Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: July 4, 2018
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Hey, thanks for joining us tonight. Happy to have you with us.
Toward the end of Barack Obama`s presidency, "The New York Times" published an article full of colorful little details about how the president spent his alone time at the White House. According to that "Times" report, President Obama got barely five hours of sleep each night, but that was partly because of this sort of elaborate evening routine he had when he was in the White House.
After dinner with his wife and daughters at 6:30 p.m., "The Times" said the president would withdraw to the treaty room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence. And there, according to staffers, President Obama would spend four or five hours by himself. And in that four or five hours, he`d do all the expected things like read briefs and go over speeches.
But thanks to this reporting from "The Times," we also know that he sometimes played words with friends on his iPad. He sometimes watched sports and then he sometimes wrote taunting e-mails to White House staff if their team had lost in sports that night. "The Times" also said memorably that the president also ate a late-night snack of exactly seven lightly salted almonds. That part I`m not sure I ever really believed.
But it was during one of those late nights of alone time in the treaty room, early in President Obama`s presidency, the night of November 2nd, 2010, when President Obama put in a call to the man who was then the minority leader in the House of Representatives. He called Republican Congressman John Boehner of Ohio. Now, President Obama had to call John Boehner that night because he needed to congratulate Boehner on becoming the new speaker of the house. He had to offer his congratulations for Boehner ousting the president`s own party from power and taking control of Congress. And they did so with an exclamation point that year.
In the 2010 midterms, Democrats lost six seats in the U.S. Senate. They lost 63 seats in the House. Sixty-three! Sixty-three seats that had been held by a Democrat instead flipped to a Republican. One of the biggest single election swings in U.S. history, maybe the biggest.
Putting in that conciliatory phone call to the guy who had just kicked his team out of Congress, that was not the last indignity that President Obama would face over that huge electoral loss, because in addition to calling John Boehner from the Treaty Room alone that night, the next day, he had to go out in front of everybody and face the press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: Some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling. But every election, regardless of who wins and who loses, is a reminder that in our democracy, power rests not with those of us in elected office, but with the people we have the privilege to serve.
I told John Boehner and Mitch McConnell last night, I am very eager to sit down with members of both parties and figure out how we can move forward together.
REPORTER: I`m wondering, when you call your friends, like Congressman Perriello or Governor Strickland and you see 19 state legislatures go to the other side, governorships in swing states, the Democratic Party set back, what does it feel like?
OBAMA: It feels bad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: "It feels bad," Jake, it feels bad.
But it`s not like President Obama was the first president to find himself in this bad-feeling spot two years into his first term.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I think it`s important to point out as well that, you know, a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions. This is something that I think every president needs to go through because, you know, the responsibilities of this office are so enormous and so many people are depending on what we do. And in the rush of activity, sometimes we lose track of, you know, the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.
Now, I`m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I`m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: And thereby the president of the United States single-handedly revived the vernacular use of the word "shellacking," for all of us.
But President Obama was right about a real hazard of early presidencies. The same thing did happen to Ronald Reagan and to Bill Clinton in the first midterms of their presidencies. In Reagan`s first midterm, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Ronald Reagan was trying to be as upbeat as possible. Still, it was a conciliatory president who met with reporters, one who talked about seeking bipartisan solutions with the new Congress.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT: There have been concessions and compromises in both directions, on all of the major issues and we expect to continue to work with the Congress in that way.
REPORTER: Top aides admit that the election results were a shock. By White House count, only 50 percent of the candidates Mr. Reagan campaigned for won yesterday.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was Ronald Reagan in the first midterm of his presidency, 1982.
Eight years later on November 8th, 1994, the curse of the first midterm visited President Bill Clinton in an epic, historical loss for the Democrats at the time.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Tonight, the sound you hear is the sound of a moving van backing up to the United States preparing to move in a Republican majority. At this hour, the Republicans have picked up the seven seats that they need to take control of that chamber. We still do not have a reading on the House of Representatives.
The Republicans need 40 seats to gain control of that, but they`re feeling confident tonight and with good reason. Across the country, there is a Republican sweep that is underway. The last time the Republicans took control of the House was 1954, when Elvis Presley was a 19-year-old unknown and color television was just being introduced.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Ultimately, that night, Democrats lost eight Senate seats and they lost 52 House seats, including the seat that was held by the then-speaker of the House. And I should say, that was 12 years after a similar shellacking happened to Ronald Reagan, not eight years. Sorry, never do math on live television.
