Monday, July 17, 2017

In Trump's GOP, his most loyal supporters have the most to lose.

Donald Trump does not understand Republicans. They voted numerous times to repeal Obamacare back when Barack Obama was president, but now all of a sudden they have cold feet. For Trump, the calculus is simple: he is determined to tear down all vestiges of Barack Obama's legacy, while Republican Senators just keep getting stuck on the details.

Many of those Senators are struggling to understand Trump voters. The President's white working class supporters have vocally detested Obamacare for years and demanded its repeal, yet proposed repeal legislation has struggled to win the support of more than one in five of those polled--even in Trump country. The proposed Senate legislation remains stuck between those senators who still believe that they must reduce the roll of government in the healthcare economy, and those senators who are determined to look past the anti-government, anti-Obamacare rhetoric that continues to animate many of their voters and focus instead on the impact on families that loom to lose access to healthcare care.

And then there is the President. If Donald Trump's core supporters are demanding more and cheaper healthcare--even as they continue to rail against government--it is because that is what he promised them. At his luncheon this week, as Trump sought to get the proposed legislation back on track, he fell back on his tried and true campaign rhetoric: after he was done excoriating Barack Obama, he went on to insist that the Senate bill would provide more care to more people at lower costs. Premiums will be so low, he insisted, you won't be able to believe it. For their part, the assembled senators were under no illusion that there was a single word of truth to what he said, and that sums up their problem.

Donald Trump is transforming the Republican Party, and Republican leaders are struggling to understand how deep and lasting those changes are going to be. When the last Republican revolution rolled around 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan rewrote some of what were then core tenets of the Republican Party, but he was a piker compared to Donald Trump. Reagan embraced social conservatives, alienating many moderates in his party, but his focus on reinvigorating an economy that had struggled since the end of the Vietnam War and rebuilding American strength in the wake of the Carter presidency were both broadly embraced. In his zeal to cut taxes, Reagan cast aside long-standing GOP fealty to fiscal conservatism and balanced budgets, and--despite a rhetorical resurgence under the guise of the Tea Party--the party never looked back. The GOP still talks the talk about deficits, but when it comes to walking the walk, few beyond the House Freedom Caucus and a few old bankers sipping single malt at the Metropolitan Club really care anymore. But through it all, the Republican Party retained its paternalistic core.

In contrast, the Trump revolution is transforming what it means to be a Republican. Early on, GOP insiders convinced themselves that Trump's nomination was at worst an inconvenience; they saw him largely as an interloper to whom they might have to make a few concessions at the margins, but who would ultimately sign whatever bills they put on his desk and thus advance the traditional Republican agenda.

They could not have been more wrong. Piece by piece, Donald Trump is taking apart the Party of Ronald Reagan. Gone is the party that trumpeted free trade as the tip of the spear of freedom's march across the globe. Gone is the party that embraced America's role as the defender of democracies from Europe to Asia against the threat posed by adversaries in Peking and Moscow. And gone is the party that welcomed the entrepreneurial energy that immigration brought to our shores. In its place has emerged a political party that is beginning to mimic elements of the Democratic Party of the 1950s more than the Republican Party of the 1980s. Large majorities of Republicans now believe that free trade is bad, that immigrants steal jobs from patriotic Americans, and--as the Gipper rolls in his grave--that Moscow Center-trained KGB spook Vladimir Putin is our kind of guy, and more aligned with America's interest and values than a free press.

Worse than that are the lies. As this week's luncheon illustrated, the party is stuck with a leader who will say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without regard to the consequences. For their part, Senators have to go home and live in their states, and should their voters find themselves losing access to medical care, the political and moral repercussions loom to be dire. One can debate whether or not Trump voters are waking up to the fact that he has lied to them--or if they never took him literally to begin with--but the repeal and proposed replacement of the Affordable Care Act looks to be one of those moments when people are forced to confront the old adage, be careful what you wish for.

In a similar vein, it became apparent last week that one more longstanding Republican mantra is falling by the wayside. Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president two years ago, Republican support for higher education as a positive force for the nation and in people's lives has plummeted. According to Pew Research, a large majority of Republicans--nearly double the share of those polled just two years ago--now think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

While protests of various types on elite college campuses have drawn national media attention and won widespread derision on the right, this broad change in attitudes toward higher education among the Republican base goes far deeper and is much more troubling. Interviews of Americans within the Trump voter demographic--white, less educated, rural and exurban--suggest that people within those communities increasingly reject the notion that higher education--along with the willingness to move to a region with more jobs--are paths to economic opportunity and family advancement.

Belief that individual motivation and aspiration is essential to individual and family economic prosperity was long a core Republican stance, but it was not Donald Trump's stance. Instead, he told his base voters in no uncertain terms, that only he could fix what ails them, and that he would. He would bring back the jobs that had left; he would rebuild the industries that had died. Forget all that GOP rhetoric about free markets and individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, in the wake of the Trump revolution, he would provide.

It is a dangerous evolution for people who live in the real world. For those people--for whom Donald Trump is not going to deliver a free ride back to the 1950s--educational attainment has emerged over the past several decades--and most starkly since the 2008 financial collapse--as the most important factor in the financial security and prospects of American families. While much attention was paid during the last election cycle to the fact that median wages for American workers have been flat in real terms for almost 40 years, less attention focused on the disaggregation of that data and the correlation of educational attainment with family incomes and unemployment rates over time. Simply stated, families headed by a worker with a high school degree or less have seen a decline in real incomes for decades now, with the sharpest decline in the decade since the 2008 financial collapse. Their unemployment rates are higher, and the likelihood that they simply leave the labor force are greater.

In contrast with establishment Republicans who had long disregarded the economic travails of working class white voters, Donald Trump swept to power by telling those voters what they wanted to hear. In the swing from paternalism to populism, however, it is those families who have the most to lose--both with respect to health insurance coverage that is now at risk, and rejecting higher education as a path to family economic security, which will condemn them to lives of continued economic decline.

When Ronald Reagan brought white working class voters into the Republican Party, the GOP changed little in terms of its core principles and commitments beyond embracing rhetoric around faith and guns that became central to the GOP's ensuing electoral success. Now, those voters are in charge--the peasants with pitchforks, as Patrick Buchanan described them years ago--and the party leadership is adrift. While the media loves to focus on Donald Trump's 'historically low' approval rating, he continues to enjoy strong support among at least two-thirds of Republicans--and among his core voters his support remains stratospheric. As the President alternately threatened and cajoled them this week to pass the proposed healthcare legislation, Republican senators knew they were on treacherous ground. A year into the Trump revolution, and they still don't know who their voters are or what they believe in; and at a more fundamental level--that goes way beyond healthcare--they no longer know what the Republican Party stands for. But not Donald Trump. Forget all those headlines about how low his approval ratings are; right now, he knows what the Republican Party stands for because, right now, he is the Republican Party. Even if no one really knows what that means anymore.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Federalism? It's not just for racists anymore.

