Donald Trump and the Sleaze Factor

Most of yesterday’s buzz was about the miasma of Trump investigations.  There was a flap over whether the Justice Department sought to prevent former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence that Trump associates’ contacts with possible Russian agents involved wrongdoing (though there are some odd transactions in the past of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort).

There is also a flap over the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, refusing to disclose to the committee who gave him intelligence reports that indicated Pres. Trump and his associates may have been ensnared in incidental intelligence collection outside the probe into the Russia-related issues.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence to substantiate Nunes’s claim this intelligence was improperly circulated without redacting the names of Trump and his associates in cases where the names were of no intelligence value.

In recent days, I have noted the tendency to treat similarly unsupported claims as Very Big Deals by anti-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers, according to their confirmation biases.  I have also noted that there is a certain sort of partisan fever that drives people to give way too much credit to even nutty conspiracy theories.

Today, I simply want to add that the odds are that none of it may matter much.

Consider that Ronald Reagan got dubbed “the Teflon President” by Rep. Patricia Schroeder on the basis of her list of 225 Reagan administration personnel or nominees who were the subject of allegations of ethical infractions.  It led Dems to claim the Reagan administration had a “sleaze factor.”  The Associated Press drily noted: “The figure has been disputed.  Most were never charged with any wrongdoing, although some nominees didn’t get jobs after the alleged transgressions came to light.”

That didn’t stop the more sober Washington Post from claiming a list of 110 senior administration officials have been accused of unethical or illegal conduct from 1981-86.  Even so, some of the biggest accusations, such as those against Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, fizzled.  The major convictions would mostly come during the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term (and some of those would be reversed due to grants of immunity issued in the Congressional investigation).

None of the earlier Reagan-era scandals and pseudo-scandals (which were in large part a function of the then-new standards of the Ethics in Government Act) mattered in the grand scheme because they didn’t touch the President personally and — tbh — people simply don’t care as much about scandals when the economy is doing well (see also: Clinton, Bill).

Based on what we know to date, I would expect the same basic rules to apply here.  Both stories so far look like pseudo-scandals not involving either Pres. Trump or Obama directly.  And if the economy picks up as the GOP hopes, few outside the partisan fever swamps will care much.

As such, the anti-Trumpers are likely just spinning their wheels until some investigation with credibility delivers some evidence bearing on whether Trump associates behaved badly.  And the anti-anti-Trumpers are in the same boat regarding Nunes’s claims.  The latter, however, also carry a whiff of the people who are constantly complaining that the establishment media isn’t covering their pet story enough. Sad!

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The Healthcare Bill Debacle: Ryan Edition

Having addressed Pres. Trump’s role in the failure of the House GOP’s healthcare bill (AHCA) yesterday, it seems only fair to assess House Speaker Paul Ryan’s role, as he had slightly different motives to make many of the same mistakes.

Tim Alberta‘s port-mortem included what I think is the key point: “In dissecting Ryan’s lackluster marketing of the health care initiative, both his allies and adversaries in the Republican conference reached the same conclusion: He had taken support for granted. After all, this was essentially the same bill written by Price when he was in Congress; it became the de facto proposal of the House GOP in its ‘Better Way’ agenda, which Ryan argued throughout 2016 was a governing document that his colleagues universally supported. ‘We all ran on this,’ Ryan said repeatedly over the past several weeks.

“Except that many House Republicans never saw it that way. In fact, some conservatives spent the past year using ‘Better Way’ as a punch line to tease the speaker for convening wonky groups to dream up big policy proposals—but never hold votes on any of them. If there had been committee hearings and floor votes, some conservatives argue, these differences would have surfaced much sooner. ‘We ran on these principles, but not on this bill,’ Meadows told me last week. (Meadows was, however, once a co-sponsor of Price’s bill in Congress.)”

Ryan should have recognized that even last year’s repeal bill vote was not live ammo.  Indeed, he probably did realize it.

