Trending top­ics trump trou­bled 2017

The year the peo­ple, not Congress or Trump, set the agenda

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WASHINGTON (TNS) — 2017 was one of those sem­i­nal, once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion years when Washington didn’t set its own agenda, when con­stituents rather than lead­ers drove the de­bate and di­a­logue.

Old rules of defin­ing po­lit­i­cal suc­cess and in­flu­enc­ing pub­lic pol­icy were out. Or­gan­i­cally driven move­ments, pushed by trending top­ics such as #MeToo, #TakeTheKnee and #lasve­g­asshoot­ing drove the email traf­fic to con­gres­sional of­fices.

Con­gres­sional lead­ers and the White House strug­gled to adapt to the new po­lit­i­cal man­dates. Speeches back home and town halls were out; con­nect­ing via so­cial me­dia was in. Tak­ing cues from like-minded strangers bond­ing on Face­book mat­tered; the con­gres­sional sched­ule hardly did.

It’s a stun­ning re­sult, if not mad­den­ing for Washington of­fi­cials, con­sid­er­ing the macro-po­lit­i­cal pic­ture: One party con­trol­ling the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in 10 years. And be­liev­ing it could count on a Supreme Court lean­ing in its fa­vor.

In­stead, con­gres­sional lead­ers and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion strug­gled to adapt to the new po­lit­i­cal man­dates and never re­ally did. At the White House, the tra­di­tional

post-elec­tion pres­i­den­tial man­date was in­vis­i­ble. So was the ef­fec­tive­ness of the bully pul­pit, which evolved into gov­ern­ment by de­cree — ex­ec­u­tive or­ders — or early morn­ing tweets of­fer­ing not lofty pro­nounce­ments or agen­das but of­ten jabs at en­e­mies.

Congress spent the year tak­ing long breaks and stum­bling through leg­is­la­tion that of­ten went nowhere. Law­mak­ers com­mit­ted much of the spring and sum­mer to wran­gling over the re­peal and re­place­ment of Oba­macare, ul­ti­mately falling short. They spent the fall try­ing to craft a fed­eral bud­get and only could ap­prove a se­ries of stop­gaps.

Only a last-minute tax over­haul gave Washington the ve­neer of a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment, but the is­sues most on the minds of peo­ple back home — im­mi­gra­tion, guns, help for hur­ri­cane and wild­fire vic­tims, chil­dren’s health in­sur­ance — were kicked into 2018.

In short, Washington had trou­ble fig­ur­ing out how to con­nect with con­stituents who were us­ing 2017-vin­tage means of mak­ing them­selves heard.

Un­der pre-2017 rules, the new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and em­bold­ened GOP ma­jori­ties on Capi­tol Hill should have had a year full of achieve­ments. The econ­omy roared through its more ro­bust months in mem­ory. Stock ex­changes climbed into record ter­ri­tory. Con­sumer con­fi­dence soared. All this usu­ally means Congress has an eas­ier time craft­ing a bud­get, since rev­enues are up, al­low­ing the new pres­i­dent’s ini­tia­tives to win easy ap­proval.

None of that hap­pened. Gallup ap­proval numbers for the pres­i­dent — 35 per­cent on Dec. 19 — and Congress — av­er­ag­ing 19 per­cent this year — flirted with his­toric lows. The tax cut was quickly put to­gether at the end of the year, with­out hear­ings or any ef­fort to en­gage Democrats, largely so Repub­li­cans could get a win.

At a Dec. 20 White House vic­tory lap, the pres­i­dent and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans hailed what they said was a defin­ing achieve­ment. But con­stituents now are more fo­cused on and con­cerned with some very dif­fer­ent mat­ters.

Of the top five themes logged by Chart­beat, which tracks me­dia traf­fic, ha­rass­ment topped the list. Do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism and vi­o­lence ranked fourth, and dis­as­ters, such as this sum­mer’s hur­ri­canes, placed fifth. Only one po­lit­i­cal topic, over­all re­ac­tion to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first year, was in the mix at third.

The saga of the ha­rass­ment de­bate il­lus­trated the change in how po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and di­a­logue had changed and how Washington strug­gled to re­spond.