Each day, it seems, the tenor of public discourse in our country deteriorates further. Bill Kristol--editor of the Weekly Standard and a man with deep roots in the conservative movement--asked on Twitter last week how badly Donald Trump is degrading our public discourse. It was an interesting question to consider this July 4th, as we find ours burrowing deeper and deeper into the mud, but it would be mistake not to recognize that we were in this mess well before Trump came along.

As illustrated in these graphs from the Pew Research Center, the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats has been worsening steadily for decades. The resentments of red state and rural America toward urban elites are nothing new. They were, after all, the subtext of the culture wars dating back to Richard Nixon's law and order campaign and Vietnam war protests. Donald Trump is less the creator of the divisions that plague us than a man who knows how to take advantage of them.

It is against that backdrop that David French wrote an article last month in the National Review entitled "We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce." In that piece, French proposed a serious national conversation about the merits of federalism as one possible solution to the deep resentments that have infected our politics. Federalism--the strengthening of the power of the states relative to the federal government--is deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, but it is also a word with deep partisan resonance. Nearly four decades ago, just weeks after the 1980 Republican National Convention, newly nominated Republican Party presidential candidate Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi in which he endorsed state rights. It was a speech that strengthened the ties between southern Democrats and the Republican Party, and that also indelibly linked the notion of federalism with southern segregationism and the oppression of minority rights in the United States.

Notwithstanding that history, French's proposal should be taken seriously. A case can be made that a return of public policy and public finances to the states--as originally contemplated in the Constitution--should be compelling to Democrats, as it has long been to Republicans. The current system has become dysfunctional, as gridlock at the federal level is now taken for granted. While each party yearns to win a moment of single-party dominance, that is a poor recipe for stable, long-term policymaking. Democrats should be under no illusion that Donald Trump is the problem; were he to leave office tomorrow, it would do nothing to ameliorate our sectarian animosities. Instead, his supporters would only be more enraged than they already are, more convinced than ever that the elites have stuck it to them once again. Nothing looms to get any easier.

The irony of the rise of Trump and red state and rural resentments felt toward coastal elites is that--from a financial vantage point--red states have a pretty good deal. Each year, with a handful of exceptions, red states get back substantially more money than they send to Washington, DC. This is neither a new nor an accidental phenomenon. When the federal income tax was approved with the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution just over one hundred years ago, it was pushed largely by Democrat populist politicians in southern and western states as a strategy to tax the rich--meaning then, as now, primarily wealthy Republicans. And it worked, to the tune of billions and billions of dollars provided annually to red states, courtesy of blue state taxpayers.

The federal income tax has had several consequences, some intended and some not. It has achieved the primary goal of those that promoted it, as it put in place a systematic flow of subsidies from wealthier, more prosperous states to poorer states. Ironically, however, by creating a mechanism to facilitate the raising of revenue at the federal level, it also engendered a shift in power from the states to the federal government. Therefore, what began as a populist-inspired constitutional amendment led directly to the rise of the centralized state, ultimately planting the seeds for the culture of resentment and populist backlash that Donald Trump rode to the White House.

Prior to the 16th Amendment, the Constitution provided a very different model for public finances, and public policy overall. It envisioned a weaker central government with limited taxing power. Rather than direct federal taxation, it provided that each state would be "apportioned" its share of federal funding required for annual federal budget purposes. Each state--for richer or for poorer--was responsible for remitting an equal contribution to the federal treasury on a per capita basis. In the modern context, there could be several advantages for returning to a federalist apportionment model to replace the federal income tax. First and foremost, as French suggests in his article, it would allow each state to pursue public policies that reflect their own unique culture and politics. Thus, in the area of taxation, California might choose a progressive income tax to raise its required federal apportionment, while Texas might choose a flat tax.

The Constitution similarly envisioned a decentralized structure for public policy and governance. With taxation decentralized under a return to an apportionment structure, public policy at the state level would become more meaningful. Once states were made directly responsible for raising funds to be sent to Washington, the natural political instinct would be to resist shipping that money to Washington, DC, creating a natural institutional brake on spending at the federal level. While Republicans have long seen a return to federalist principles as a means to reduce the overbearing role of the federal government over public policy, a federalist structure that returned both fiscal capacity and policy authority to the states could provide blue states with ability to pursue public policies tailored to their own political priorities and culture. Freed of the disproportionate fiscal impact of the federal income tax, California might choose to use its newfound resources to implement a single payer healthcare system, Hawaii a universal basic income to revamp the social safety net, and New York a return to near-free access to higher education. As a nation, returning fiscal resources and authority to the states would reduce the resources and authority now vested in Washington, DC, and give meaning to the notion of the states as laboratories for public policy innovation.

The political divisions that are so prominent today are by no means bounded by state borders; they are as much urban vs. rural as they are coastal or regional. As such, devolving power back to the states would not make those differences go away. But it would make them more local, and, perhaps, inherently more manageable. The bogeyman that is now Washington, DC would be closer to home--Sacramento, Albany or Austin--and public policy and budget choices would be made closer to where the impacts would be felt. And at the end of the day, residents would be able to vote with their feet as well as at the ballot box, choosing to migrate between states as public policy choices and economic opportunities changed how the states were viewed relative to each other. States would truly become accountable for their own political and policy choices.

Federalism may or may not be an attractive solution for the strident divisions that now plague us, but--notwithstanding the negative connotations of the term in some people's minds--it is one that should not be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps the most important aspect of having such a conversation would be if it led to a recommitment to the unity of our nation, to preserving what we have accomplished as a nation with a strong center. On the other hand, it could change minds in the other direction. When I discussed David French's piece with a long-time lefty friend from New York, he found the notion abhorrent, struck mostly by the notion that it would leave poorer residents of Alabama to the whims of that state's politics. Later in our conversation, however, my friend's view softened a bit, largely reflecting recognition that there might not be any easy fix. "You know, it all goes back to the Civil War. Perhaps we would have been better off if Lincoln had freed the slaves, and then let the southern states go on their way." 

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mitch McConnell and the Holy Grail.

The Congressional Budget Office threw Mitch McConnell a life preserver this week, though many people may not have seen it that way. In a follow-up to its widely publicized analysis of the Senate Obamacare overhaul bill over a ten-year horizon--2017-2026--the CBO looked at the longer-term impacts of that proposed legislation. The longer term assessment was important as the Senate bill deferred most of the cuts to the Medicaid expansion until 2025 and beyond. Medicaid expansion--which extended federally funded healthcare up into the middle class--was arguably the most important element of the Affordable Care Act in reducing the size of the uninsured population.