Avik Roy noted that “despite repeated promises to bring the Obamacare replacement before a vote, Ryan did not do so, because there wasn’t enough consensus in the House as to how to replace Obamacare,” adding: “The lack of consensus wasn’t created by Ryan. Because the U.S. health care system heavily subsidizes health coverage for retirees and upper-middle-class workers, many Republican voters are fine with the status quo ante, and opposed to changes that help others at their expense.”

Roy argues that Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders never made the moral case for helping the uninsured, which is true enough.  But the immediate problem for AHCA was that the bill, like Obamacare itself, was a two-headed beast — and Ryan seemingly only cared about one of the heads.

The reason for Ryan to try to cram AHCA through Congress in 18 days was that his primary concern was banking its deficit reduction before proceeding to tax reform which, despite the rhetoric, is going to be difficult to make revenue-neutral.  Thus the focus of Ryan and House leadership was on reforming Medicaid, which was the source of the big savings in the bill.  This also makes sense when you consider that Ryan is very much about entitlement reform (as am I).

Given that focus, it’s no surprise that the Medicaid piece of AHCA was pretty darned good (at least from my point of view; the coverage losses put off moderates).  It’s also no surprise that the Medicaid piece was where Ryan and the White House were most willing to accept suggestions from the House Freedom Caucus (HFC).  But Medicaid was just one head of the beast.

In contrast, the parties dispute whether Ryan or Trump ever really offered the HFC much on the essential health benefits regulations that were a core part of the other head of the beast — reforming the failing individual health insurance market.

Telling conservatives that you’re repealing the individual mandate only works as a selling point if you assume they’re yahoos who — after losing the mandate issue in the Supreme Court — don’t care that AHCA simply substituted a less effective insurer surcharge that would accelerate the death spiral by about two million more people deciding to forego coverage.

Had Ryan been willing to negotiate with the HFC and arrived at the point where he wasn’t going to be able to get enough of their votes short of repealing guaranteed issue and community rating (the essence of covering those with pre-existing conditions), he and others would have a much stronger case for blaming the HFC as intransigent.  We’ll never know if Ryan could’ve gotten more votes by not forcing 50-year-old men to buy maternity coverage.

But Ryan seemingly wasn’t interested in negotiation (and as noted yesterday, Trump wasn’t capable of it).  Instead, Ryan was interested in Medicaid reform and deficit reduction.

That’s how you wind up with the insurer fine standing in for the ACA mandate and refundable tax credits standing in for ACA subsidies on the other half of the bill.  BTW, means-testing those credits was one of the few concessions HFC got on the individual market side of AHCA.  But those bent on placing all the blame on HFC don’t want to admit that accepting the tax credit framework was already a concession by the HFC.

It’s also how AHCA wound up with scores showing that near-retirees would see their insurance premiums increase 760% in the short-term.  It’s how you don’t bother to ask the Senate parliamentarian whether regs can be repealed in reconciliation bills.  It is the tell that Ryan’s attention was elsewhere.

This failure has far-reaching ramifications, not least for Ryan himself.  His Speakership isn’t in danger; we’ve just had a lesson in the difficulty of finding a suitable compromise within the House GOP caucus.

No, the ramifications come from the failure of the Medicaid piece of AHCA.  Although White House spox Sean Spicer is already hinting that the GOP will eventually revisit healthcare reform, and Ryan agrees,  there’s little chance that Ryan’s ideas will be treated as Gospel when they do.

More immediately, that failure will affect the tax reform effort, as Ryan likely feared.  Indeed, the current proposals floating around don’t contain much in the way of tax relief for the middle class, and the populist Trump may insist on adjustments that are likely to further box in the GOP absent those Medicaid savings.

Further into the future, the AHCA debacle is likely to reinforce Trump’s natural inclination to resist reforming Medicare and Social Security, which is Ryan’s real dream.

In sum, by trying to stampede his caucus into a bill that was not well thought-out with regards to one of the heads of the beast, Ryan may have doomed himself to presiding over another decade of accumulated debt and unreformed entitlements while the clock on the debt bomb continues its inevitable countdown.  That’s his punishment as well as ours.