That first midterm for Bill Clinton, 1994, Republicans called it their revolution at the time. It wasn`t actually a revolution. It was just a strong midterm showing by the Republican Party. But the president himself did find himself struggling to string together the right words when he tried to describe it the next day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Stunned by the public`s rejection of his party, a visibly exhausted Bill Clinton said he will work with the new Republican majority and gets the voters` message.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I think they were saying two things to me, or maybe three. They were saying -- let me -- maybe 300. I think they were saying, look, we just don`t like what we see when we watch Washington. We don`t think government can solve all the problems. And we don`t want the Democrats telling us from Washington that they know what is right about everything.
REPORTER: The president had no choice but to take responsibility. This fall, he went to five states where Democrats won. But in 13 states where Mr. Clinton campaigned, his candidates lost. And in the rest of the country, Democrats didn`t even want him to show up.
The White House tried to say it was a vote against all politicians, but no incumbent Republicans lost.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: So, the first midterm after a new president takes office is very often a dramatic loss for that president`s party. It is normal for the president`s party to lose ground, sometimes to lose a lot of ground. The only real exception to that rule in modern times was after 9/11, when the shock of that attack and the transformation of the country and our politics thereafter were seen as highly unusual factors that kept Republicans from losing seats they might have otherwise been expected to lose in the 2002 midterms.
With those extenuating circumstances, Republicans really didn`t lose ground in that first George W. Bush midterm.
But, Republicans arguably paid double the next time around in 2006. After George W. Bush got re-elected in `04, his party lost control of both the House and the Senate in 2006. And that`s the pattern of how it usually goes in midterms. The party that holds the White House usually has a bad night on midterm election nights. And that`s one way to think about the elections that are coming up this year, in historical context.
You go all the way back to the Truman administration of 1946. You look at the first midterm of a new presidency, and you are looking at a sea of losses. There`s a reason all those bars on that bar graph go down. It would be normal. It would be business as usual to expect President Trump`s Republican Party to lose ground in Congress this November.
But, of course, nothing is normal anymore. How do we tell this year? How do we tell if the historic pattern is going to hold this year, this November, in a year when Democrats taking control of Congress would mean a completely different world in Washington, both in terms of policy, but honestly, also in terms of the myriad scandals of this new administration? How do we tell what`s going to happen?
Short answer, I don`t know. The smart money these days tends to say that the generic ballot is the best metric to look at. Just poll on this simple question: which party do you want to be in control in Washington? That`s called the generic ballot question. And a lot of experts say that`s the best finger in the wind for predicting elections, like this year`s midterms.
The problem with that as a metric this year is that that particular polling question has had answers that have been all over the place. Just over the past few months, the polling on that question, on the generic ballot has swung wildly, from Democrats being up by 15 points to Democrats being up by just 4 points to Democrats back up to a 10-point lead, to actually Republicans up by a point. It`s just -- it`s been all over the place. There`s no way to take a responsible average.
But here`s another metric, a very human one. What do the people in Congress themselves think is going to happen to them this November? On that metric, we do actually have a pretty clear answer. You can call it the sinking ship metric if you`re feeling a little bit rude.
And on the sinking ship metric, what you should look at is the sheer number of Republicans who are leaving Congress of their own accord before a single vote has been cast. Their numbers include the speaker of the House, the top Republican in Congress, Paul Ryan, who announced in April that he`s retiring. Paul Ryan is third in line to the presidency.
He`s the highest-ranking Republican in Congress. He`s leaving, but he is in good company on his way out the door. And by our count, 39 house Republicans and four Senate Republicans have announced they`re retiring or resigning this election cycle rather than running for re-election.
And yes, some Democrats are leaving, too, but Republicans right now are leaving at least double the rate of their Democratic colleagues.
Is the simple fact that so many more Republican incumbents are leaving, is that alone a determinative sign for how tough things are going to be for Republicans? Are the particular Republicans who are leaving, leaving vacancies that Democrats have a good chance of picking up? Is there really any reliable metric for predicting these things in an era that is distinguished now by how not normal everything in politics has become?
Joining us now is the great Steve Kornacki.
