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.