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The Healthcare Bill Debacle: Trump Edition

Tomorrow, I may well write about House Speaker Paul Ryan’s arguably greater role in the current demise of the House GOP’s healthcare bill (AHCA), or at least what it ultimately means for him.  Today, however, is to assess Pres. Trump’s role in Friday’s trainwreck, particularly because he seems determined to draw the wrong lessons from it.

A number of post-mortems have already been written about Trump’s role, particularly his seeming inability to sell the bill to reluctant members of the GOP caucus (or, conversely, their supposed intransigence).  I would argue that Trump’s failures stem from the fact that he and his lieutenants learned the wrong lessons from the 2016 election.

In particular, I believe the 2016 campaign taught Trump that one can win by framing the final decision as a binary choice and bullying people into accepting the marginally lesser of two evils.  I believe he also learned that one can be elected President without having to know much of anything about policy.  These two beliefs made for a particularly toxic combination when it comes to passing legislation more complex than, say “build a wall.”

The fact is that the House GOP caucus refused to accept that healthcare reform was a binary choice between AHCA and ACA, probably in part because House leadership had already abandoned a first draft of AHCA.  Moreover, most of the House GOP Congress has been around long enough to know their majority derives in large part from the Democrats having to own Obamacare, both its cramdown and its consequences; many Representatives owe their current careers to it.

The notion that Trump, Stephen Bannon & Co. were going to ask them to condense a cramdown into 18 days on a bill that had no constituency was a pipe dream.  The idea that they were going to demand that elected officials — many of whom outpolled Trump in their districts — simply rubber-stamp a bill as instantly unpopular as ACHA was madness.

Under more ordinary circumstances, this would be the point where I tempered that last statement by noting that passing a comprehensive reform bill with a narrow Congressional majority was always going to be difficult.  But the fact is that the Trump administration and House leadership wanted to behave as though the opposite was true as a matter of basic strategy.  They chose poorly.

Of course, aside from considerations involving the legislative calendar, Trump in particular had few alternatives as a strategy.  Although he fancies himself a dealmaker, his basic ignorance of healthcare policy, shared by most of the people around him (save HHS Sec’y Tom Price) rendered him unable to evaluate the merits of AHCA accurately or negotiate them with either conservatives or moderates.   And again, policy actually matters to people whose careers depend upon it.

It follows, therefore, that when you repeatedly respond to any attempt to discuss policy with profanity and dismissal, things will go badly.  Had been able to discuss the bill intelligently, he might have understood those who thought he was demanding a day or two of winning in return for years of losing.

Rather than accept that these were his problems, it seems Trump is resorting to another campaign favorite — ridiculing conservatives.  He and his minions have trained their fire primarily on the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), but it extends to conservative think-tanks and advocacy groups, including those upon which he has relied heavily to date.

Whether one believes this deep Politico post-mortem or their more Trump-friendly follow-up, the charge is essentially false, as moderates were slightly more likely to have publicly opposed AHCA than the HFC was.  Even if some of the moderates went public based on public accounts of Trump’s pseudo-negotiations with the HFC, they were far more concerned with the CBO projections of lost coverage and increased premiums.

Moreover, as Reihan Salam notes, the HFC was “fighting for a more deliberative, thoughtful approach that might yield a more coherent set of reforms.”  But if Ryan really did not want the HFC as partners in the process, Trump was intellectually unequipped to even consider the possibility.

As The Federalist’s Ben Domenech noted on Friday, GOP leadership “must develop a new, inclusive, transparent process.”  This has been the case for years, but AHCA brought it to a head.  Ryan is smart enough to potentially learn this lesson, if he can get over what he likely sees as a personal rejection.

Trump & Co., otoh, seem inclined to conclude that they underestimated the fractiousness of the caucus and will try to sideline conservatives from upcoming efforts like tax reform.  The tax bill, however, will again feature simmering problems about distributional effects, just like AHCA.  It will also feature maddeningly complex issues like the controversial border adjustment tax.

If the White House intends to charge forward without learning their agenda has broader problems and complexities they need to understand — as opposed to the mere opposition of the HFC — they are likely to repeat the same mistakes.

