WATCH: "What's Next for Congress?" with Molly Ball
The Center for Effective Lawmaking hosted a Virtual Batten Hour on November 9 featuring Molly Ball.
Ball is the National Political Correspondent for TIME and a frequent television and radio commentator. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Pelosi, a biography of the first woman Speaker of the House. Prior to joining TIME, Ball covered U.S. politics for The Atlantic, Politico and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She has received numerous awards for her political coverage, including the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency, the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting and the Washington Women in Journalism Outstanding Print Journalist award. Ball is a graduate of Yale University. In 2007, she won $100,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. She grew up in Idaho and Colorado and lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and three children.
Watch the conversation online:
Transcript as follows:
Alan E. Wiseman (00:00):
Good afternoon. My name is Alan Wiseman and I’m the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. And along with Craig Volden at the Batten School, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. This afternoon we’re really excited to welcome Ms. Molly Ball, who’s going to discuss her perspectives on essentially what’s next for Congress in light of our most recent elections. As many of you know, Ms. Ball is the National Political Correspondent of Time magazine, also having written extensively for The Atlantic, Politico and a wide range of other newspapers and journalistic outlets. She writes extensively and has written extensively on American national politics, focused on elections, the presidency, and most relevant for our current conversation, The U.S. Congress. She’s the recipient of a wide array of disciplinary wide awards for journalism, including the Toner Prize for Excellence in Public Reporting, the Lee Walczak Award for Political Analysis and the Sandy Hume Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Journalism. Also highly relevant to our current discussion is her most recently published book, titled Pelosi. Having recently completed, I can tell you Pelosi’s a fascinating in-depth account of the rise of speaker Nancy Pelosi, dating back to her childhood days in Baltimore, in which Ms. Ball also engages with the ways in which Pelosi engaged with the local political machine in San Francisco, was elected to Congress, her rise through the U.S. Congress until she became the first female speaker of the United States House of Representatives, as well as her fall from that position when the Republicans took over the House and then her subsequent rise again to the position when the Democratic party took over in 2018. Really, it’s an incredibly readable book. It really reads like a novel in a lot of cases, and it provides a really nice on the ground, inside-baseball account of the ways in which Speaker Pelosi has been incredibly successful across her career in engaging with factions both within her party, across her party, as well as outside of the chamber itself to help advance her legislative arena. I really can’t endorse it enough. And for any Vanderbilt undergrads who might be tuned on today, you’ll be happy to know that you will be compelled to read this next year when David Maraniss visits the campus and it’s on a required reading list for the political biographies class we’re teaching. So with that, I’d like to pass the mic, so to speak, over to my Co-Director Craig Volden over at the Batten School, who’s going to take us off into the Q and A.
Craig Volden (02:19):
So thanks for joining us here at the Batten Hour, sponsored by the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Given our recent elections, which we’re all aware of and your deep expertise, we have so many questions for you. But we also want to be sure to bring in audience questions from those of you who are watching this live. You all can put those questions down at the bottom of the screen in the Q and A section, and we’ll be bringing those in as we go along. Some of the questions that we’ll be asking you, Molly, are going to be pretty general. Some are going to be more specific. Regardless, we’d love to hear specific examples from your experiences in observing Congress as they come to. But first, along with thanks, a quick question, or maybe it’ll be a longer question. What drew you to journalism and what drew you to covering politics and Congress in particular?
Molly Ball (03:12):
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me and thanks everybody for being here. To be honest, I haven’t gotten an enormous amount of sleep over the past couple of weeks. So if I’m a little bit less articulate than usual, please let that be my excuse. So I, in retrospect it should have been obvious that I was always going to be a journalist, although I didn’t figure it out until I was probably in college. But when I was in the fifth grade, I started a newspaper in my neighborhood, in the Denver suburbs, my friends and I put together the Walnut Hills Quartet. We got the local Office Depot to give us free copies. And we went door to door, selling it to people for, I think, quarter or 50 cents. But anyone here who’s ever done a group project is familiar with this dynamic.
Molly Ball (04:01):
My three friends then flaked and I had to do the whole thing myself. But I always loved writing. I was always a bookworm. I was that kid who never wanted to do sports or even really go outside, but I, read three books a day from the time I was about four. So just love writing, love, reading, and love knowing things about the world around me. So I worked on my high school and college newspapers, started to do newspaper internships. And here I am, it’s still the only thing I know how to do. But I was a general assignment reporter early in my career, worked at a series of newspapers and worked overseas at the sadly now-defunct Cambodia Daily for two years. And then there was an opening. I was working at the smaller paper in Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Sun, as a general assignment reporter doing criminal justice coverage, investigations, features, and then the bigger paper was tired of me scooping them, but the opening that they had was to cover politics, which I’d never done before. So I made a very convincing presentation that this was something I could do with no real experience. And that was in 2006 when there was a big gubernatorial race underway in the state of Nevada and a lot of other down-ballot elections. So I started covering politics because it’s the job that was open. And I love it because I still consider myself kind of a generalist. I’m not really a political junkie. I just like being able to keep learning about all kinds of different things and politics touches everything.
