Wesley Lowery

Congress…and its Discontents

Air Date: November 1, 2014

Lowery explains how a solutions-oriented Millennial press corps takes on D.C. dysfunction.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. There may be no more precocious go-getting newspaperman in America than today’s guest – 24 year old Wesley Lowery – whom the National Association of Black Journalists named the 2014 Emerging Journalist of the Year.

Currently a Congressional and National Political reporter for The Washington Post, Lowery covers Congress, campaigns and other election-related news. He previously staffed the Boston Globe’s Metro Desk and contributed to its Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing … endangering himself to report from fear-stricken Boston, the most visible ground zero of terrorism since the 9/11 attacks.

I followed in real time Lowery’s all-night posts during the standoff between law enforcement and the bomb suspects, and have to credit him with the deftest journalistic use of Twitter I have come across. (If you have a moment, visit him @WesleyLowery to retrace his Tweets on that fateful night in Boston.) His feature stories and analysis are among the most buzzed-about on the Web, but they are also among the meatiest and most thoughtful scoops.

Today, we’ll venture with Wesley Lowery into the modern-day reporter’s notebook from his past Boston Globe and current Washington Post tenure, as he analyzes his own and other’s coverage of the 2014 mid-term campaign. I specifically want to ask Wesley Lowery about his political calculus and whether the outcomes of this mid-term election cycle will prove decisive in whom we elect as an electoral map in 2016. Wesley?

LOWERY: Thanks and thanks for having me, Alexander. I think that, I think it’s really interesting to look at 2014 and how it propels itself into 2016. I think that in 2014 you really … we will really have a Republican year very likely.

The Republicans have a great chance of taking the Senate. They will most likely pick up seats in the House and so it would be the first time in the Obama Administration that he faces a Congress that he has no control over whatsoever.

And, and I think that it’s going to be very interesting because, because the math is very different in 2016. While, while the Republicans can take the Senate in 2014, the Democrats are very likely going to win in right back in 2016.

Most interesting, however, will be how the players in 2016, especially on the Republican side, how they can begin to position themselves to, to run come the Presidential election. And so you see people watch very closely how players like Ted Cruz, how Rand Paul, how Marco Rubio have interacted with 2014 candidates. Who they have endorsed. What races they’ve stayed out of and how some of them who are seen as more Tea Party candidates have tried to endear themselves with the establishment and how establishment candidates have tried to underscore their conservative credentials.

And I think that as far as 2016 is concerned, that’s the biggest take-away of 2014. Not necessarily, you know, if and when the Republicans have a good November … that’s not … there will be some analysis out there that says “What does this mean for 2016?” and people are going to say, “Well that means the Republicans are on the way up and they’re going to have a great year in 2016”.

I, I wouldn’t buy all that. I think the Democrats … the demographics of the electoral map still widely favor the Democrats in 2016, especially with who we believe the candidates might be.

But, but I think the influence in 2016 will be these candidates who will be running on the Right and how they can position themselves.

HEFFNER: In 2012 and after the Presidential election and President Obama’s successful re-election victory, there was an effort made by the Chairman of the RNC, the Republican National Committee, to unify the party.

LOWERY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But that doesn’t seem to have happened.

LOWERY: No at all. I think that if you look at every single interesting primary this year, they’re all on the Republican side and they’re all like Conservative or Tea Party candidate picking on an incumbent.

You’ve got the … so many of these races. And, and top to bottom of the slate. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, who would be the Senate Majority Leader were the Republicans take over, has to deal with the Tea Party challenger, before he has to deal with a hard Democratic challenger.

And so, there, there certainly does not seem to be this unity. Now granted it’s very hard to achieve that unity in off-election years. I think it’s, I think you will very likely see some unity behind whomever the 2016 candidate is, on the Republican side.

But right now you still really do have a) an ideological splinter. I think that when you look at the Republicans, you have a wing, a small wing of the Republican Party, the most Conservative leader of the Republican Party has an out-side power and influence over the policies, actions and candidates of the broader party.