Lastly, note that Trump and Ryan completely dropping healthcare is not simply a reflection of Trump’s general petulance, but a direct reflection of the so-called “binary choice” strategy.  Having threatened people with “take it or leave it,” the administration is incentivized to at least act as though they’re leaving it.

Their problem is that they really can’t leave it, at least not in the medium-term.  As Obama was cut some slack on the Great Recession and Iraq as the inheritance of the Bush administration, so might the GOP get a little slack on their inability to immediately reform Medicaid and the individual health insurance market.

But Obama timely acted on the Great Recession, even if the GOP didn’t like his approach.  And Obama got out of Iraq (however precipitously) before running for re-election.  The GOP House would be ill-advised to run through not one, but two cycles more of Obamacare slowly collapsing before the 2018 midterms, especially when their party is led by a president who announced his tolerance for watching the system burn.

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Trump, Surveillance, Leaks, Hysteria

Partisanship has a way of coloring views of the news, especially of highly-charged stories involving Trump campaign and transition officials turning up in government surveillance.

This week, CNN reported: “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.”

Righties, particularly those of the anti-anti-Trump bent, focuses on the “supposed” and the “possibly” to conclude the story was No Big Deal.  The story is certainly qualified, but the dismissal tends to ignore the fact that it’s a report on an ongoing investigation and that unless some sort of charge is brought, it’s a fair bet the evidence will be below the level needed to bring charges.

Conversely, the same basic group of righties thought this week’s press event by Rep. Devin Nunes — chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — (helpfully transcribed by Lawfare) was a Very Big Deal.

Nunes initially claimed that: “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.  Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.  Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. And fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.”

He added that the collection itself appeared to have been legal (i.e., were likely part of conversations of or with foreign surveillance targets), which casts doubt on the claim reported by Fox News that documents may show the Obama administration was using the cover of legitimate surveillance on foreign targets to spy on President-elect Trump (unless your definition of “spy” is incredibly broad).

Also, as noted by the Lawfare bloggers: “In his initial statement, [Nunes] makes what seem to be bold and unequivocal claims, but he then spends the question and answer period significantly undercutting several of them.”  Indeed, Nunes now says he does not know “for sure” whether Trump or members of his transition team were on the phone calls or other communications at issue.

It’s odd that the same people who relied on qualifiers to proclaim the CNN story to be No Big Deal overlook the contradictions and ambiguities in the Nunes claims to deem them a Very Big Deal.  By which I mean not odd at all if you can hear the the tribal beating of partisan drums in the background.

Nunes, however, further raises the serious allegation that Trump or members of his transition team were “unmasked” (i.e., their identities were not redacted as would usually be the case for U.S. citizens in cases of incidental collection) in cases without foreign intelligence value, and that said reports were widely disseminated.  This is precisely the concern civil libertarians have raised about our foreign surveillance efforts during the post-9/11 era.

FWIW, Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Dem on the House Intelligence Committee, claims Nunes told him most of the names at issue were masked, but that Nunes claimed he could still figure out the likely identities of the people involved.  The resolution of that question of fact will be significant.  The closer Schiff is to being right, the less likely that the “smoking gun” suggested by Fox News sources will be found.

Nevertheless, this claim is consistent with what I thought was a very odd March 1 New York Times story that reported: “In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government.  Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

Note: The Nunes claims do not involve Russia, but the notion of widely spreading sensitive material regarding the Trump camp is a common theme.

I found the NYT story odd because it is essentially an unfavorable admission by the leakers, raising the question of why they would want this dispersion effort made public.  Stupidity and hubris can never be ruled out.  But there is another possibility.

It could be that the leakers wanted this brazen taunt in print precisely to provoke a reaction.  They may have thought Trump might be goaded into tweeting about it, and every news cycle consumed with stories that Trump associates were picked up in foreign surveillance is a bad one for Trump, because most don’t follow this story closely and the center-left media isn’t going to put a neutral or pro-Trump spin on the coverage.

Trump didn’t tweet about it, but it may have caused people to come forward with the documents that caused Nunes to go public (and then to the White House before consulting the Committee).  The leakers admit they want investigators to find the material they dispersed.   And so long as the general gist of the story from the media is that people in Trump’s camp were under some sort of cloud, the leakers may be quietly happy with Nunes, especially if it turns out he exaggerated.