Steve, thank you for being here tonight.
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Happy to be here.
MADDOW: So, looking at those numbers, obviously, there`s some Democrats who are leaving too, but it`s about double the number of Republicans. Is it actually a lot? Is this a lot of retirements on the Republican side?
KORNACKI: It is, yes. And here`s how I kind of look at those numbers. That 39, you can take some of those off, because there are Republicans who are running for the Senate, running for governor. They`re not really retiring. They actually see opportunity this year. So, if you look at just the core group, who are actually retiring and walking away, that number brings you down to 22.
KORNACKI: But that 22 by comparison, think back to one of the last major wave elections we had in a midterm, you had it there, 2010. Barack Obama`s first midterm. Democrats got shellacked.
How many Democrats fit into that category of few retirements in 2010? It was 11. So half the number we had now.
Go back to 2006, another one of those midterms, Bush`s second midterm, Republicans got shellacked then. How many did you have? You had eight.
So, if you want to find a comparable number to the number pure core retirements that we`re seeing right now, the 22 we`re seeing now, you`ve got to go back to 1994. That was the 20 Democrats that year who fit the same category. That was the year, as you said, Democrats lost 52 seats in the House, lost control.
I think it`s fair to say that what that number is telling us is that psychologically, that`s where Republicans` heads are in Washington right now. If you look at that 22, there are a lot who come from seats that are potentially competitive. There are a lot who frankly are looking at their first potentially competitive re-election race and maybe said, you know, I don`t -- I`m not so in the mood for that after all. Maybe I don`t want to lose or raise a lot of money. But I`m not in the mood for that kind of thing.
So, I think, psychologically, it`s safe to say that`s where Republicans are. They are bracing for the potential of a wave this year.
MADDOW: And when you look at these things, do you think their psychological frame of mind is a good metric?
KORNACKI: And that`s the interesting question because these are the same Republicans who two or three weeks before Election Day on 2017 were calling on Donald Trump to drop out of the race in the wake of that "Access Hollywood" tape saying, we can within the win with Trump, we need Pence to be at the top of the ticket. Of course, we know what ended up happening there.
So, this is -- I feel like this midterm this year, you put a lot of the traditional metrics that we look at trying to analyze these things, this is a great test. This is a great political science test this midterm, because we will see how these things move if his approval rating ticks up more, if that generic ballot changes. But if we`re looking at roughly what we`re looking at now, and we`ve been looking at for the last year, we`re going to look at a lot of traditional metrics that are pointing in one direction, that are pointing towards what history suggests what is going to happen this year.
And if that doesn`t happen, I think one of the questions that was posed by 2016, is are the rules of politics permanently altered, or was 2016 sort of an aberration. And that story will become clear as time passes, but this is a key data point, I think this year, what happens in this midterm.
MADDOW: There`s a lot more to say on this subject and the other various metrics that we`ve got heading into November. There are other things I want to ask you about, so don`t go anywhere.
Steve Kornacki is our guest right now. He will be here again in a moment, because there`s a lot more to talk about.
2016 was not a great time for Democrats, but Democrats have sort of been on a roll ever since. The question about whether or not that is important, whether that is predictive.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: November 2016, Iowa Republicans accomplished something they had been trying for and failing at for nearly 20 years. They finally took control of the entire state government. Iowa had a Republican governor, Terry Branstad. They had a Republican majority in the state house. But before 2016, they didn`t have the Senate.
The Iowa Senate was, ever so delicately, still controlled by Democrats. It had been for years, until November 8th, 2016. Donald Trump won Iowa by a mile. And on that big red night in Iowa, in the state Senate, Republicans took the seats of six incumbent Democrats, including the Democrats` majority leader in the Senate. They took control of the Senate.
Here was "The Des Moines Register" in response. Quote, it is official. Iowa has become a red state. The majority of voters chose Donald Trump to be president of the United States. Five of the six individuals representing Iowa in Washington are Republicans. Republicans will take control of the full legislature in January. The outcome of Tuesday`s election has left many Iowans feeling fearful about the future of this state.
So, Iowa, after the 2016 election, coming to this new reckoning. We are a red state now. And you can feel the sort of implicit next question. Is that a permanent status? Is this who we are now forever?