Molly Ball (05:32):
It touches every state in the country. It touches every person’s life. It touches every different issue that people are interested in. And I think also having started as a local reporter, having not gotten to DC until fairly late in my career, I try to always see politics from the ground up. It’s, to me, it is a mechanism that people use to try to make change using our democratic system. So I’ve covered voter registration drives in 110 degree parking lots in Las Vegas, and state legislative elections, city council elections. Seeing where politics starts on that really ground level, I think, has really helped me understand it at the national level and in the halls of Congress and at the very sort of pinnacle of power, where so much of that can become an abstraction, but that’s still really where everything starts. That’s what democracy means. It’s the consent of the governed. And that is an unfortunately a controversial and possibly partisan issue right now. But that’s where I’m coming from. And that’s why I find this also interesting, and so rich.
Alan E. Wiseman (06:43):
Well, I want to pick up directly that point, Molly, in terms of the contentiousness regarding the scope of consent to the governed, so to speak. On October 22nd Time magazine published an article that you wrote titled “Why Fears of Post-Election Chaos Are Overblown” in which you laid out the argument for why broader threats of pandemonium or public pandemonium at least were probably overstated. We’re now essentially about a week since election day. And I think all of us would kind of like to get your gut reaction on how would you sum up the current status of the election results? Do you think your article proved to be largely accurate? Do you think we have other things to be concerned about in terms of the broader debate regarding the legitimacy of the ongoing election results as we move forward?
Molly Ball (07:27):
I mean, I think it remains to be seen whether that article is prescient because there is still some chaos that could erupt. And I tried to be clear in the article that I wasn’t trying to make a prediction, just to point out the unlikelihood of a lot of these catastrophic scenarios that particularly nervous liberals were getting extremely spun up about. And it still does appear that the sort of cooler heads are prevailing, the result of the election is not much in doubt, except perhaps on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But we are still in a very precarious moment, a lot still depends on a couple of things. On, well, primarily on just what the president decides to do going forward, whether the things that he is saying … he’s made some tweets and some statements that are of course, quite irresponsible and dangerous, but he could go a lot further if he wanted to really sort of get people riled up.
Molly Ball (08:28):
We’ve seen these protests, which again have been pretty small so far, where his supporters have gone sometimes armed to the places where votes are being counted. It doesn’t seem like that’s a serious mass mobilization at this point, but it would certainly be possible and it certainly is not something that this president has ever shied away, from the possibility of openly inciting violence and disorder and trying to create further conflict around the doubts that he’s sown about the election results. So I think we’re still in a little bit of a precarious moment. A lot also depends on people around the president, top Republicans. They seem at this point to sort of be giving time and space to the president. And that’s perfectly legitimate to allow whatever evidence there is to come forward, allow whatever legal challenges there are to play out, without sort of irresponsibly stoking some of these false claims about the doubt around the election results. So it seems like I will be proven right, but we don’t know yet, and I don’t make predictions. So we’ll see,
Craig Volden (09:42):
We’re getting some good audience questions floating in, and I’m going to try to order them so they kind of follow the chronology from elections to governance. In terms of one first one, how would, with regard to Congress, you sum up the election results so far, and how do you interpret what the American public is telling us?
Molly Ball (10:01):
You know, we were an angry and divided country before this election, indeed, probably before the 2016 election. And that’s still the case. This is not a country that has decided to give an overwhelming mandate to one side or the other necessarily. Now, that is not, I don’t want to take anything away from Joe Biden’s win here. He has won the election by the clearest margin since, 2008, really. And has won the popular vote, by maybe, in the end, by six or seven million votes, which is, and with an outright majority, which is relatively rare in presidential elections. So it’s clear where the majority of the American public is. At the same time, we had a lot of pre-election polling indicating that the voters were willing to give the Democrats a much broader mandate in terms of congressional control that the 2018 election, which I think was fairly viewed as a blue wave, a lot of Democrats thought that was the floor, not the ceiling, of how far they could make inroads into more conservative areas, into conservative leaning suburbs, into rural areas, even into some of these red States.
Molly Ball (11:14):
So flipping Georgia is huge. It has a lot of potential consequences going forward the next couple of months, but also in the broader future for future elections, as Democrats look to the future in the Sunbelt, as opposed to the industrial Midwest where populations are declining instead of growing. And I originally, as I mentioned, am from Denver, Colorado, and Idaho, so I’m very interested in this, the Western and Southwestern dynamics at play here. It’s a region that seen so much change, although it’s been very interesting to me to watch the political dynamic in Virginia mirror the political dynamic in Colorado, where I grew up almost exactly (we can talk about that more). But the point being, the Democrats didn’t get this overwhelming…the Republicans ran ahead of Trump in most of the Senate elections, for example, and so Democrats who were thinking that, they would get that Senate seat in Maine, they would get the Senate seat in North Carolina, perhaps Iowa, perhaps Georgia (we still don’t know there’s going to be two runoffs in January) But it looks most likely the Democrats will be operating with a smaller rather than larger majority in the House and that they will be in the minority in the Senate. Which dramatically constrains the ambitions of a potential Biden presidency. You had a lot of, not just the Biden transition, but a lot of different center left, liberal leaning groups outlining these really ambitious blueprints for a sort of like FDR type era of legislating. None of that is possible without 50 votes in the Senate, even if there are areas where bipartisan compromise can be found, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is not going to agree to this sort of sweeping progressive remaking of the American policy landscape.
Craig Volden (13:24):
Thanks. Beautiful summing up of where we’re at and lots of additional results to go as we look to those Georgia races. When we think, sort of in the immediate governance term, we’re talking about a lame duck session of Congress. What do you think Speaker Pelosi will be confronting there? And how do we expect that to play out?
