Tilting at Windmills

Baseball Hall of Famer Henry Waxman

Fall in Washington can be depressing, especially during a midterm election year. The chance of Congress achieving anything goes from slim to none, as the parties focus on campaigning. And the Washington Redskins’ megalomaniacal owner, Dan Snyder, reliably fields an underperforming team that kills off any excitement about the football season. This year, Snyder has managed to add an extra patina of sadness to the whole affair by truculently rejecting calls to change the Redskins’ name, which a growing number of people regard as a racial slur. In May, fifty U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell demanding that he force the team to drop its name. Snyder has handled the controversy in classic Washington fashion: by enlisting the services of ex-George W. Bush flak Ari Fleischer and launching a counterattack. Ugh.

Baseball is the one ray of light. The Washington Nationals didn’t quite make it to the World Series, but their playoff run generated the kind of palpable excitement Washington sports fans haven’t experienced in years. This gives me an opening to propound my theory that Congress—and in particular one congressman, California Representative Henry Waxman—is more responsible for the current state of the game than anyone realizes (possibly including Waxman himself, who isn’t a fan). As many baseball commentators have noted, Major League Baseball has become a pitcher’s league, so starved for home runs that a lot of people want to lower the pitcher’s mound to try and create more offense.

Back in the mid-2000s, Waxman sat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, first as ranking member opposite Republican chairman Tom Davis of Virginia, then as chairman when Democrats won the House in 2006. Waxman was the impetus for the steroid hearings that brought popular sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro before Congress. His chief motivation was public health: a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that steroid abuse among teens and children as young as sixth grade had tripled over a decade. Kids were emulating their ’roid-addled heroes.

To his credit, Davis, who was chairman at the time, agreed that this merited an investigation and hearings. That’s how baseball’s brightest stars wound up under oath before the Oversight Committee. Unwilling to perjure himself,
McGwire all but admitted using steroids. Sosa pretended he couldn’t understand English. Thanks to ESPN, which carried the hearings live, the story exploded. But the celebrity testimony eclipsed the public health rationale. The tone of the coverage in the sports press was largely defensive—a kind of affronted annoyance that Congress was aggrandizing itself by meddling in the nation’s pastime, even if it grudgingly conceded that, yes, baseball had a steroids problem.

When Waxman took over the committee, he pushed baseball much harder than anyone today seems to remember. As it happens, Waxman and baseball commissioner Bud Selig are both retiring this year, and there have been lots of gauzy tributes to Selig that laud him for “tackling the steroids problem” and “cleaning up the game.” This is hogwash. Selig only did so under extreme duress. In his memoir (which I co-wrote), Waxman notes that Selig was even more recalcitrant than the tobacco executives he spent years dogging. When Big Tobacco sensed it was going to lose a fight, it turned over whatever documents Waxman was seeking, rather than endure the ignominy of a congressional subpoena. Not Selig. He refused to turn over baseball’s steroid policy until the committee hit him with a subpoena. Unsurprisingly, the policy was absurdly weak. Only after a bipartisan threat to regulate baseball through the Office of National Drug Control Policy did Selig relent and toughen the rules.

Back to my theory of how Waxman changed baseball. Almost every measure of offensive performance shows the same pattern: power numbers start to rise dramatically in the mid-’90s, peak around 2000, then begin a steady decline in 2006—coinciding with the Davis-Waxman steroid hearings. Recently, Peter Gammons ran an article on his website, GammonsDaily.com, tracking the decline in home runs. In 2006, the average major-
league game featured 1.11 home runs, and it’s pretty much been downhill ever
since: 2007 (1.02 HR/game), 2008 (1.01), 2009 (1.04), 2010 (0.95), 2011 (0.94), 2012 (1.02), 2013 (0.96), 2014 (0.89). This year projects to have the fewest home runs in a season since 1993, the dawn of the Steroids Era. Gammons didn’t note Waxman’s role or that of Congress. Nobody does! But they should.

Of course, despite the widespread belief to the contrary, Waxman and Davis weren’t primarily concerned with “cleaning up the game” or adjudicating who merits entry into Cooperstown and who doesn’t. They were trying to curb a public health epidemic (their first panel, instantly overshadowed by the players who followed, featured testimony from the parents of children who’d killed themselves after abusing steroids). Happily,
they appear to have succeeded. According to the highly regarded annual survey of teen drug use by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, steroid use among eighth graders has fallen by two-thirds from its peak, and among tenth and twelfth graders by about half. To put this in perspective, the rate of steroid use among high school seniors has returned to what it was in 1993. It’s hard to look at the baseball and public health data and not conclude that the hearings were a striking and unappreciated success.