And, and so that’s where that splinter is. It’s not this massive civil war, it’s a … it’s a handful of people. If it’s … if the whole Republican Party were ten people, it’s the two people who, who refused to vote with the other eight.

And I think that that’s what the Republicans continue to run up against and continue to deal with. Now will those two people jump back into the camp come 2016 to vote against whomever the Democrat is, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden. I’m pretty sure they will, but in the meantime it makes for some real tug-of-wars between where this party is headed and what they’re doing.

HEFFNER: Based on your reporting in Washington, do you sense how this will ultimately resolve itself. I mean will we have to wait until 2016 and see if there’s an isolationist or internationalist Republican Presidential nominee?

LOWERY: I, I do think that we’re … in a lot of ways we’re going to have to wait and see … if only because there are a lot of moving dynamics in the Republican field.

I mean I, I’m much more interested, frankly, in the Republican field than I am in the Democratic field this year. Because I do think this is a much more pivotal election for Republicans than it is for the Democrats.

I think if you look at the potential Republican field, you have a lot of people who we think we know but we don’t really know yet.

We know Marco Rubio. We don’t really know Marco Rubio yet. He’s never had to run a national campaign, he’s never had to talk on a large swath of issues with a camera in his face every single day. And I think that will be very interesting.

I think you have people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Ted Cruz who we very much believe we know and who will likely stay exactly the way he is throughout much of the campaign, compared to Rand Paul, someone who we all thought we knew as this type of Libertarian, kind of isolationist … kind of in the same model as his father Ron Paul … who is now very actively and very deliberately moderated his stance, moderated his policy and is talking about things that he hopes will 1) help him win the establishment and 2) help him bring in minorities and women.

And so I think that what’s going to be fascinating is the evolution of some of these younger candidates and then also to see how this field shapes up. Does Jeb Bush get in? Does Scott Walker get in? Does John Kasich? What is the Republican field and I think that’s … remains the biggest question mark.

There are people we know are going to run and there are a lot of people who if they ran, could change the game.

HEFFNER: And what’s your best bet?

LOWERY: Ah … it’ … that’s a … I’m not a betting man.

HEFFNER: It’s, it’s not a prognostication insofar as your reporting has led you …

LOWERY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … to deliver a verdict on whether or not, for example, the fiscal conservatism seems to be a constant strain within the Republican Party and the presumptive nominee who the party will nominate in 2016.

LOWERY: MmmHmm. I, I think that … I think that … well if reporting in history tells us … the Republicans are most likely … most likely to put up an establishment Republican.

I think that … I do … I do think that … it’s hard because this is kind of punting on the answer. I do think that history also tells us they’ll do one of two things. Now this will either be a John McCain/Mitt Romney type nominee, someone who is a certainly fiscal conservative but more of a moderate. Someone who does not play on social issues in the same way. But who is seen as a competent manager.

Or it could be a Barry Goldwater election. If some one like Ted Cruz is, is nominated, it will be the single most Conservative nominee, since Barry Goldwater.

Now, if you remember, Barry Goldwater got beat more handily than another other nominee, but it certainly could be a back-to-the-future type or return to the roots nomination … if, if the Republicans can really, really draw up the support on the far Right.

Now I, I would question of that’s possible. They couldn’t do it in 2012. Following the Tea Party resurgence of 2010, the, the Conservatives have never had more power in the Republican Party, than they did in 2010, 2011 and yet they … the most Conservative person they could get through the primaries was Mitt Romney.

And so, I … my best, my best guess and what the reporting and history has beared up so far is that we’re very likely going to see someone emerging from the Republic ranks who is a more middle of the road, establishment Republican and I think that one of the biggest indications that that’s the way the wind’s blowing is that someone like Rand Paul is working so hard to moderate himself.

If he thought he could win as a far Right Conservative, as a Tea Party insurgent, he’d be … he’d be trying to become Ted Cruz. And he’s not and I think that’s telling.