But there followed an interesting twist in that story. A state senator had unexpectedly passed away right before the November election in 2016. Iowa scheduled a special election to replace that senator and they scheduled that special for about a month and a half after the Trump/Clinton presidential election where Iowa had gone so red.
This is interesting. They actually scheduled that special election right in the middle of the holiday season. They scheduled it for two days after Christmas. And it was expected that a Democrat would hold on to that seat. That district had voted for Hillary Clinton by 17 points.
But when they back to do that special election just seven weeks after the Trump/Clinton election, the Democrat in that special didn`t turn in the kind of performance that Hillary Clinton had shown in that district. The Democrat did not win in that district by 17 points like Clinton had. The Democrat won that race by 48 points, which means that district alone shifted 31 points in Democrats` direction, right after the Trump/Clinton election, 31 points.
Since then, if you look at all the special elections that have taken place across the country, that`s kind of been the pattern. It`s been very clear which party has the momentum. Since the 2016 presidential election, Democrats running in special elections overall have seen an average shift in their favor of 12 percentage points. If that holds, if you need to add 12 points to the average Democratic margin in every race in the country, that would be a huge Democratic tied, right?
Well, special elections are special. There are reasons to be cautious about extrapolating too much, but since the Trump/Clinton race, Democrats in special and regular elections across the country have taken away a total of 44 seats previously held by Republicans, and many of them in the unlikeliest places. Like in the Oklahoma statehouse, where four seats in the legislature flipped from Republican to Democrat, since Trump was elected.
In Kentucky, one local district that voted for Trump by a margin of nearly 50 points, they just elected a Democrat to the Kentucky House from that district. The Democrat won by a margin of 37 points, which means that was an 86-point swing in Democrats` favor in Kentucky.
And Kentucky Republicans are looking weak in other ways. The Republican leader in the House just lost his seat in a Republican primary, where a first-time candidate, Kentucky teacher took the Republican leader`s seat. And of course, there was the biggest flip of them all. The Democrats flipping the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama that had previously belonged to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Democrat Doug Jones now hold Jeff Session`s old seat in the Senate, even though Trump won the state of Alabama by 28 points.
Even where Democrats haven`t actually been winning, they have been spooking Republicans even in red states and red districts. Kansas` fourth congressional district is a very red district. That district elected Trump by 27; Mike Pompeo by 31 points, when he was still in the House.
In the special election to replace Mike Pompeo when he got promoted into the Trump cabinet, the Democratic candidate came within six points of the Republican. Didn`t win, but, whoo, that`s close for a district that red.
In Arizona, Republican Congressman Trent Franks` old district, Donald Trump had won there by 20 points. But then there was a special election to replace Trent Franks. The Democratic candidate came within five points of winning.
So, the math is stark, it`s clear. It has been all year. The question is, is this actually a good way of judging how the November midterms will play out? Does this mean that Democrats are going to get Congress in November?
Is it possible for Democrats to turn these close shaves they`ve been pulling off in otherwise Republican places? Is it possible for them to figure out how to turn them into actual wins when it really counts?
Joining us again is the great Steve Kornacki.
Steve, thank you for being here.
MADDOW: How significant is this sort of net swing we`ve been seeing as a metric. Is this the sort of thing that can help predict what`s going to happen in November?
KORNACKI: Yes, what`s interesting is there have been so many, so many congressional, so many legislative, and they are pointing overwhelmingly in one direction. I`m thinking back even to 2010. I think there were more mixed signals in what proved to be a wave election year. I think there were more mixed signals in the special election.
So, I think we`re seeing a more clear, one-direction signal here. What it says to me is clearly, definitely, I`m convinced the Democratic base is energized in a way we haven`t seen in a long time, and is -- barring something totally unforeseen, is going to be that energized heading into November. So, that makes the question in the key variable, will the Republican base match that energy on Election Day.
And so, when I look at these special elections, I think if you look at the House special elections, we may have a graphic on this, actually, if you look at all of the special elections for the House, this is interesting. What you see here, the Trump margin in `16, and then what happened in the special election. And you mentioned the last one on the list there, I think this is actually Arizona 8th, the most encouraging one for Democrats.
MADDOW: That`s the Trent Franks race.
KORNACKI: Yes, exactly. This was recent. This was this spring. Trump had won the district by 21. A Republican won the special by five.
