Ep. 78 David King: We won! Now what?!

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another post-election edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We're looking ahead to the 116th congress now and we have a very special guest this week to help us out. Before we get to that we do have one request which is to please fill out our listener survey. You can find the link on our Facebook page and it's our pinned tweet on our Twitter feed. It takes just three minutes and it will help us so much as we think about what's next. I also want to take just a moment to honor the legacy of President George H.W. Bush. He was a true servant leader and a good-hearted person who did his best for the country. He had the admirable capacity to evolve politically, to change his mind, and to work across the aisle. His repudiation of the NRA in 1995 is just one example. He's also the last Republican president who had the political courage to raise taxes to address a budget shortfall. When I worked in TV news right out of college, I covered one of his campaign swings in New Hampshire in January of 1992. It was the day he cracked everyone up with some of his trademark awkward locutions, Bush speak, we called it.

NICIE: In one speech he memorably called the endangered spotted owl a hot button issue for timber companies "that little furry feathery guy." On a more serious note, my father went to college with President Bush and although he disagreed with many of Bush's policies and found his conduct as RNC chair during the Nixon era disappointing, he always spoke of him fondly and with respect. President Bush's role in ensuring a mostly peaceful transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union was critical and it's probably under appreciated. He and James Baker did a ton of work behind the scenes reassuring France and Britain on German reunification for example and he didn't need to get credit or hog the spotlight. He was also a legendary correspondent and his book of letters called "All The Best" is a great read. It offers the reader many lessons in kindness, decency and the simple joys of a life well lived. Rest in peace, President Bush. Now onto this week's interview. David King runs the orientation program for new members of Congress at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He's got decades of experience guiding freshmen lawmakers through the process of taking office and some sharp insight into the dynamics of this very large, historically diverse and ambitious class, what it will take for them to succeed as legislators. Thanks so much for spending time today.

DAVID KING: Oh it's so fun to see you. And then following your podcast congratulations on picking some great folks to pay attention to over the last half year. Now the fun begins doesn't it.

NICIE: Exactly. And that's why we wanted to spend some time with you today to answer the question for some of these new members and for our listeners: congratulations you won. Now what? But we'll get to that in a second. Why don't you just introduce yourself a little bit more for our listeners.

KING: I've been on the Harvard faculty for the last 26 years. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Go Blue! My background is mainly around legislatures generally. I've been writing about Congress my first book was about congressional rules and procedures and since 1996 I have been the faculty chair of the program that helps orient new members of the House of Representatives. And we've been running that at Harvard since 1972. My first time in it was in 1992 and I've been chairing the program every two years since 1996. So we are really attentive to what's happening with the campaigns and now reaching out to them and figuring out how we can be helpful.

NICIE: How has the program for new members of Congress evolved over the years? What sort of need was it designed to address and has that need changed over time would you say?

KING: It certainly has changed over time. The program used to mainly be kind of focused on policy stuff like oh here's how things really work up there. Here are the rudiments of how you can make change in the institution. And then very specifics we were organized in working with the committees in Congress for many years. So here's what you're going to hear on the House Admin Committee. Here's what's going to happen with transportation and so forth. We don't run the program like that anymore and haven't for quite some time. Now we what we've asked them in the past what did you like and what worked for you. The answer is kept coming back that it's the chance to get to know members of the other party and at this point this is the only time they get to sit down and spend real time not just them but their families with folks from the across the country and across the aisle. So it's a precious time that we have them here.

KING: We don't try and teach them about things that they've been running on that's just too crazy preachy and typically arrogant that we would say oh congratulations you've been saying one thing all this time but it's slightly different. So to the extent we do policy we focus on where the experts and others think we're going to be 20 years from now or 15 years from now. Everybody knows that the environment is an issue. Well what's it going to look like 20 years from now? And that allows people to kind of go backwards in time and then figure out what do I do now to try and change the world as it will likely be 20 years from now. So it's detaching these members from the kinds of solutions that they've been focused on while running and trying to attach these members to each other's and their personal stories.

NICIE: And you know we started The MidPod with a little bit of a hypothesis that this could be a year à la 1974 where it wasn't just purely about party but also about a spirit of reform and that that might be appealing and that you might have a very large freshman class of new members, many of whom who did not come a traditional route to Congress. And that seems to have borne itself out. Would you agree?

KING: Well certainly so the kind of hallmark years of not only numerical change but also a qualitative change in who's there what they represent would be 1974 the Watergate year and then 1992 which was the initial year of the woman. But it was also an important moment in history because so many members chose to retire given the benefits packages that were put in place after 1990. So you had a lot of members and I'm old but I'm going hold on for another two years. You had this massive sort of generational moment in '92. This one feels more like nineteen seventy-four not only a large number but from very different backgrounds. The members who we've seen elected both on the D and the R side are far less likely than in the past to have served in a state House. They're much more likely to have come from a grassroots or a community organization. Again for Democrats and Republicans and it's been a remarkable refreshing of military service and public service who are coming in now. They are people who care about the country they care about their community but they don't have the typical profile of having served in you know the city council and served on and then serving in the state legislatures of waiting their turn. We don't have a lot to turn waiters who are now elected.

