When Democrats and progressive groups discuss their strategy for a 2017 comeback, they consider an X-factor that no opposition party has ever had to contend with.
What will the president tweet?
Donald Trump’s ability to massage, manipulate, or completely upend the news cycle, which ended up flummoxing Democrats in 2016, emerged anew in the half-day furor over a change to the House’s ethics rules. It was the Trump story in miniature – Democrats first rejoicing at how the president-elect rumbled his fellow Republicans, then Democrats realizing how Trump had steered the story, and the credit, toward himself.
The change to effectively bulldoze the Office of Congressional Ethics, a 2008 creation of Democrats that made it easier to file charges against members of the House and Senate, broke last night after a surprise Republican meeting. The news climbed up Twitter trends, and at the same time, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow tore up her script to spend the second half of her show discussing it.
“It sounds like a bureaucratic change, but what that means is there’s no independent ethics oversight of Congress,” Maddow said. “This means lawmakers themselves now get to police themselves now for ethics. And this means no ethics investigation information will have to be released to the public. They can police themselves now.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was about to be re-elected to lead House Democrats, was quick to condemn the change. On Tuesday morning’s TV news shows, the spin from Trump’s camp was that the rules change did not mean very much.
“You’re still going to have an Office of Complaint Review,” said Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“In other words, it’s not like we’re taking away everything. Look, there’s a very ambitious agenda to push forward.”
Hours later, Trump himself tweeted about the change – but did so in two complementary tweets. Anyone who saw the first only saw Trump ask if Congress needed to weaken “the Independent Ethics Watchdog.”
He tweeted, “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it”
In the second tweet, four minutes later, Trump finished the point – weakening the OCE, “unfair as it may be,” was not a major priority.
He said, “… may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”
But even in those four minutes, Democrats were rejoicing about yet another case of Trump wrecking the GOP’s careful messaging. In the next hour, House Speaker Paul Ryan put out a statement that said the OCE was “in need of reform,” and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told reporters the public had gotten the wrong idea about what the reform did.
An hour after that, Republicans were heading into a surprise, short meeting – one where they learned that the amendment to gut the OCE was dead.
But Trump’s intervention had changed the story. Suddenly, instead of Democrats holding the Republicans accountable, the Republicans had caved for a number of reasons. Among the reasons, some admitted, was Donald Trump. Yes, there had been angry phone calls, and plenty of angry tweets, but Trump, as usual, pushed everything into a circus tent.
By the afternoon, in some media coverage, the Democrats were basically cut out of the story. On cable news, the chyrons were all about Trump; one columnist saluted his “easy win.” Amy Davidson, a New Yorker columnist who is no Trump apologist, framed the story as Trump scoring over his own party, and maybe even over Democrats who would have benefited from weak ethics rules. “If they thought that Trump would cover for them, and help make them look good, the picture is that much more pathetic,” Davidson wrote of the GOP.
But Trump had not called for the OCE amendment to die. Democrats had done that. Late Tuesday afternoon, they began taking credit that no one was willing to give them.
Rep. Keith Ellison tweeted, “Democrats and activists organized against @HouseGOP closing the Ethics Office.”
Zephyr Teachout, a 2016 congressional candidate and progressive organizer, made the same point but gentler.
“Now that’s power–the Republicans just pulled the Amendment that was going to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics!
We think thousands of people called their rep–hundreds from this facebook page alone!!
And hell, it made a big difference. Thank you SO much to all who called. Accountability.”
Teachout was trying to share credit with a coalition of good-government groups that had called on voters to call members of Congress, and demand both 1) a public record of who did and didn’t support the OCE amendment and 2) that the member oppose the new language on the floor.
But in plenty of mainstream media coverage, the Democrats played no role in the successful campaign to reverse the OCE decision.
NPR’s story, headlined “After Backlash, Including From Trump, House GOP Drops Weakening Of Ethics Office,” quoted only three members of the backlash – former Republican Rep. Bob Ney, former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and conservative legal watchdog Judicial Watch.
A CNN story, “House Republicans pull plan to gut independent ethics committee after Trump tweets,” quoted only one Democrat, in the form of an embedded tweet from Pelosi.
According to members of Congress, had Trump said nothing, the OCE decision might well have stuck. Trump’s intervention was news in a way “Democrats oppose GOP move” would not have been. Yet it was the sort of news that blotted Democrats out completely, just as they are searching for ways to become, once again, the party of opposition.
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