The out­rage that ul­ti­mately fu­eled the #MeToo mo­men­tum first ac­cel­er­ated dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, when Trump ridiculed Repub­li­can ri­val Carly Fio­r­ina’s ap­pear­ance, broad­caster Megyn Kelly’s blood and, fi­nally, was re­vealed on the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” au­dio tape boast­ing how a celebrity could “grab them (women) by the p---y.”

The de­feat of Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, a crush­ing set­back af­ter a gen­er­a­tion’s worth of in­cre­men­tal but steady progress, added to the mount­ing anger. In 1991, af­ter law pro­fes­sor Anita Hill ac­cused Supreme Court nom­i­nee Clarence Thomas of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, women mo­bi­lized. 1992 was touted as the “Year of the Woman” af­ter four women won U.S. Se­nate seats. It was the most women ever elected to the Se­nate in a sin­gle year.

The mood go­ing into 2017 was very dif­fer­ent. “The dif­fer­ence was the misog­yny we saw in the cam­paign on the part of Don­ald Trump,” said Deb­bie Walsh, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Women and Pol­i­tics at Rut­gers Univer­sity in New Jersey, a non­par­ti­san re­search group.

“It was the way he used gen­der as part of his power,” said Walsh, a cen­ter staff mem­ber since 1981.

So­cial me­dia helped or­ga­nize the Women’s March in Washington, which at­tracted an es­ti­mated 400,000 peo­ple, the day af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ral. Just as im­por­tant, there were about 400 other such marches around the coun­try the same day in­volv­ing mil­lions more.

The next month, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell in­ter­rupted Sen. Elizabeth War­ren, D-Mass. His crit­i­cism — “Nev­er­the­less she per­sisted” — be­came a ral­ly­ing cry for women tired of be­ing si­lenced. #LetLizS­peak quickly be­came a top trending Twit­ter topic.

The marches and the Se­nate in­ci­dent helped ig­nite a move­ment that even­tu­ally would lead to the ex­tra­or­di­nary scene in the U.S. Se­nate 11 months later.

Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand, D-N.Y., was an­gry when her col­league, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was ac­cused of sex­ual ha­rass­ment from sev­eral women.

She didn’t rely solely on the tra­di­tional routes to ef­fect­ing change — a hear­ing, a bill in­tro­duc­tion or a state­ment on the Se­nate floor. She posted “Sen­a­tor Franken should step aside” on her Face­book page at 8:26 a.m. Dec. 6. Other women sen­a­tors, and even­tu­ally men, joined her. The next day, Franken an­nounced he would re­sign from the Se­nate.

It was a telling mo­ment. The out­rage against sex­ual ha­rass­ment had been build­ing for weeks, and Con­gres­sional lead­ers had been slow to re­spond.

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., con­fronted with al­le­ga­tions against vet­eran Rep. John Cony­ers, D-Mich., vowed on Nov. 26 “zero tol­er­ance” for any­one in­volved in such mis­con­duct and called swiftly for an ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Pelosi then worked behind the scenes to get Cony­ers to give up his po­si­tion as top Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Demo­crat.

That move came af­ter some push­back. Ear­lier the same day, she had called him “an icon in our coun­try” while reit­er­at­ing her call for an ethics probe and fore­shad­ow­ing his an­nounce­ment say­ing he “would do the right thing.” In fact, as more al­le­ga­tions sur­faced, and Pelosi and other mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus urged Cony­ers, who had served for 52 years, to step down. On Dec. 5, he re­signed his seat.

The rapid-fire de­vel­op­ments were a stark les­son for Washington that lead­ers no longer were set­ting the con­gres­sional agenda. Con­stituents were driv­ing the di­a­logue in fast-mov­ing, mod­ern ways.

For years, the path to Washington in­flu­ence was to hire a lob­by­ist. On the grass­roots level, it meant or­ga­niz­ing and get­ting phone banks go­ing. It could mean a meet­ing with a law­maker or a key con­gres­sional staffer or two ex­plain­ing the prob­lem, the so­lu­tion and the strat­egy.