Molly Ball (13:51):
Yeah. So a few things about that. I mean, this is going to be a transition unlike any other. There’s a normal process for presidential transitions. This is not going to be that. I mean, we’re already seeing that right with this drama surrounding the General Services Administration, just doing this sort of bureaucratic next step to allow the transition to proceed. That’s not happening because the President himself has not accepted that he has lost this election. And so there’s a lot that …a lot of dominoes that can’t fall until that happens in terms of agencies preparing to hand over the apparatus and get the appointments process started and so on. So that is going to sort of hang over the transition as long as it lasts, potentially until the electoral college meets next month, that could delay a lot of these logistical steps that go into the planning.
New Speaker (14:43):
In the congressional lame duck session, again, the Majority Leader McConnell has indicated that he does want to do kind of relatively modest tranche of coronavirus relief. These negotiations had sort of been ping-ponging back and forth for months and months. They did those initial several multi-trillion dollar relief bills that appear to have been quite effective. The economy appears to be a lot better than it could have been, including individuals economic situations much better off than they would have been had that not happened, but it’s all running out. And people are running out of money and jobs are…people are being laid off, especially at state and local governments. So a lot is riding on whether they can make that negotiation happen. And I followed it quite closely over the past year and it’s been this very tortured process, again largely because of Trump, because he is simultaneously quite opinionated, but not very involved in the details of policy.
Molly Ball (15:44):
So he would give these conflicting directions, ‘let’s do something big. Let’s not do anything at all.’ And McConnell, seeing that there was no upside for him in getting involved in this dynamic, sort of just stepped away from the beginning and left it to Pelosi to negotiate directly with the White House. She worked quite well with the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. They’ve had a relationship going back to last year when they successfully negotiated the budget and those first few COVID relief bills. But, as I argue in my book, she was doing quite well in those negotiations. She was getting a lot of what Democrats wanted using her leverage, using her negotiating skill in those situations. And Republicans finally realized that and sort of sent in the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, to put the brakes on Mnuchin and not let him give away quite so much which, you know, for Pelosi’s perspective means that they’re not making any effort to meet her in the middle.
Molly Ball (16:46):
They’re not making any effort to give, to make concessions toward … the Democrats have repeatedly made concessions in terms of paring back their ambitions. There have not been concessions forthcoming of the same magnitude on the other side. So they’ve never gotten to any kind of middle position. And the sticking point, it’s not clear if it’s dollar amount or if it’s the specifics on where these dollars are going to go, the Democrats are very focused on the state and local funding that the Republicans, even though Trump has repeatedly said that he wants to do it, he’s also said he doesn’t want to do it. And so the Senate Republicans don’t really want to give a lot of money to the States, to government in general. So that’s one of the big sticking points, still, there’s stuff about testing so on.
Molly Ball (17:35):
So I expect that those negotiations will continue, but again, it’s hard for McConnell to make any move before the White House admits that they’ve lost the election. It’s hard for the Republicans to come to some kind of agreement with the Democrats because they have to take into consideration the landscape going forward. So for McConnell to say, for example, this is the best we’re going to do until January, or this is the best we’re going to do we should maximize what we can do with a Republican president and larger Senate majority, that’s not going to wash with people who haven’t accepted that Trump is not going to be president come January. So I think a lot still is hanging on this, question, on this wait and see of waiting for the new political reality to set in and become official. And then that a lot of that log jam, hopefully, will be clear and they can make something happen. It does seem like both sides want to make something happen because the need is pretty clear.
Alan E. Wiseman (18:34):
It’s a really interesting insight, the extent to which public acknowledgement of Trump having lost the presidency is really going to be driving the Majority Leader McConnell’s reactions as well as other members of the Republican caucus. I guess let’s just turn this back to something we could predict a little bit more and that being the Democratic party in the House at the moment, and I’d be curious, given your perspectives, obviously having studied and written extensively on this, do you think that Speaker Pelosi is going to be reelected to Speaker of the House going into the next Congress, especially in light of some pretty public airing of grievances and the Democratic caucus and the most recent seat losses in the House?
Molly Ball (19:12):
So the short answer is yes, but she’s going to have to fight for it. And I think 2010 is a pretty good analog, although in 2010 they lost the majority, but it was a similar dynamic where it was a worse election than a lot of Democrats expected. And there were a lot of recriminations. But I mean, in totally blunt terms, a lot of the people are the maddest are the ones who just lost. So Pelosi doesn’t need their votes anymore. And so she benefits from that diet, from her caucus having contracted, because the people who lost are the ones in those reddest seat, the ones in the most Republican leaning districts. So the Max Roses and Kendra Horns of the world, Pelosi doesn’t have to care what they think anymore because they’re no longer members of Congress.
Molly Ball (20:07):
So as much as the Abigail’s Spanberger’s of the world might wish that she had to listen to more of their voices, they are a smaller portion of the caucus now, and that doesn’t mean that Pelosi wants to, or has any intention of going full AOC. She has to show that she’s listening. And I think there’s a feeling within the caucus that she has been too dismissive of a lot of these concerns. This was also the dynamic in 2010 and 2012 and 2014 and 2016. She always, she tends to insist that the strategy was fine, the message was fine. Didn’t turn out the way we hoped, but here’s all the things that are positive that we should stay focused on. We do still have the majority, that’s been a big part of her message.