NICIE: One of our interviewees ray of sunshine said scrambling over the barricades not waiting their turn just decided they were going to run.

KING: And the barricades are there for a reason and sometimes there to protect the institutions. And that's why these new members are now going to have to confront chief barricade defender is of course the current Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarkably talented absolutely phenomenal when thinking about the long game the strategic play so much of a current American politics wouldn't exist in the Democratic Party sense if it hadn't been for her machinations and now she's a target of opportunity for many of the members who are there because of her. And so the institutions are important structures historically philosophically and it's important to have change. Absolutely. But this new class is going to have I think a pretty rude awakening when they realize they don't have power unless they work in coalition and that coalition has to include members across their party most of whom are far more hidebound than they are. And it will almost always include members of the minority party, now the Republican Party. The Democrats can't go this alone just as the Republicans over the last few years have failed to go it alone. So the insurgency now needs to become a little more routinized probably a little less appealing to the outside world. We'll see. We'll see how they take it up.

NICIE: Do you think given what you said about the number of freshmen freshmen and women members of Congress who don't have a traditional background in elected office are you going to plug some different modules into the orientation for folks who have not held elective office before or address them differently?

KING: No I don't think so. We talk about some of the very specific peculiarities of this institution. How does the budget process work? What can you count on from staff? Sort of how policymaking works and how you have to work in coalitions. They're either gonna get that pretty quickly or not. So we'll see you we have very very different kinds of backgrounds with some of these members for example here Representative Pressley is an unbelievably skilled negotiator. She works in compromise she's inspiring she will fit perfectly within this structure and over time be able to change Congress appropriately. Contrast her with someone who a lot around here everyone was talking about for a while Representative Ocasio-Cortez now there we have a member someone who does not work well with others who has just planted herself outside of the Speaker's office or Speaker elect's presumptive Speaker's office.

NICIE: For our listeners tell what happened.

KING: Well she was part of a group of activists who camped outside of Congresswoman Pelosi's office and demanded action on climate change and climate change policy. It's not clear whether she was actually trying to get to the Speaker elect or presumptive Speaker or trying to showcase for the outside crowd. Because we knew well in advance and presumably anyone who talked about this issue knew that the the ultimate ask which is a committee to take a look at this was already planned. It was in the works. It was going to happen. And now it looks like the Speaker was presumptive Speaker was pressured into it. That's bad politics. It's bad form. It's silly. That kind of maneuver you would never see from someone like Congresswoman Pressley. You know she's young. There are a lot of people who are going to figure this out over time. We'll see.

NICIE: And there's a really fascinating aspect of all of this that we've been observing from the campaign trail that has to do with especially these more millennial candidates now members elect and their presence on social media and how social media their persona and their postings are so critical to their relationship with their their fan base for lack of a better word or their electorate. So a kind of sweeter side of things you see members posting snapchats of like oh my gosh there's tunnels you know under the Capitol building. But as you point out there's also perhaps a temptation to engage in whatever you want to call it showboating or.

KING: Well the traditional categories that members were put in was there are categories fairly quickly as oh that's a workhorse or that's a show horse. And so the show horses gets a lot of the attention. And Congress needs to be some show horses who are out there sort of explaining and demonstrating thinking things through publicly. But the real work of the legislature happens with work horses who do it behind the scenes usually never asked for credit. That's how you get most things done is you give away credit. What happens in a new social media environment when it's so easy to be a show horse in a way your your voters kind of come to expect that stimulus response. They like to be outraged they like to be your fan. I have a wonderful daughter who's has a very large following on Instagram. 114,000 followers Aroma bakery.

KING: And I'll tell you she's she has to maintain a certain presence she has to get these recipes up there she has to keep people coming back because in that social media world you know you're judged in very short-term how much traffic do you have how much instant gratification in important ways. But the design of a deliberative assembly is that one is elected and then has some time to think deliberate work often behind the scenes negotiating compromising working for things that are better for the collective. And you can't have that kind of conversation and compromise if you're running back and tweeting about it or if you're trying to get as many clicks and fans and followers. So this is going to be a challenging time to see how the institution reacts to this because most of the current way of seeking publicity does great damage to the process of deliberation.

