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Congressmen at lunch: LaFalce, Reynolds reflect on the politics of today

John LaFalce was sitting near a window inside Chef’s Restaurant, his back to the wall, which allowed him to easily survey the place. The 78-year-old former congressman, who has spent most of his life in Democratic politics, was expecting company.

Minutes later, a man in a navy blue suit and white shirt walked up. LaFalce, who wore a similar uniform – navy pinstriped suit, yellow tie patterned with blue flowers, and a gold pin from the 107th Congress, which adjourned in 2003 and was his last one – saw his old friend. Or was it his nemesis?

Can you be both?

Maybe. Because when LaFalce saw former Rep. Tom Reynolds – a longtime Republican leader whose job it was to try to knock out Democrats like him at the polls – he brightened.

“Who’s this skinny guy?” LaFalce asked, laughing.

Reynolds, who is 67 and now working as a lobbyist, shook LaFalce’s hand. They chatted for a moment about when they saw each other last – Was it at the airport, en route to D.C.? – and settled into their chairs.

“I thought it was my job to make government work,” said LaFalce, who was a member of Congress from 1975 to 2003, giving him a brief overlap with Reynolds, who served from 1999 to 2009. “That’s what Tom thought, that it was his job to make government work. For effective government, you had to compromise.”

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So, then, how is government working today?

Both men laughed.

“Not very well,” LaFalce said.

Each comes from partisan roots. LaFalce chaired the House’s Small Business Committee and was ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. Reynolds was a Republican party leader at every level – local, county, state and federal – which, at a various points, put him in charge of choosing candidates to run against LaFalce.

They disagree on much, but not on this: For government to work, politicians need to communicate and compromise.

Which led to that obvious first question at this lunch meeting, convened by The Buffalo News. The lunch took place days before news of sexual-harassment allegations against several Capitol Hill lawmakers began to break. While that wasn't discussed, the two men dissected the tone of Washington over Diet Cokes and platters of Italian food.

The opening topic is the one dominating every political discussion: the leadership style of President Trump.

LaFalce, predictably, is no fan, other than to acknowledge, “He seems to be a good father and grandfather.” (LaFalce’s 36-year-old son Martin, a lawyer in New York City, knew two of Trump’s children at Georgetown.)

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Reynolds, also predictably, is more guarded when speaking of Trump. Asked if he supported and voted for the president, he joked, “You’re killing me.”

He then turned serious and delivered a pat answer.

 “I’m a Republican. I want my Republican president to succeed on the common goals that I share with him: cutting taxes, a smaller, smarter government, and making sure we have a strong national defense. I hope that he can accomplish those endeavors with the Congress for the American people.”

Through his role as a senior policy adviser for Holland & Knight, a D.C.-based lobbying firm, Reynolds remains in contact with officials both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. He knew Trump a bit when Reynolds was a New York state legislator and the president was a Manhattan developer, but they haven’t worked together. (By contrast, during his time in Congress, Reynolds had a fairly close relationship with then-President George W. Bush.)

Reynolds is, by his own description, an “old school” politician with a style different – meaning more cautious and measured – than Trump, whose tweets and one-liners often overshadow the news of the day.

“He changed the dynamics of getting elected,” Reynolds said. “Madison Avenue could take a lesson from his ability to brand people, from his primary opponents to the general to the public. Whether people like it or not, he’s got a phenomenal skillset at that.

“But the country is not used to the quick reaction of Twitter for the thinking of the president.”

Putting “points on the board,” Reynolds said, will shift the national conversation to focus more on policy and less on soundbites.

“If he’s able to get tax reform that’s a comprehensive tax reform done, and he begins to launch the economy moving, his style will be less noticed than his results,” Reynolds said. “If that doesn’t get accomplished, it will exasperate some of how history treats his success.”

LaFalce has been deeply frustrated with Trump — both his policies and his choice of words.

“I was hoping after the election that we’d see a different Donald Trump, that Hillary Clinton was wrong when she said that what you see is the real Donald Trump,” he said. “And then he gave his inaugural address. I thought his inaugural address was the worst in American history. But, I was kind to him. The next day George Will wrote an article, he said it was the most dreadful in history. Not just in the United States.”

Reynolds, chewing on a piece of bread, interjected.

“In all fairness, George was tough on him the whole stretch,” he said.

“Well, yeah, but so too were a great many others,” LaFalce said.

“It was an underwhelming address,” Reynolds acknowledged.

LaFalce’s next hope was that Trump’s September speech to the United Nations General Assembly would show a changed and, in his view, elevated commander in chief.

But Trump’s nationalistic speech that slammed America’s enemies – including using the “Rocket Man” label to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – left him frustrated.

“He’s addressing the people of the world, and I was appalled,” LaFalce said. “A lot of people talk about (former Trump adviser Steve) Bannon, but I think there’s a far worse influence within the White House inner circle, and that’s this Steve Miller.”

Miller is an oft-controversial Trump policy adviser who writes some of the president’s key speeches.

“That’s one of the reasons they’re so dreadful,” he said. “Miller must go.”

LaFalce is encouraged by the trio of generals at Trump’s side — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. But he also wishes Kelly would stay away from the press – a reference to a moment when Kelly, from the White House press podium, mixed a defense of Trump’s call to a military widow with criticism of a Florida congresswoman.

LaFalce also expressed frustration over the administration’s spokespeople — both former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“I suspect that both Spicer and Sanders believe the primary job is to make the president smile, to say what he’d like to hear rather than to to deal with the public at large, and I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “Now, maybe the only way they can get their job — I don’t know.”