Not any­more. “Now you can quickly have a thou­sand points of ac­tivism. You can click instantly and or­ga­nize,” said Jenny Beth

Martin, pres­i­dent of the Tea Party Pa­tri­ots.

All this has left of­fi­cial Washington baf­fled and un­sure about how to re­spond and pro­ceed.

Law­mak­ers see mil­lions of mes­sages urg­ing a fix to the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram, which al­lows an es­ti­mated 800,000 young peo­ple brought to this coun­try by un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant par­ents to stay here. Yet Congress left for the year with­out any res­o­lu­tion.

Same with the other pop­u­lar so­cial me­dia flash­points: Cli­mate change. Gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. Aid to Puerto Rico. Guns.

In­stead, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers headed home tout­ing their over­haul of the na­tion’s tax sys­tem, changes that polls rou­tinely show are highly un­pop­u­lar and con­fus­ing.

Af­ter the Se­nate tax vote Wed­nes­day, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell was con­fi­dent he could sell the plan. “If we can’t sell this to the Amer­i­can peo­ple we ought to go into another line of work,” he said. But the sim­ple ac­knowl­edg­ment by many Repub­li­cans that the ma­jor achieve­ment of the new Congress and ad­min­is­tra­tion still must be sold to the pub­lic clam­or­ing for ac­tion on other top­ics speaks to di­verg­ing agen­das be­tween elected lead­ers and their con­stituents.

Some law­mak­ers con­cede there is a sig­nif­i­cant dis­con­nect.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., who faces a tough re­elec­tion next year in a state Trump won by 42 per­cent­age points, said he strug­gles to an­swer so­cial me­dia groundswells. “I have a hard time,” he said.

The chal­lenge for Manchin, and the mem­bers of Congress fac­ing the vot­ers next year, is they face a se­ries of new po­lit­i­cal move­ments and rules that are still evolv­ing:

— Mil­len­ni­als. They’re now the most pop­u­lous vot­ing age liv­ing gen­er­a­tion, hav­ing passed the baby boomers last year.

They’re be­gin­ning to get more in­ter­ested and in­volved in pol­i­tics, said Kei Kawashima-Gins­berg, di­rec­tor of CIR­CLE at Tufts Univer­sity, which stud­ies youth voter trends.

Mil­len­ni­als have seen in just the past year or two how grass­roots ini­tia­tives have im­pact in set­ting bot­tom-up agenda. The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment pro­voked di­a­logue about po­lice prac­tices in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. The protests against Con­fed­er­ate flags and icons has led to the top­pling of such stat­ues and sym­bols around the countr y.

Openly trans­gen­der can­di­date Dan­ica Roem, her­self a 33-year-old mil­len­nial, in Novem­ber won a Vir­ginia leg­isla­tive seat by de­feat­ing a vet­eran con­ser­va­tive. The ef­fort to nom­i­nate Bernie San­ders as the Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent last year has con­tin­ued with the po­ten­tial to make him a vi­able 2020 can­di­date.

“They don’t feel they’re the only ones in the room un­der 50 any­more,” said Kawashima-Gins­berg of mil­len­ni­als.

— Fleet­ing move­ments. Or­ganic po­lit­i­cal move­ments his­tor­i­cally do not last long, and the les­son for the pol­i­tics of the fu­ture is to act fast and de­ci­sively or lose the mo­ment — and the sup­port of con­stituents.

While the tea party cru­sade helped Repub­li­cans win con­trol of Congress in 2010, it’s had only spo­radic suc­cess main­tain­ing any mo­men­tum. Tea party groups con­tinue to push for a bal­anced fed­eral bud­get, for in­stance, even as the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress ap­proved a tax re­form plan es­ti­mated to boost deficits by at least $1 tril­lion over the next 10 years.

Yet quick-mov­ing move­ments are how po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion is likely to work in the fu­ture. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties lack the in­flu­ence they once did and “there’s a lack of be­long­ing to any­thing any­more,” said Will Rogers, for­mer Polk County, Iowa, Repub­li­can chair­man and now a lob­by­ist.

