Lake Village Rob Engstrom is the political director of the National Chamber of Commerce and a big time DC player. When he talks about dropping $20 million in only 15 election races, and his only gripe was that they were having to put that much in early in the primaries rather than waiting for the general elections, there’s no bluff or braggadocio to it. The biggest danger in listening to him speak and answer questions at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock is that you had to be careful as you got up to leave. He was so smooth, slick, and finely polished that I was afraid of an X-men kind of effect that might have made it dangerous to walk on the floors, in case they had become transformed by some magic while he talked.
If you had just helicoptered down along the Arkansas River to hear his talk, you might not have realized why Engstrom was in town. He lathered up every politician of standing, past or present, in Arkansas, along with his constant and casual bolstering of the local city and state chamber functionaries. Former Senator David Pryor, his wife, and current Senator Mark Pryor his son, were well respected, beloved, and had made great and lasting contributions to the state. He was repeatedly nostalgic for former President Bill Clinton and his ability to work with a divided Congress to govern. He said the same for current Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe while noting that Beebe had the highest popularity polling now at the end of his term compared to any governor in the country. Until the last minutes off his remarks when he went over the edge a bit in duplicitously answering a student’s question about climate change and was too extravagant in his defense of the gazillions of dollars the Koch Brothers, upstanding and generous members of the Chamber and employers of 90,000, that you might have realized he was only in town for an earlier press conference making clear the wild, enthusiastic endorsement of the Chamber for hard right, rabid Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the pivotal Arkansas Senatorial election over incumbent Senator Mark Pryor. Or, that his political career had started with Clinton nemesis Newt Gingrich or his role in the Florida recount that scuttled Gore. Finally the stiletto fell clamoring to the floor after having been so skillfully and surgically inserted in the body politic of all of the politicians he had named.
He was good. He knew it all, chapter and verse, state by state, race by race. He was wildly impressive. The primary direction of most of his spin was trying to fabricate a picture of the Chamber as the voice of business somehow occupying middle ground as politics polarized. They were fighting the “caveman caucus.” The primary fights were about getting people who could govern. They were for immigration reform, the Import/Export bank, and Common Core, so “see, we’re not so bad” was the message. Yet his recitation of the “facts” as he called them made it clear they were a partner in the polarization. Election cycle after election cycle from his report they had moved farther and farther away supporting any Democrats ever, so that at this point it was less than a handful. And, his recitation of issues that put them in the middle faded away when he listed their policy priorities after the election: “fixing” the Affordable Care Act, Energy Policy, i.e. build the XL Pipeline for the Kochs, Financial Security, read gutting Dodd-Frank even more, and Labor Policy, which means hitting unions even harder. As an afterthought he wanted us not to forget about fair trade and gutting entitlements. So much for any common ground, he and the Chamber are the drum majors and policy pros for the Republican elephant parade.
His predictions pulled out of piles of faint praise for his opponents was an increase of 6 to 10 seats in the House for the Republicans, and maybe a record plus 12, and 51 or 52 seats in the Senate to take control. Engstrom is smart though, and threw a bone out to the crowd about making no permanent enemies reminding us all that in 2016, the pendulum swings again especially in the Senate with 24 Republicans up for re-election and only 10 Democrats all of whom are in blue states won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, leading him to believe that whoever might be the next President will once again face a divided Congress.
That’s some small comfort to take home. Driving back to the office and the studio it was hard for me to hold onto that thought because I imagined all of the wannabe and elected Congressman, Senators, and Governors having to meet with Rob Engstrom as supplicants begging for his and the Chamber’s money and support and promising away their pride and their people at the altar of these policies. Most of them would be putty in the hands of a pro like Engstrom in the K Street offices and boardrooms that determine their future. This guy was scary good with steel in the syrup of his voice, ready to shake your hand today and push you in front of the bus tomorrow. Most of our elected officials would be no match for the likes of Engstrom.
There is no way to sleep soundly. The nightmares keep coming!