Molly Ball (20:53):
We still have the House, could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse. But she also has built a lot of goodwill over the past year, since she had to fight for that gavel in early 2019, after winning the House majority, she went through a series of very difficult negotiations with different factions of the caucus in order to get enough votes, to be Speaker again at that time. But most of the objections, most of the people whose votes she had to work hardest to get were the moderates. It was the most conservative leaning members of the caucus, the ones in the swing districts who were the most worried about having Pelosi as their leader going forward, and the image problems that causes for them, the political, …. these are the people who are really suffering from the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of attack ads with Nancy Pelosi and them arguing that you can’t elect this person cause they’ll just be Nancy Pelosi’s puppet and the sort of negative aspects of her quite polarizing national public image rubbing off on them.
Molly Ball (22:11):
And those are the members among whom Pelosi has earned the most goodwill over the past year because of the ways that she kept the caucus together and prevented the sort of Squad AOC wing from running the show, because of the way she was able to sort of keep the progressive wing in the tent, slow walking impeachment, keeping impeachment short and limited and not turning it into a sprawling multi-month extravaganza of sort of anti-Trump presentations that would have furthered the impression, which this faction believes is damaging, that the Democrats are only interested in hating the President and have no positive vision of their own. So she’s been viewed ironically, the San Francisco liberal of a million scary attack ads, is viewed within the Democratic caucus now as a moderating force, she’s really seen as keeping the left wing in the tent, keeping them from getting out of control and turning the turning into a new Freedom Caucus that would prevent the Democrats from getting things done.
Molly Ball (23:15):
So I expect that she will benefit from a lot of goodwill from the Tim Ryans of the world, who have a lot more respect for her now than they did a couple of years ago. But the short answer is still the easy one, which is if Nancy Pelosi wants something from the House Democratic caucus, the odds are very, very, very good that she’s going to get it just because she has her … 90% of her skillset is running it, running the House, keeping the house Democrats together. And it’s something that she just has a very good track record on.
Craig Volden (23:48):
And you had talked about how she’s been negotiating with the Trump administration on a variety of issues. And largely that seems to be because if we have a Republican presidency and a divided Congress, we’re going to have to see a negotiation with the Democrats in that case. If we look ahead to 2021, and we look to President-elect Biden, does the same logic mean that we’d expect the negotiations to be with Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate, and then the House may be playing, bring together a few Democrats and a few Republicans, to solidify that coalition.
Molly Ball (24:29):
She’ll be much less of a pivotal player in that situation. Now we saw when Obama was president and she said things to this effect, she considers herself a partner, not an appendage of the White House. She’s not going to, in her words, “rubber stamp,” whatever they want to do, she wants to be at the table and thinks she and her members deserve to have a voice. They were put in charge of the House for a reason. But it will be the White House, much more than the House of Representatives, driving policy, driving the vision for everything from COVID relief to infrastructure, to whatever else. So I do see her taking a back seat to negotiations that are likely to play out primarily between the White House and congressional Republicans. But she’s going to expect to be at that table still and obviously has a lot of experience in this dynamic that she brings to that table.
Craig Volden (25:24):
Do you think it will be mainly about bringing Democrats to those agreed upon solutions or is this going to be an attempt at bipartisanship in the House?
Molly Ball (25:37):
Well, nothing has been agreed upon yet. But the House has spent the last couple of years passing hundreds of bills that the Senate has declined to take up. And some of these are just messaging bills. So you can put in a political ad that, ‘Oh, we tried to do this and that nasty Mitch McConnell stopped us.’ Some of it is quite serious legislation … that they’re … and most of these bills actually did get Republican votes in the House, whether a few or a lot, but these are at least nominally bi-partisan bills in a lot of cases, something like 75% of the bills passed by the House, but not taken up by the Senate are bipartisan to some degree. It’s going to be up to Republicans and I don’t mean that to say, you know, Democrats get to do whatever they want it’s up to Republicans, whether they want to go along, but Republicans have a voice in this if they’re willing to be constructive. And they don’t have a lot of goodwill from the Democrats based on the way that they have treated the Democratic party over the last several, and the Trump administration blowing up the intelligence committee, which used to be a quite serious bi-partisan legislating group and it’s now almost entirely consumed with partisanship. Things like that, there’s less and less bipartisan goodwill in both houses of Congress. But you do still see a bipartisan things able to get done. We saw, from the COVID relief bills that passed, I believe at least in some cases on voice votes without even having a recorded vote, to the Senate intelligence committee being able to put out a full bipartisan report on the Russia investigation, that was both parties signed off on it was, it was quite damning in some regards for the White House and it was not a partisan document.
Molly Ball (27:43):
So there are potential openings for bipartisanship. It’s just going to depend what attitude the respective parties bring to the table. But in terms of the things that are trying to get done, are they potentially bi-partisan things? Clearly a lot of Republicans, at least in the spring, believed that we needed massive government spending on coronavirus relief, even if they don’t generally believe in massive government spending overall. Clearly, there were a lot of Republicans who at least made supportive noises about Trump’s desire for an infrastructure bill, something that was not traditionally a partisan affair, so there are a lot of things that Congress does on usually a five-year cycle that didn’t use to be partisan that became partisan for the most part during the Obama administration. But they’ve been able to de-partisan-ize them, to some extent. I’m thinking of like the farm bill that largely unfolded without drama the last time they did it, could they get back to that kind of a process with an infrastructure bill? Maybe, maybe not. I think we just don’t know yet.
