone Pipeline. They know that many of their members are going to get shellacked if they actually do vote no. So rather than wait for Republicans to take credit for that, they’re moving it up, and they’re likely to have a vote on Tuesday. And I will wager that there will be a number, a significant number, of Democrats who vote for this only because they are finally being made to. So that’s an idea of the dynamic and how it changes.
Republicans are going to have a lot of avenues by which to make President Obama and Democrats have to make those choices. In particular, because they have vowed to, and this is important not just for the country, I think, but for their success in Washington, they vowed to go back to regular order. Something Washington has been missing a while. We may finally have, for instance, an honest to goodness appropriations process. Imagine that. And that means the full use of the power of the purse which is the power that’s been largely obliterated by these many years of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills. Those CRs have meant that if Republicans ever wanted to force a policy change via the federal purse, they had to hold the whole government hostage. That’s what happened last fall with Obamacare and the government shut down, and it isn’t always good politics.
If you go back to the regular process, however, as both John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have promised to do, and it’s important that they be held to that, that’s a whole new ballgame. You can put policy into individual funding bills. You can pressure Democrats to join it. You can send it to the President and then he has a choice. He can agree to your policy, or he can be responsible for shutting down one piece of his own government.
Think about how much fun this could be with, say, an energy appropriations bill. You put all this policy in there that the President and Democrats have for years, claims that they’re in favor of, more liquid natural gas terminals, offshore drilling, and you force them to vote on it, and you send it to the President and if he vetoes it, darn, he shut down his energy department, which would just be awful, right? I mean he wouldn’t be able to send anymore subsidies to Solyndras.
If Republicans are going to lay out an agenda, that appropriations process is also going to be vital for another reason. It’s going to be the main way to finally and again have a national debate on spending and priorities in government. This is a debate the President has also been largely able to deep-six over the last few years because of the continuing resolution culture. “Government Just Gets Funded,” it’s a little note on Page 36 of the newspapers. Nobody talks about what was in it. Republicans can once again talk about the sequester. They can tie this into the foreign policy debate that we’re now having, the cuts President Obama has made to the military and what’s that meant for our national security, and even if they don’t send all their ideas to the President, they can tee-up via these process, budget process, their visions of healthcare reform and entitlement reform and give the country an idea of what would happen if there were a Republican President.
Some of these little set piece battles aside, there’s probably a few bigger and bolder things, if Republicans are very smart about it. There is a push right now coming from the White House to work with Republicans on corporate tax reform. Paul Ryan is taking over Ways and Means. He’s very serious on this subject. And the question is going to be whether Obama can be a trusted partner in a tax venture. He never has been before. We’ll see if he’s changed.
Immigration. There is only one reason in my cynical little mind that the President is now threatening these immediate actions on immigration executive orders. It isn’t to help the Hispanic community. It isn’t to clarify the law. It probably isn’t even likely because he believes that it’s great politics for him. It is for one reason only. It is to goad Republicans into acting like lunatics. And I know there is a very controversial question out there still, immigration, among the conservative ranks, but in my view Republicans would be very wise to act in a responsible way on some form of legislation and just clear this from their decks.
A little takeaway from the midterm that I didn’t think got a lot of attention, but it’s hugely relevant. One of the reasons Republicans did better among Hispanics this midterm, and they did – a lot of senators, a lot of governors, a lot of house members. Their numbers were higher with Hispanic voters. I think it’s because immigration wasn’t really a topic. The President didn’t want to talk about it because of what had gone on down at the border. Republicans didn’t want to talk about it because it’s an uncomfortable subject. And it just didn’t come up in a lot of races. And as a result, the GOP had an opportunity to talk to Hispanic voters about other issues that matter deeply to the country, the economy, jobs, healthcare. This ought to be the situation that Republicans are striving for. Being able to talk to Hispanic voters about other issues that matter to them, and you can’t do that until immigration as a policy topic is neutralized.
So that’s legislative. Beyond that, the next most important thing the GOP is going to have to do is tackle nominations. It’s huge. As many of you know, Mr. Reid at the end of last year blew up the Senate filibuster for Presidential nominations. The consequences of that have been profound. For years now Federal Appeals Courts have favored Conservative justices because of the legacies of Reagan and both Bushes. Now for the first time in more than a decade, and a lot of people don’t know this, for the first time in more than a decade judges appointed by Democratic Presidents significantly outnumber judges appointed by Republicans. Democratic appointees now hold the majority of seats of 9 of 13 appellate court circuits. When Obama took office that number was one.