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A Tale of Two Bodies

It was a dickens of a time.

One body, the Senate, will be concluding the confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch to be elevated to the Supreme Court.  By most all accounts a fitting conservative successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, this intelligent and good-humored man has thus far glided through his hearings without a single significant blow from the the Judiciary Committee Democrats.

The Dems’ main theme seems to be framing Gorsuch as an enemy of the little guy.  It’s inaccurate, and has backfired.  But it’s an attack that was doomed from the outset.  During the 2016 campaign, this Supreme Court vacancy was a major issue.  Hillary Clinton clearly announced that she would appoint a results-oriented activist.  Donald Trump promised he would select from a public list of distinguished jurists.  To paraphrase fmr. Pres. Obama, Trump won.

The Gorsuch nomination, once confirmed, will likely be one of Pres. Trump’s most consequential choices — and probably one of his best.

The other body, the House, is — or was — supposed to bring the America Health Care Act up for a floor vote.  It is — or was — a bill loved by few outside leadership and the White House.  As I write this, the White House is negotiating major last-minute changes with the conservative House Freedom Caucus in an effort to get to a majority, while losing at least one moderate, Rep. Charlie Dent.   The Congressional GOP seems set to replicate the unpopular manner in which the prior unpopular healthcare law was enacted, this time as farce.

I have little sympathy for the party’s lack of imagination.  As Santayana observed, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So GOPers may be sticking their necks out.  One hopes this tale does not end with figurative decapitations, but such are often the result when vengeful populists are in the saddle.

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Reaping News

According to a new Harvard-Harris Poll, 59 percent of Republicans say they believe Pres. Trump’s claim that fmr. Pres. Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.  That claim has been rejected by FBI Dir. James Comey, as well as many GOP leaders in Congress.  Similarly, NSA Dir. Michael Rogers has rejected Trump’s claim that Obama asked British intelligence (GCHQ) to conduct surveillance on Trump.  Overall, 66 percent of registered voters reject the claim.

Trump and White House spox Sean Spicer relied on Fox News Channel pundit Judge Andrew Napolitano to justify their claim about GCHQ.  Napolitano had managed to mangle an already dubious claim by wacky CIA analyst-turned-blogger Larry Johnson on RT, the “news” channel funded by the Russian government.

The “news” side of Fox, including anchors Shepard Smith and Bret Baier, tried to distance itself from the ensuing international spat.  Napolitano was indefinitely suspended from FNC over the flap.  Cynics linked the suspension of Napolitano to the backlash the baseless claim could have on Fox News honcho Rupert Murdoch’s proposed deal to purchase Sky News in the UK.

The cynics are finding more ammo in yesterday’s editorial from the Murdoch-affiliated Wall Street Journal, which said of the wiretap claims that “the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle” and warned that “he needs support beyond the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything. As he is learning with the health-care bill, Mr. Trump needs partners in his own party to pass his agenda. He also needs friends abroad who are willing to trust him when he asks for support, not least in a crisis.”

It’s hard to discount the cynics in light of prior reports that Murdoch was much involved in directing the tone of Fox’s Trump programming, both when it was tough and when it turned soft.  And reports that there have been tensions within the WSJ’s newsroom over its Trump coverage.

Indeed, it’s a little rich to see the WSJ condemning the “Breitbart cheering section” while ignoring Sean Hannity wildly shaking his pom-poms for Trump from Murdoch’s sidecar.

The WSJ is right to be concerned about Trump’s credibility.  One hopes conservative media might take the moment to consider how much they are linking theirs to his, and how it affects the public discourse.

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Frank Rich Lets His Freak Flag Fly, Maaan.

Maybe Frank Rich was just having one of those days and needed to take it out on Trump’s base.  Probably not.  But I am having one of those days and will work it out on Rich’s latest discharge, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.”

Rich seems to have concluded that Democrats may well be better off allowing Trump’s base to vote for policies that kill them, and worked backwards from there.