NICIE: Yes we have seen that on the campaign trail as well. I guess maybe we should spend one more second on the challenge to Leader Pelosi. You alluded to it and I do find it fascinating that on the one hand there is a perhaps more centrist wing that has spearheaded this charge also younger making a demand for a generational change and they seem to possibly be allying a little bit with some of these more left-wing newer members who have a different set of policy demands but also want change. What do you think's going to happen? Do you have a feel?

KING: I think it's very unlikely that Nancy Pelosi doesn't become the Speaker. I think it's exceptionally unlikely. Now there are some specific rules and procedures or how that might actually happen if she gets a simple majority within the caucus. You don't have to get a supermajority a simple majority then the rule and expectation it is a written rule that you are bound by the caucus result when you get to the floor in January to have the sort of formal vote that you have to vote with your party. Well there have been times in the past where people haven't voted with their including the the insurgent wing that was behind Tim Ryan last time in the Democratic Party. Were there sanctions for the people who voted against Nancy Pelosi last time? Absolutely not. There weren't. And those who voted against Nancy Pelosi didn't get the dramatic cold shoulder for the next two years. It was seen as kind of an acceptable even healthy challenge. Well in the Democratic Party they will still have a relatively narrow majority. It was perfectly fine for people to vote against Nancy Pelosi as their Speaker candidate when they were already going to be in the minority. The pressure this time is very clear. You've got to get 218 votes of your caucus when you get to the floor. So you've got to be able to pop that number doesn't give you much wiggle room for people to defect on the floor. The insurgents were playing a very dangerous game.

KING: If say 10 of them hold out and say well no no no not Nancy Pelosi throws the whole thing into chaos and it gives the Republicans a very strong negotiating position because some of those centrist Republicans there might be two. There might be three there aren't many centrist Republicans. Can they kind of cut a deal to come over and at least vote for Nancy Pelosi. However, these things will work. It leads to all kinds of interesting problems and chaos. So what would I predict happens? Nancy Pelosi is going to be the next Speaker. However, she needs to have position in her leadership structure for the heir apparent. We don't know who that's going to be, maybe it's Tim Ryan probably isn't Tim Ryan. So who knows who is actually going to be. And that would be the heir apparent who might have a new formal position and would be understood to be the heir apparent who would be the Speaker in training and in waiting because the traditional structure which we then have the majority leader be the Speaker in waiting or maybe the caucus chair the Speaker ultimately in waiting, these things are just chockablock with old people old white guy old black guy. Congratulations. They're not the future. Right Steny Hoyer had the past. He didn't have a future. So how are they going to try and encourage the next face of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives? It needs to be somebody who is well it would be a blessing it would be a miracle if if anyone can find someone who is half the tactician and strategist that Nancy Pelosi has been. But without the baggage and the demonization that Nancy Pelosi has become. And that's not fair. But it is electoral reality.

NICIE: So it sounds like there is a range of possible negotiated outcomes that we don't know what they are exactly. But that seems like the most likely outcome to you right now.

KING: Sure. The most likely outcome is Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, they find some way of coalescing around an heir apparent. That has to happen before the second week in January when all this stuff has to go down.

NICIE: Just one quick thing. It's something we haven't really touched on much on The MidPod but I have heard it from a number of scholars that as much as there's a great deal of tension by the nature of our system between the White House and Capitol Hill, there's also typically a great deal of tension between the House and the Senate. And we've had a really interesting set of election outcomes in which the House got a whole lot bluer and the Senate got redder. And I'm wondering what you make of that dynamic and what it portends if anything for the potential for legislation of any significance sort to come out of this next session of Congress.

KING: There won't be significant legislation unless it is supported by President Trump. It simply won't happen even when you have both parties controlling the House and the Senate there is a real disconnect between the two. I'll for example just by the rules you have to have revenue raisers money bills that are going to start in the House of Representatives. The Senate sometimes tries to sort of usurp that all kinds of crazy sort of friend on friend violence seems to happen but that is as old as the institution of Congress. It certainly won't change now. Yeah the Democrats and Republicans are not going to get along. But the House and the Senate doesn't get along. If you want to see a real policy change it's going to be at the state level it's going to be at the local level. If you want to find some glimmers of hope there are going to be with some of these brand new members of Congress. I'm 55 years old. I don't think I ever want to vote again for anybody my age or older. These folks are fabulous and I'm saying Democrat and Republican. Doesn't matter.

NICIE: Sure. And I think the example we keep giving is you know the Facebook hearings.

KING: That's right. That's right.

NICIE:] It's not personal it doesn't make you a bad person but unfortunately this is the direction our economy and society have headed. And we desperately need political leadership that understands.

