Let’s start this week off with some news: President Trump will talk about criminal-justice reform and prison reform in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
For several months now, the president’s son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner has had monthly meetings with Mark Holden, Koch Industries general counsel; Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation; and Doug Deason, a wealthy businessman and advocate for criminal-justice reform. The conservative groups aim to bring prison reforms and anti-recidivism programs that have achieved sterling results in Texas and Georgia to the nation’s federal prison system.
About 10 percent of all incarcerated individuals in the United States are in federal prison. “If they were a state, they would be the largest state in the country,” Deason said. To bring these kinds of anti-recidivism programs to federal prisons, “all it requires is an executive order instructing Jeff Sessions to open up the Bureau of Prisons to outside service providers,” he explained. “Right now they do so, but only on a very limited basis.”
The Koch network hopes to add momentum to the effort with new initiative called Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will research the most effective methods across eight prisons in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, featuring a “randomized controlled trial involving more than 1,000 participants in a mix of urban and rural communities.” The research will be directed by Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis of Washington University in St. Louis.
The aim is to provide “a counselor for a prisoner from the time he enters prison to years after he’s left, to stop this cycle of recidivism,” Deason said, and “have them leave better equipped to be a productive member of society than when they went in.”
Deason characterizes Sessions as open to proposals on prison reform and programs focused on a prisoner’s re-entry into society, but still “closed-minded” or reducing mandatory minimum sentences.
One other bit of surprising news in the same room Sunday night: Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters that his optimism about an immigration deal, on a scale of one to ten, is “about an eight.”
The Koch Brothers’ Rorschach Test
Saturday afternoon at the Koch winter meeting, I was watching a panel of leaders from community-building and social-capital-building nonprofits: the Cara Program in Chicago, which helps workplace skills; Phoenix Multisport, a Boston-based peer-to-peer recovery organization for young addicts; Rising Tide Capital, which helps low-income individuals start businesses in Jersey City, New Jersey; and Chrysalis, which helps low-income and homeless individuals in Los Angeles prepare for, find, and retain employment.
The Koch network doesn’t single-handedly keep these organizations going, but their financial and operational assistance is considerable. Stand Together, part of the Koch network of organizations, provided Rising Tide $350,000 last year; the group’s annual budget is $5 million.
It struck me that the reaction to the Koch brothers is a pretty good example of how politics has gotten worse over the past two decades. (Alternatively, if you believe American politics has been getting worse for a long time, that worsening accelerated in just the past decade or so.) To hear Harry Reid and a lot of Democrats tell it, they’re “the shadowy Koch brothers.” David Axelrod called them “contract killers.” Liberal columnist Mark Morford once compared them to a combination of “a ruthless drug kingpin, a mafia crime lord, the willful blindness of the NRA, the combined CEOs of Monsanto, Exxon, and RJ Reynolds and a couple scared old wolverines with God complex and a penchant for contaminating the world.” A documentary labeled them “the one percent at its very worst.”
The very worst? They donate more to charity that most of us will ever earn in our entire lives. David Koch and his charitable foundation have pledged or contributed “more than $1.2 billion to cancer research, medical centers, educational institutions, arts and cultural institutions, and to assist public-policy organizations.” The Charles Koch Foundation donates tens of millions of dollars to colleges and universities each year; in 2014, it gave $25 million to the United Negro College Fund.
Yes, the Kochs are libertarian-leaning, free-market advocates for limited government and a big supporter of a lot of Republicans. As noted last year, they’ve rolled up big wins in large part because they don’t just throw up a bunch of television ads. Their organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Libre Initiative are established to operate 365 days a year, not just around election time. Their organizations pay attention to state legislatures and state attorneys general. They notice and get involved in local tax fights like a referendum on a light rail plan for Nashville.
One can argue about the merits of this policy or that one. But if our national political discourse were better, saner, and more accurate, the Kochs would be universally seen as generous guys who are completely convinced that private organizations, non-profits, and free enterprise can tackle the country’s biggest problems. Maybe they have too much faith in the free market; the nonprofits mentioned above said they get about 10 percent of their funding from government grants. But they’re not evil, they’re not greedy, and you don’t invite two dozen reporters to your organization’s meeting if you’re “shadowy.”
Of course, they’re just one vivid example of a broader trend: the Kochs can’t just be wealthy guys with a clear philosophy on how to fix the world’s problems; they have to be monsters. The tax bill has to be “ARMAGEDDON!” A Republican president can’t just be bad; George W. Bush and Donald Trump, two very different men, both have to be the next Hitler. The White House proposal on immigration reform can’t be merely flawed, it has to be “a white supremacist ransom note.”
Who in their right mind would want to be involved in politics when people react like this?
The Eternal Prediction of a Democratic Comeback in Texas
You may have noticed in the great big 2018 open House seat roundup that a lot of Texas Republicans are retiring; the GOP will be aiming to hold seats in the second, third, fifth, sixth, 21st, and 26th congressional districts.
You’re probably going to hear a lot in the coming year about a potential Democratic comeback in the Lone Star State. The Republicans have been riding high in Texas for a long time, and nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump’s style of Republicanism may not be quite the best fit with the state of Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and George W. Bush; Trump won Texas by nine percentage points, the smallest margin for a Republican since 1996. And Texas Democrats arguably have no place to go but up.