Seriously, Rich concludes that if Trump is unsuccessful: “Maybe… they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether.  Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.”

He considers any efforts by the Left to leave its bubble in an attempt to understand Trumpers to be “Hillbilly Chic,” which he deems “an inverted bookend to Radical Chic, the indelible rubric attached by Tom Wolfe in 1970 (in this magazine) to white elites in Manhattan then fawning over black militants.”

Rich displays no indication that he understands who Trump’s base really is, as opposed to the image portrayed Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J. D. Vance’s  Hillbilly Elegy, though it’s not clear from his rant that he’s read either of them.

But even if one takes the Trump base in fairly negative terms, it’s telling that Rich would compare Dems trying to understand (or condescend to) long-term unemployed, opiate addicted videogamers on Social Security disability benefits to liberal elites celebrating the Black Panthers, who were ultimately a murderous and totalitarian cult.

He also deems it a waste of time for Dems to chase these “unreachable voters.”  It’s a fairly bizarre claim to make in the face of data showing Trump won 209 counties Obama won twice and 194 counties Obama won once.  Some on the Left, such as David Leonhardt and Sean McElwee, try to downplay this demographic by looking only at 2012, instead of 2008 — the last open seat election, when Obama was still the man of Hope and Change, rather than a disappointment.

As NYT data-cruncher Nate Cohn noted after the election, millions of votes were at issue.  He also smartly observed that even Obama’s 2012 campaign worked hard to target the white working class.

To be sure, I doubt the Obama campaign thought they were going to do nearly as well with the WWC in 2012, but they understood the value of the effort.  Dems have been increasingly losing this bloc for decades, but candidates more competent than Hillary Clinton understood you couldn’t lose it too badly.

This was understood, in fact, by many of the same Dems who came up with the Emerging Democratic Majority theory to which Rich seems to subscribe, though it has been controversial among the propeller-heads for years, and has been doubted by one of its chief architects.

Even McElwee, in arguing that Obama-Trump voters may express high levels of racial resentment, is also inherently making the case that such resentment did not make Obama inaccessible to them.

Rich then manages to be schizophrenic on the state of the Democratic Party.  He notes that even a terrible candidate like Hillary (and he’s right that she was terrible) won the popular vote and narrowly lost states needed to win the the Electoral College.  But in the next paragraph, he reminds us that the party is a “wreck,” that “rules no branch of federal government, holds only 16 governorships, and controls only 14 state legislatures.”

He seems to believe that a party of Young Bernies of Color would be the answer here, but never gets around to making the argument for it.  After all, this column was not about thinking, it was about emoting.

Instead, we get the third act, in which Rich rehearses all the lame arguments about false consciousness popularized by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and more recently rehashed in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  The latter managed to get called condescending even by the Washington Post, though I think the review at Forbes succinctly captures the problems in the book.

Rich, in his typically puerile partisanship, manages to display none of the nuance I’m sure he fancies himself to possess.  He wants to compare Trump’s base to Black Panthers.  He wants to be “free to loathe” them.  And if they brought about their own deaths, that would be just peachy for him.

It apparently does not occur to him that he’s displaying the sort of ignorance-leading-to-intolerance that he sees in the Rust Belt as viewed from a Manhattan office window.  Or that his mindless indulgence of his hatreds and stereotypes mirrors his indictment of them.

I wouldn’t say this is How We Got Trump.  But I would note that there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved in the theory the Dems will pick up more votes in swing states by moving further left than Obama.

Of course, it’s Frank Rich, so if I ever met him I wouldn’t even ask him about it from that angle.  What I’d really want to know is whether he thinks he’s being original here, or simply collecting a paycheck.

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The Insanely Low Stakes of Trump’s Steaks

Pres. Trump apparently likes his steaks extremely well done.  The punditry about this has been extreme, but not well done.  The commentary more resembles the fattiest tartare you’ve ever tasted.

First, there were the the mopes like Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter, the Washington Post‘s food critic, and the occasional random food blogger recoiling in horror from Trump’s vulgar taste, exacerbated by his use of ketchup.  It was of course suggested that Trump’s gauche dining habits were in some way a metaphor for his parochial and close-minded politics.

