Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 25, 2014

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Vision Revision

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Vision Revision

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, does her podium walk-through before speaking at the convention tonight. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing is being published from the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week. For more information on signing up to receive this free email, click here.

THE PODIUM: The Democratic National Convention will convene at 5, the gavel wielded by national party chairwoman and Florida House member Debbie Wasserman Schultz. (It’s the party’s 47th convention, but only the fifth in the South; Republicans have won the presidency each of the previous times Democrats met in the region — the last in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was nominated in Atlanta.) The party has underscored its “room for everyone” approach by sending 5,556 delegates, more than twice as many as went to Tampa for the GOP convention. Half are women, 27 percent are African-Americans and 5 percent are students — including Samuel Gray of Iowa, the youngest delegate, who won’t turn 18 until just before Election Day. (The oldest is 98-year-old Elzena Johnson of Mississippi.)

The opening night’s marquee attraction is Michelle Obama, whose approval rating of 66 percent is 20 points or so above her husband’s current “favorable” polling average. She’ll take the stage at 10:35 as Character Witness No. 1 and testify that her husband’s life experiences guarantee he understands the struggles of most Americans — in contrast, she will imply but might not say explicitly, to his opponent.

The other speech getting live coverage on both the broadcast and cable networks will be at 10, from Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, the first Hispanic keynoter in convention history, the son of a community organizer and the youngest mayor (he turns 38 the week after next) of a major American city. The visual highlight of the night will be when he appears onstage to embrace the person introducing him — his identical twin, Joaquín, a state legislator who’s a shoo-in to win an open South Texas congressional seat this fall.

Those taking the royal blue stage in cable-only prime time include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who probably won’t resurrect his never-substantiated charge about Romney paying no taxes; about-to-be Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy III, keeping alive a family tradition dating to 1956; Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican senator who’s now the independent governor of Rhode Island; Chicago mayor and original Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel along with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, explaining why the president now wears the GOP epithet “Obamacare” as a badge of honor; Lilly Ledbetter, whose name is on the gender-pay-equity measure that was the first law Obama signed; and two governors on the lengthening list of probable 2016 presidential aspirants, Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

If there’s going to be a Clint Eastwood riff, it will probably come at about 9:30 from Kal Penn, the “Harold and Kumar” star and former White House aide.

THE TICKET: “It’s going to be, at best, a distant second to the speech you will hear tonight from the star of the Obama family,” the president said about his own acceptance speech during a lunchtime rally at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. The Bidens arrived in Charlotte this afternoon and plan to be in the hall for much of the night.

THE OTHER TICKET: Romney has gone to Vermont, where he’ll spend the entirety of the Democratic convention preparing for his three October debates. (The rehearsals and cram sessions are at the home of Kerry Healey, his lieutenant governor of Massachusetts). Ryan is about to wind-up his convention week swing-state swing with a speech at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “President Obama inherited a difficult situation,” he told a crowd of about 2,000 this afternoon in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake. “But here’s the problem: He made things worse.”

OLD BUZZ, NEW BUZZ: After 44 months in office, it’s way too late for the 44th president to re-introduce himself to the country. So this convention is instead about refining the elevator pitch for why Barack Obama deserves to remain the world’s most powerful person until January 2017. So far, it seems to be boiling down to this: Hope is still justified. There’s been more change than you might realize. Patience is a virtue. Disappointment is premature. The country is better off now than it was four years ago — it’s just not better off enough yet. And, if none of that is convincing, remember that Mitt Romney would take the nation in a direction other than “Forward.”

The producers of the next three days are working to refine a program that projects ahead and also takes an admiring look back. In pursuit of the undecideds and the switchables — and to boost enthusiasm from the base — Obama and his warmup acts will hold out the promise of a decade when the economy ends its long moribund run, when job creation regularly exceeds 200,000 a month so the unemployment rate sinks below 8 percent, when millionaires and billionaires do more to shrink the deficit, when more kids get better public schooling and enter an ever-greener and more innovative workforce, and when the word “war” drops out of the daily lexicon but the words “American exceptionalism” don’t.

But the talking points will also be that the president has done the best he could with the bad hand he was dealt, prudently spending down his political capital in order to drive the jobless rate down from double digits, wrestle the mortgage crisis to the ground, rein in a runaway Wall Street, prosecute a war in Afghanistan while hunting down Osama bin Laden, pull the auto industry back from the brink and guarantee medical insurance coverage to a much broader swath of Americans than ever before.

The trick is to market the past as reasonable evidence for expecting an even-better future. If that happens tonight and tomorrow night, then the president may hear a genuine roar in the football stadium — and rekindle the optimism of a few million crucial swing voters in his TV audience — when he asks if his crowd is fired up and ready to go.

COMPARE & CONTRAST: Obama and Biden will be formally renominated tomorrow. The convention’s first real order of business, ahead of all the televised rhetoric, is adoption of the Democratic platform this evening. And there’s not any hint of delegate dissent over the document, which reflects Obama’s vision for the country from top to bottom — and offers the week’s most formal, substantive explanation of how (and how dramatically) his vision for the next four years differs from the Romney Republicans’. “This election is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties, but between two fundamentally different paths for our country and our families,” the Democratic document says.