But here`s why that is significant if you`re a Democrat, encouraging. The Republicans like to say, this is about energy. This is about Democrats circling the date of the special election, being energized, going out, and Republican voters not doing that. Arizona 8 is a mail-in voting district. It`s a state where they do mail-in voting. Everybody gets a ballot.
Republicans got ballots there. Republicans sent back ballots. If you look at the composition of the electorate, you know, how many were Republicans, how many were -- it`s completely comparable to what you had in 2014, which was a great year for Republicans.
This was not a surge in Democratic turnout here. It looked very similar and yet the result changed 16 points. So, I think for Democrats, that`s the most encouraging one. If you look at that list and you say, if you`re a Republican and you want to point to some optimism, it would be Georgia 6th. That was the Karen Handel/Ossoff race about a year ago.
And, you see, that`s the -- that was really the exception there, where Trump had won it by a point, Republicans won it by four. What Republicans will tell you happened there, this is their theory, is that race got nationalized in a way none of these others did. Tens of millions of dollars came in, national media was there, Trump was talking about it.
And so, it created this environment that they say will prevail nationally in the midterms and you`ll get a version of Georgia six everywhere. It`s a theory. That`s what they would point to. Just by the weight of the evidence, Democrats have more to point to right now.
MADDOW: Right, and for a nationalized race, you can`t nationalize every race in the country --
KORNACKI: Four hundred thirty-five.
MADDOW: Exactly, when everybody in the House is up, you can`t put tens of millions of dollars in every race. Fascinating.
Steve Kornacki, I`m going to keep you around a little bit longer tonight, because I can.
MADDOW: Much more to talk about. Lots more ahead, including more with Steve and more about what makes for a very bad prediction.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its term for this year by upholding the president`s Muslim ban, also delivering a huge blow to unions rights across this country and one final kick in the teeth, the announcement that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring, so President Trump can pick his replacement because that`s what he wants to be his legacy.
Because of Justice Kennedy`s specific role on this court, his place on this court`s ideological number line, Justice Kennedy leaving is one of those Supreme Court pivot points in history that really could dramatically change the courts and thereby dramatically change American policy and American law and American life for a very, very long time. A lot about the Trump era and era politics, a lot of what is happening in this presidency really has never happened before.
But it`s interesting, when it comes to this Supreme Court vacancy, this kind of vacancy on the court, at a really heightened time in American politics right before a critical election, turns out this is something we have lived through before. This is not unprecedented. When it has happened before, there are a ton of almost eerie parallels to the way it`s happening right now.
I should also tell you from the other time this happened we at least have the benefit of knowing how it all worked out that time. That may be helpful for figuring out what the best way forward is on it this time now that the court looms like a specter over this year`s midterm elections.
We have been here before and that story is next.
MADDOW: 1968 was one of the rare presidential elections in modern American history in which a third party candidate actually did all right. Segregationist former Alabama Governor George Wallace basically swept the South in 1968 as a candidate for the American Independent Party. He won five states on a populist and straight-up racist segregationist platform.
And during that campaign, George Wallace reserved for a particular target of his wrath the United States Supreme Court.
The court then was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Supreme Court had ended legal racial segregation in the United States. It had established Miranda rights so criminal suspects were made aware of their rights immediately upon arrest. The Warren court made it the law of the land that defendants have the right to legal counsel. Imagine the horror.
Well, George Wallace hated it all.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE WALLACE, FORMER ALABAMA GOVERNOR: The Supreme Court of our country has handcuffed the police. They have rendered decisions today that are absolutely ludicrous and asinine, turning people loose everyday to self- proven confessed murders of five or more people -- you read about it, you`ve seen it.
When they turn somebody loose a self-proven murderer of five or more people, some pseudo intellectuals tell us, he`s really not to blame, society is to blame because his papa didn`t carry him to see the Los Angeles Rams play when he was a little boy and he`s mad with folks.
One reason we`ve had a breakdown of law enforcement has been the Supreme Court of the United States has, by reflection upon the integrity and morality of the police of this country made it impossible to convict a criminal, made it impossible to arrest one, and today in the cities of our nation, you cannot walk the streets of public parks without fear of physical molestation because if you arrest someone today, they try the policeman on Monday instead of the criminal.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: George Wallace did not win the presidential election in 1968. He did all right better than you might think. Five states.
