It’s no secret how elections work: A winning campaign costs a lot of money, so candidates court people who have the money to spend. Say, business interests. Then, when a politician takes office, their powerful donors have more influence than the average citizen. It’s not a great system.
So Seattleites decided to tear it all up and try something radical: Fighting big money by flooding elections with even more money. The experiment… did not necessarily go as planned.
This episode is a collaboration with Vox’s The Impact podcast.
Two men, sons of immigrants, rising to be the head of their own empires, powerful forces in their ethnic communities. Both dapper and mustachioed with commanding personalities. And both wielding a potent influence on the children who learned at their knees and followed them into the family businesses.
But here’s the difference: Big Tommy D’Alesandro Jr. taught little Nancy how to count. Fred Trump taught Donald, from the time he was a baby, that he didn’t have to count — or be accountable; Daddy’s money made him and buoyed him.
Fred, a dictatorial builder in Brooklyn and Queens from German stock, and Big Tommy, a charming Maryland congressman and mayor of Baltimore from Italian stock, are long gone. But their roles in shaping Donald and Nancy remain vivid, bleeding into our punishing, pressing national debate over immigration, a government shutdown and that inescapable and vexing Wall.
At this fraught moment when the pain of the shutdown is kicking in, President Trump and Speaker Pelosi offer very different visions — shaped by their parents — of what it means to be an American.
When Trump gave his Oval Office address, the framed photo of his dad was peering over his shoulder. In her House speaker’s office in the Capitol, Pelosi prominently displays a photo of herself at 7, holding the Bible as her father is sworn in as Baltimore mayor in 1947.
D’Alesandro was a loyal New Deal Democrat, just as Pelosi — the first daughter to follow her father into Congress — is a resolute liberal. She grew up in a house with portraits of F.D.R. and Truman.
Donald Trump spent most of his life as a political opportunist, learning from his dad that real estate developers must lubricate both sides of the aisle. Trump was once friendly with Pelosi, sending her a note in 2007 when she won the speaker job the first time — with a boost from his $20,000 donation to the party — calling her “the best.” (Unlike with “Cryin’ Chuck,” Trump has not gone for the jugular with a nasty nickname for Pelosi.)
In her memoir, Pelosi recalled that her Catholic parents “raised me to be holy.” She told me, “My mother and my father instilled in us, public service is a noble calling” and “never measure a person by how much money they had.”
The politicians defeated or superseded by the 1974 wave had lost touch with their constituents because individual members of Congress didn’t matter that much. Power came only with seniority. Rank-and-file members didn’t have much to do and didn’t have to do much.
In 2018, members lost touch for a very different reason: They had grown complacent that they could count on waves of ideology and negative partisanship to carry them through yet another election, the fifth for those first elected in the 2010 wave. They campaigned in broad strokes on national issues such as immigration and the refugee caravan.
Since 2010, they had relied first on the coherent national message of opposition to Barack Obama, then on the small-government ideology of the speaker Paul Ryan and finally on loyalty to Donald Trump, to overwhelm smaller, local allegiances. Even Mr. Trump’s endorsements were boilerplate and national, with the same odd capitalization choices: “strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets.”
.. But today’s politicians face an obstacle that the class of ’74 could mostly ignore: the enormous cost of campaigns. Republican members fell out of touch with their districts in part because they were increasingly dependent on a few large national donors, operating through super PACs and political nonprofits such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, which get the bulk of their donations from billionaires in Las Vegas, New York, Texas and Florida.
Democrats, too, relied on these outside groups and their own billionaires, but 2018 brought an enormous wave of small donors. And while much of that came from fired-up progressives in solid Democratic districts, even in the highest-profile races, a surprising share came from the candidates’ own constituents — for example, more than 54 percent of Beto O’Rourke’s contributions came from Texans. A majority of Democratic challengers also refused corporate PAC money, which often runs through Washington lobbyists.
In 2020 and 2022, these new members will no longer be exciting insurgent challengers but incumbents, probably forced to compromise in ways that some supporters might find disappointing. If the volunteer energy and small-donor support that lifted them to victory in 2018 is missing, their campaigns will look very different. They’ll have to turn to corporate PACs again and, much like their predecessors elected in 2006 and 2008, focus their attention on donors rather than their districts, compromising their promises.
Though she, too, has avoided public name-calling, it’s clear Pelosi doesn’t feel the same admiration for Trump. After a recent meeting at the White House, Pelosi returned to the Hill and questioned his manhood before a room full of House Democrats. She likened negotiating with him to getting sprayed by a skunk, and expressed exasperation that he is even president.
Pelosi’s allies say she doesn’t trust him, pointing to
- a tentative immigration compromise they reached in 2017 that she believes Trump backed out of. She’s noticed how
- he’s blamed Republican congressional leaders when his base decries spending bills, and
- upended their legislative plans with surprise tweets.
“Speaker Pelosi has a history of bipartisan accomplishments. … But the test for this president is figuring where he stands on issues from one day to the next,” said Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff.
Pelosi is also uncomfortable with Trump’s handling of facts — a big obstacle, in her mind, to cutting deals with him — and has occasionally called him out. During their first meeting after his inauguration, when Trump opened the gathering by bragging that he’d won more votes than Hillary Clinton, Pelosi was the only person in the room to correct him, noting that his statement was false and he’d lost the popular vote.
Since then, Pelosi has tried to correct Trump privately, her allies say. She doesn’t like fighting in public, they added, and it was one of the main reasons she tried, in vain, to end the sparring match over border wall funding that unfolded on TV live from the West Wing last month.
Sources close to Pelosi say she’s willing to work with Trump despite her party’s total rejection of him. Her confidants note that when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, some Democrats were calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the invasion in Iraq. Pelosi ignored them and went on to strike major deals with Bush, including a bank bailout and stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.
“They became friends,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi confidant. For the incoming speaker, “It’s always about: Can you get things done? There are always going to be different points of view. How do we overcome them to get to a conclusion?”
Pelosi allies say as long as Trump is willing to compromise on Democratic priorities, she’ll work with him, too. But with the shutdown dragging into Pelosi’s takeover on Jan. 3, there’s a serious question about whether the two can make any headway.
On New Year’s Day, Trump and Pelosi exchanged words on Twitter over the shutdown — relatively mild ones, especially by Trump’s standards — in a sign of the tense days and weeks ahead.
“I think the president respects her and wants to work with her … Their personalities would lend themselves to strike deals,” Short said. “But I don’t know if Democrats will allow it. … She’s going to have so many members who will object to any transaction or communication with the president, that it puts her in a tight spot.”
It’s just as unclear whether Trump is willing to risk the wrath of his base by compromising with Pelosi. Just as he did on immigration, promising a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers from deportation, Trump privately told Pelosi after their contentious televised negotiation session that he wants to make a deal with her. Even after news that she’d questioned his masculinity went viral, he called her that afternoon to reiterate: We can work together to avert a shutdown.
But that was more than three weeks ago. The two haven’t spoken since.