HEFFNER: Back to the underlying question though. In terms of 2014’s impact …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … on the 2016 race. Doesn’t a lot of that have to do with … if the Republicans are elected and become a majority party in both chambers, what they do with that power?

LOWERY: It’s huge and I think that’s one of the fascinating and one of the most unexplored concepts is that … you know, imagine for a moment that it’s, it’s January 2015 and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is walking to the microphone. What’s he saying? What’s their agenda? What will they do?

I, I had … I had a lunch with a Conservative activist a few months ago where we sat and we talked about “let’s just have a hypothetical conversation about comprehensive immigration reform is going to pass”. When do the Republicans do it? Can, can … you know everyone says after the mid-terms, after the mid-terms they’ll come around. Can the first thing a Republican Congress accomplishes really be comprehensive immigration reform? I think there’s a real question about that. I, I …

HEFFNER: Because that might splinter the party further?

LOWERY: Even further. Even worse than if they did it prior to … if the Republicans have been waiting for so long to have control of the House and the Senate and the first thing they do is something the Democrats wanted to do and they were obstructing.

I think there’s be real insurrection among some of the Far Right. And so the question then becomes … if you can’t do it first, but you think you need to do it eventually … when do you do it? The calendars only so long and, especially in 2015, how do you do it without making it a 2016 issue?

If Congress is actively considering comprehensive immigration reform legislation as candidates are going to the primary stage, it potentially splinters your, your party’s candidates as opposed to something that would have already been passed or is not passed in which case these candidates can talk about it in broad hypotheticals.

If, if you put legislation on the floor of Congress during the primary, that means every candidate on that stage has to answer “Would you vote for it?” and some of them will have to vote for it one way or the other. Or “Would you veto this, as President of the United States?”

I don’t know that any Republican, no matter where they stand on immigration reform wants to have to have that conversation publicly on debate stages, because it only exposes them to the type of caricaturing that’s going on hurt them in a general election, no matter who the candidate is.

HEFFNER: And potential ugliness if you have someone radical or extreme, who says something that is offensive.

LOWERY: And, and that’s the … and all it takes is one candidate to go on a rant about “illegals”; all it takes is one candidate to say it, it …

HEFFNER: And that’s still happening.

LOWERY: And, and it is … and any time you have an unnecessary conversation on things like race and ethnicity, any time you walk in the muddy waters you don’t need to walk into …that’s not to say we don’t need to have a, a full robust conversation on immigration or a full and robust conversation about race and ethnicity for that matter.

But in the same way, the Republican candidate’s on the stage in 2016 should not be having the same border-fence conversation of candidates of 2000 and 2004 and 2008 and 2012 are having. At this point the Republicans need to turn this corner. And it’s the question of “Will they be able, institutionally, to do that? Or will these candidates be forced to have the same conversations? And if they are forced to have the same conversations, I can’t see that helping them.

HEFFNER: So let me ask you … are … do you think Republicans based on your reporting are strategizing about these very questions, post 2014 now?

LOWERY: I, I think they are. I, I do think that … I think that a lot of people are strategizing and I think a lot of people within the Republican Party. I think that often we talk about Republicans or Democrats, we think that it’s this big club of people who all get together. I think there are people, different segments. I think that the House leadership is huddling and strategizing in a certain way. I think Mitch McConnell and the potential Senate leadership is huddling and strategizing a certain way. I think Reince Priebus at the RNC is huddling and strategizing a certain way.

Now, of course, they all talk in some capacity, but I think there are a lot of … you talk to ten top level Republicans about how this would play out, I think you would get 9 to 10 very different answers.

But I do think they are very pro-active about trying to figure out how they’re going to do this? Will they do the right way or will they do it well? Will they pull it off? There’s a question that remains to be seen. But I do think that the Republicans cannot be accused of not being deliberate and of not having thought this through. It’s just a question of will they be able to pull it off?