The platform calls for extending the Bush tax cuts for the 98 percent of families that make less than $250,000 a year, and promises not to raise taxes on them. The platform endorsed in Tampa advocates extending all the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 until a more comprehensive overhaul of the tax code is legislated — and the GOP says such a bill should repeal the estate tax and the AMT while eliminating taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains altogether for all but the very rich. The Democratic platform pledges to work to refine and improve the 2010 health care law while leaving Medicare alone. The Republican document says that on Jan. 20 Romney would use his new executive powers to stop all federal efforts to carry out the law, and that a “repeal and replace” effort would include pushing Ryan’s plan to create a fixed-price voucher system that would eventually kick in for people who are now younger than their 50s.

The Democrats call for an immigration overhaul that puts illegals who “get right with the law, learn English and pay taxes” on a path toward citizenship. The Republicans oppose “any form of amnesty” for those who intentionally break immigration law. The Democrats call for “immediate action to curb the influence of lobbyists and special interests on our political institutions” — and a constitutional amendment, if necessary, to reverse the Citizens United decision allowing unfettered corporate spending on campaigns. The GOP hails that ruling as a victory for free speech. The Democrats  back “a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay.” Republicans say “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” and would ban abortion in all cases — even when pregnancies result from rape or incest, or the life of the woman is endangered. Democrats back same-sex marriage but say religious entities should be free to decide how to handle marriage as a sacrament. Republicans want a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Democrats also say they have an “unshakable commitment to Israel’s security” and promise Obama will do what it takes to make sure Iran has no nuclear weapon. But to reflect the president’s position, the party has dropped a past plank declaring that Jerusalem is the Israeli capital. (Most countries put their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the dispute with the Palestinians.) And this was the one aspect of the platform Romney took on today, issuing a statement lambasting “Obama’s shameful refusal to acknowledge” and Israel’s true capital and promising to “restore our relationship with Israel and stand shoulder to shoulder with our close ally.”

NOT ALL ARE REPORTING FOR DUTY: The theme of the day is “America’s Coming Together,” the credentials feature a rainbow-hued watercolor sketch of an ethnically diverse crowd, and the program promises as much demographic diversity as could be imagined from a mainstream political party. But it does not include three of the four previous Democratic nominees for national office. While John Kerry will introduce this year’s ticket on Thursday night, his 2004 running mate John Edwards is viewed as such a personally bankrupt pariah in the party that he’s reportedly not even staying at his relatively nearby North Carolina estate this week. As for the 2000 ticket, Al Gore decided to anchor the convention coverage of his cable network, Current TV, from New York, while Joe Lieberman is viewed as such an ideologically bankrupt pariah in his now-former party that he was not invited. (Going farther back, Lloyd Bentsen and Gerry Ferraro are gone, and Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis haven’t been at the podium in years, but Jimmy Carter is speaking in a video tonight and Bill Clinton is tomorrow night’s main event.)

SEPTEMBER, DECEMBER: Back in Washington, the legislative agenda and timetable for the rest of the year have continued to take shape in the staff offices of a seemingly underpopulated Capitol.

When lawmakers return next week they will start writing the one and only spending bill that’s going to become law this year, which will keep the federal government running in place for the first half of the fiscal year starting in October — in other words until the winner of the presidential election is 10 weeks into the new term, and whatever alteration of the partisan power structure in Congress has been in place for three months. The leaders of both parties have been almost uniformly resistant to adding any special spending line items or policy riders to the measure. (Barring a major catastrophe, the federal relief fund for such occasions is well-enough funded; there was $1.5 billion in reserve before Isaac hit, and estimates say that’s sufficient for the recovery.)

At most, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers says, there will be only a relative handful of programs that get a little something more — and almost all of them will be on the homeland or national security front — meaning the price tag will be a little bit bigger than $524 billion, the amount allowed under last year’s debt law. (Some lawmakers and lobbyists are nonetheless working on long-shot efforts to win their favored “rifle shot” policy and spending additions to the package.) This, of course, sets up the first significant fiscal policy battle of the new year. If Romney wins and brings a Republican Senate with him (and the House stays in GOP hands as widely expected), conservatives will push hard for deeper cuts in the second half of fiscal 2013 — meaning much of the groundwork laid in the bills already passed by the House and approved by Senate appropriators will have to be tossed out the window. If Obama holds on and is again working with a divided Congress, then the bills-in-progress will be the basis for the final deal.

While quick and easy passage of the CR seems on track, another must-pass piece of legislation is getting deep into limbo. Senate Armed Services Committee people are conceding that their version of the defense authorization bill will not be debated during the dozen or fewer days of legislating between next week and early October, when lawmakers will be sent home to campaign full time. The delay raises the very real possibility that the final measure won’t be enacted at all this year — something that hasn’t happened in decades — because the Senate debate takes a week or more, and it will be tough to find that much time on the calendar during the lame duck, when so many “fiscal cliff” matters will be in the spotlight.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana (57), whose boots-and-bolo presence all over Charlotte this week suggests he’s more interested in seeking the presidency in four years than in taking on Max Baucus in a Senate primary in two years;  and Democrat Bob Filner (70), who’s leaving the House after 10 terms to run for mayor of San Diego. (Polling gives him a solid but far-from-insurmountable lead over GOP City Councilman Carl DeMaio; state Sen. Juan Vargas is Filner’s very likely House successor.)

— David Hawkings, editor

Become a Facebook fan at facebook.com/DavidHawkingsDC. Or follow me on Twitter @davidhawkings.

More congressional campaign coverage is on Roll Call’s At the Races politics blog.

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