The first paragraph of the CBO follow-up report projects a 35% reduction in Medicaid spending by 2035. While most attention in initial report was paid to the projected 22 million who would lose their insurance by 2026, that report did foreshadow what post-2026 might look like--thus the 2035 number should not have come as a complete surprise. Nonetheless, the new CBO release has, in the eyes of many, further undermined the prospects of the Senate bill. For those Republican senators who were already worried about the impact of the proposed Obamacare repeal on their constituents, the follow-up report has focused attention on the 25.5 million people projected to lose eligibility for Medicaid.

But it is the penultimate paragraph that McConnell will surely grab onto. There, the CBO frames the 35% reduction differently: by 2035, the CBO projects that the Senate legislation would reduce federal Medicaid spending from its current 2.0% of GDP to 1.4% of GDP--compared to 2.4% as projected under current law.

This is huge. For decades, the inexorable growth in entitlement spending has been the greatest fiscal challenge facing the federal government. It is the issue that sparked the creation of the bi-partisan Concord Coalition a quarter century ago, and the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010. Over the past half-century, each of the major federal entitlement programs have steadily grown as a share of GDP. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security alone have grown from 30% of annual federal spending three decades ago to just under 50% today, steadily squeezing out the availability of federal funds for discretionary domestic and military purposes. Curtailing the growth in entitlement spending has long been the Holy Grail of the Republican Party, and with the CBO report in hand, Mitch McConnell can impress upon his caucus the historic importance of the vote that lies ahead.

As Republican senators grapple with this vote, it is useful to recall the importance of the 1968 presidential election in bringing them to this perilous place. That year, Republican Richard Nixon won 301 electoral votes, three shy of Donald Trump's 2016 victory. Like Trump, Nixon did not win a majority of the votes cast, though he did eek out a plurality, topping Democrat Hubert Humphrey by just over 500,000 votes, with 43.4% of the votes cast to Humphrey's 42.7%. Former Alabama Governor George Wallace--an avowed segregationist--took 13.5% of the national vote, winning five southern states of the former Confederacy outright, giving him 46 votes in the Electoral College.

Nixon, who had already lost a squeaker in the 1960 election, pounced on the opportunity that the Wallace campaign represented, and began the process--through his Southern Strategy, and law and order rhetoric--of converting southern and working class white voters from their historical home in the Democratic Party to the GOP. What ensued was a demographic swap of party loyalties that was all about race. It began with FDR's New Deal and Truman's desegregation of the armed forces, each of which contributed to the decisions of Black voters to migrate to the Democratic Party from their post-Civil War home in the GOP. That, in turn, presented an opportunity for the GOP, as Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips pointed out at the time: "The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are." In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan solidified what Nixon started, and since then no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote.

Reagan advisor Grover Norquist became the architect of the ensuing GOP electoral strategy that would endure for decades. The Republican Party was then, as it remains today, the party of capital--representing the interests of the business community--while the Democrats were the party of labor. The Democratic Party--its southern variant in particular--was a transactional party. Voters delivered their votes, in exchange the party brought home the bacon. That meant everything from government jobs, to the Tennessee Valley Authority, to the massive water projects ridiculed by northerners; and, in the wake of the Hill-Burton Act in 1946, the construction of hospitals in rural communities across the country along with the requirement that they provide free care to anyone who required it.

To secure the loyalty of those voters, Republicans had to offer a tangible quid pro quo. Accordingly, Norquist constructed a coalition of single-issue voting groups--including anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and faith-oriented position--and promised that he could guarantee the election of any Republican who swore fealty to all of his coalition policy positions.

Norquist's strategy has been effective for decades, but the tension between the day-to-day economic interests of those working class voters and the GOPs traditional pro-business policy agenda created an internal tension that finally erupted in the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump saw through the hypocrisy of the GOP galvanizing its white working class "base" around social issues, while ignoring--if not actively undermining--their economic interests. He towed the line on Norquist's core issues--proposing the largest tax cuts in history, and taking strident pro-gun and anti-abortion positions--but he turned his back completely on other traditional Republican stances. He opposed globalization and free trade, and in a much more fundamental way, walked away from rhetoric around personal responsibility and small government that had long defined the Republican worldview. And included in his stock stump speech was the promise to protect entitlement programs and provide universal access to healthcare that would be better and cheaper than Obamacare.

For seven years--to the cheers of their base voters--Republicans in Congress voted time and again to repeal Obamacare. In the eyes of most of those Republicans, the goal was to roll back a massive expansion of entitlements, and they presumed that this is what the base wanted. But while Donald Trump similarly railed against Obamacare, he saw things quite differently. His supporters may not like Obamacare, but they very much wanted affordable access to healthcare. Accordingly, Trump proposed not to end the expanded healthcare entitlement, but rather to make it bigger and better; not less healthcare, but more healthcare for less money. Now, as the Senate bill is coming up for a vote, many senators are coming to grips with the fact that Trump may understand their constituents better than they do.

The healthcare debate has forced Republicans in Congress to struggle with their identity as Republicans. While, conservatives have been clinging to the core Republican belief in rolling back government and allowing free markets to work, many of their GOP colleagues are getting cold feet. The expanded CBO projections have placed the choice facing Republicans in stark relief. It has given Mitch McConnell the most powerful argument he could hope for as he seeks to sell his caucus on supporting the healthcare bill: an historic opportunity to curtail the long-term cost trajectory of a major entitlement program. Standing in McConnell's way is the growing realization among many in the GOP that the voters the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan brought into the GOP--and who now constitute the base of the party--were never on board with much of what the GOP has long stood for. Unlike their representatives in Congress, they worry about healthcare every day, and to risk losing it is a big, big deal. The GOP will soon find out whether, for many of those voters, the problem is not that Obamacare went too far, but rather that it didn't go far enough.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Trapped by its own rhetoric, GOP has no way out.

Repealing Obamacare, the Congressional Budget Office tells us, will leave millions of people without health insurance. What is surprising is that anyone is surprised. After all, the whole point of Obamacare was to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance, so it only stands to reason that the repeal of Obamacare would increase the number of Americans without health insurance.

The mantra of repeal and replace has been the central rallying cry of the Republican Party since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010. Perhaps it was the broken promise that people could keep their doctor. Perhaps it was the encroachment of government into the private healthcare economy. Perhaps it was the giving away of more free stuff. Or perhaps it was just the fact that it had Barack Obama's name on it. But whatever the driving motivation, repealing Obamacare has been foundational to the Republican Party for the better part of the past decade.

Last year, Paul Ryan threw up his hands and declared that he was done with divided government: it was, he had come to believe, just too damn hard. He was salivating at the idea of Republican control of the nation's capital. It was, he assured anyone who would listen, the only way they would get things done. Then Ryan got his wish, and--lo and behold--nothing has gotten easier. Unitary Republican rule has proved to be no cakewalk, and it appears the worst lies ahead.