The most consequential of these as you may know is the DC Circuit which hears almost every important case out of Washington and now has seven Liberals and five Conservatives on it. Four of those seven were picked by Obama, and most of them ran through just in this past year since the filibuster was blown up. Obama has now not only appointed far more judges than President Bush had by this time in his tenure, those justices, because there has been no filibuster to provide a check on what kind of judges they are, they are far more Liberal than most justices that have been put on the court in decades. And they’re going to serve lifelong terms.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s going to return the Senate to regular order and also restore the filibuster to 60 votes to confirm nominees. I know there’s a big debate out there among Republicans on whether or not this is a good idea. I think it is. I know a lot of people think that Republicans should give Democrats a taste of their own medicine, but if you don’t go back up to 60 votes, here’s one of the problems. There are a lot of Republican Senators right now in the Senate who are of the mind frame that you need to show deference to Presidential appointments and nominations. And there are plenty more Republicans who are up for election in 2016 in very tough states, and they are not always going to be reliable when it comes to the nominations questions. And I think it’s going to be very, very hard. I don’t think, I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s going to be very, very hard for Democrats to get 51 votes on most of these nominations, so if you don’t put it back up to 60, it becomes much harder to block things. And I want everyone to think about that too in the context if there is a potential Supreme Court opening.
Finally, the other major priority for Republicans has to be oversight. This is a Presidency that is a mountain of scandals: Fast and furious, Benghazi, the IRS, the Veterans Administration, the Pebble Mine veto. And the only thing that all of these cases all have in common is that we don’t have answers to any of them. We have very valiant people trying to get those answers. I saw that Cleta Mitchell got your Annie Taylor award last night. By the way, Cleta Mitchell took me to the bar last night, and if I don’t make it all the way through this speech, it’s her fault.
The individual agencies that are the subject of these probes backed up by the Justice Department and aided by Democrats in Congress have spent the past three years engaging in a fulltime outright effort to stonewall every one of these probes. Will a Republican Senate get us all the answers? No. But what this does do – and Cleta actually wrote an amazing piece in the Wall Street Journal this last week which everyone should pay attention to because it’s correct – this ought to be a moment for the Republicans to finally get more serious about oversight, to be far more aggressive to get the right people at the committees who are actually going to go to the wall to get some of the answers. And that’s a big moment for Republicans too, because unravelling some of these scandals, I think, it’s going to be important for laying the groundwork for 2016 for them.
And they’ve got to do all this because it plays back to the opening point. The GOP’s challenge in a nutshell is this. They were voted in because people in this country desperately want change, but it’s also the case that they can’t run all of Washington just from Congress. There are limits on what they can do, so they’ve got get through what smaller things they can while every day showing what things could be like, how things could be different. And every day master the impulse to react to Obama, because his only goal is going to be to paint them as obstructionists who can’t govern, who are driven by internal fights, and they’ve got to prove that that isn’t true.
And they have to too because this next Presidential race is going to be very tough and nobody should think otherwise. The Republicans on the upside have a very neat, new, young generationally different crew of potential nominees coming up, and that’s very good for the party. But it’s also going to mean potentially a very long and ugly nomination fight. And the Democrats aren’t going to have that problem because they’re going to have Hillary. I mean everyone keeps asking is Hillary going to run? Hillary is running. She’s running right now. She’s running, running, running. You don’t go out and write a book and campaign for everyone across the country unless you’re saying I’m running. Now she could change her mind in the next few months, but right now we are going to have some Republican versus Hillary Clinton. And not only does some Republican have to get through a potentially ugly primary, but that some Republican then has to run in a general election in which increasingly the demographics of this country do favor a Democratic party.
And it isn’t just the Presidency on the line. I’ve talked to some Democrats in the last few weeks since this election. They’re not really overly fussed that they just lost the Senate. Why? Because they’re convinced this is going to be the shortest term loss ever. The last three election cycles have all favored Republicans in the Senate. Far more Democrats up for reelection than Republicans. In 2016, that situation is totally reversed. There will be 24 Republicans up for reelection. Many in states that are absolutely brutal for Republicans to hold. Places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. By comparison there will be ten Democrats up for reelection in 2016.
So, again, the ability for Republicans to prove that they can do something and to lay out, to lay out very clear, modest proposals, act on them, and then provide a vision could well shape the politics of this country for the next decade. The policies the President’s passed, whether they’re allowed to stand, the shape of the courts, the final truth about these scandals, the biggest questions and whether they can ultimately be changed – entitlements, the tax code, tort reform, campaign finance, speech laws – this next two years are very important.
I’m just going to finish by telling you what I’m actually most excited about, and that’s actually the things I don’t yet know are going to come. A major shift has actually been happening in Congress, one that tends to not get a lot of attention. The media tends to be so obsessed with the split in the Republican Party, the Tea Party versus establishment and Libertarians versus Hawks. The biggest change I’ve actually seen in Washington and particularly in the Senate in the decade I’ve been covering is in fact a generational one. When I first started writing about the Senate, the average age of a Senator was about 180 years old. And the real story of recent elections is how many of these older, distinguished politicians have retired or died in office and been replaced by a lot younger people with new ideas. And that’s happened on both sides of the aisle, by the way. It’s not just a Republican phenomena. But given Harry Reid’s lockdown, hardly any of these guys have ever had a chance to make a mark.