But isn’t that a press secretary’s job — to represent exactly what their boss believes? Isn’t that what LaFalce – or Reynolds – expected from their own press secretaries?

“Well, there are ways to do it,” LaFalce said. “Certainly, you can’t deviate from policy that the president has established, but you don’t have to meet with the press and say, ‘Let’s have a confrontation.’ ”

As LaFalce laughed, Reynolds chimed in. The former congressman knows Spicer from Reynolds’ time as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“I think it’s the prerogative of the office-holder,” he said. “I do believe that chiefs of staff and press people are reflections of the principles that they serve. I do think that Kelly is doing a fine job.”

LaFalce, whom Reynolds lightheartedly and continually referred to as an “intellectual,” brought up a 1958 political novel, “The Ugly American.”

“I think that people around the world – whether it’s Canada or Mexico or Europeans or Asians or Africans – are viewing Trump as the embodiment of the ‘Ugly American,’” LaFalce said.

He noted in a recent news report that Trump was telling lawmakers in an Asian country about his New Jersey golf course.

“I found that difficult to believe, and I was wondering, ‘Are they laughing at him? Can they take him seriously?’ ” LaFalce said. “How much easier it will be for them to give respect to somebody who represents an adult, such as the leader of China. Such as Putin. Such as Merkel in Germany.”

As LaFalce was questioning Trump’s ability to project maturity, Reynolds seemed to mutter “wow” under his breath. LaFalce began talking about Trump exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership when Reynolds cut in.

“Hold it right there,” he said. “I want to go back.”

Back when Ronald Reagan entered the international scene, Reynolds said, some foreign leaders referred to the actor-turned-politician as “a cowboy.”

“I want to differ with you strongly on that,” LaFalce countered. “I do not think you can equate Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.”

“Well, I think you’ll find that some of that same European audience had similar attitudes, particularly when you go back in time,” Reynolds said. “That has softened. But go back in time.

“The second thing is, I have learned that American politics and global politics kind of have similar reflections. There is no question there is some nationalist movement in here, and the Democratic Party has found the shock that labor actually supported Donald Trump. Particularly trade labor,” Reynolds said.

While the lines between traditionally Republican and Democratic voters have blurred, the chasms couldn’t be deeper between the left and right in Washington. LaFalce pointed out that Republicans and Democrats rarely get together to meet anymore. Reynolds agreed, and admitted that even in his era in the early 2000s, it was rare.

The reasons are varied, and on these they agreed. Back when air travel was less efficient and available, more members of Congress tended to live full-time with their families in Washington. That meant members had time to socialize after work, or run into each other at their kids’ school events or sporting games.

They said congressional travel – commonly called “junkets” by people who aren’t in Congress – was helpful, too, for creating a sense of kinship among lawmakers.

“It changes your whole perception of the guy from Chicago or from down in the coal mine section of Johnstown, Pa., when you get to see him and work with him a little bit,” Reynolds said.

LaFalce agreed.

“If I could, with my magic wand, I’d say that members of Congress must travel abroad,” he said. “There’s no party position on those trips. There’s no partisanship on those trips. You don’t think of yourself as a Democrat or Republican. You think of yourself as a member of Congress representing the United States of America.”

Both men agreed that the sense of collegiality between lawmakers started deteriorating when Republican Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995. Gingrich, who held that job until 1999 and today is an ardent supporter of Trump, led a Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 election. LaFalce was in Congress at that time. Reynolds was a state assemblyman and chair of the Erie County Republican Party.

That change made Washington’s politics more contentious, less predictable and helped lead to today.

“We’ve now seen the parties switch back and forth,” Reynolds said. “There’s nobody that’s going to put their career on the fact that the Republicans are necessarily going to hold the House.”

At least a third of the seats in the 2018 mid-term election will be driven by the preferences of independent-minded voters,  Reynolds said, what he calls “blank” voters.

“The independent-blank voter is a factor in the politics of today in a different way than it was 20 years ago,” he said.

LaFalce brought up an independent-minded, far-left leaning politician he knew well: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. A congressman from 1991 to 2007, Sanders served on LaFalce’s committee.

“Bernie was against most everything,” LaFalce said. “Every now and then, he’d be right. All the other times, he would have been wrong. He advocated a good many things I’d love to see happen in the United States, but will never happen. A single-payer (health-care) system is one of them. Free tuition is another.”

“We’re working toward that right now, John,” Reynolds said. “What the (Gov. Andrew Cuomo) has offered in his approach to free college tuition" – New York's Excelsior Scholarship – "is kind of moving along, and he brought Bernie for the photo op.”

“That’s right,” LaFalce said.

Reynolds continued: “And if we don’t figure out Obamacare, even conservative Republicans say, ‘If you’re not careful, you’ll wake up with single-payer.’ ”

“Well, that’s possible,” LaFalce said. “But most unlikely.”

Yeah, but Trump was unlikely too, wasn’t he? When the plates of bread and salad and spaghetti parm were cleared away, LaFalce’s saucy attitude toward the president remained.

“The expression ‘it is what it is’ kind of comes together here,” Reynolds said. “Donald Trump was elected by the American people at this point in time. History will say—”

LaFalce interrupted.

“He was elected by the electors of the Electoral College.”

“He was elected by the American system of its time,” Reynolds said.

LaFalce laughed. It was a friendly laugh. He knows they disagree on this – on many things. But he also knows that he can sit with a guy like Reynolds, a guy whose political mission was, for years, to put him out of a job, and share a laugh.

They come from a different era.

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