It is, of course, all Donald Trump's fault. It is not just that Trump is not really a Republican, or that he cares not one whit for Paul Ryan's Better Way or the normal conservative principles that Ryan presumed would animate GOP policy and legislation in a single party state. Instead, it is that Trump won the Republican nomination by riling up white working class and middle class voters who, for the better part of the past half century, have been loyal to a Republican Party that used them for their votes while caring little for the struggles those families faced in their daily lives.

Somehow, the billionaire from Queens understood something that eluded the middle class kid from Janesville, Wisconsin. Paul Ryan failed to grasp that while those white working class voters that Republicans have celebrated as their base since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan might be cultural conservatives, the reality of their daily lives has nothing at all in common with the plutocrats who have long ruled the GOP. Whether they are sitting around a kitchen table in eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan, those Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and when it comes to healthcare, conservative or libertarian social theory means little to families facing one real world question: if a member of their family is sick, can they take them to see a doctor without having to worry about the financial consequences. Those voters may say they hate government in the abstract, but they love that Medicare provides for their parents. And when they say they hate Obamacare, Republican Senators who are contemplating making good on their promise to tear it down are beginning to wonder whether their constituents are saying that they hate Obamacare because it does too much, or because it does too little.

Seven years ago, the Republican Party was in a different place. Barack Obama was the unifying villain, and under the guise of the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus, GOP rhetoric returned to core principles: small government, strong defense, and a conservative judiciary. Obamacare represented everything the base of the party opposed--or so they thought. Just four years after Mitt Romney carried the party banner and declared war on those Americans who looked to government to solve their problems--vilifying the takers and glorifying the makers--Donald Trump turned the party on its head. He tapped into the rage and resentment of the party base at the turmoil that has engulfed rural America in the wake of globalization and technological change. He pointed the finger of blame directly at GOP elites, and won the nomination in a cakewalk. Gone were the Republican mantras of personal responsibility and no free stuff. Instead, Trump promised the world to his followers--including better insurance coverage at a lower cost--and he has not taken his foot off the gas.

The CBO scoring--particularly the 22 million or so people that it projects will drop off the insured rolls over the next few years--should not scare Republicans as much as it has. Those 22 million after all, are largely Americans who the CBO expects will decline to purchase health insurance once the individual mandated is eliminated. Republicans who have been railing away against the mandate should have a simple response to that number: of course those people are dropping their insurance, they weren't buying it voluntarily to begin with.

The real hit is not addressed fully in the CBO analysis, that is the 25 million people--a different cohort from the 22 million mentioned above--who loom to lose their health insurance after funding for Medicaid expansion funding is fully eliminated beginning in 2025. This impact is barely touched on by the CBO, since the 10 year scoring window ends just one year later in 2026. Presumably, that is why the legislation stretches the phase out of Medicaid expansion so far into the future.

When Donald Trump criticized the House legislation as "mean," he showed his cards. Any repeal of Obamacare was destined to be mean; it was supposed to be mean. Mean is what it means to be a Republican. This is not a slight on Republicans, it is an observation that Republicans are the ones who believe in safety nets not entitlements. Medicaid is a safety net, the Medicaid expansion enacted under Obamacare created an entitlement. The whole concept of a free market economy that is central to the Republican world view is that the individual is the central actor, incentivized to provide for their families, and to succeed. That is not the role of government.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, views himself as the national father figure. He told those families in eastern Kentucky and the upper peninsula of Michigan "Don't worry about going back to school or moving your family to get a better job, I will bring those jobs back. Don't worry that healthcare costs too much, I am going to make it cheaper and better than ever." The Republican message to Americans used to be, if you face challenges in your lives, government may be able to help at the margins, but primarily it is up to you. Trump turned Paul Ryan's entire world view on its head when he told those Americans, quite literally, "only I can fix it."

Republicans in Congress face a difficult choice, and are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they don't repeal Obamacare, they will have violated the promise they have been making, year after year, to their base voters. They will have proven themselves feckless, and will be judged accordingly. On the other hand, if they do pass the legislation in front of them, things may well revert to the way they were before, with millions more Americans without access to health insurance. That was supposed to be the idea, of course. It was inherent in the meaning of the world repeal.

But things aren't the way they were before, and there's no turning back the clock. Trump woke people up. He talked openly about the pain their communities have suffered, and promised that he would fix it. And the Republican Party jumped on board. Now, Republicans in Congress are supposed to deliver, and either way they vote only promises to make their problems worse.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sacrificing character on the altar of power.

It was the John Cornyn tweet that did it. In response to Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) tweeting "Trumpcare by the numbers: 850% premium spike for elderly, 14 mil lose healthcare in 1st year...", the third term Republican Senator from Texas responded simply, "Fake news." 

Cornyn, former Texas Attorney General and Supreme Court justice, is a man of political substance and pedigree. He could have said many things. He could have insisted that healthcare costs had to be brought under control. He could have suggested that those 14 million people included many who were making a choice in a free market. He could have made the Republican case, but chose instead the most lazy, destructive political epithet of the Trump era: fake news. Cornyn's two word response showed how slippery is the slope on which Republicans find themselves.

Cornyn is not alone; the election of Donald Trump has led many senior Republicans to do and say things they might never have previously imagined. Perhaps no one in Washington has been as diminished by Donald Trump as House Speaker Paul Ryan. Early on, Ryan resisted supporting Trump's nomination. He believes in the old Republican values, and the pain is evident in his voice and manner each time he has found himself coming to Trump's defense. This week, Ryan uttered perhaps his most fatuous defense yet, when he suggested that Trump was "new to this," to explain why Trump might of thought it would be OK to ask the FBI Director to lay off Mike Flynn. But this is the same Donald Trump who spent much of last year castigating Bill Clinton for meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to--Trump asserted--intervene in the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. He new exactly what he was doing.

And so did Paul Ryan. By repeatedly choosing to rise to Trump's defense, Ryan had to know he was choosing political expediency over moral leadership, and ultimately diminishing himself. Yet he has soldiered on. His choices have been in stark contrast with his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has chosen by and large to remain silent, declining to invest his personal credibility as Ryan has done in defense of Trump's most egregious actions.

Character was once the defining attribute of the Republican brand. Character was at the root of Jeb Bush's love for immigrants, when he pushed back against Donald Trump's nationalist rhetoric and doomed his own presidential campaign. Bush believed that immigrants contribute to the strength and character of the nation. They don't whine about their lot in life; they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about it. They seek opportunity and do jobs that others won't. Their struggles breeds character, and character defines everything. As Mitt Romney famously argued five years ago, the GOP was supposed to be the party of personal responsibility, the party railing away about the unfairness of life are the other guys.