HEFFNER: As a Congressional reporter, you encounter daily, I’m sure, the dysfunction of both chambers.

LOWERY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: So expound on that … I mean seemingly there is constant dysfunction. The gerrymandering problem has further polarized our two party system.

Does the Millennial press corps of political reporters have answers that the traditional old guard reporters don’t really possess in terms of asking questions that are going prove to be important, not because they’re important questions, but they’ll also be critical in advancing debate in what has become the sluggish slugfest …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of Congress.

LOWERY: When, when I look at the Congressional pres corps at which … of which I’ve only been a member a few months … and so I don’t want to make any too broad, sweeping statements. But with that said, I look at the Congressional press corps … I, I see a real balance between the younger Millennial press corps and the old guard press corps of the people who’ve been there … the real deans of the press corps, who are a privilege to work with.

And I think that, I think the balance there is that especially in the media environment we have now were there are so many publications, so many outlets … not just the capital hill newspapers, like The Hill or Roll Call or CQ, but also just National Journal who at times has dozens of people up on the Hill.

Outlets like that … POLITICO … dozens of people. What it does is it allows good journalism to be done, on a lot of issues that otherwise would be ignored. Different angles to be explored that otherwise would be ignored. And so, on any given issue, whether it’s minimum wage, whether its immigration, whether it’s … no matter what it is … or the Bergdahl release and how Congress was briefed on it or not briefed on it.

When you now have a hundred reporters reporting on it and 20 … actually not even 20 … and 75 of them are Millennials … and that the lion’s share are younger, vibrant people, it really in some ways shapes an area and allows new questions to be asked that might not have been asked otherwise because any two journalists coming to any situation with a different perspective, different ideas … sometimes a different agenda, but , but in totality having this broad mosaic of different reporters, many of who are young reporters really driving this conversation, I do think it helps us get to questions and get to answers and potentially solutions to things that otherwise might not be explored.

HEFFNER: But, you hit on it … because are younger reporters more solution driven … not insofar as they have an agenda to affect the outcome of pending legislation, but because they see how their Millennial counterparts outside of the public sector react to news about Congress … with such disgust.

LOWERY: Well, of course … I mean we don’t … and, and I think a lot of that is just the change, the changing times. I think that now … Millennials have grown up in a generation where we have so many options.

It’s much … it’s never been easier to feel like you were informed and be less informed. Because every one of us, when we open our email browser sees three headlines … or every one of us watching The Daily Show sometimes. Every one of … and, and so it’s very easy to feel as if we have a broad understanding of things. And actually not know anything about anything.

And I think that that … I think Millennials … especially Millennial reporters recognize and understand that. And because of that we know that in some ways we’ve got to push the issue a little bit harder with elected officials, or, or on certain issues and make things be more solutions oriented because we know in order to get the readership and a populous to care, it can’t be spin, it can’t be nonsense, you have a political class of people who follow it for the sport of following it. And, and there’s certainly plenty of coverage for them. But I think in terms of actually influencing change and, and making things happen … I think that we do see a lot … especially among younger reporters who, just don’t have the propensity to take the spin the same. Because it, it doesn’t matter … we’re not in this for the support of it necessarily, we’re in this to influence change in the, the country we live.

HEFFNER: How do you fight back against the finger-pointing, the scape-goating and all these malevolent forces that intersect in Washington, DC?

LOWERY: I think that you just have to … and, and I try to be very deliberate about keeping a healthy, healthy sense of skepticism. I think that it’s very easy when you, for example, work in the Capitol Building … you … the House is going to vote on something and so you stand, you talk to the Republican operatives as the vote’s happening and they tell you X, Y, Z.

You walk to the other end of the chamber, talk to Democratic operatives and they tell you X, Y and Z. And they both said all types of things and you can either believe the things they are saying … and, and you can buy into that and that’s where, I think, we get a lot of the kind of back and forth horserace coverage we get.