And then there’s the cover of Texas Monthly, featuring Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke, and an epic-length featured article that declares there are “signs of a nascent Beto-mania taking hold.”
Since the beginning of 2017, O’Rourke has been profiled in the Washington Post, the Texas Observer,Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. His time playing in punk-rock bands during his high school and college years has proved irresistible for headline writers, who have identified him as “Ted Cruz’s Punk-Rock Problem” and asserted that his “Punk-Rock Past Could Help Him.” An in-production documentary titled Beto vs. Cruz promises that the coming Senate race will be the “most outrageous and consequential political fight of 2018.” O’Rourke’s fund-raising has been robust, with $3.8 million raised in the second and third quarters of 2017 — more than Cruz — and his campaigning has been relentless. O’Rourke plans to visit all 254 counties in Texas before the election, and his traveling town halls have drawn surprisingly large crowds in traditional Republican strongholds like Midland, Amarillo, and Tyler, where he attracted so many people to the restaurant Don Juan on the Square that he had to move the meeting out onto the sidewalk to comply with the fire code. (He answered questions for twenty minutes through a bullhorn.)
A Democratic group commissioned a survey and found incumbent Republican Ted Cruz ahead but not by a large margin, 45 percent to 37 percent. Of course, the organization didn’t talk much about the fact that the same survey found 61 percent of respondents didn’t have an opinion about O’Rourke, and only 20 percent had a favorable opinion of him. In other words, most Texans haven’t heard of him.
Beto O’Rourke is enjoying the best cover of Texas Monthly since . . . well, Wendy Davis and Julian and Joaquin Castro declared “Game On!” in the summer of 2014.
In that issue, Robert Draper wrote:
The Texas Democratic Party has suddenly found a spring in its step — and not just because of Davis’s performance. The national debut of Castro himself in a much-lauded keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer underscored the growing recognition that a new Texas — replete with millions of untapped and largely nonwhite voters — might be there for the party’s taking. Then came the news, immediately following Barack Obama’s impressive defeat of Mitt Romney last November, that the grassroots brainiacs behind the president’s campaign would soon be descending on the Lone Star State in the form of Battleground Texas: a well-funded organization dedicated to the labor-intensive, long-term effort to turn America’s biggest red state blue.
The indelible image of that slender blond lady in the pink tennis shoes provided stark documentation. This was real. This could happen. Texas could, at minimum, become a state where elections are actually competitive.
That was in the magazine’s August issue; in November, the Texas Democrats went out and turned in perhaps the worst performance for any state party in a midterm election in recent memory. None of the 15 Democratic candidates running statewide surpassed 40 percent; Davis actually performed best with 38.9 percent.
Besides winning every statewide race in a landslide, Republicans added two state Senate seats and three state House seats, adding to their wide legislative majorities. Battleground Texas turned out to be an expensive, colossal failure; despite all the talk about Democrats having this new, fantastic get-out-the-vote operation, Davis won 300,000 fewer votes than the last Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
As for the cover trio, former state senator Wendy Davis is leading marches of women dressed like Handmaid’s Tale characters; Joaquin Castro is still a San Antonio congressman, predicting a Democratic comeback in 2018; and Julian Castro became secretary of Housing and Urban Development and might as well have entered the witness protection program.
I suppose I should give Texas Monthly a little credit for noting on the January cover that O’Rourke is “The Democrats’ (Latest) Great Hope” and the sub-headline asking, “Does Beto O’Rourke stand a chance against Ted Cruz?” (If you have to ask that, then it probably means you weren’t comfortable declaring outright, “Beto O’Rourke stands a chance against Ted Cruz,” huh?) The article by Eric Benson even mentions the magazine’s 2014 Draper article and notes, “Since the Democrats last won a statewide race more than two decades ago, hallucinations of a coming restoration have been frequent and fantastical, with a series of would-be saviors vanquished by consistently large margins.”
After a lengthy and largely positive portrait of the congressman, the piece admits that for O’Rourke to win, “he needs to be historically right, and the Castro brothers and every other Texas Democrat who might want a higher office and sat out the 2018 elections need to be historically wrong.”
As I said at the beginning, it’s possible, even likely, that Democrats will improve upon their abysmal performance in the 2014 midterms. But it’s difficult to tell if Texas Democrats are really coming back or not, because the national and state media have been so desperate to see a comeback happen that they find the evidence to write this story every single cycle.
ADDENDA: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like John Kasich wants to run for president again. At the very least, he’s got the schedule of a man who wants to run for president in 2020. Tonight he’s on Seth Meyers (how many other governors get to make appearances on late-night shows?). Tuesday, the day of the State of the Union address, he’s appearing on Morning Joe, CNN’s New Day, and Nicole Wallace’s show on MSNBC. He’s visiting New Hampshire on April 3.
Finally, his team declared to his mailing list yesterday, “An Ohio poll was released last week that showed Gov. Kasich continues to receive high approval ratings in his job as governor with a 57 percent approval rating and only 29 percent disapproval. This is exceptional in a key battleground state like Ohio. Conversely, President Trump’s rating in the state is 43 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove.”
Why are you bragging about your popularity in a battleground state, and how you’re more popular than the president, if you’re not thinking about either challenging him in the GOP primary or running as an independent?