As the Republican primary process wore on, and GOP leaders were coming to grips with the inevitability of Trump emerging as their nominee, they told themselves that it was all good. Trump might have ridden the wave of white working class resentments to the nomination, but over time he would surely temper his conduct and demagogic rhetoric. Should he make it to the Oval Office, they would control the legislative process, and he would no doubt sign whatever legislation they put on his desk. At the end of the day, assured themselves, they would impose their will on him.

But Donald Trump never changed. There has been no metamorphosis from a candidate who was willing to say anything, at any time, to rile up his base, to a sober, measured leader of the free world. Perhaps to a greater degree than GOP leaders ever imagined possible--and as evidenced by the little things such as John Cornyn's tweet--it is Donald Trump who has imposed his will, his personality and his values on the Republican Party. One after another, GOP leaders have found themselves rising to his defense, talking or tweeting in ways they never imagined, putting their personal credibility on the line, defending the oft-times indefensible, and finding themselves diminished for it.

Last week, it was Dan Coats' and Mike Rogers' turn. Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee seeking to determine whether the President had sought to interfere with the FBI Russia investigation, the Director of National Intelligence and NSA Director, dissembled and dodged as Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Angus King (I-ME) in turn asked them a simple question: If the White House had not invoked executive privilege, on what legal basis were they refusing to say whether or not they had been asked by the President to influence an ongoing investigation

In the absence of an assertion of executive privilege, Coats and Rogers knew it was their duty to respond forthrightly to a Senate panel, yet they demurred. Exactly why remains unclear. "I'm not sure I have a legal basis," was the best Dan Coats could come up with. Caught in a no-man's land and visibly mortified by their own conduct as they defied their legal and moral obligation to respond to the questions, the two men who have built reputations for character and integrity across both sides of the aisle watched all they had built lie smoldering in ashes on the committee room floor.

The next day, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders jumped to Donald Trump's defense against Comey's suggestion that the President had lied. "I can definitively say the president is not a liar. It’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked." 

Huckabee Sanders--a smart, dedicated advocate, weened in politics from the womb--was trying valiantly to suggest something that in a normal year might have had some currency--that for a President to lie is a grave matter, and to accuse a president of lying is inherently insulting and degrading of the institution. Bill Clinton lied and he was impeached for it, and there were cries of outrage when Joe Wilson called Barack Obama a liar. But her premise was backwards. The institution of the presidency does not confer character and integrity on the occupant of the Oval Office; rather, it is our hope each four years that the individual that we elect will confirm the faith that has been placed in them by the character and integrity that he or she brings to the office. As much as she and others might wish it otherwise, character and integrity are not Donald Trump's long suits, and he has proven his bona fides as a liar at the highest level.

That is not a partisan statement, and those who repeatedly find themselves rushing to the ramparts in defense of their President should remember that calling Donald Trump a liar is not a new charge, and certainly not one levied by Democrats alone. Trump built his political brand promoting conspiracy theories and lies, and has never looked back. Before he won the Republican nomination, the assessment within the GOP of Trump as a pathological liar and narcissist was widely and publicly accepted.

This weekend, a YouGuv poll reported that only 15% of the electorate believed Trump's assertion that he did not demand a loyalty pledge from Comey. While the poll suggested that 80% of Republicans view the President favorably, fewer than one in four believed that Comey had lied when he said that Trump asked him for a loyalty pledge. When Trump said that he was prepared "one-hundred percent, under oath" to testify that James Comey had lied, even many among Trump's most devoted supporters apparently concluded, 'Yeah, Trump has no compunction about lying, even under oath.'

Prominent conservative and RedState founder Erick Erickson saw the implications of the nomination of Donald Trump early on in the primary season. Assessing the landscape and seeing the path that lay ahead, he concluded that the Republican Party owed  Bill Clinton an apology. After impeaching Bill Clinton over lies and womanizing, they were "embracing a pathological liar and womanizer... Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.” 

But it is worse that that. It is not just that Donald Trump is remaking it in his own image, it is that he is testing the character and integrity of GOP leaders across the country, and far to many are failing the test. This week, Dan Coats and Mike Rogers provided a stark reminder to others that reputations for character and integrity that have built over the course of careers are ephemeral. They can be lost in a moment, and once lost may be hard to reclaim.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Being anti-Trump is not enough.

The morning onslaught of emails summarizing the starting point for the day, letting me know that this is day 126 of the Trump presidency. Politico. Axios. The Daily. The Hive. RedState. ZeroHedge. Sean Hannity (just to see who the Clintons killed recently). The breathless breaking news tweets, podcasts and texts. The daily wraps making sure we did not miss a thing, lest we were distracted by work.

The Trump presidency has become the most festering, counterproductive, time sink since the invention of Facebook, when the notion of a time sink burst into our vocabulary.

Two weeks ago, conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, suggesting that the political battleground has shifted from those who are anti-Trump versus those who are pro-Trump, to those who are anti-Trump versus those who are anti-anti-Trump. Faced with a president who is proving objectionable or incompetent to many in his own party, Republicans are increasingly motivated as much by the rage and antics of Democrats as anything else. As if to make Sykes' point, the most recent Quinnipiac Poll suggests that Republican approval of Donald Trump is now lower than their disapproval of Democrats in Congress.

For a few months, from election day on past the inauguration, where Donald Trump pronounced his dark vision of the nation from the presidential pulpit, the furious reaction to what appeared to be the rise of the authoritarian right was warranted. But the influence of Steve Bannon and the threat of the alt-right appear to have waned, as the challenges of governing have overwhelmed the competence of a President whose political skills revolved around hyperbolic rhetoric and conspiracy mongering, and whose real world management skills were limited to running a tightly controlled family business.

After those furious first few months, the Trump fever has broken. Fears that democratic institutions might not be up to the task have proven to be ill-founded. The federal judiciary has played its role as proscribed, and the media has refused to back down from the name calling and derision from the Oval Office. Perhaps Donald Trump's greatest misjudgment was underestimating Rod Rosenstein, who has now firmly headed Trump's presidency down a new path.

The Trump presidency is now lapsing into something that may be less satisfying for Democrats to contend with: conservative government. MSNBC talk show host and former conservative member of Congress Joe Scarborough may rail on about the Republican Party having been taken over by a long-time Democrat, but the infrastructure of the Trump administration is deeply conservative, and fully prepared to do its best to support the agenda of Republican majorities in Congress. It is what political parties get to do when they win elections; they get to pass laws.

According to CBS News Nation Tracker polling, public attitudes toward the idea of Democrats winning back the House of Representatives next year has been highly ambivalent. Half of those polled think that a Democrat Congress would provide a needed check on President Trump, while half suggested it would simply lead to more gridlock or bad policies in Congress.