I mean, he did well enough in `68 that he scared the Republicans that he might take so many of their voters he would cost them the election. But with his rhetoric on the Supreme Court in particular he pushed the Republican nominee much further to the right on that specific issue of the court.
The Republican nominee was Richard Nixon, who believe it or not started off as a California moderate, even a liberal by California standards. But soon enough, Richard Nixon was on the campaign trail doing his best George Wallace. He started talking about the forgotten Americans, the non- shouters, the non-demonstrators, that are not racists or sick, that are not guilty of crime that plagues the land. Nixon called them the real voice of America and he pitched himself as the law and order candidate.
He went hard right to the Supreme Court in particular. He promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the recent Supreme Court rulings from the Warren court about Miranda rights and public defenders and all the rest of it. He said he would restore the country to a system of law and order with conservative judges.
That was part of Nixon`s Southern strategy. That was part of his plan to peel off George Wallace`s supporters to make them his own.
And Chief Justice Earl Warren saw what was happening. He saw that Richard Nixon, a front-runner for the presidency, was threatening to roll back everything the Warren court had accomplished, that it was becoming a big campaign issue and Nixon was going hard right on that issue. He saw it coming.
And so, in June, 1968, just a few days after Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, Chief Warren Johnson told the president, Lyndon Johnson, that he was going to retire as soon as possible, as soon as a successor could be named. Chief Justice Warren did not want to run the risk it might be Richard Nixon who might win the election and thereby get the opportunity to replace him on the Supreme Court. He said he was out.
At `68, Lyndon Johnson suddenly has the opportunity to choose a Supreme Court justice, this is just a few months before the presidential election. And he wasn`t going to get to pick not just any justice, he would get to pick a chief justice.
And so, Johnson decided that he would elevate somebody who was already on the bench, who was already on the Supreme Court as an associate justice. And it was a complete disaster.
Abe Fortas had only been on the Supreme Court a couple years. He was actually an old friend of Lyndon Johnson`s. And when President Johnson announced that he wanted to elevate Abe Fortas from a regular associate justice seat to chief justice, months before the presidential election, Republicans put a wall, slow walked the Fortis nomination hearings.
And when the hearings finally did take place, senators learned not only had the Justice Fortas been hanging around the White House for meetings and pressuring certain senators who opposed the Vietnam War, something that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to involve themselves in. They also learned that Fortas had been taking money receiving money from a local university to teach a court. He`d been moonlighting. The university had been paying him a stipend worth 40 percent of his salary on the court.
Soon, Democrats started taking back their support one by one and ultimately, Fortas had to withdraw from consideration to be chief justice, went back to his old job of just being a plain regular justice on the court. And that meant President Johnson had to withdraw the nomination that he had made to replace Fortas on the assumption that Fortas would be moving up to chief.
So, that meant that President Johnson in 1968, outgoing Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, went from having two chances to change up the Supreme Court to name two new justices, including a chief, he went from two chances to no chances. The Abe Fortas nomination was a bust and a political disaster. They sort of tried to game the whole thing and they just blew it.
And sure enough, Nixon did in fact win the 1968 administration and because of that failure by the Johnson administration to successfully appoint a new Supreme Court chief justice to the bench so Nixon wouldn`t get to, Nixon ultimately got to. He was able to follow-through on his campaign promise to appoint conservative judges who pledged to dismantle the legacy of the Warren court.
By the time Nixon took office, so much more had come out about Fortas` questionable ethics that he actually had to resign from the court entirely. In May 1969, Fortas left the court, so Nixon got to pick Abe Fortas` replacement for an associate justice on the court, and then, of course, he got to replace Earl Warren as chief who resigned and it would take effect as soon as he had a successor. Well, Nixon got to pick a successor.
And with that, Richard Nixon took the liberal Earl Warren court and made it shift abruptly right almost overnight, all because the effort to try to head that off in 1968 got botched so badly. LBJ screwed it up and George Wallace, in a way, got his wish.
There is a lot about the Trump era in American politics and Republican politics that is totally unprecedented. The concern about the Supreme Court now and what called happen next, the unbelievably consequential fight over the newly vacant court seat that is the new background of this year`s midterm elections, this is not one of those unprecedented Trump specific things.