Alan E. Wiseman (28:58):
Thanks. And listening to your observations of the ways in which different members interact with each other, especially on partisan versus potentially bipartisan or nonpartisan issues…I’m finding myself just thinking back to your book and it strikes me that a common theme that really emerges across the text is the way in which you really view Speaker Pelosi to be, for lack of better phrase, a very instrumental legislator in the sense that it seems that across her career, a really consistent theme in the way in which she interacts with her colleagues or potential colleagues is just trying to essentially identify what a goal is and advance forward with that goal, regardless of who she has to interact with as a partner in this way. At least in reading your book, it strikes me that’s one of her main keys to success, recipes for being so successful as a lawmaker. And in doing that and thinking about her, both in regards to a leadership position or in general lawmakers or legislators in the House and Senate more broadly speaking, do you think this pragmatic perspective, so to speak is a relatively rare quality among members in the contemporary House and Senate? I guess related to that point, do you think it’s really distinctive strength for Speaker Pelosi, especially in comparison other speakers, perhaps?
Molly Ball (30:11):
Oh yeah you really did read the book. It was my heart. Yes, Speaker Pelosi is a very effective legislator at a time when that’s become harder and harder to come by, when that skillset is more and more endangered. And some reviewers of my book described her as sort of an anachronistic figure, a throwback to the good old days when, members of Congress negotiated with one another and produced legislation and passed it and it got signed by the president, which seems downright exotic nowadays. I would argue that that governing is a skill – it’s really hard – not a lot of people know how to do it or bother to learn how to do it, particularly in a political environment that doesn’t necessarily incentivize the development of that skillset. It is not a necessarily partisan skillset on its face.
Molly Ball (31:07):
But I think it’s the reason that that as speaker Pelosi has been quite successful on many metrics where in particular, the two Republican speakers who proceeded this speakership, Boehner and Ryan, we saw the House basically collapse on their watch with them unable to control the different factions of their own party, much less negotiate with the other party, repeated government shutdowns, gridlock, inability to pass anything, even in areas where there was hypothetical partisan agreement on policy. It is unfortunately a rare thing these days, but there’s still a lot of people I believe who can do this… I wished that our political debate focused more time on the skill of governing rather than…I feel like we had about 150 democratic primary debates that involved these sort of angels on the head of a pin conversations about healthcare, conducted entirely on this sort of “pie in the sky plane” of like, ‘what would you do if you were the King of America and could wave a magic wand’ when none of this is ever going to come to the floor of either House or Congress in the current makeup of things.
Molly Ball (32:22):
And we don’t talk enough about how you’re going to actually get things done, particularly in divided government and in a divided country. So that is really the question, right? We had Joe Biden talking during the campaign about his ability work across the aisle and getting yelled at by the left saying, where have you been for the last, you know, 10 years? Haven’t you noticed that all they want to do is stop us at every turn and Biden, he never wavered from that conviction that he could, and who knows whether this was more about messaging to voters because people liked the idea of bipartisanship, even if they don’t like it in practice, or if he really does believe this, because of course he was Vice-President for the entire Obama administration and was often dispatched to try to reason with Mitch McConnell when Harry Reed could not.
Molly Ball (33:15):
So he’s going to definitely at least try, he’s going to definitely do whatever he can to try to find Republicans who who will work with the White House and try to find some common ground, and obviously doing a lot to set that tone as well in all the things that he’s saying since the votes have been counted. But I don’t know how much of an audience for that there’s going to be, especially as … you know, the one thing that’s interesting is: Republicans expected their minority in the House to grow, sorry, to shrink not grow in this election. Just as Democrats thought they were going to do better Republican thought they were going to do worse. And the smaller the minority gets the more extreme and base-focused it is.
Molly Ball (34:10):
Because it’s coming from the more and more conservative districts where more and more — to win your primary. Given that the Republican minority appears to have expanded, they will have more of those members from suburban districts, more of those members from swing districts, more members whose incentives are to try to show voters that they are trying to work with the other side, rather than just go home and show voters that they yelled at Democrats as much as I humanly could. So that’s a potential opening, but who knows. Nothing in this, in our modern political era, works according to that kind of logic. So I just don’t know.
Craig Volden (34:50):
Right. I mean, that contrast that you were giving between Ryan and Boehner on one side and Pelosi on the other side is fascinating because it raises a couple of things. One is, what is one’s innate skill or learned ability to lead and to serve as that kind of compromise or building coalition role? On the other hand, some argue that Democrats and Republicans are just very different beasts, and bringing together Democrats is easier than bringing together Republicans. How do you come down on differences between the parties along those lines?
Molly Ball (35:27):
I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say that second thing, and I just have to think they’ve never met any Democrats. And maybe this is just seeing things with my neutrality as a political reporter, but I do not think that Democrats are inherently more rational human beings than Republicans. And Democrats, this is the party of like the sixties and the protest movements and antiestablishment and smash the patriarchy, and the idea that this is the party of like the well-behaved go along to get along let’s all be in the same tent.. you will have a lot of Democrats say, ‘Oh, well, we believe in governing. And they don’t.’ I just don’t think that it’s true that the partisans are wired so differently that the Democrats are easier —- the Democratic caucus that is more diverse demographically, than any Congress in history. It’s geographically diverse, ideological, more ideologically diverse as even 12 years ago when the parties were less sorted on ideological lines, but it’s still, it’s a quite diverse caucus.
