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Gwen’s Take: Politics through a glass, darkly — trade edition

This seems like a good week for one of my periodic diversions — discerning what people mean as opposed to what they say.

I was reminded of the need for that distinction on Monday, when I interviewed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

The topic at hand was the trade deal pending in Congress. The nation’s labor unions hate it for many reasons — including the uncertain impact it would have on jobs and wages. They hate it so much, in fact, that they are doing what lobbyists do — they are threatening to withhold support from elected officials who disagree with them.

This should come as no surprise. This is how powerful groups get themselves heard in Washington, but also in state capitals and city halls too.

So I asked Trumka about that — whether the AFL-CIO was, in fact, withholding donations from lawmakers who did not back them. “That is simply not the case,” he replied. The union, he said, was simply going to spend its money other ways.

“We’re going to use it to fight this fight, so that we can actually put on a real campaign to protect the American public and the American people and, quite frankly, some of the Democrats from themselves,” he said.

Withholding support to save the Democrats from themselves?

Absolutely not, he said. The AFL-CIO is closing down its political action committees (which support candidates) to devote the money to the fight against the trade deal.

“Whenever we’re done, we will open up things again and our friends will be our friends and things will go back to normal,” he said. “But, right now, we need every resource that we have to fight this.”

Clever huh? It didn’t even sound like a threat.

I’m not picking on Trumka per se. This sort of artful dodging is the coin of the realm.

When Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told Judy Woodruff: “I like Elizabeth Warren. She’s a nice person and we’re friends,” it is commonly understood that he is using a flexible, political definition of the word “friend” that has nothing to do with trade policy.

And when Warren repeatedly used the phrase “greasing the skids” to describe a Senate vote as a hurried and reckless decision, we get that she is trying to not just slow, but stop, forward movement.

Then, when White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeatedly described a serious setback on the same legislation as a “procedural snafu,” he was doing his best to put the best face on a dangerous political moment. (Although he appeared to be caught off balance when ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked him if he knew what the military acronym SNAFU actually means. Look it up, I can’t print it here.)

So it came as a breath of fresh air when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dispensed with all that spin in a conversation with John Harwood in the New York Times.

He dismissed one trope after another. No, he said, it would not matter if the president socialized with Congress more. “It wouldn’t make any difference,” he said. “Look, it’s a business.”
He offered that he holds no personal animus toward the president he once vowed to limit to one term. “The reason we haven’t done more things together is because we don’t agree on much.”

And he dismissed as “absurd” the notion promoted by some Democrats that the president’s race presents a problem for members of his caucus. “They conveniently overlook that they never get accused of racism when they vote against Condoleezza Rice or Janice Rogers Brown,” he said.

You don’t have to agree with everything McConnell says to appreciate his straightforwardness.

Is Washington transparent? Certainly not. Are all lawmakers friends, even within their own parties? No way.

So it helps to have a glossary when you listen to them speak.

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