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.

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.