This is a devastating message to which Democrats should be paying close attention. Driven by anti-Trump rage, party activists are rapidly--and deliberately--undermining their party's ability to appeal to the political center. Their rage against Trump is accompanied by continuing bitterness over Bill and Hillary Clinton's control over the Democratic National Committee that rigged the system in favor of Hillary's nomination.

Penned in by activists on the left, Democrat leaders seem determined to ignore the yawning chasm of voters alienated both by Trump, and his sycophants in Congress, and the activist left. Rather than reaching out to broaden a prospective Democratic coalition, the Democrats are becoming a less-tolerant, narrower political party. Every time Chuck Schumer stands in front of a microphone to vilify this or that Trumpian outrage, he plays into the dynamic that Sykes described. Every time Nancy Pelosi demands that Sean Spicer or some other Trump factotum resign for this or that stupid statement, she devalues her own currency and diminishes her appeal beyond the Democratic Party base as aspiring Speaker of the House.

Just as Democrats are turning their back on the political center, Donald Trump seems to be making a concerted effort to alienate his own devoted followers and the faith they have invested in him. Trump's followers may have clamored for him to repeal Obamacare, but it remains to be seen if their faith in him will endure in the event that the House healthcare plan makes its way into law and millions of those supporters lose their health insurance, or take a loved one to the hospital only to find that their new Trumpcare insurance policies no longer provide hospitalization or emergency coverage. 

The problem that Democrats face is that even if Donald Trump turns his back on his promise to be the president for the working class and rural America, and instead delivers everything that the Republican donor class could have hoped for, that will not necessarily inure to the benefit of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump violating the trust that working class and rural Americans invested in him will not by extension ameliorate the distrust that those Americans feel toward Democrats. 

It may be that Senate Republicans will save Trump from himself. If they balk at Trump's healthcare plans and his tax plans and his budget cuts, Trump's dedicated voters may never know how close they came to seeing things get much worse for them than they already are. But who is going to save Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi? As the threat to democratic institutions fade, and the urgency of the morning emails and tweetstorms subside, when are Democratic leaders going to pull back from all-Trump-all-the-time, and contemplate how they plan to reach out and broaden the Democratic Party into a viable majority coalition.

The 2018 mid-term election may be on everybody's minds, but it is the 2020 election that looms largest. Not the presidential election, but rather the governors and state legislature races that will determine the next round of decennial redistricting, and, in their wake, the landscape of our politics for the ensuing decade. Anti-Trump fever, which began as a tremendous motivating moment for Democrats, has become a trap. Far too many remain consumed with matters that now should be left to Robert Mueller, while far too few seem focused on the future of the Democrat agenda, message and coalition. That is the urgent task at hand if Democrats want to win what Republicans now have: majorities in Congress and the ability to pass laws.

As it stands today--as Charlie Sykes has warned--every time Chuck Schumer feels that irresistible draw to a microphone to launch one more attack on Donald Trump, he is not doing his party any favors. Instead, he is playing into the anti-anti-Trump narrative and increasing the likelihood that Republicans will once again win the decennial restricting battles, and Donald Trump will be a two-term president.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Killing Obamacare.

Obamacare is not dead yet, but Donald Trump is close to achieving his goal. If it was not killed on Inauguration Day--when Trump signed his executive order that, among other things, relaxed enforcement of the individual mandate--it will be, if, as reports have suggested, he decides to terminate the Affordable Care Act subsidies paid to insurance companies. Ending those payments, which subsidize deductibles for low-income populations, should effectively end the viability of the insurance exchanges created by the ACA that provide access to health insurance for low income families.

When Donald Trump supported a single payer approach--before he opposed it--he recognized that unless and until we are willing to let people die in the street, healthcare costs are something for which the entire nation is ultimately on the hook. If, at the end of the day, we are all going to wind up paying those costs, it is the cost structure itself that should be the focus of the healthcare discussion, rather than legislation that does little more than shifting costs and risks from one place to another.

While the ACA--Obamacare--covers a wide range of healthcare issues, at its essence it was built around two essential elements: first, prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to, or charging differential insurance rates for, people with pre-existing conditions, and, second, requiring that everyone purchase health insurance--whether through employers who are required to provide coverage or as individuals--to ensure that young, healthy people become part of the health insurance system. The objective was to create a single "community rating" structure within which rates would be established. The two elements worked in tandem, as they would enable insurance companies to offset the higher costs of less healthy insured populations, including those with pre-existing conditions--whose premiums would not be high enough to fund their expected costs--with revenues from healthier populations, who by definition would pay more into the system in premiums than they would receive back in benefits.

Problems began for participating insurance companies when fewer healthy individuals signed up than projected, undermining the expected economic balance of the program. The January executive order validated insurer concerns over the political risks inherent in participation in the newly created healthcare exchanges, and further undermined the economic tradeoff, leaving insurers with the prospect of losing the upside of original bargain--the young, healthy customers who would get back far less than they paid in--while still on the hook for the higher cost populations they were obligated to underwrite. The prospect of terminating the subsidy payments to insurers--as Donald Trump reaffirmed this week--promises to be the last straw for participating insurance companies; if the January executive order constituted two bullets to the chest of Obamacare, the termination of the subsidizes looms to be the bullet to the head.

Listening to Republican struggles to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, one could easily draw the conclusion--as I'm sure many Americans have--that Obamacare is at the root of healthcare cost escalation, however that is little more than political rhetoric. As illustrated in the graph here, National Health Expenditures have risen steadily over the past half-century, both in dollar terms and as a percent of the nation's gross domestic product (depicted by the solid purple line). Over the years, various healthcare reforms have sought to restructure how healthcare is funded and redistribute how the cost burden is shared across the population. The most dramatic reforms were the passage of Medicare, which put the funding of healthcare for the elderly on the back of the federal government, and Medicaid, which created a funding partnership between the federal government and the states for funding healthcare costs for those less able to pay. Obamacare, as it turns out, has had little impact on the public share of healthcare funding (shown in the red dotted line) which has similarly grown steadily over the years.

As much as Congress and the media talk about healthcare reform, Obamacare and its proposed replacement are less about the healthcare system overall than about the health insurance piece of the puzzle. That is to say, it is about who pays and how risks and costs are allocated, rather than about the provision of healthcare itself. As illustrated here, the preponderance of healthcare coverage in the United States is provided through private insurers, along with Medicare and Medicaid. Along with expanding Medicaid eligibility, the essence of Obamacare was to create a structure that would force healthier Americans that had previously chosen to remain uninsured to buy health insurance from private insurers in order to improve access for and reduce the cost paid by less healthy portions of the population.