KING: That's right. And we're headed in that direction. I'm so much more optimistic than most people who are following this on the news. I'm finally obviously very very closely and I know a lot of the players and this is an exciting time Democrat Republican it doesn't matter we're headed in the right direction no matter what Donald Trump's days are numbered. His version of the Republican Party is numbered. The demographic reality is that the Republicans are going to be swept out or they'll have to change. Right. That pressure will be internal and they're going to change. You want to see the face of America going forward. It's Arizona. It's Nevada, it's New Mexico and it's where the energy and excitement will be in the next presidential election which is about Texas and when we last talk about Texas in a presidential election? This massive clot of Electoral College votes very much going to be in play. You know we're a nation of immigrants and that's absolutely the case that the energy and enthusiasm and background and diversity of our immigrant culture is what has made us great. And that's where we'll be going in the future. Absolutely.

NICIE: The number that just kind of blew me away and I might not get it exactly right. But listeners can look at Elliott Morris' Twitter feed. I think this is via exit polls so it may not be perfect and we may know more later. But the percentage swing voters under 30 from the Republicans to the Democrats was double digit I think it might have been 17 percent. I mean just eye popping. And that's that's very much to your point.

KING: That's right. Can I just be nerdy for one moment?

NICIE: Go for it.

KING: And that is about the exit polls. The exit polls are fine. OK. However, everything with a grain of salt because the sample frame that you use for an exit poll is based on the turnout from the previous election. You want to say OK I want I want to sample across a bunch of polling places in which I'm going to have a snapshot of America. Well you're always getting a snapshot of the previous election because all of their sampling is based not on where we think people will be but where were they last time. So if you have a surge in turnout among folks who haven't voted in the past why were the 2016 exit polls completely crazy is because no one was polling where the new Trump voters were actually coming from. And so we find that we will definitely find that this time as well probably around younger multi ethnic voters. So if you think you've seen a swing towards the Democratic Party among younger voters it's absolutely understated because of the way that the sample is drawn.

NICIE: Wow OK. So I've been asking pretty much everybody this question based on what you're seeing on a scale of 1 to 10 how concerned are you about the state of democracy in America?

KING: Probably a 7. And there are lots of reasons why I am a 7. I would say I'm always a 7 and seven's lucky number. I'm no more or less worried now than I was in 2004 2008 2012. I already told you I'm old right so I remember when things were actually demonstrably noticeably worse in our cities. Everywhere the country has made giant strides forward and we're headed in that direction. Still every election is a battle for democracy but more than that like every every day is a battle against people who have power trying to accumulate more power. Democracy isn't some balance of powers. It is a constant struggle over power. Voter suppression isn't new it's never going to go away just like shenanigans are not new and are never going to go away. So our job is to never trust the politics of the politicians and the parties because they're not in the democracy business it's to look at each other and try and support democracy and support the republic. I guess that's what you've been doing with this podcast.

NICIE: Yeah we've got to get you to one of our potlucks.

KING: All right well I'm carbo loading every meal and I've been doing that for 30 years so I'd love to hear about the potluck.

NICIE: Yeah I've got the Trump 10 going so now that we're back home I got to get back to the gym. Any last either advice to citizens or something to pay attention to that you think people aren't paying enough attention to it though?

KING: So yes I have something I want people to pay more attention to. I said that democracy is always under threat. It is a constant struggle. You can't trust politicians parties candidates to support democracy. They're in the winning the election business which is not the same thing as supporting democracy. So we have to find places in our community where we help each other and support the institutions of democracy education, healthcare, religious communities. And one of the traditional places the children have learned about politics and compromise and community is through school government student government you know a 10-year-old kid deciding they're going to run to try and make the lunch food better and a 14-year-old kid out there going from hall to hall trying to get people to vote for them. Well student government's on a huge decline now for over two decades in America. We haven't seen anything like this since the student government movement was created in the 1910s and 20s. Student government is being hollowed out across the country but not uniformly. Student Governments have disappeared in inner city communities in low income schools. Exactly in the neighborhoods where we need the training and the temperament for democracy most. So if you have some time go to school go to your community. Figure out how to recreate and then support the training ground the proving ground the socialization world of democracy and that's in our schools, in our churches, in our communities. And nobody is giving it the kind of attention that it needs and you can do that.

NICIE: Fantastic. David King thank you so much for your time.

KING: Absolutely. Thank you for doing this.

NICIE: Our thanks to David King and our best wishes to all the newly elected members of both parties. We hope you get a chance to rest up, spend time with loved ones over the holidays. History has its eyes on you for sure, make us proud. We have just two more episodes of The MidPod in store for you. Next week we get to highlight the actual work of Congress, making laws to help the American people. Senator Maggie Hassan, Democrat of New Hampshire will join us to tell us about the bipartisan support act that just passed Congress and was signed by President Trump. The support act aims to help those fighting the opioid epidemic which killed 70,000 people in this country last year. The story of the bill has some surprising heroes which you will hear. And on the 18th, Heather and I will wrap up The MidPod with some reflections, holiday cheer, and menu ideas. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

Eunice Panetta