This is the sort of thing that has happened before. We have lived through this before, mistakes and all, warts and all. This is one of those times when this is history happening all over again 50 years later. How all the players handle it this time, we will see. But, presumably, everybody in the country is going to be working on it one way or another over these next incredibly crucial four months.
MADDOW: Last summer, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren wrote a letter to a congressional colleague. Congresswoman Lofgren is on the House Judiciary Committee and at the time she wrote this letter, she was the number three most senior Democrat on that committee. So, she`s the third-ranking Democrat on the committee.
She wrote this letter to the number two-most senior Democrat on the same committee, who is Congressman Jerry Nadler. Quote: It has been brought to my attention that you are proactively seeking meetings with caucus colleagues to discuss the top Democratic position on the House Judiciary Committee. I also understand you`re asserting that I would not be a candidate for this slot if it were vacant. I request that you refrain from characterizing my intentions.
Politico.com obtained that letter and the way they understood it based on their reporting was that Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren was basically arguing that the top Democratic seat on that committee shouldn`t be handed out purely on the basis of seniority. Even though she was only the third most senior member of the committee, she was arguing that she should be in contention for the top job, if it opened up.
Now, at the time, Zoe Lofgren wrote this letter, the ranking member position, the top Democratic position on that committee was not open. It was held by longtime, long, long, longtime congressman, John Conyers. At the time of that letter, it would be months still before John Conyers would announce his resignation in the wake of a whole bunch of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Even before John Conyers got ousted from that top Democratic job on that committee, though, it was clear there was something unusual going on inside the Democratic Party in Congress when it came to that committee. Democrats were head up and fighting amongst themselves about what the process would be to pick a new leader for that committee, about who would get that particular top job on that particular committee. They were fighting about it, even while Conyers was still there.
And that`s in part because of what that particular committee does. In addition to overseeing law enforcement agencies and considering legislation relating to the judicial system, that committee, the House Judiciary Committee is also where they handle impeachments. Impeachments of all kinds, just in case.
Just in case those circumstances ever arise in Congress, it`s the Judiciary Committee that handles impeachments of judges, impeachment of cabinet officials. And if there was an impeachment effort against the president, the House Judiciary Committee would handle that, too.
Impeachments are only supposed to happen in the case of conduct so egregious it ought to transcend partisan lines and not a party thing, right? But ha, ha, wake up, realistically, President Trump could stand in Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not have to worry about impeachment against him, not as long as Paul Ryan and this current crop of Republicans are in control of the House.
That said, if, say, the Democratic Party did win control of the House in November, well, then honestly, impeachment is a thing that might conceivably come up, depending. If it did the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee would become the center of the political universe and so, the far in advance fight over who would be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Right now, the committee is run by the Republicans. But depending what happens this fall, that might change. Now, Jerry Nadler`s team argued for that top Democratic position that he should get the gig because of his, quote, demonstrated leadership on impeachment in the `90s.
Quote: Nadler is our strongest member to lead a potential impeachment.
Zoe Lofgren for her part said she would be even better suit to lead impeachment proceedings because she had not just served on the Judiciary Committee during President Clinton`s impeachment proceedings, she`d also been on the committee staff during President Nixon`s impeachment hearings. Double impeachment experience.
In the end, Jerry Nadler, the number two Democrat, after Conyers and not Zoe Lofgren, the number three Democrat, in the end, Nadler won that fight. Nadler got the ranking member position, which means that he`d be positioned to be the chairman if Democrats won.
As Democrats continue to make headway in elections across the country, they clearly are divided about whether they should even talk about the "I" word in public. Whether or not they`re talking about it in public, it is clear that it is a live issue within Democratic politics. For one thing, it is animating heated congressional fights among House Democrats who otherwise kind of like each other. And it`s also sending everybody back to the history books for lessons on how to do an impeachment right if it eventually comes to that.
When it comes to the politics of the "I" word, there are definitely lessons in recent history for how you could screw it up. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: You were there 20 years ago in 1998 when your party, the Republicans, decided to push impeachment against Bill Clinton in a midterm year and that 1998 election has the distinction of one of the rare midterms where the White House party actually gained seats. Was impeachment the reason the Democrats gained seats?
FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS (R-VA), SERVED IN CONGRESS DURING CLINTON IMPEACHMENT: I don`t think there was any question about it.