Congress can fix football’s domestic violence problem

But it’s football, not baseball, that’s most in need of serious reform these days. In September, the celebrity website TMZ posted security footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his fiancée in the face and knocking her unconscious. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had previously suspended Rice for a paltry two games, based on earlier footage that merely showed Rice dragging the unconscious woman from the elevator (it didn’t show his left hook). After the beating tape surfaced, the Ravens cut ties with Rice. Public outrage forced Goodell to suspend him for the full season. But there’s clearly an epidemic of domestic violence in the NFL that Goodell is as reluctant to address as Selig was baseball’s steroids crisis. USA Today reports that fifty-
seven players have been arrested for domestic violence since Goodell became commissioner. Rather than attempt to improve their behavior, the NFL has hired a new chief lobbyist, Cynthia Hogan, a former counsel to Vice President Joe Biden, to make its problem go away.

A week after Rice’s suspension, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted in Montgomery County, Texas, on a felony charge of injury to a child for beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch. According to a local CBS News report, “The beating allegedly resulted in numerous injuries to the child, including cuts and bruises to the child’s back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the child’s hands.” The Vikings benched Peterson for a single game, before welcoming him back. The next day, a Houston television station reported that Peterson was accused of abusing a different four-year-old son by another woman, who filed a report with Child Protective Services last year. CPS declined to investigate, and Peterson’s lawyer denied the charge. Only when the Vikings’ sponsors started bailing did the team reluctantly sit Peterson again.

Congress could do a lot to fix this problem simply by putting pressure on the league to toughen its rules. The House Oversight Committee should once again take the lead. It’s currently chaired by California Representative Darrell Issa, an inveterate publicity hound who has focused his efforts on Fox News-friendly topics like Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service without much to show for it. Congress doesn’t do bipartisanship like it did ten years ago, but I’ll bet that the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, would go along if Issa were to summon Rice, Peterson, and Goodell to testify on domestic violence and, in Goodell’s case, lay out exactly what he proposes to do about the problem. The hearing could focus on both the NFL and the broader societal problem, just as the steroids hearings did. This would benefit society, Congress—which would actually be doing something useful—and Issa himself, who’d finally get the massive, adulatory attention he craves. It would also improve the GOP’s image among women.

The Dan Snyder Chair in Native American Studies

Since we’re playing Fantasy Congress, I’d go a step further and tackle the Redskins issue at the same time. I find it a little disconcerting that fifty senators sent a letter to Goodell demanding that the Redskins change their name, but only sixteen senators sent him a letter urging him to do something about domestic violence. Nevertheless, here’s how I’d set it up: The first panel would feature historians who would testify on the historical use of the term “redskin” and offer their learned opinions on whether it is a compliment or a slur. The next panel would feature Snyder, who would be asked to explain why they are wrong. Goodell could chip in his own explanation about why the league still sanctions the name.

I tend to have a (slightly) better opinion of Congress than most people I encounter, for reasons like the Davis-Waxman hearings mentioned above. Also, because this magazine’s founder, Charlie Peters, spent two years drumming into my head the idea that government service is a noble calling. But I’ll admit that I have a hard time envisioning any chairman hauling Dan Snyder before Congress. That’s because mingling with other Washington A-listers in the owner’s suite during Redskins games is one of those absurd but crucial status markers that few politicians would willingly sacrifice.

 

Back to the GOP’s problem with women. Or, really, women’s problem with the GOP. Most of the attention surrounding the midterm elections has dwelled on the question of how large the Republican gains will be. Will they add to their margin in the House? Will they gain enough seats to take control of the Senate or just pick up four or five? Since I’m writing before the election, I don’t know the answer. But one thing that fascinates me is the sudden endorsement by several Republican Senate candidates of making birth control pills available over the counter. In Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado—each of them swing states—Republicans who oppose abortion have suddenly felt moved to speak out about their desire to liberalize women’s access to contraception.

There’s no mystery about what’s driving this odd trend. Republicans remain exceptionally unpopular with women, especially unmarried women. Shouldn’t this be bigger news? The lesson Republicans say they drew from the 2012 election is that they cannot afford to alienate women by nominating extremists like Missouri’s Senate candidate Todd Akin, who endorsed the idea of “legitimate rape,” and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, who shared his belief that rape is something “God intended to happen.” After the election, Republicans actually started a school to teach candidates how to speak to women. (“Gather round, class! Today we’ll learn how not to say appalling things about rape …”)
Here’s the thing: Republicans succeeded in sidelining the whackos this cycle. There are no Akins or Mourdocks poisoning the party’s image. The Senate candidates in Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina are all fit for polite company. In fact, Colorado’s nominee, Representative Cory Gardner, is considered one of the brightest young lights in his party. Yet a September 7th NBC News/Marist poll found him trailing his Democratic op-
ponent by twenty-nine points among single women. The same week, Gardner launched a new ad touting his enlightened position on birth control.

Democrats are doing all they can to exploit these troubles. In the New York Times recently, Jonathan Martin noted, “After a generation of campaigns in which Republicans exploited wedge issues to win close elections, Democrats are now on the offensive in the culture wars.” Colorado is a prime example. One reason Gardner is struggling with single women is that his Democratic opponent, Senator Mark Udall, has mercilessly criticized him for wanting to outlaw abortion. Udall’s newest ad on the subject is noteworthy because he doesn’t employ the usual political euphemisms like “choice” or “freedom.” Instead, he looks directly into the camera and says, “How is it that we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion, or birth control? For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation.”