And some of them are really impressive thinkers and policymakers. I know you’ve heard from Ron Johnson last night. Yeah. Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and they’re about to be joined by what I would term the best crop as a whole of Republican Senatorial candidates in goodness knows how long. Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Ben Sasse in Nebraska, Dan Sullivan in Alaska – woo hoo, just got Alaska! – Joanie Ernst in Iowa, Steve Daines in Montana. This is a really impressive crew, all of whom have real expertise in the areas that are actually going to matter profoundly in the debates in the next two years, things like energy, things like foreign policy. And you’re going to see them join the many reformers you’ve also seen in the House. And you can have real opportunity, I think, for some ideas and innovation of the kind that the Conservative moment has been lacking for some time and I think that’s going to be a really fun thing to watch.
So, on that more optimistic note, I’m going to let you all get back to your lunch. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to me, and if there are any questions I’m happy to take them.
Audience Member: The Democrats have really poisoned the well. Everybody who is an uninformed voter knows full well that every Conservative, every Republican is mean, selfish, dishonest, homophobic, bigoted, racist and any other bad thing you can think of. So the question is, if people are really convinced of this, we have to change that impression first. How the heck do we do it?
Kimberley Strassel: Well, we have to show it, you know, and actually I think there were some remarkable examples of how people did that in this last election. I think it’s why the Republicans won is because they did. You know, the war on women thing, okay. I mean, that has crushed Republicans the last few years. It hit a wall this year and in part it was because of guys like Cory Gardner out in Colorado, who when they started running ads against him saying he was anti-women and, and would stop everything, he said, actually you know what, I’m in favor of over-the-counter contraception which actually would make it much easier for all of you women out there. And by talking about policies that would actually help women in particular and by not being afraid to, he didn’t just say no, I’m not. He actually gave examples of what it was that made him, his policies and his ideas work for women and, you know, I can’t remember what the final vote was but he kept the gap with Mark Udall very small in the women’s vote. When Ken Buck ran in 2010 he lost women by 17 points. And they did the same playbook on him in Colorado and I think Cory Gardner lost women by 3 or 4 in the end or something like that. Tom Cotton won women by 10 points in part by talking about issues that mattered to women that went beyond uteruses. You know, he talked about foreign policy. You know, remember, there’s a lot of women out there that are national security moms. They care about things like this. So I think you have to address these head on. You know, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, so close, but he spent most of his time, a lot of time on the campaign trail and I advised everyone to go look in Ed Gillespie’s campaign, he had all of his policies laid out. He was a very informed candidate who went on an agenda and he spent a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about ways in which Republican policies will help the working poor. You know, you have to address these things if you’re not going to be tarred as anti-women, anti-poor and everything else.
Audience Member: Yeah, just so the Republicans don’t overreact and go ballistic and actually damage themselves, what is your recommendation for a strategy after Obama commits his lawless act next week?
Kimberley Strassel: Well, look, I think the first thing Republicans have to do is actually just point out, A) how unlawful this is, okay, and that’s a theme that’s really grown out there among people and the public and I think it resonates. I think they also have to point out that this was done for cynical reasons. The President is not helping Hispanic voters. What he will put out will not be durable, it does not address a lot of the problems the Hispanic community cares about. There are all kinds of problems with doing this by executive order because you shouldn’t do it that way. So they should point out that there are major problems and that he didn’t do this to actually help and it’s not good policy, and then I think they should put forward a series of bills that address different issues, starting with the border security bill, but going through some of the things. And, you know, I think that Republicans have the ability, when I think of immigration, I know that this is very controversial but immigration can also be seen as a big jobs bill. I mean, there’s a lot to this about high tech visas, guest worker programs, things like that, and I think it’s got to be a framing issue as well as anything. But they do I think have to respond in some way.
Audience Member: John Boehner has already rolled over on immigration and is going to give us amnesty and it makes those of us who worked hard to get Republicans elected wonder what the effort was about and why the Republicans in the House can’t seem to get a Republican as a leader. Would you like to comment on that?
Kimberley Strassel: Well, they just had elections. Anyone could have challenged him and nobody did. So I think one problem that has happened, and I would wager if you talked to members of Congress they would agree with this too, is that probably one of the failings of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell over the last few years is they haven’t actually talked to each other, and they haven’t necessarily talked to their conferences as much as they should and told them what they’re going to do and make an effort to get them onboard with it. And you know when you’re not sending a message about what your plan is and working hard internally to get your guys onboard, you create a vacuum which allows everyone to kind of do whatever they want. And, you know, I think that was some of the craziness you saw over the shutdown last year, it wasn’t the shutdown itself but the fact that the party didn’t seem to know where it was going, it was running in 15 different directions all at the same time. So this isn’t directly addressing your question but I do think one of the things that I’m hearing from people is that there’s been a big push on Boehner and McConnell to be a lot more responsive to their caucuses, be a lot more informative about what they’re doing and to work with each other and have a unified strategy and we’ll see if that doesn’t help. Thank you.
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