Or you can … or you can listen, have those conversations and then you can snap back and say, “Okay, as an objective human being, which, which of those things are abstractly ridiculous. (Laugh) And which of those things make sense and which of them don’t.

And I think that there really is a real, a balancing act to be done between stenography and real time analysis and reported analysis. And taking a look at something and saying “I’m the person who’s had these conversations, I’m going to tell you what this means and what this doesn’t mean.”

When the Republicans say “this”, this means … it really means X, Y & Z. When the Democrats say “this”, it really means X, Y & Z. And I think that that’s important. I think that pulling that veil back behind the play politics and showing, trying to show motivations or trying to show the strategy of the parties is a way to provide more honest coverage.

HEFFNER: In this political world, there is Politifact; there are the four Pinocchio’s …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … tell our viewers about some of the emails you get from elected officials and their representatives.

LOWERY: Well, of course … I mean I think, they (laugh), they vary. I mean emails, phone calls, text messages, tweets … you get a lot of feedback.

HEFFNER: But there’s a lot of showmanship …

LOWERY … a ton of it …

HEFFNER: And womanship …

LOWERY: … a, a ton. I mean I think they’re all, they’re all peacocks. They’re all … you know, I, I think that that is something that really does in some ways influence coverage, but also it’s something you have to be vigilant about as you cover the elected officials, is that you understand … you know, I, I covered a, a prominent Senator … giving a speech a few … maybe a month or two ago. And I got a lot of push-back from one of his lead aides and very minute, minute wordings. “No, he didn’t ‘clarify’ this. No, he didn’t walk back …”

And I was like “Come on.” And I think that often, in traditional journalism we’re very inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to people who are pushing the subjects of our stories. And I think that sometimes, especially … and I’ve been fortunate to work a place for the Washington Post, that one gives me a lot of freedom and, and is willing to back me up. But I think we also have to have confidence in the authority of who we are.

So, if I say “The Senator clarified something because it was unclear previously”. Now his spokespeople, his people who are crafting his messaging, may not like that word … and frankly I don’t care. And I shouldn’t care. Because if it was unclear previously and he said something to make it more clear …the word I should use is “clarified”.

And I think that those are the types of decisions that we have to make on a day in and day out basis on things as small as a word like “that” to things that are much larger. About large policy stances … those types of things.

HEFFNER: President Obama has convened Congressional meetings at the White House …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … summits, golf outings with Republican leaders … very little of it seems to have worked. I mean is, is that your …

LOWERY: Yes, that was my assessment. I think that the … I think President Obama has a very … seemingly has a very cold relationship with Capitol Hill. Both … frankly … both Democrats and Republicans.

I think that a good example … we’ve seen this play out … very recently in the release of Bowe Bergdahl … the Army Sergeant who was in Taliban captivity because the Obama Administration while it seems that President Obama as the Commander-in-Chief had the option to not give them the required 30 day notification, that it may or may not have been a skirting of the law, but as John McCain said to me yesterday, “He’s Commander-in-Chief. Setting that aside, he didn’t even make, he didn’t even make courtesy phone calls to some top Democrats, to say ‘Hey, by the way, we’re not giving you the heads up, just so you know this is happening.”

Our understanding is that some of the top members of Congress found out about this major operation that may or may not have superseded the law and superseded the requirement to tell Congress and some of them found out on television.

And so there certainly does seem to be severed relationship between the Obama Administration and Capitol Hill, not just the Republicans, also some of the Democrats.

HEFFNER: So what would further the cause of bi-partisanship into a next administration, whether that’s a Jeb Bush Administration or a Hillary Clinton administration?

LOWERY: I, I think that there just needs to be a … there has to be “due diligence” done to build those relationships. I think that there has to be a willingness to …there has to be a perceived willingness by the leaders on Capitol Hill, that whomever the President is, is truly interested in … in bi-partisanship and working. I think they knew that President Obama only came in in his election 2008. He talked very broadly and large sweeping statements about bi-partisanship and “fixing” Washington and not being politics as usual. And working with the Hill and getting things passed.