Then there were the conservatives.  Some of the movers and shakers in conservative media, the thinkers, even one of its most elegant writers appeared on some of the right’s most respected and influential platforms to defend Trump’s dietary habits, or at least to note that others would see it as an asset.

And many smart conservatives shared those columns on social media, nodding their heads at the notion that lefties’ hysteria about Trump was largely a matter of aesthetics.

Yet righties found it scandalous that then-candidate Barack Obama passed up a the campaign ritual of a Philly Cheesesteak in 2007.  And notable that he was the sort who ate arugula…and kale.  It was a metaphor, you see, for his effete liberal sensibilities and politics.

Does the Trump/Obama comparison simply reflect the long-simmering populism of the GOP?  In a word, no.

Righties also had great fun with Bill Clinton’s appetites for fast food and… women with big hair.  They were a metaphor, you see, for the decadence and generally low class of the Democrats, not to mention the seeming grubbiness of the Clintons’ scandal-laden politics.  So inferior to the patrician Pres. George H. W. Bush.

Of course, the Democrats also have done this before Trump.  Ronald Reagan supposedly liked jellybeans — a childish indulgence that reflected a simpleton who once co-starred in a movie with a chimp.  Etc., etc.

This is what happens to people who never get out of the marinade of partisanship.  It’s what drives otherwise normal people to take insane conspiracy theories seriously.  It’s the sort of thing people will look back upon with mild embarrassment, should they ever bother to reflect.

The temptation will be to justify spending time on Trump’s steak by framing it as an example of anti-Trump hysteria.  But if you pass a man on a street corner wearing a sandwich board and ranting about the Freemasons, do you stop to loudly counter him to other passers-by?  No, you don’t.  And you know why you don’t.

The other temptation will be to denigrate the Left by supposing lefties’ objections to Trump are significantly aesthetic.  To be sure, many liberals preferred Trump to Cruz and Rubio during the primaries.

But he’s Pres. Trump now.  His picks for his Cabinet were significantly Republican and often conservative.  His Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, compares favorably to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump and a GOP Congress are rolling back some regulations.  And while the House GOP’s AHCA strikes me as a lame effort to marginally roll back Obamacare, Democrats will see it as the wrong sort of wealth distribution.

Moreover, Dems clearly have opposition on the merits to some of the more uniquely Trumpian policies, such as the “extreme vetting” of refugees and the expansion of immigration enforcement (even though it falls short of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric).

It’s pretty obvious that the Left’s opposition to Trump is not significantly driven by his tastes (or lack thereof).  Those tastes are just another target of opportunity for them.  But the people responding seriously to these trivial pursuits are not doing themselves or their audiences any favors.

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Trump’s Skinny Budget: Next Step in the GOP Death Spiral?

Possibly, though not in the way Democrats think, and the size of the step remains to be seen.

Pres. Trump presented his first-year “skinny budget” and it’s skinnier than the client roster at Trump Model Management.

So all we know so far is that Trump wants to shift $54 billion to DoD, DHS and Energy and cut that amount from the State Dept. domestic discretionary programs, including Education, EPA, NEA, NEH, NIH, LSC, LIHEAP, HUD CDBGs (which is where the Meals On Wheels kerfuffle is located) and still other combinations of letters of the alphabet.  I am probably fine with cuts of this sort, though I suspect the numbers are pretty arbitrary (pending an OMB review of agency and program effectiveness due in May).

The GOP Congress, however, is not fine with these proposals.  It simply won’t do, you see.  Very few “Harrumphs” in support of Trump.

From these accounts, it further appears there was little coordination between the White House and Congressional GOP leadership on the budget proposals.  Also, it seems that the White House is pushing back on Congressional suggestions of entitlement reform.

The lack of coordination has been a consistent theme in the short period this sideblog has been open (see here, here, and here, for examples).  Yet it’s probably more important when we have a heterodox President like Trump.

Trump’s pushback on entitlement reform bothers me as a fiscal conservative.  But Trump campaigned on leaving Social Security and Medicare alone.  And as a cynic, I must note that most rank-and-file Republicans aren’t serious about it either.