KORNACKI: The inquiry was opened a month before the election in 1998. Was that a case of the base -- the party base, the movement base is calling the shots, and party leaders are kind of responding, like this is what our people want we need to do this? Is that what it was?
DAVIS: Well, if you look at the initial vote. I mean, not only did -- I think most of the Republicans, but a handful of Democrats wanted it too.
Nobody knew how this was going to bounce. So, there`s a lot of nervousness on politicians when something gets thrown up at you like this, and there was Democrats in suburban districts who weren`t sure how this was going to play in swing districts and voted to go ahead with the investigation. But they weren`t -- they didn`t know how Clinton would handle it. At the end of the day he handled it well, turning it on Republicans and turning it into Democratic gains.
There were a lot of Republicans who just -- they despised Clinton, they wanted to go get even with Clinton, to undo whatever he was doing. So, when this things -- the blue dress comes out and Monica Lewinsky, they couldn`t help themselves. They said, we`re going to impeach him now and they move ahead.
And it was a lot in the Republican base fueled by talk radio. Cable news was not a big a factor at this point as it is today, but talk radio certainly fueled it and the end result you have a rabid Republican base calling for it. But for those in the swing districts, it wasn`t like so clear cut. They said, guys, do you know what you`re getting into here. Let`s take a look at the facts and we all took a deep breath before we ended up voting on it.
KORNACKI: Were you saying we`re going to pay for this in a month or were you saying this might work out?
DAVIS: I think the Republican leadership going back and talking to their base and going back to the Republican meetings at night, people saying, yes, let`s get the guy and they reacted basically saying, this will gin up our turnout base -- not recognizing that what gins up your turnout base often gins up the other guy`s turnout base. And that`s exactly what happened in these cases. Democrats became arouse and defended the president, not necessarily what he did, but the way the Republicans handled it.
It`s one thing to say, well, we`re going to look at this in due course. We`re going to do an investigation. But that was basically the Republican message in the end. If we get elected, we`re going to impeach this guy. And the end result is instead of picking 15 seats, we lost a half dozen seats.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Joining us now once again is Steve Kornacki, who just did that interview with retired Republican Congressman Tom Davis.
KORNACKI: Yes, it was.
MADDOW: What I wanted to know is -- so, he`s describing the internal dynamics in the Republican caucus when deciding what to do about impeachment. And he`s like, yes, we were wrong, like we thought he was going to -- so after they get political blowback and actually lose seats after their impeachment efforts against Clinton, what happens to the Republicans who were saying this is our ticket to victory? This is how we`re going to ride to new political heights?
KORNACKI: Well, I mean, this is the story of the end of Newt Gingrich`s political career, at least that phase of it. He was the House speaker. It was after Bill Clinton admitted to the affair in the summer `98. The Ken Starr report was about to land in Congress. Newt predicted this was going to result in the gain of up to 40 seats for the Republicans in the House. And they were already a majority party. He was talking about a huge majority.
MADDOW: He was saying that overtly, we`re going to get 40 seats?
KORNACKI: He had a public speech where he said that, in August of -- July or August of 1998. Talked about getting 40 seats from this. And the Starr report September 1998. He told Congress, I think I found impeachable offenses.
A month later, October `98, a month before the election, Republicans and a few Democrats vote in the House, we`re going to open the formal impeachment inquiry. Democrats say the voters are watching. A month later, Republicans, one of the rare exceptions to all of history, they lost seats. The opposition party lost seats in the midterm election. Days later, Newt Gingrich was deposed as the speaker, resigned from Congress and that was it for that phase of his career.
MADDOW: Yes. And now, he`s the husband of the Vatican ambassador.
MADDOW: That`s totally normal.
Steve Kornacki, this has been a lot of fun tonight. Thanks for being here.
KORNACKI: Yes, thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Much appreciated, my friend.
All right. More to talk about. Stay with us. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: That does it for us tonight.
This has been a fun show. We wanted to take a deep dive, big look at this election year that`s coming faster and faster down the pike with each passing day. Big thank you to the great Steve Kornacki for helping us out this year.
Obviously, this is going to be a fascinating midterm election year. No matter what happens, it`s just getting started. Expect it to exhilarate in its pace as we move on through the year.
"THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL" starts right now.
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