Leadership means being able to admit you were wrong: an introduction to Deb Fischer

As we launch our coverage for the 2018 elections, we are going to pay particular attention to the races in Nebraska since that is where I have the most knowledge. We’ll kick it off with our senior Senator, Deb Fischer who is running for re-election.

2012 election

The Senate election of 2012 in Nebraska actually had quite a bit of national eyes. Ben Nelson because of the Cornhusker Kickback and providing a crucial vote for the Affordable Care Act declined to run for re-election. Former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey decided to run for the open seat. On the Republican side, Deb Fischer was able to pull an upset in the Republican primary and was the nominee. During a fairly contentious election, given the eventual result, Fischer portrayed Kerrey as a carpetbagger moving back to Nebraska just to run for office. Her campaign was very critical of the Kerrey campaign for accepting money from out of state contributors and challenged the assertion that Kerrey was a Nebraskan. Fischer repeatedly said that she would focus on a positive message in defeating Kerrey. She even told the Beatrice Daily Sun:

Fischer said she’s made no changes to her campaign strategy since winning the primary election and will continue to stay positive, rather than take “personal attacks” as she says her opponent has done in multiple television advertisements.
“We’re continuing to work hard and stay positive,” Fischer said. “People appreciate that and like to see the discussion on the issues and not personal attacks.That’s what we did in the primary, we stayed on the issues and that’s what we’re doing now, too.

“It’s disappointing when you have those personal attacks on you. People don’t like it. I think we showed that in the primary. They want to hear who you are and what you stand for.”

Of course for those who were watching the primaries in 2012, many would be confused about Fischer’s attack on out of state spending and running a positive campaign. A late ad in the Republican primary from a shady group called “Ending Spending Action Fund” was used bashing Attorney General Jon Bruning, saying “for character, anyone but Bruning.” Another ad was used to positively portray Fischer using some of the same footage of Fischer that her campaign used. The ad concluded that the voters should choose “one of us.” The ad buy was about $200,000 – $250,000 to run statewide. The ad came as the momentum was shifting and was “double the amount [Fischer] spent on ads for herself.”

Republican Vice President nominee Sarah Palin also endorsed Fischer. This was a big endorsement for Fischer. You may note that Palin is not from the state of Nebraska. Palin who was quite popular with Nebraska primary voters also recorded robocalls for Fischer, playing over the final days of the campaign.

Ending Spending Action Fund was a super PAC funded by Joe Ricketts. Ricketts, the wealthy patriarch of the largely conservative rich family, also spent money in other Republican Senate primaries. The super PAC had received some notice for the money spent in 2010 against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid but arguably spent it better in the Republican primary for Senate in Nebraska. This super PAC was a large driver of funds for Fischer spending about $850,000 in support of Fischer and $650,000 in opposition to Kerrey. American Crossroads, a super PAC by Karl Rove spent nearly $1 million against Bob Kerrey in the race. Club for Growth Action spent $714,000 opposing Jon Bruning.  Overall, Fischer had $1.5 million from outside spenders supporting her and $1.8 million opposing Bob Kerrey. To put that in perspective, Kerrey had $250,000 supporting him in outside spending and $1.8 million opposing Fischer.

Fischer tried to ignore the spending of super PACs on her behalf saying that she could not control outside spending. Some of the ads implied that Kerrey cut a secret deal with the menacing Harry Reid to run for Senate. Kerrey for his part, often complained that the outside ads had more influence than his campaign. I know from experience from talking to Nebraskans that the ads of Kerrey as a carpetbagger and trying to ruin Nebraska with his New York values were a big motivator for them to vote for Fischer

Fischer and her team would likely direct me to the OpenSecrets page where I can view the in-state contributions compared to the out of state contributions for each candidate. Kerrey did receive a substantial amount of support from outside of Nebraksa, raising nearly $2.6 million from out of state and only $1.17 million in-state. Fischer did receive $1.7 million in state compared to $1.16 million out of state. But you can see where the attack on Kerrey from raising money from the outside is more than a little misleading.

On election day, despite some notable endorsements from key Republicans including Chuck Hagel, Kerrey lost handily 58-42. Fischer who ran primarily on Republican party talking points had been able to defeat a fairly strong candidate.

State Senator

The stated reason that Ending Spending Actinon Fund had supported Fischer was in part because it was her first statewide run compared to both Bruning and Don Stenberg. Fischer had been a State Senator serving the Unicameral from 2005 – 2013. Throughout the campaign, Fischer tried to appeal moderate voters  and those upset with gridlock by talking about her bipartisan appeal. In an NPR interview, she said “like most Americans, I find it very, very frustrating to watch…[In Nebraska] we have a unicameral legislature…so we have experience with working with Republicans and Democrats.”