It is therefore entirely possible we will get another year of borrow-and-spend, big government Republicanism.  They can’t cut the big items because they’re big; they can’t cut the small stuff because it’s a drop in the bucket.  And this on top of healthcare reform proposal that seems to excite no one.  All coming in the first year, when the GOP should have maximum momentum.

Trump may blame Congress for rejecting his domestic cuts.  The true conservatives at the grassroots will seethe.  Much of talk radio (with and without video) will once again hand out the torches and pitchforks for a hearty round of “BURN IT DOWN!”

They won’t be entirely wrong, either.  The GOP has far less excuse for timidity now that they control two branches of the federal government.  This cycle of frustration (less justified when Obama was President) gets an exhibit in the Hall of How We Got Trump.  Now we may get it again, even After We Got Trump.

Does anyone think that’s a way to ensure GOP turnout in 2018 against an energized Democratic base vote?  Of course, the economy may improve, either organically or with GOP help.  Or we may make progress against the Islamic State.  If these big things happen, perhaps the dysfunction of the GOP leadership in both branches won’t matter much.  But maybe it will matter.

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What the GOP Really Should Learn From Obamacare

At Vox, Sarah Kliff and Ezra Klein purport to reveal “The Lessons of Obamacare.”  Were I reviewing these lessons in a full column for The Federalist, I would probably spend a fair amount of space to mocking the delusion and disingenuousness shot through the piece.

For example, do they expect anyone to buy that they had to do extensive reporting to “unearth” the lesson that the Democrats — from Pres. Obama on down — should not have lied about the trade-offs their proposal entailed?

Conservatives noted this lying about trade-offs  throughout the Obamacare debate; even the New York Times conceded in the straight news part of the paper that promises about keeping your plan and doctor “may not be literally true or enforceable.”  People like Klein clowned themselves pretending the law was a success even after it passed, but now want to pretend they learned a lesson.

Similarly, Kliff and Klein again spread the horse manure about the individual mandate being an idea with substantial GOP support.  Avik Roy has called Klein out by name for this silliness in the past, but it’s apparently far too comforting a myth for Voxers to drop.

But the important part of their article is not what the GOP should learn from Obamacare.  Rather, the key point is that the GOP should learn what Kliff and Klein (and I) believe Democrats will take as the lessons of Obamacare.

They voxplain: “For Democrats, those lessons are relatively straightforward. It is easy to imagine the next Democratic president passing a health care bill that does four things: expand Medicaid coverage up to 200 percent of poverty, boost subsidies in the exchanges, add a public option that can use Medicare or Medicaid’s pricing power, and let people above age 50 buy into Medicare. ”

As progressives, Kliff and Klein are required to conclude that the failure of big government was that it wasn’t big enough.  But politically, they are probably dead on.

After all, the House GOP bill doesn’t even fully reverse O-care.  Democrats (and some conservatives) see a GOP that is not ideologically committed to fundamental reform and even dumb enough to accept coverage stats — the only measure by which O-care succeeds — as a metric of GOP success.

Republicans are not entirely ditching O-care’s Medicaid expansion now.  They would be no more likely to remove people from Medicare.  Thus, the next Democratic strategy will center around a squeeze play that is simpler (indeed, one more in line with Obama’s claim to “build on what works”) and more difficult to reverse.

The GOP lost the war over O-care in part because they thought they were fighting the last war.  Instead, polarization made a larger Dem majority more unified, even willing to accept a bill that bought off the interest groups who helped torpedo Hillarycare in the 1990s.

The GOP — and conservatives — really ought to be looking at approaches that anticipate the next time the Dems control Congress and the White House.  That approach could be something radically more free-market than anything on the table now.  Or, given the that the GOP really isn’t all that conservative, it could be something more like Avik Roy’s plan, modeled on the universal coverage plans in Switzerland and Singapore.

It’s probably too late for the GOP to think that many moves ahead, rather than continue to fight the last war.  The GOP’s nickname as the Stupid Party is often well-earned.

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