While forcing one part of the population to fund the cost of services to another part of the population has been made by some to sound nefarious, we do it all the time. Risk and cost transfers across populations are commonplace in the provision of public services and taxation. Some public utilities--water and sewer systems come to mind--are able to charge fees on a user basis with little cross-subsidization. Other public services have subsidies inherent in their taxation and service provision models--essentially raising funds based on ability to pay, with little or no regard to the direct benefit received.

Public education, for example, is funded primarily by property taxes at the local level, and household funding contributions reflect differential wealth levels across a community, as calculated by home assessed values. Payment of those taxes by all homeowners is compulsory, and no consideration is given to whether a household has many children or no children; whether those children attend public schools or not; or whether a child has special needs that place a greater cost burden on the school district.

We have similar systems of cross-subsidization of service costs at all levels of government. Most obviously, on account of the progressive federal income tax, wealthy Americans pay the lion's share of federal taxes. According to the Congressional Budget Office data, the top 20% of taxpayers pay 69% of federal taxes, and the top 1% pay 25% of all federal taxes. Taking into account the distribution of taxes paid and direct services received--according to a Tax Foundation analysis--the federal government redistributes $2 trillion annually from the wealthier 40% of families to the less wealthy 60%. Similar transfers of tax dollars across populations are inherent in our public finance structure, including from wealthier, predominantly blue states, to less wealthy red states through the federal budget, and within states from urban centers to rural communities.

At a much publicized town meeting in early May, Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) caused an uproar when he asserted--in response to the suggestion that the healthcare bill passed by the House would result in millions of families losing access to health insurance--that "nobody dies because they don't have access to health care." The next day, Labrador explained his response by pointing out that federal law requires that hospital emergency rooms treat anyone who shows up with a serious condition, regardless of ability to pay.

Labrador's explanation illustrated the central lie underpinning the House legislation: it really doesn't fix anything. GOP anger at Obamacare focused in part on the individual mandate, which forced healthy participants to effectively subsidize the cost of insuring those with pre-existing conditions. The House bill proposes to alleviate the share of those costs born by that young, healthy population, by transferring those costs and risks to others, notably, as Labrador suggests, to hospitals, which would become saddled with significant increases in "uncompensated care" costs. Accordingly, the House proposal is similar to an unfunded tax cut; it reduces the burden on one sector of the population, while preferring to ignore the other side of the ledger, and the fact that someday, someone will have to pay the price for the benefit that was conferred.

GOP obsession with the individual mandate as a fundamental violation of individual liberty ignores the fact that healthy individuals are already compelled to participate in group health insurance provided by employers. The notion that individual participation is part of a broader programatic structure that shifts costs and risks across populations is also nothing new. As noted above, we transfer costs from one group of people to another all the time. In the healthcare sector, in particular, funding for Medicare, Medicate and veterans healthcare--which now comprise 50% of National Health Expenditures--are funded from broad based tax revenues.

In addition to those direct expenditures, we provide massive public subsidies to the private insurance market though the tax deductibility of employer-provided healthcare. When Obamacare added tax credits for individuals, in conjunction with the individual mandate, it was simply leveling the playing field. While it is reasonable to argue that the individual mandate is inappropriately narrow in scope--as it essentially constitutes an income transfer from people in their 20s and 30s to people in their 40s and 50s, through age 65, when they become eligible for Medicare--it is not inherently different than the myriad other ways that we transfer costs and benefits across populations. In particular, it mirrors those programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, that are funded on a life-cycle basis, wherein people pay in when they are younger and receive benefits when they are older.

As Donald Trump has pointed out, healthcare is more complicated than it might seem to be. The underlying problem is that at the end of the day—unless we are going to let people die in the streets—healthcare costs are something for which the entire nation is ultimately on the hook. Given that is the case, Congress cannot pretend to have provided a real solution if all it has done is to shift costs and risks from one place to another.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Titanic. In real time.

Shortly after taking office as the 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson briefly considered firing then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. But Johnson was no fool, he knew that Hoover kept files of dirt on hundreds of politicians. LBJ decided to keep him on. "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out," the 36th President famously concluded, "than outside the tent pissing in."

That is not the path that Donald Trump has chosen. Rather than thinking through the consequences of firing the man overseeing the Russia-Trump investigation, Trump threw caution to the wind and decided to unceremoniously and publicly fire his FBI Director. 

One week into his presidency, Trump summoned then-FBI Director Comey to dinner in the White House, where, like a newly installed third-world dictator, asked Comey to "pledge his loyalty" to him. Trump had good reason for concern. Two weeks earlier, Comey had privately briefed Trump on the infamous Russia dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele. The dossier described the involvement of Trump campaign officials in Russia's efforts to sway the results of the US presidential election, and the FBI was clearly taking it seriously enough to bring it to Trump's attention. 

As in all matters related to the Russia affair, there was an inherent asymmetry in information between the two men. Donald Trump, after all, knew the truth of whatever had transpired between his campaign and Russia's efforts to sway our election, while James Comey was the FBI Director tasked with ferreting out the truth. 

If Chris Steele's dossier is substantially correct--if there was, in fact, coordination between senior members of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's inner circle to undermine Hillary Clinton--an independent James Comey, unbound by a pledge of fealty to the President, represented an existential threat to Trump's presidency. If, on the other hand, the Steele dossier is a complete fabrication, and was never any involvement by Trump associates in Russia's efforts to meddle in our election, as Trump has insisted, then Trump had nothing to fear from Comey, and, in particular, nothing that would make firing Comey worth the political cost. At that dinner--as at the time that Comey briefed Trump about the dossier--Trump knew the truth, while Comey did not. 

We have no idea whether in the intervening months James Comey has developed any greater insights into what actually transpired with respect to Russian meddling and the Trump campaign. All we know is that based on the reporting over the past two days, it is apparent that after that January dinner--when Comey apparently declined to pledge his loyalty to Trump--both Trump and Comey believed that it was only a matter of time before the President fired Comey.

The peculiar aspect of Comey's firing was how Trump chose to handle it. Instead of replacing Comey in a respectful and orderly manner, Trump clearly decided to do it in as disrespectful manner as he could. There was no face to face meeting, not even a phone call. Comey was not offered a chance to resign to spend more time with his family--the norm in these situations--or given the respectful send-off normally accorded a person in his position. Instead, Trump had his long-time bodyguard deliver the letter firing Comey to the FBI headquarters while Comey was out of town. Comey actually learned about his firing from a cable news broadcast while he was giving a presentation at the FBI office in Los Angeles. 

It was not enough to unceremoniously show Comey the door, Trump then made sure to insult and kick him on the way out. He went out of his way to attack Comey on Twitter, with his own tweets as well as retweeting a hit piece on Comey circulated by the Drudge Report. Then--with no sense of irony--he went on to deride Comey as a grandstander and a showboat. 