This is a common theme with Nebraskan politicians. If you are a Republican, you make overtures about how you will work across the aisle to find solutions but once you are elected you can coast without doing so. Democrats do the same thing except they are often serious about working across the aisle and do support a number of Republican policies only to be attacked as a figurehead for Democratic leadership.

During her campaign for the primary, her ads tried to portray her as a true Nebraskan conservative.

One of the highlights of her conservative voting record were her votes against undocumented immigrants in Nebraska. LB239 which would allow undocumented immigrants who graduated from a Nebraska high school, who have lived in Nebraska for at least three years, and pledged to seek permanent legal status to pay in-state tuition for college instead of the more expensive out of state. Deb Fischer voted against the legislation and voted not to override the Governor’s veto.  Fischer also voted against LB599 and not to override the Governor’s veto. LB599 would provide child health assistance, pregnancy, and prenatal care for all children regardless of the mother’s immigration status for those making less than or equal to 185% of the federal poverty line.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Fischer also voted for a series of bills that most would consider to be pro-life. She voted in favor of LB 675 which would require a physician to display an ultrasound prior to an abortion. She co-sponsored LB 1103 which prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. She voted in favor of LB 594 to go through a screening process for women who are seeking an abortion. She also voted in favor of LB 22 which prohibited insurance coverage of abortion. Undocumented immigrants or immigrants who are not in legal status who find themselves pregnant are in a situation where they cannot access the prenatal care that they need and seemingly low on options thanks to votes by Fischer. Pro-life often only means pro-life for certain subsections of our population.

Pro-life legislation is framed around abortion. Those who take on that banner have won the rhetorical war. Fischer takes on that banner, as she said on her campaign website “I am proud to be pro-life and have a 100% pro-life voting record in my 8 years in the Nebraska Legislature. I will continue to support a culture of life by supporting pro-life policies in U.S. Senate.” If you believe, as many people do who are pro-life, that life begins at conception then any bills regarding prenatal care or that have impacts on pregnant women should be considered for the mantle of pro-life policies. Even moreso, they should be considered for the idea of a “culture of life.”

In 2008, the Nebraska Unicameral passed a bill that would ban smoking from public spaces including restaurants and bars. Omaha and Lincoln, the two major cities in Nebraska, had already passed a smoking ban. Deb Fischer voted against the smoking ban being implemented statewide. Nebraska became the 16th state to enact such a ban. For those, who do not remember, when you used to go to restaurants you had to specify whether or not you wanted a table in the smoking or non-smoking sections. If you went to a bar, the fog of smoke prevented you from seeing far and the smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the air. Workers in restaurants and bars were most likely to feel the ill effects of secondhand smoke but all patrons to those places would be exposed to some degree of secondhand smoke.  Since the passage of the smoking ban, the number of smoke-free homes have increased from 77% in 2004 to 89% in 2012.  The percentage of Nebraskans who reported that smoking in the family vehicle increased from 76% in 2004 to 85% in 2012. The smoking ban changed norms for people of Nebraska where they no longer felt obligated to allow smoking in their car or home and adopted voluntary smoke free rules for their personal property.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, there is a bit of a generational gap of the dangers of secondhand smoke. This is something that I have come into contact with, with those in their mid-50’s who dismiss the health problems of secondhand smoke with a wave of their hand that people are upset about the smell of cigarettes while downplaying the significant health problems with secondhand and even thirdhand smoke.

According to one study, the authors found that women that were exposed to secondhand smoke while pregnant had a decrease in 153.1 grams in birth weight.  This may not seem significant but low birth weight (LBW) is associated with “fetal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, inhibited growth and cognitive development, and risk of chronic diseases in later life.” The authors of the study note that while the exposure is less in secondhand smoke than in active smoking the “potential for biologic action is expected to be similar.” The Surgeon General’s report celebrating 50 years of progress on cigarette action noted that nicotine

is a pharmacologically active agent that has acute toxicity and that readily enters the body and is distributed throughout. Beyond causing addiction, it activates multiple biologic pathways that are relevant to fetal growth and development, immune function, the cardiovascular system, the central nervous system, and carcinogenesis. Nicotine exposure during fetal development, a critical window for the brain, has lasting adverse consequences for brain development. Nicotine exposure during pregnancy also contributes to adverse reproductive outcomes, such as preterm birth and stillbirth.