What 2017 has taught con­stituents is that the path to Washington in­flu­ence is to instantly or­ga­nize and de­mand quick ac­tion, as the #MeToo move­ment did to heighten aware­ness of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and push those who had been of mis­con­duct.

— The Trump army. His over­all ap­proval rat­ings may be con­sis­tently dis­mal, but his fol­low­ers re­main a vo­cal, ef­fec­tive force.

Repub­li­cans in Congress re­main largely re­luc­tant to defy the White House. Trump sup­port­ers con­tinue to make it clear they want a strong U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der wall, for ex­am­ple. They pro­vided so­cial me­dia sup­port for Cabi­net and ju­di­cial nom­i­nees who in most cases had lit­tle trou­ble win­ning con­fir­ma­tion in the Repub­li­can-led Se­nate.

Repub­li­can ap­proval of Trump in the Gallup Poll ear­lier this month was 78 per­cent, down some­what from the 83 per­cent av­er­age since he be­came pres­i­dent, but still strong.

— The rise of women. Women got the big­gest boost from 2017’s rules of en­gage­ment. Walsh’s cen­ter’s non­par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal train­ing pro­gram for women usu­ally at­tracts about 180 peo­ple. This year at­ten­dance hit 300 and peo­ple had to be turned away. Part­ner pro­grams in other states saw sim­i­lar re­sponses.

In Congress, those ac­cused of mis­be­hav­ior were quickly pres­sured to step aside, and im­me­di­ately, dis­pens­ing with the old re­liance on hear­ings and ethics probes. The al­le­ga­tions against Trump resur­faced. Law­mak­ers quickly passed leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing all mem­bers of Congress and their staffs to have manda­tory train­ing in what con­sti­tutes sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

But any idea that women will be a united force con­flicts with the po­lit­i­cal trend that has par­a­lyzed Washington for years: Po­lar­iza­tion. Repub­li­cans got vir­tu­ally no Demo­cratic sup­port for their big ini­tia­tives this year. Trump rou­tinely blasts Democrats. GOP con­gres­sional lead­ers rarely seek Democrats’ in­put or coun­sel.

Penny Nance, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at Con­cerned Women for Amer­ica, a con­ser­va­tive group, warned the clout of women work­ing to­gether has lim­its. “The di­vid­ing lines are still the same,” she said, notably on abor­tion.

“We see it as life and death. The other side sees it as in­di­vid­ual rights,” she said. And, she added, many con­ser­va­tive women do not see most is­sues through the lens of be­ing “women’s is­sues.”

“I’m a woman, a fol­lower of Je­sus, a mother, wife and con­ser­va­tive. I don’t iden­tify my­self sim­ply as one of those,” Nance said.

But here’s what’s dif­fer­ent, and why 2017 will be seen as a line of po­lit­i­cal de­mar­ca­tion: Women are now un­ques­tion­ably a pow­er­ful force in the na­tional po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. So are younger peo­ple, mi­nori­ties, conser va­tives, lib­er­als and ev­ery­one else. They don’t have to wait for a con­gres­sional leader or the pres­i­dent to pro­mote their cause. They can instantly make their col­lec­tive voices heard loudly. They can have in­flu­ence.

“This all feels dif­fer­ent,” said Walsh. “Some­thing has changed.”

PHOTO BY DENAE SPIERING

In this file photo Satur­day, Jan. 21, men and women from the Mid-Shore board buses in Eas­ton’s Tred Avon Square shop­ping cen­ter, bound for Washington, D.C. The large group, led by Demo­cratic Women’s Club of Tal­bot County Pres­i­dent Joyce Scharch, was...

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

In this file photo from May, Jenny Stan­ley of Ox­ford is one of many marchers car­ry­ing col­or­ful, home­made signs at the Peo­ple’s Cli­mate March on Washington, D.C.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

In this file photo from May, the Stu­dent En­vi­ron­men­tal Al­liance of Washington Col­lege at the Peo­ple’s Cli­mate March on Washington, D.C., is rep­re­sented by Elizabeth Wil­son, Rose Ade­livvi, Kai Clarke and Emily Cross-Bar­net.

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