Comey is an institutionalist, and he understood from the outset that, notwithstanding his 10-year appointment, he served at the pleasure of the President, and could be dismissed at any time. It seems likely that if Trump had dismissed him with the respect and decorum due a person of his stature, Comey would have exited the stage quietly and let his successor deal with Russia, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In contrast with LBJ's acknowledgement that it is best not to pick a fight with a man who has the capacity to retaliate, Trump has gone out of his way to pick a fight with Comey.

Trump seems to believe that he can defeat Comey one-on-one in the court of public opinion, but he has a tin ear when it comes to understanding the consequences of his own declining personal credibility. His only contact with the public is his campaign rallies, where his adoring supporters mislead him into believing that he has his finger on the pulse of the nation, and that the only problem he has is with Democrats who remain embittered over the election outcome. His problems, however, go much deeper than that.

Trump Rally: Harrisburg, PA. Plenty of empty seats.
The Quinnipiac Poll released this week showed a continued decline in Trump's poll numbers, with his generic job approval rating down to 36% job approval, with only 33% of those polled believing he is honest. The Republican Congress represents Trump's Maginot Line against whatever might transpire with respect to investigations into the Russia affair. Until now, Republicans in Congress have been terrified of crossing Trump and his supporters, but that fear will ebb as Trump's poll numbers decline and members look to protect themselves as their reelection in 2018 approaches. In a similar vein, Republicans in Congress cannot have missed the large number of empty seats at Trump's most recent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Those empty seats mirrored the 10% decline in support among the Trump base evidenced in the Q-poll.

LBJ's admonition threatens to loom large over the coming weeks. By firing Comey, Trump has accomplished the opposite of what he intended; he put the Russia investigation on the front burner, and he has done so at a moment when his hold over Republicans in Congress is beginning to wane. By his own actions and insults, he has made an enemy of the man who knows the details of that investigation better than anyone. And he has removed any obligation for James Comey to keep what he knows to himself. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to imagine that Comey is not going to make Trump regret his words.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

George Washington's fateful warning.

Perhaps there is no polling on deep yearning, but a fair share of American had to have watched the French election that culminated on Sunday with a sense of sadness. Faced with declining popular support for the mainstream conservative and liberal political parties, and a rising threat from the far right, those mainstream political parties came together to support a moderate centrist alternative. It could not happen here.

Early last year, as he considered launching his independent bid for the presidency, Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker and government finance minister who is now the President-elect of France, looked at a political landscape that was not so different from ours. The demographics of discontent--stemming from globalization and immigration--and resentments of urban elites in France, mirror those that culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. French politics--like ours--had historically been dominated by traditional center-left and center-right political parties that had lost their luster, while--as across Europe--an energized nationalist populism was growing on the right. 

Against that backdrop, Macron ran a stridently centrist campaign: pro-trade, pro-Euro and pro-European Union. In the first round of voting, he won 24% of the vote against a field that included candidates from the major parties and Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing National Front. He then defeated Le Pen 66% to 34% in the second round run-off. 

The closest parallel in our politics might be Michael Bloomberg. An economic conservative and social liberal, Bloomberg took a long look at the growing dysfunction of our politics--and the yawning chasm of dissatisfied voters stranded between a Democratic Party that has headed to the left and a Republican Party that has long veered to the right--and in 2016 he considered an independent bid for the presidency. 

But we are not France; ours is winner take all system--for the most part--on a state by state basis. We do not have a provision for run-off elections among the top two finishers that might allow an independent challenger to build an alignment of moderates from both parties, as took place in France. As Marco Rubio observed when he explained why he was endorsing Donald Trump--a man whom Rubio had railed against as a fraud and a con man--our system forces a binary choice on Election Day, when the animosities engendered by the political parties come into vivid relief and ultimately rule the day. Against that backdrop, Bloomberg decided not to run. 

In his Farewell Address, George Washington reflected on the destructive consequences of party politics. "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge... is itself a frightful despotism... It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another."

But for the idiom of the day, Washington's words could have been written this week. The frantic drive to repeal Obamacare, on display over the past month, has been nothing if not sharpened by the spirit of revenge, distracted public councils, ill-founded jealousies and false alarms. House Republicans finally came together to pass legislation that had no grounding in either sound policy or politics--it was driven simply by a misguided sense of party loyalty.

Republicans have been promising to repeal and replace Obamacare for seven years. What has been unclear from the outset is how much of the repeal and replace urgency was driven by hatred of the law itself, and the changes to health insurance markets that it engendered, or simply hatred of Barack Obama himself. Public polling over the years has shown greater public support for the Affordable Care Act than for Obamacare--two different names for the legislation--suggesting that opposition to the Affordable Care Act among the Republican base might not be as strident as many in the GOP came to believe it was. 

The oddity of the Trump presidency has been the willingness of Republicans to follow him in lock-step, even if the loyalty only goes one way. House Republicans acceded to Trump's demand that they take a second shot at passing repeal and replace legislation, even as many saw rising anger among their constituents as it became apparent that the proposed legislation might undermine their access to health insurance. For Trump, it was not about the details of the legislation, but rather about having a televised Rose Garden event where he could tout his victory. And if the price of a Rose Garden ceremony is greater suffering among his supporters in eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan--or even the loss of GOP control of the House--that is a price he is willing to pay.

The firing of Jim Comey is going to escalate the demands of party loyalty to new heights. As with the healthcare vote, the President will demand party loyalty on an issue that benefits him alone, and could easily damage the political futures of those who accede to his demands. Few in the GOP can truly have believed Trump's initial explanation that he fired Comey because of Comey's conduct of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and evidence is increasingly pointing to the original sin of the Trump campaign: Russia. Republicans in Congress may not know what happened with respect to Trump campaign collaboration with Russia in its efforts to influence our presidential election, but they do know that Donald Trump wants those investigations to stop, and he needs their help to make that happen.

The ball now rests firmly with Republicans in Congress. Marco Rubio never relented on his conclusion that Donald Trump is a con man and a fraud, he simply embraced Trump as his party's con man and fraud. With the firing of James Comey, however, Rubio and his brethren will have a tougher assessment to make. As George Washington warned, party politics can lead people down a precarious path, where loyalty to party overwhelms loyalty to country, "and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty." Two hundred thirty years later, Washington's words ring true.

In France, with its different election structure, two largest political parties set aside their differences and turned their energy toward the election of a centrist, rather than risk the rise of a right-wing populist demagogue. Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for our nation's political institutions and the constitutional separation of powers, and he has shown little tolerance for those who take an independent stance against his own interests--legal, political, financial or otherwise. At some point, Republicans in Congress will come to realize that their blind loyalty is a fools errand; Donald Trump has no interest in them, in their goals, in their reelections, or in their party. He has taken their measure, and he has decided that they do not have the courage to defy him. They are but means to his ends. As long as that remains true, both they and the nation, as George Washington foresaw, may pay a terrible price.