Elsewhere, Martin posits that culture war flashpoints like access to birth control are becoming a “gateway issue” for Republicans hoping to reach women. That is, many women won’t even listen to a politician’s pitch if they know right out of the gate that he or she wants to limit access to contraception. I think that’s right. You often hear it said in Washington that immigration reform is a “gateway issue” for Republicans hoping to attract Hispanic votes. That’s a lot of gateways to have to get through, simply to get a hearing. If Democrats somehow manage to hang on to the Senate, it will be because Republicans failed on these gateway issues.

Karl Rove seems to agree. Rove’s columns in the Wall Street Journal are usually a marvel of tendentious argument and intellectual dishonesty that find a way to blame Democrats for just about everything that’s wrong with the world. But they’re also a useful lens into Rove’s psyche, his private fears and doubts, because he embeds them with advice and warnings for his fellow Republicans.

His September 17th missive was a classic warning column (“Why a GOP Senate Majority Is Still in Doubt”) that made clear that he, too, thinks this debate over contraception is hurting Republican candidates:

Women do view attacks on Republicans over social issues as a way to determine whether a candidate is outside the mainstream. If GOP candidates address these concerns in a reasonable fashion, they undermine the Democrats’ anti-women
meme and can pivot successfully to larger issues. That’s why Planned Parenthood has reacted with such fury to Republican Senate candidates in Alaska, Colorado and North Carolina saying they support making contraceptives available over-the-counter
.

This is Rove code for: Get your act together and start reassuring women that you’re not a Neanderthal! You have to admire Rove’s subtle manipulation of conservatives who might object to over-the-counter contraceptives: if those crazed feminists at Planned Parenthood are furious, well, then it must be good policy!
Gardner’s twenty-nine-point deficit with single women illustrates the limits of this kind of Machiavellian thinking. But Rove is smart enough to know that Republicans need only narrow that gap—not eliminate it—to win the Senate.

The biggest known unknown about Hillary ’16

Hillary Clinton’s trip to Iowa in September, her first visit to the state in seven years, was the unofficial launch of her 2016 presidential campaign and everything you’d expect it to be: heavily scripted and comically overcovered by the press, even as it was bereft of any real news value. My Twitter feed was a Gatling gun of moment-by-moment reports of her every word and action (I probably follow too many political reporters). By day’s end, Clinton’s visit had been subjected to more scrutiny than the Zapruder film. And it didn’t really tell us anything new.

This is just the way it’s going to be for the duration of “Hillary ’16”—I accept that in the same stoical way I accept my inevitable death. But it seems to me that trying to anticipate Clinton’s fortunes by deconstructing her every public utterance is a fool’s errand. I spent a large portion of 2007-08 reporting on Clinton, her campaign, and the machinations of the far-flung group of advisers and hangers-on who collectively make up “Hillaryland.” The experience taught me that what she does behind the scenes is usually more important than what she does in front of the cameras. That was true during her last campaign, and I expect it will be again.

The real story of the 2008 presidential campaign has mostly been eclipsed by the Myth of Obama—the idea, repeated by his supporters like a catechism, that Obama was a figure of destiny carried to the nomination by his extraordinary ability to articulate a unifying vision of a post-partisan politics. Obama certainly was a talented politician who ran a terrific race. But it would be much more accurate to say that Clinton, who held practically every advantage, blew a winnable race than it would be to say that Obama won it. His brilliance, and his campaign’s, was how they exploited an opportunity Clinton never should have allowed them.

In the late spring of 2008, when it was clear Obama would secure the nomination, a bunch of Clinton’s staffers leaked to me a stack of internal campaign emails and strategy memos that laid bare what really went wrong: Clinton’s campaign, practically from the outset, devolved into competing factions of advisers who jockeyed for future White House jobs with such furious intensity that no one paid much attention to her race.

My piece (“The Front-Runner’s Fall,” Atlantic, September 2008) laid this all out, including many of the emails and memos. It was, I’ll admit, pure campaign pornography that occasioned all the recriminations and counterattacks you’d expect. But most people missed what I took to be the central insight: not that this or that adviser was right or wrong, but that Clinton herself failed a crucial executive test. She never stepped in to adjudicate these disputes, and so her campaign drifted until suddenly everyone realized she couldn’t win.

None of this was evident in any campaign appearance, in Iowa or elsewhere. If there’s similar trouble this time around, it probably won’t be evident either. Despite her critical failure in 2008, Clinton still came within a hairbreadth of winning the nomination. What should worry Democrats is that there doesn’t appear to be an Obama-like challenger who could expose such a weakness, if it still exists. Nor is there an inexpiable vote, as there was with the Iraq War, that could disqualify her with liberal primarygoers. This time, Democrats seem willing and even eager to hand her the nomination. So we won’t know if Clinton has learned the right lesson until the Republican nominee gets a chance to test her.

Joshua Green

Joshua Green, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.