And when he ran into a, a Republican Congress that was not very willing to compromise with him, he essentially said, “Okay I’m going to supersede Congress” on, on many issues .

And I think that what has done … has hardened both players in this. And, and to the point where neither is really willing to come back and, and make deals here. I think that whomever the next President is …

HEFFNER: What is “due diligence”…

LOWERY: Part of it’s … part of it is as simple as just maintaining … at the staff level … maintaining relationships.

HEFFNER: Do you think that has been sacrificed?

LOWERY: I, I, I think …

HEFFNER: There’s a façade of engagement …

LOWERY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … on the part of the President that hasn’t been real.

LOWERY: That, that hasn’t necessarily … that, that aides on the Hill do not interpret as having been real. Because it’s not the media they have to fool. It’s not the public they have to fool. They have to … if you have to work with somebody, you have to be on their team. It doesn’t matter from the outside … it looks like the team is functioning … the team has to actually be functioning.

And I think that that is part of what the problem has been. But I, but I also, you know, to, to walk it back a little bit, I think you also have to look at … the, the daily mix President Obama has faced. He, he’s had to deal with … especially a Republican House that has been splintered in among itself. The Republican House leadership had to deal with insurrection among its own ranks and its put them in a harder position in terms of negotiating on some of these things.

And so, the dynamics here are constantly moving and constantly changing. I don’t know that there’s blame to be laid specifically on the Obama Administration versus Congress, versus … the Republicans in the House versus the Democrats in the Senate … but I do think it’s a fair observation to say that it, it has not worked the way, the way that 2008 Senator Barack Obama declared it was going to work.

HEFFNER: Well, it appears to me that “due diligence” could be a futile endeavor?

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: If there is this ideological gridlock.

LOWERY: I, I think that’s fair. I think that … but I think that …

HEFFNER: And that’s not something you, as a reporter, can necessarily tackle. And if that’s at the heart of this conundrum …

LOWERY: MmmHmm. It is at the heart of the conundrum on a lot of issues. If, if you look at a lot of issues, whether it be the extension of emergency unemployment for example, where the Republicans in the House … at just an ideological level do not believe it’s something we should do.

And, and so it’s not even a … necessarily a playing politics. It’s the Democrats want to do this and we just do not believe it’s the solution to the problem. And so, but I think that, that the difference here though is, there’s been real difficulty, during the Obama years, especially during the second terms of the Obama Administration in Congress really finding the areas where they can work together. And, and really being willing to come to the table on things. And, and I think that often you talk about immigration reform as being an example of this. John Boehner, Speaker of the House constantly talks about how his caucus does not trust the President of the Untied States to enforce the laws of the land and therefore they would not trust him on immigration reform. The Democrats will always push back on that and say that’s nonsense, that doesn’t any sense. Of course the President’s going to enforce the laws on X, Y and Z.

But I do believe that there is … especially among the rank and file, a, a distrust of, of the President of the United States, on a lot of issues. Whether that issue be how the Affordable Care Act was rolled out and now things like the Bergdahl release … where the President of the United States has essentially decided that it’s, it’s an untenable relationship between him and Congress and so he’s going to … get a lot of things done on his agenda and the more times you go down that check list and he hasn’t necessarily consulted Congress or jumped through their hoops that way, the less the people on that side in Congress are going to trust him.

And so I do think there are some real severed relationships here in this Administration and it’s unclear … whether it’s Republican or Democrat, if whoever the nest Command-in-Chief, whoever the next President of the United States is, if they’re going to be able to … they’ll have a clean slate at the very least, but if they’ll be able to navigate these waters a little bit better.

HEFFNER: Wesley Lowery, I know you’ll continue to do yeoman’s work on the Hill, and I hope the next time you join us, if you will …

LOWERY: Of course.

HEFFNER: … the government will be less divided.

LOWERY: We can both hope. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Thank you, Wes. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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