Molly Ball (36:47):
And I really attribute to just… you know, because speaker Pelosi could have… If it wasn’t a Speaker Pelosi, a different Speaker, Speaker Steny Hoyer, for example, would have a much harder time managing the left flank of the caucus and keeping progressives feeling like they had to go along with an outcome that they didn’t like, where they were getting very little of what they wanted out of the other side, Pelosi’s ability to go to the progressives and say with some credibility, ‘I have gotten you all I humanly can,’ is important. And that is a trick that Boehner and Ryan never mastered. And I really think almost all of it has to do with leadership skill rather than just the inherent differences between the parties.
Alan E. Wiseman (37:40):
I want to keep talking a bit about the distinctive strengths or distinctive characteristics of Speaker Pelosi in comparison to other leaders. Because really in several places in your book, which as I said, I did read, you essentially point to how Speaker Pelosi throughout her career, really up until she became Speaker, even when she was in the leadership was at best underestimated at worst often dismissed or not fully appreciated. And you definitely intimate early in her career this was due at least partially to gender -related issues. But this really came to a head, there’s this great passage in the book, page 281, if you’re really that curious, where you just note that when you take a look back at the 2018 or 2019 leadership challenge, you found it fascinating engaging with our colleagues when people noted that many of her colleagues could never appreciate a similar leadership challenge occurring.
Alan E. Wiseman (38:35):
If, and I quote, “a distinguished older man who was scandal-free and still in command of his facilities, on the ground that he wasn’t likable, had been the Speaker at that point,” which suggested that clearly she was wrestling with a variety of gender related considerations in terms of her ability to secure the leadership. Related to this, and also this ties in very organically with a lot of the work that Craig and I have done as well as a colleague of ours, a former graduate student, Dana Witmer Wolfe at Colorado College, on the relative lawmaking effectiveness of male versus female lawmakers in Congress, I found myself and Craig and I were talking about this… I’m just curious, given your observations of Congress across your career, do you think female politicians in the broad sense or members of Congress in particular generically approach the lawmaking process differently than their male counterparts in a lot of different situations?
Molly Ball (39:27):
So yes and no. On the one hand I hate the gender essentialism of a lot of this conversation. You hear, particularly from female politicians, skepticism, like we do any politician because they’re saying things because they think voters will like it, not necessarily because they think it’s true. But you hear a lot about like, ‘Oh, you know, women are, they are more more willing to compromise, more pragmatic or, to me, it’s a very slippery slope from there to like ‘more nurturing and feminine and gracious and willing to take a back seat’ and like, again, have these people never met Sarah Palin? I think women are humans with a wide variety of characteristics. Now it is .. At the same time though, I do allow for the possibility that women A) are socialized differently and B) are regarded by voters differently. So perhaps there is …the type of women who are more likely to be elected, to communicate to voters, that they possess some of the sort of essentialistic female attributes that they comport themselves in a way that seems stereotypically feminine in terms of listening and being humble to challenges and disagreement and so on. So I know there’s a lot of interesting political science work that’s being done but, you know, we’re dealing with pretty small sample sizes since no more than a quarter of the Congress has ever been female. And it’s something that’s changing rapidly.
Molly Ball (40:58):
The Republicans gained a lot of women in this election. There was —the good effort on women and people of color in the Republican caucus and they succeeded. But the disparity between the parties is only growing when it comes to gender. And some of this is Trump; Trump supercharged this effect of the gender gap in voting. But it’ll be interesting. It’s really interesting for me to see, going forward, is that going to be a wedge that essentially sort of topped out? So many of these differences are much more partisan differences than they are gender differences, but the gender imbalance between the parties reinforces the partisan imbalance.
Craig Volden (41:51):
Great, thanks. We’re seeing lots of audience questions coming in. So I want to get to a few more of those. One is on confirmations and cabinet positions. An audience member is expressing skepticism that a Mitt Romney or Susan Collins would impede the formation of the Cabinet during a pandemic. And so, are we expecting big negotiations, smooth sailings, lots of contentiousness on Cabinet appointments? And then I guess, I’ll throw out the suppose we’re at 51-49? Does the Biden administration find a nice appointment for a Susan Collins or something to tip that to 50-50?
Molly Ball (42:36):
So that type of hypothetical, I have no idea. I’m sure there’s a lot of Democrats thinking in those terms. I would doubt Susan Collins having just fought tooth and nail to hang onto her Senate seat wants to give it up right now. But in terms of appointments, I guess it’s something that McConnell can’t talk about very openly because he has to continue to pretend that he’s not sure who the president is going to be. But he has said some things about wanting to work with the incoming administration on a Cabinet that he considers moderate. So wanting to work with the Biden team so that they appoint people who are confirmable by a Republican Senate. And I read that as McConnell saying, ‘I will help you get the votes for that and in exchange for you making me part of that decision.’ And that’s gonna be really important. Most of those judicial vacancies had been filled due to McConnell’s zealous efforts over the past four years, but there will be more of the bench coming open, and I will bet that he’ll want to be a part of that process as well. Now, if the Democrats win those two Senate seats in Georgia, it’s a completely different conversation. I view that as a long shot, but anything can happen and certainly has over the past. But then, Joe Manchin becomes the most important person in Washington, getting that 50th Democratic vote becomes the most important thing. And then we’re going to have a big conversation about eliminating the filibuster so the Democrats can actually pass legislation besides that which is budgetary in nature can go through reconciliation.