The CDC notes that mothers who are exposed to secondhand smoke or babies exposed to secondhand smoke after birth are more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) than are babies who are not exposed. The Surgeon General report claims that 100,000 babies have died of SIDS or complications from prematurity, low birth weight, or other conditions caused by parental smoking. In another study, researchers found that exposure to secondhand smoke increased a non-smoking pregnant woman’s chances of having a stillborn by 23% and increased the risk of delivering a baby with birth defects by 13%. 

More common is the dismissal that thirdhand smoke is just an irritation to smell but does not cause any health problems. Thirdhand smoke is the toxins from tobacco smoke that are on furniture, cars, clothing, and other surfaces. It’s essentially aged secondhand smoke. In the study, published in the American Journal of Psychology, the researchers at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, found that prenatal exposure to thirdhand smoke “can have as serious or an even more negative impact on an infants’ lung development as postanatal or childhood exposure to smoke.” The exposure can lead to “prenatal disruption of lung development can lead to asthma and other respiratory ailments that can last a lifetime.”

Simply put, exposure to smoke, whether firsthand, secondhand, or thirdhand leads to harmful prenatal development and increases the likelihood of stillborn, low birth weight, SIDS, and long standing respiratory problems for children. The culture of life seems like an odd thing to hold onto when being unwilling to take positions to help protect children’s lives outside the scope of abortion.

Lifetime tenure

Fischer was able to defeat the one candidate who is likely to be her strongest challenger for however long she wants to stay in the U.S. Senate. The Nebraska Democratic Party does not have a very strong bench, especially for a statewide run. This does not seem like something will change in the immediate future. Of course, we all know how something like the 2012 Republican autopsy report becomes outdated. So I’m ambivalent about making about making concrete long term predictions. Fischer co-sponsored, not once, not twice, but three times a resolution calling for term limits in Congress. The resolution called for a maximum term limit of 2 terms in the U.S. Senate, all three times. S.J. Res. 2 introduced in 2013 by David Vitter among others, S.J. Res. 1 in 2015 introduced by Vitter, and S.J. Res. 2 introduced in 2017 by Ted Cruz.   In theory, this will be her last election in 2018. But there are weasel words in those bills. Section 3 states “no term beginning before the date of the ratification of this article shall be taken into account in determining eligibility for election or appointment under this article.” Thus exempting themselves from needing to take the resolution seriously going forward. At this point, we expect nothing more.

I do not want to spend the entire introduction to Senator Fischer as a discussion of our disagreements of policy because I want to cover that in tremendous detail in subsequent posts focusing on policy not just for Fischer but all of Nebraska’s candidates. The rest of this section will focus primarily on Senator Fischer’s opposition to Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama and particularly a line that she wrote in her op-ed about leadership.

As I previously noted, Republican Chuck Hagel supported Democrat Bob Kerrey in the general election. 2013 was in the middle of a tectonic shift in the Republican Party where it shifted from a party willing to work with the Democratic Party to a party grounded in outright opposition. To many, Hagel supporting Kerrey in the general election was worse than what many Democrats could do. Some Republican groups and leaders held their nose about the Presidential nominee in Mitt Romney because they feared a second term of Barack Obama. After the election, they did not see a point to hold back any longer. To provide just one example, the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Mitt Romney for President in 2012 (and later deleted their endorsement page) despite his support for the Defense of Marriage Act and don’t ask, don’t tell. He also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge to support a federal marriage amendment enshrining the right to marry to be reserved for a man and a woman. They had previously endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 but not 2004 (due to Bush’s support for the same amendment Romney pledged to support) and endorsed John McCain in 2008. But when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was nominated for Secretary of Defense, the Log Cabin Republicans took out ads opposing Hagel. One reason was because he joked that an ambassador was “openly, aggressively gay”. The other two reasons were because of his stance in favoring don’t ask, don’t tell and his support for the Defense of Marriage Act. Nevermind that Hagel wrote a letter expressly saying that he supported the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. The opposition to Hagel was intensely personal. Even if those opposing tried to dress it up in terms of policy disagreements. When Hagel endorsed a Democrat in the 2012 Senate election, he should have known that he was going to face a tough confirmation if he was nominated for anything.