Molly Ball (44:33):
That’s a big fork in the road there, and we don’t know which way it’s going to go. We won’t know until January. I’m also going to be listening for how this conversation plays out in that election in Georgia. Do you have the Republican candidates – they’re going to be arguing that Republicans need to maintain control of the Senate in order to serve as a check on the incoming administration and the scary socialist Democrats. Are they messaging that as ‘we want to work together, but we have to make them be reasonable,’ or are they messaging that as ‘we have to stop them at every turn, that’s why you have to keep us in power,’ particularly with Georgia turning into a purplish state, what do they think is a better message to send to the electorate that’s going to be voting in January? So that’s going to be an interesting signal going forward. How mad is everybody? The Republicans quickly saw after Obama was elected that there were people who were really, really mad and wanted to be represented in that manner. So what signal are Republicans taking from their electorate now? Is it, ‘we need you to continue to fight like hell’ or ‘we’re tired, we would like Trump to win, but it’s over now, let’s go get some things done?’. I don’t know.
Alan E. Wiseman (45:54):
Related to the question of the Georgia Senate race, and I’d like to actually tie us back to some earlier comments you raised about rapid demographic shifts say in Virginia and Colorado, it seems if we take a look at the most recent electoral returns in Georgia compared to obviously previous presidential elections, there’s also been a pretty substantial shift there as well. Given your observations of what’s been going on in Georgia over the past couple of years, do you think Georgia for all intents and purposes is evolving into the next Virginia, Colorado other states that have seen just significant longstanding demographic turnover so they’re going to be more solidly blue or reliably blue in the foreseeable future?
Molly Ball (46:32):
Maybe. So Georgia, even more than Virginia is a Southern state with a very racially-polarized politics. So it may take longer and it’s not inevitable any of this stuff, but to the extent that this is a sort of demographic evolution, I don’t think anybody should be… Any Democrats should be banking on Georgia being a blue state next time around. These things take time. But what happened in Colorado and what we see … primarily that these Republican suburbs of basically sort of middle to upper middle class, predominantly white conservatively —oriented, quality of life-oriented, don’t want to give a bunch of their money back to the government, but also don’t necessarily want to be associated with these crazy gun-toting peoples storming the state Capitol. The Democrats were able to successfully, in Colorado when I was growing up there, I grew up in Tom Tancredo’s congressional district and that district was held by a moderate —- until 2018 and was held by a moderate, which is sort of a perfect through line for how that the state has changed. And in both cases, both States are becoming more diverse, but what is really having this much more than that is an influx of an attitude change among white voters. It Is more and more college educated, suburban white voters voting for Democrats, primarily for, sort of quality, quality of life and attitudinal reasons. Just because white voters are the vast majority of the electorate, and so demographic changes — a major engine of it. And that’s what’s really happened in Colorado, in Virginia and potentially in Georgia. So in Georgia you have a college educated, predominantly white suburbs that are starting to turn toward the Democrats, but are still fundamentally sort of status quo oriented. Don’t want the Democrats to go in there and abolish the police and start turning their lives upside down who just sort of like to see a sort of sane and rational politics and Democrats are able to successfully position themselves as the same ones at a time when the Republicans seem to be going for —
Molly Ball (49:19):
So I don’t know what it was in Georgia, but it does seem like, at least in terms of the population trends, it’s positioned similarly to where Virginia was, 10 years ago.
Craig Volden (49:28):
Thanks. It looks like our audience wants you to get really speculative here on at least one element, which is the future of Trump in 2021. Do you anticipate he’ll set up his own TV network, will he be active, will he assume the role of former presidents of leaving the stage for three, four years?
Molly Ball (49:52):
So I have a firm policy of not making predictions and I especially don’t try to predict what Donald Trump is going to do, because that has been abundantly proven to be a bad idea. But look, there’s a lot of things to think about in this regard. And I do think that is a pretty safe bet that he’s not going to pull a George W. Bush and go clear brush on a ranch for the next, four, eight, twelve years. That doesn’t seem like something he’s really interested in, who knows maybe he gets a dog and turns into a different person. But the Trump that we know, I mean, first of all, he’s facing a lot of sort of looming threats as he leaves office. There are several active prosecutions on the state and federal level of a lot of people around him, of him himself, members of his family.
Molly Ball (50:41):
Does he try to pardon others or even himself on the way out? Or try to do other things to sort of defend himself from that risk? We also know that he has a lot of monetary debts coming due. He owes a lot of people, a lot of money for his business, and that may inform some of the things that he does or tries to do going forward even before he leaves office. But then there’s been a lot of speculation and even some reporting that he was starting to plan this before he won the 2016 election, about some kind of Trump TV network, some kind of alternative for Fox, because, as we all know, Fox News is not nice enough to President Trump, so there needs to be a media outlet that is nicer to him, and more favorable to him.
Molly Ball (51:29):
He hasn’t had much success in building up say, you know, OAN or Newsmax. Their audience is certainly bigger than it used to be, but it is nowhere near being a competitor for Fox News. So can he start something like that and crucially monetize it in a way that is going to be successful? That would clearly seem to be what he’s interested in. But I wonder if he does that himself, or if it’s like something Don Jr does, and then has dad on the program a lot, right? You saw that this was a major emphasis of the campaign over the past year, particularly when the rallies weren’t happening, was they had this Facebook and YouTube channel that would get millions of views for these broadcasts by various figures in Trump world to sort of psych up the troops. And that was something that particularly Don and Eric were very active in driving. So I could see them potentially taking the lead on that going forward. But I don’t want to get too far into hypotheticals because again, who knows what this guy’s going to do?
Alan E. Wiseman (52:41):
Yeah, I think it’s fair to say it’s unpredictable times in a variety of contexts right now. We only have a couple of minutes left, but I think Craig and I, especially given the focus of the Center for Effective Lawmaking would also, if possible, like to bring us back to Congress a little bit, to just get some broad, broad and specific, I guess, perspectives from you on, essentially what traits or strategies do you think really do contribute to effective lawmaking in the contemporary Congress? I mean, obviously being in the leadership, being a committee chair or subcommittee chair is obviously important and instrumental, but once you put aside those individuals who are really in privileged positions, just based on your observations and journalistic coverage of Congress over your career, what traits or backgrounds or strategies, essentially, why are some people generically better than this than others as you alluded to earlier?
Molly Ball (53:33):
Yeah. So it’s a hard time to be in Congress. It’s never been more polarized, more gridlock. There’s a lot of external reasons for that, that no individual member can do very much about in terms of the outside incentives. But that being said, as I was writing my book, I thought a lot about this when it comes to Speaker Pelosi and I document in the book, a lot of her sort of tips and tricks. The kind of, the ways that she is able to negotiate effectively, the tools that she uses to keep her members in the tent, the sort of carrots and sticks. There’s a story I love where one of her members crossed her and then when it was time for the committee assignments, he still got on his committee and one of her allies said, ‘well, why did you give him that after what he did?’
Molly Ball (54:22):
And she said, ‘well, now he has to be with me next time. Now he owes me.’ And so that’s the way she thinks is if you punish someone they’re lost to you forever. But if you don’t, then you have a chit that you can cash in later. Things like making a fake concession in a negotiation, pretending you’re giving up something that meant a lot to you when actually it was something that you didn’t even want or wasn’t real. But I came to understand, I think in the course of studying this, that more than any one sort of strategy or trick, it’s just… What makes Pelosi in particular so effective is just a very deep understanding of human nature. I mean, the House is an incredibly complex place. You can’t really have individual deep individual relationships with 435 or even, you know, 218 people, but she knows the makeup of everybody’s district and what their pet issues are and who they are and aren’t in a feud with and what caucus they’re a member of and how all those different… It’s very much sort of shifting blocks that all have to mesh and work together. And so understanding just what drives each individual member and what sort of button you can push to get them to move in your direction. And I think that applies to really everyone in Congress. It really is, at the end of the day, about just understanding human nature and human relationships. This was something that Obama had a hard time with because I think he expected people to behave much more rationally.
Molly Ball (55:58):
He expected things to depend much more on the sort of calculator considerations, where things were thought to be instead of actually this process of human relationships and understanding. I write a lot in the book about Pelosi as a young mother. She had five children in six years and no full-time help. And members of Congress in general are very much like toddlers. They think they’re the center of the world and they’re not very rational. So knowing how to manage a large group of toddlers and make them all(serious mom goals for me) make all of your kids put their shoes on at the same time so you can get out the door, even if they have their different reasons for not wanting to do that.
Molly Ball (56:44):
It’s a lot of just personality management, and it takes time and it takes effort. And it’s hard to stay focused on that when you also have to constantly be paying attention to whether you’re elected and raising money and all of the other things. So a lot of the reforms that get talked about to make Congress more effective would essentially just take some of that pressure off of members so that they can spend more time building up that base of skills, building up the ability to actually learn the procedures and the ways of the building. Because most of these people got in this because they wanted to do stuff, not because they wanted to sit around and yell at each other. You’ve got to think there is at least some possibility for making that happen, or maybe I’m just a ridiculous optimist.
Craig Volden (57:36):
So my final question will be right on those lines, the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress put forward a bunch of reform proposals. What’s your take on those? Are they going to be a successful along the relationship building end or otherwise?
Molly Ball (57:52):
I’m not down in the weeds. I’ve spoken to Congressman Kilmer who I believe was the head of that effort. And, I know that he has the Speaker’s blessing and she’s interested in these ideas, at least to the extent that they don’t make her job harder. And then she has in the past agreed to reforms that for example, would make it easier for bipartisan legislation to get on the floor. This is one of the things that like the Problem Solvers were asking for two years ago. But I haven’t reported on it recently to know where that stuff stands in the rule writing process for the next Congress, which is certainly getting underway now, and that would get some of those changes into the caucus rules and then into the, because those are going to be the rules that govern the next House session and how much of that they can get in writing.
Alan E. Wiseman (58:55):
Well, Molly, sadly our time’s up, but it should be obvious that Craig and I could keep you talking for hours and we still have a huge number of attendees here that I know would love to hear from you further. But thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Hope everyone had a great experience and wish you the best in the holiday season forthcoming and the coming new year. I hope to get a chance to talk with you again soon.
Molly Ball (59:18):
Thanks so much. Thank you for having me. Thanks everyone for listening.
Craig Volden (59:21):
Really appreciate it. Thanks.