Fischer wrote an op-ed for the Omaha World Herald about why she could not support Hagel for Secretary of Defense. In it, there is a lot of criticism for Hagel as Secretary of Defense. But what is most striking to me is something I agree with quite a bit, she writes, “I understand no one has all the answers or is correct 100 percent of the time. But as an elected official, I also believe leadership requires the humility to admit being wrong.” One of the areas where Fischer criticizes Hagel was his opposition to the Iraq surge. She wrote

Similarly, when pressed by Sen. John McCain about his opposition to the surge of troops in Iraq, which helped to turn around an unsuccessful war, Sen. Hagel refused to acknowledge his incorrect judgment.

A popular narrative around Iraq is that the 2007 Iraq surge was the force that led to a stabilizing effect in Iraq. Hagel opposed the Iraq surge in 2007. During confirmation hearings, Hagel noted how his experience in war informed his opinions about how to handle wars.

 “I saw [war] from the bottom. It directly formed me and goes to Sen. McCain’s question about the surge. I have one fundamental question that I asked myself in every vote I took, in every decision I made – was the policy worthy of the men and women we were sending into battle, and surely to their deaths?”

Hagel went on to concede that the surge helped in the objective of the Iraq War. But also noted that there were other factors at work. He argued that history should be the ultimate judge of the Iraq surge. John McCain retorted back, “I think history has already made a judgment on the surge, sir, and you are on the wrong side of it.” Doug Olivant, an Army planning officer in Baghdad, told NPR that the stabilization of Iraq was “more to do with deep political and social forces inside Iraq.” He concluded that Iraqi Sunni leaders decided to work with the Americans prior to the surge which helped but the real change came from inside Iraq. Alex Kingsbury wrote in the Boston Globe about themyth of the surge in 2014, noting that in 2008 only 4% of Iraqis said additional US forces were responsible for the decline in violence. A 2011 article in the Small Wars Journal found that the Sunni tribes turning against Al Qaeda and stand-down by militias had a greater effect on security than the surge. The grander strategy of political reconciliation as a result of the surge was an abject failure. Hagel struck a courageous stance with regards to opposing the surge. Over one thousand troops during the surge, as Hagel said in his confirmation hearings.

The surge was not a smashing success as Fischer likened to in her op-ed and certainly does not talk about Hagel’s certainly correct assessment of the situation while he was sitting for his confirmation hearing. Fischer, to my knowledge, has not indicated that she was mistaken or should not have spoken with such certainty about the success of the surge.

Roughly 2 years ago, Senator John McCain and Dianne Feinstein introduced the McCain-Feinstein amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment would strengthen the prohibition on torture and ensure the United States does not engage in torture. The amendment would use the Army Field Manual the single standard for U.S. government interrogations.   In 2009, a special task force on interrogations which included the CIA concluded “the practices and techniques identified by the [Interrogation] Manual or currently used by law enforcement provide adequate and effective means of conducting interrogations.” In 2014, when a report about the CIA’s interrogation program was released showing that the CIA misled the effectiveness and extent of certain interrogation techniques, Fischer criticized it as partisan.

“We need to look at what information is brought forward when you use those techniques, and if it’s proved to be valuable, we have to have all options on the table. We need to protect citizens of this country.”

Protecting citizens of this country and the military personnel is exactly why so many people in the military and intelligence warned against the use of torture and the expansion of it. JPRA prepared memos for the Bush administration warning against the use of torture because the information may be unreliable. They wrote in one memo “the unintended consequence of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners is that it could be used by our adversaries as justification for the torture of captured U.S. personnel.” Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling, after Donald Trump stated that torture works, simply said there’s no indication that torture works.  He went further saying “there are much better ways to get information through proper interrogation techniques.” Ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern also wrote that torture does not provide reliable information. Ex-CIA chief David Petraeus also opposes torture saying that you’re more likely to get information from a detainee by becoming his best friend. Petraeus opposes the idea that information from torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. I could go on with a number of retired military and intelligence officials willing to talk about how torture does not produce reliable information and provides justification for the torture of American troops or soldiers.

Fischer joined 20 other Republicans in opposing the McCain-Feinstein Amendment on torture. Fischer has yet to say she was wrong for doing so.

What’s next

I have no ill feelings toward Fischer. I wish she was more willing to admit that she was wrong on a number of issues and willing to break with Republican orthodoxy. But I don’t think she will. She has not been arguing that she is an independent voice for Nebraska or claiming that she works in a bipartisan manner. The pretext is gone. She’ll probably run as a strong conservative. I have no illusions that she will be defeated but I would rather her own up to her policy shortcomings and provide leadership, as she defines it, which is to admit she was wrong. When she finds that humility, it will be greatly appreciated.

To contact the writer: omahapoliticsblog@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements