How Righty Media Kills Conservatism

Is that a clickbaity title?  It’s not really meant to be.  Rather, it’s the sort of half-baked theory that winds up in this sideblog, perhaps to become fully-baked someday.

I’m using the term “Righty media” here because it means to encompass both traditionally conservative media, which tends to be print media, as well as the more populist, small-c cultural conservative fare that we tend to associate with broadcast media like talk radio and Fox News.  That’s not to say that there’s a rigid print/broadcast dichotomy; it’s merely a proxy for a division I’ll be discussing here.

The other division at play — at least in theory — is the division between a partisan media and an ideological media.  That division is an overlay that does not neatly map onto the populist/conservative division.

This theory that I have — that is to say, which is mine — is that Righty media tends to be partisan when the GOP holds the White House, but ideological when it does not, which has bad consequences for conservatism.

This may be a problem that arises from the Right’s acquiescence over the decades to the progressive idea of the Imperial Presidency.  Conservatism has, from time to time (when a Republican is President), metabolized that progressive idea by historical reference to the unitary executive, and of energy in the executive.  Whatever the origin, it seemingly has influenced how Righty media assesses the government.

I would argue that when the GOP holds the White House, Righty media takes a more partisan stance, one that is somewhat forgiving of the executive.  This forgiveness may be of policy failures, or of compromises made domestically with Democrats or in foreign policy.

OTOH, when the GOP holds only the Congress, Righty media takes a more ideological stance.  This may be the result of feeling more threatened under Democrat presidencies.  Or it may be that Congress as a collective institution does not command the loyalty that a Presidency does.

I would argue this phenomenon is more prevalent on the broadcast/populist axis, based on the old adage I have referenced several times before: that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  The broader your mass audience is, the more it will focus on people, and it is far easier to focus on one than the group.  The modern Imperial Presidency is far better suited to television and other mass media than the tedium of policy and legislating.

Whatever the root of the phenomenon, it seemingly intensified during the Great Recession and the Obama administration.  In 2010, the reaction was a GOP wave election sweeping the GOP back into control of Congress.  The rise of the Tea Party was a big part of this narrative.  The Tea Party tended to be viewed — particularly on the Right — as a vehicle of True Conservatives, when in retrospect, the populist component (esp. the “keep the government’s hands off our Medicare” component) was just as important.

This partial misperception resulted in an almost monolithic, adversarial relationship between Righty media and the GOP Congress.  Granted, I will always fault the GOP Congress for not trying harder to manage its factions better.

But that moment was one at which it became increasingly common for the Righty media to fuel outrage not only at the Obama administration, but also at the GOP Congress, and to dismiss the latter’s accomplishments.  This was more true of the broadcast side, but it was also a moment where even Peggy Noonan would point to voter frustration over the bad deals GOPers had cut for years (a theme Trump would exploit to great effect five years later).

The more traditional conservative outlets would offer less dramatic, more balanced criticisms of the GOP Congress, but the tone would on balance be critical.  After all, these institutions see their mission (correctly) as carrying the banner for conservatism, not the GOP.

What this means, however, is that when the GOP does not hold the White House, almost no one in Righty media consistently makes the partisan case for the GOP Congress, a problem compounded by leadership’s failures in managing their caucuses or coalition.  And this, I would argue, is a substantial part of How You Got Trump.

I am not arguing that conservatives should become flacks for the GOP, regardless of whether it holds the White House or does not.  I am merely noting that the MSM rarely torches the Democrats in the way Righty media does the GOP Congress and that the asymmetry seems to have contributed to a populist presidency instead of a conservative one.

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Trump Must Live the DREAM

The key point to remember when assessing Pres. Trump’s “agreement” with Congressional Democratic leadership on DREAMer immigrants is that he started it.  Granted, he only started it to avoid a lawsuit over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but it wasn’t strictly necessary for Trump to urge Congress to legislate on the issue, let alone seem to suggest general parameters with the Democrats.

Trump generally began his term by deferring to the GOP Congress on the legislative calendar, and it is widely believed this move on immigration (and on the debt ceiling) reflect his frustration (or pique, if you prefer) with the supposed failure of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell to deliver “wins.”

But if Trump has decided he needs to start Presidenting to get his wins, he will probably need to do some real modern Presidenting.

Yesterday, McConnell issued a statement “look[ing] forward to receiving the Trump administration’s legislative proposal” on DREAMers, which could be construed as meeting pique with pique.  If Trump (and others) think Ryan & McConnell deserve no seat at the table, it would only be appropriate for Trump to be forced to put his actual negotiating position with the Dems on the table himself.  And it would be doubly appropriate to have a President who criticized the House healthcare bill after it was passed get off the bench and into the arena.

However, intentionally or not, McConnell is also doing Trump a favor.

I previously noted that this debate would put Trump supporters in the position of having to weigh their restrictionist leanings on immigration against their partisanship toward Trump.  And the rationalizations I predicted of those who choose the latter are already emerging.

The polling on how Trump supporters may react to a DREAMer deal isn’t 100% clear, which isn’t surprising because immigration polling tends to depend to a large degree on how the questions are framed.  A new YouGov poll suggests GOPers and trump supporters in particular are split on DREAMer relief, even if prompted with Trump’s support for Congressional action.  OTOH, a new Morning Consult poll shows 67% of Trump voters support some form of relief, though not necessarily a path to citizenship.

Dig further into the Morning Consult poll and you find Trump voters split on whether a stand-alone DREAMer law is acceptable vs a law including border security and a reduction in legal immigration.  Also note that last month’s YouGov poll gave Trump an 84% approval rating on immigration, considerably higher than the 67% support for a DREAM deal.

Even assuming a high level of overall partisan loyalty, Trump is not in a position where he can afford to lose even small slices of his base.

Perhaps most significant, according to the the Morning Consult poll, GOPers and Trump supporters trust Trump over Ryan & McConnell in dealing with Congressional Dems.  This data — combined with the fact that Trump started this — point to certain conclusions.

Having decided that he needs to initiate deals himself if he’s going to get wins, Trump will need to sell and close the deal.  The success or failure of the process he invited and into which he has inserted himself will reflect more directly on Trump.  Indeed, Trump’s defenders have already been pumping the narrative that Trump had to do this, which inherently means that Trump has to do it.

And a DREAM deal is more likely to be popular — and thus of broader benefit to Trump and the GOP — if Ryan & McConnell play the bit part suggested by McConnell’s statement.

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Trump May Be Losing His Key Voters

Former Obama voters were decisive in Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory.  By one estimate, Obama-Trump voters accounted for two-thirds of of the reason Hillary Clinton lost.  While Democratic attacks on Pres. Trump aren’t doing well in polls or focus groups, there are also signs his standing is starting to erode among Obama-Trump voters.

The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group’s longitudinal study of voters who were also interviewed in 2011-12 most recently reported that very few 2016 voters have regrets — except Obama-Trump voters.  Overall, only 6% of voters have regrets, but 15% of Obama-Trump voters do.

The same study shows that Democrats’ advantage on the generic Congressional ballot for 2018 stems largely from uncertainty among Trump voters, particularly Obama-Trump voters.

Fewer than 10% of Clinton voters say that they will vote for a third-party candidate, are uncertain whom they will vote for, or will stay home.  Approximately 20% of Trump voters are uncertain.  And among Obama-Trump voters, the uncertainty rate is a whopping 45%.

Similarly, Echelon Insights has been running regular polls of “Trump Country” — 550 counties that flipped Obama-Trump or where Trump vastly outperformed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Since June, Trump has slid from an even split in job approval to 50% disapproval.  Also, Democrats have taken a lead (albeit within the margin of error) on the generic Congressional ballot.  These trends appear to be driven by a drop in Republican support; the numbers among Democrats and Independents are essentially unchanged.

Of all these results, it may be the uncertainty factor that should most concern Trump (and by extension, the GOP).  According to the voter study group, many of these white working-class voters are Republicans whom the Democrats can’t win back.  The separate Cooperative Congressional Election Study suggests that 45% of Obama-Trump voters identify as GOP-leaners.

That doesn’t mean that they’re reliable voters.  As I noted as far back as 2015, the profile of a Trump voter is disaffected, less likely to vote in GOP primaries and less attached to the GOP.  A significant part of Trump’s story is that he got this demo to vote in primaries.

But the disaffected are naturally skeptical.  Consider that the general perception has been that Trump has been playing almost exclusively to his core voters instead of trying to broaden his appeal beyond it — and yet it’s the Obama-Trump voters that most regret their choice so far.

This is the danger of basing a political coalition on a foundation of sand.  People voting for “change” that politicians never seem to deliver are less likely to stick with one party or reliably show up on election day even when they do lean toward a party.

It’s nothing that cutting a deal with Democrats on immigration can’t fix, I’m sure.  After all, it’s not how he got nominated.

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Medicare For All is Overplayed

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill is scheduled for release today, which means we’ve already had a wave of commentary about it, from the progressives hyping a proposal with less than a dozen supporters to the predictable (if largely correct) pushback on the Right.  After all — as at least pundits on both sides acknowledge — single-payer schemes and proposals have fizzled in states like Vermont, California and Colorado, and if you can’t get single-payer in states like those, you can’t get it.

Nevertheless, the hype surrounding the Bernie proposal is useful to the Democratic Party.

For Democrats thinking of running for higher office, supporting single-payer is a form of left-wing virtue signaling.  For them — and other Dems running for re-election in 2018 who are concerned about primaries — it is also a way to ensure that they don’t get outflanked.

Moreover, single-payer is an issue that could keep the Democratic debate on more of a traditional policy axis and away from identity politics.  Any time Dems spend having a hot debate over whether to make their Holy Grail a litmus test is time spent distracting social justice warriors from making the debate about cultural issues that the party leadership does not want at the center of their rebranding effort.

Focusing on single-payer is also a way for Dems to avoid engaging in a full-throated defense of Obamacare beyond what’s necessary in the halls of Congress.  Sure, to many it will seem ridiculous for Dems to double down on government-controlled healthcare given the obvious failures of their last attempt.  But anyone who lived through the Cold War recognizes the “true socialism has never been tried” argument.  And frankly, the GOP has weakened itself on this score by backing a President who campaigned on the theory that big government would work with the right people making the deals.

The coverage of the issue so far has occasionally contained the cautionary note for Dems that single-payer could become their “repeal and replace Obamacare” — an issue that motivates a party’s base voters but becomes a trap when the party eventually regains power.  It’s an argument that sounds clever until you really examine it.

This is not the Dems’ first experience with that type of dynamic.  In 2008, Obama did not run on Obamacare, which more closely resembles the plan Hillary Clinton proposed.  Obama wanted a public plan; Hillary relied on mandates.  The split between the left and the far left on this issue was reflected in the bad poll numbers for Obamacare (and its improving poll numbers once Trump won, raising the theoretical possibility of repeal).

Yet Democrats were not going to lose many votes over having settled for Obamacare (at least not before its failures started affecting voters).  It is a party accustomed to success via incrementalism and O-care was a big increment.

The dynamic on the Right is different.  Having observed Dems win incrementally over the course of decades, the psychology is that the GOP must now pursue dramatic measures to keep America from zooming off a cliff, hence the popularity of 2016’s silly Flight 93 analogy.  Note, however, that on the big O-care increment, the flames of partisanship roar loudly enough these days that the GOP rank-and-file will also likely settle for something, anything on this issue, even if it’s a pathetic “skinny repeal.”

Both parties engage in magical thinking on the campaign trail and find realism in the committee room.  Their voters grumble, but ultimately accept, as partisans do.

Meanwhile, a debate over single-payer helps move the Overton Widow for Democrats.  The GOP’s follies on “repeal and replace” instruct Dems that their next expansions of Medicaid and Medicare will almost certainly survive any GOP promise of rollback.  And this lesson will be doubly potent if the GOP fully embraces the Trump approach of ignoring the unfunded liabilities created by entitlement programs.

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Who Represents the GOP? Trump or Congress?

The chatter surrounding the Trump-Schumer-Pelosi debt ceiling bill has me thinking again about whether Pres. Trump more accurately reflects the GOP coalition than the Congressional party does.  I’ve previously called this sort of analysis a questionable exercise, but this most recent turn of events causes me to think about the issue from a different angle.

On a surface level, we should expect a President to have broader appeal than some Senator or Representative.  After all, to become the GOP nominee, someone like Trump had to campaign and win primaries and caucuses in states all over the country.

Although Trump arguably had the weakest level of internal support of any GOP nominee of the modern era, he nevertheless had to represent a certain breadth of the electorate that his rivals were unable to match.  In this sense, Trump may more accurately reflect the lowest common denominator of GOP support in a way the typical legislator does not.

OTOH, Congress is a co-equal branch of government and arguably superior, insofar as Congress can remove a President from office, but not vice versa.  The GOP caucus arguably represents the GOP coalition in a more complex and nuanced way.

It could be said that this collective better represents the GOP coalition, but in a way that contributes to the dysfunction we see in the GOP caucuses today.  As I noted yesterday, it can be difficult to manage a diverse, yet narrow majority (and it’s not something the GOP’s Congressional leaders have excelled at since the days of Newt Gingrich, tbh).

After 80-100 years of progressive drift in America, the general assumption is that despite being co-equal branches, the President represents and sets his party’s agenda in Congress.  In the current intraparty debate over Trump’s relationship with Congress, Trump’s supporters believe there is no reason to depart from this common, progressive understanding of American government (while insisting that Trump defines conservatism; go figure).

The problem with this position is that Trump — contra the fears of some of his biggest critics — is unable or unwilling to assume the mantle of the modern Imperial Presidency when it comes to his duties as head of government.

Past executives from both parties had White House policy shops issuing guidance and working with Congress in drafting legislative proposals.  Part Presidents became engaged in the details of policy to assist them in building the coalitions, inside and outside the Capitol, needed to pass their agenda items.

Donald Trump, as you may have noticed, is a different animal.  His administration has largely “delegated” the business of legislating to Congress, which is as it should be under our Constitution, but not as it has been under the “living” Constitution progressives have accustomed the citizenry to accept.

Conversely, Congress has seemed unable or unwilling to fill the power vacuum created by Trump’s departure from this aspect of the Imperial Presidency.  Trump’s supporters want to argue that this represents Congressional leaders seeking to thwart Trump’s agenda.  The history of the past two years, however, instructs us that the GOP institutionally has been generally uninterested in resisting Trump.

But when the President is generally uninterested in telling Congress what to do or how to do it — and make no mistake, Trump hasn’t even pursued The Wall with great zeal to date — a Congress that stumbles to enact its own agenda items is not particularly shocking.

The real question may be:  When Trump refuses to do the expected things necessary to pursue his supposed agenda, does it matter whether that agenda is closer to where GOP voters are versus a co-equal branch of government with its own claim to represent GOP voters?

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The Trump “Pivot” Theory Certainly Beats the Pro-Trump Theories We Already Have

Although I have my doubts about Ben Domenech’s theory that Trump has embarked on an administration of triangulation, I noted there were things I liked about it.  There’s another thing I like about it I forgot to mention that warrants a separate discussion.

What got lost in the discussion of this “pivot” theory is that when Ben originally proposed it back in May, he did so from the premise that Trump’s political future may depend on it, that he otherwise might face impeachment by a Democrat-controlled House after 2018 or a re-election campaign based on meager and unpopular accomplishments.

Although Trump-friendly pundits might recognize those dangers, they generally won’t write pieces like Ben’s, because to do so would mean squarely facing the lousy position in which Pres. Trump finds himself.  He currently has a roughly 40% job approval rating and is underwater by 15-17 points.  Trump’s supporters, including those in the media, generally don’t want to acknowledge how poorly a president is doing historically to have that sort of rating.  And they don’t know — or perhaps think they don’t care — that it could mean the GOP loses the House if the trend doesn’t change.

Rather, they prefer to blame everyone else for Trump’s problems, to the extent those problems are acknowledged.  In this narrative, the most powerful man in the world is a victim best by enemies on all sides.  This narrative is occasionally drawn with the sort of histrionics seen from Trump’s worst critics.

That said, even paranoids can have enemies.  Let’s take a brief tour of the rogues’ gallery.

The Left, the so-called “deep state,” and the media are broadly indicted for attempting to reverse the results of the 2016 election by ginning up a Russia scandal and ensuing investigations thereof through a campaign of illegal leaks of classified information.

Keep in mind that when federal officials were leaking classified info embarrassing the Clinton and Obama administrations to Bill Gertz, James Rosen and reporters at the Associated Press, the Right did not condemn the leaks, but did condemn the Obama administration’s Espionage Act investigations of the leaks.  The “principle” at work here is not concern for national security.

Also keep in mind that from the very limited evidence on the public record, Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort took a meeting the stated purpose of which was to transmit (unvetted) “top secret” dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, which was said to be interested in Trump’s victory.  This is not the “nothingburger” Trump’s defenders claim; it’s shady as Hell.

Rather than address this seriously, or even ignore it, Trump’s defenders have tried building a counter-narrative in which the Obama administration engaged in gross abuses of power to conduct surveillance of the Trump campaign and improperly “unmask” the identities of Trump associates.  It has occurred to some but not all of these people that if there was something to this counter-narrative, Trump could expose it.  And this has always been true.

Nevertheless, the pro-Trump commentariat that will advise everyone to discount anonymously-sourced stories about the Russia investigations will tout and share anonymously-sourced stories about this counter-narrative.  Odd how that works.

Further keep in mind that (as I’ve noted on several prior occasions), virtually every presidency in recent decades has been faced with claims of scandals or pseudo-scandals.  And in none of these cases, excepting Watergate, could it be said that these presidencies were paralyzed as a result.  To the contrary, past administrations generally made the effort to demonstrate the opposite, rather than wallow in victimhood.

The media has overhyped the Russia story and published bogus Trump-adjacent stories (most often about the Russia probes).  But this coverage is unpopular and undermines their credibility, which is why I have suggested that this obsession may help Trump and the GOP more than if the media had more soberly focused on Trump’s real failures.

Trump flacks don’t want to consider this possibility, despite the fact that the media is supposed to be the unifying enemy that replaces the Soviet Union in drawing the GOP together.  People on the Right routinely joke that the media’s ongoing clown show will get Trump re-elected…except when it comes to assessing whether the media is to blame for Trump’s bad approval numbers.  It’s a nice trick, but a trick nonetheless.

Instead of a government-wide conspiracy to undermine Trump’s “honeymoon” period, perhaps pro-Trump pundits should consider an alternate theory.  Trump won an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  That’s because Trump generally had negatives almost as bad as Clinton’s, with fewer people thinking he had the qualifications for the job.

During the transition, Trump’s favorables improved and his job approval started out evenly split.  But Trump deluded himself into thinking he won the biggest election victory ever (rather than the most surprising upset).  So instead of taking the George W. Bush approach of building some bipartisan capital (as Dubya did with an education bill), he took the Barack Obama approach of playing to his hardest-core supporters, starting with the ineptly implemented “travel ban.”

Maybe these are the factors contributing to Trump’s declining approval numbers.  It’s a theory, anyway.

Of course, the pro-Trump finger-pointing is not limited to the Left.  The establishment GOP, Congress and Trump-skeptical pundits are also part of the persecution of the President.

You frequently hear from the Entertainment Wing of the Right that the GOP Congress has attempted to thwart Trump at every turn.  Stephen Bannon was peddling this drivel to 60 Minutes over the weekend, but you also hear it with some regularity from Fox News people.

It’s a charge rarely supported by a bill of particulars, because — with the notable exception of the Russia sanctions bill — it would not hold up under scrutiny.  To the contrary, the Left constantly whines over how much the Congressional GOP has supported Trump’s agenda.

It’s true that Congress has failed to pass a healthcare bill yet.  But the House passed one, a version of the bill House Speaker Paul Ryan wanted to pass long before anyone thought Trump would be President.  Ryan bore some responsibility for the failure of the initial version… but so did Trump.

The Senate has failed to pass a healthcare bill so far.  Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell made some of the same mistakes as Ryan in trying to override regular order, while Trump not only repeated many of his, but also committed new ones.  Trump criticizing the House bill as “mean” after celebrating it had to be unnerving.  And the administration’s attempts to bully people like Sen. Lisa Murkowski backfired.  Yet no one claims Trump is part of a conspiracy to thwart Trump.

Maybe — and I’m just spitballing here — it’s very difficult to pass a wildly unpopular proposal with a narrow and ideologicaly-diverse majority on a brutally quick schedule.  Or maybe it’s a vast right-wing conspiracy against Trump.  But not really.

It’s also true that GOP lawmakers and Trump-skeptical pundits criticize Trump, on and off the record.

OTOH, the Entertainment Wing of the Right makes its money fueling discontent at the Congressional GOP.  When confronted with the record of what the Congressional GOP did accomplish during the Obama era, Trump supporters will either ignore the point entirely or complain that “more” wasn’t done (a standard to which they won’t hold Trump…yet).

Trump’s campaign was based in no small part on the premise that the establishment GOP is a bunch of idiots incapable of getting the job done.  This intraparty attack on the GOP’s Congressional leadership has been going on for years, perhaps over a decade.  In this ongoing dispute, the notion that Bill Kristol, David French, or Rick Wilson have the megaphones and influence of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin is laughably delusional, but it seems to be an article of faith among some pro-Trump pundits, if their obsession with former NeverTrumpers is any indicator.

Had Ryan or McConnell sat around whining over these complaints, they would have rightly been lambasted as crybabies.  But that is how Trump shills behave now and yet expect to be taken seriously.

All of which leads me to my suggestion for Trump and his supporters: Put on your big boy pants.  Triangulate if you want (but don’t pretend Trump isn’t going further Left than Ryan ever did).  Or try to manage the GOP coalition better than Ryan, McConnell, or their predecessors did.

But recognize that that things have to change, and that the main reason they have to change stares back at Donald J. Trump from a mirror every morning.

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The Limits of Reform Conservatism

Over the holiday weekend, Ross Douthat delivered his latest column in favor of reform conservatism.  In this case, he highlighted the relative intellectual bankruptcy of the Right by noting that the most recent books from figures as seemingly different as Sen. Jeff Flake and Dinesh D’Souza ultimately offer the same unpopular, Goldwaterite take on domestic policy.

Whatever issues I may have with bits of the reformicon agenda, I will give it this: Lee Drutman’s increasingly wonk-famous scatterplot of the 2016 electorate (Fig. 2) suggests there’s more of a market for it than for the more libertarian vision Flake and others (myself included, much of the time) would prefer.

That doesn’t mean, however, that reform conservatism or populism can be the sole future of the Republican Party.

Douthat writes that the unpopularity of the tax-cuts-for-upper-earners-while-cutting-the-safety-net “is precisely the reason that Trump, with his Jacksonian populism, was able to defeat so many of Flake’s fellow Republicans on his way to the G.O.P. nomination — because he alone was not bound by right-wing ideological correctness.”  This overlooks that the GOPers Trump beat included some fairly reformicon-friendly candidates, e.g., Bush, Rubio, Perry, and Walker.

Was this due to the billions in free airtime that Trump received?  The explicit scapegoating of foreigners for America’s woes?  The data suggests that immigration hawkishness (which, in fairness, many reformicons support) played a much larger role in Trump’s success than Ivanka’s support for a childcare tax credit.  And the perceived lack of said hawkishness probably did in at least three of the four Trump rivals named above.

Indeed, in his concluding paragraphs, Douthat seems to suggest that the GOP can win elections (for now) by wrapping the unpopular, traditional GOP policies in anti-Left rhetoric because the Left is simply so much worse.  I’m not sure that’s true, but if it were, it would undercut the case for Trump’s economic heterodoxy mattering.

Also, when Douthat refers to the “safety net” it’s unclear (in this column, anyway) whether he’s referring to entitlements, as Trump’s heterodoxy avoids the question of our unfunded liabilities.

Douthat’s column does link to a piece by Pete Spiliakos that expressly addresses entitlements:

Flake wrote a book that explained what he thought had gone wrong in the recent history of the GOP, but he left out the central contradiction of post-George W. Bush Republican economic orthodoxy: The Republican party has simultaneously stood for cutting old-age entitlements and reducing taxes on high earners.

Individually, these policies are unpopular; together, they are absolutely toxic. I think entitlement cuts are necessary, and should entail gradual reductions for people who are currently in their fifties. But it is impossible to argue plausibly that we need to cut benefits for the old because we are broke, and at the same time cut taxes for the affluent.

That’s certainly a reasonable subject for debate, but Spiliakos later concludes that “Republicans have happened upon a set of policies that are untimely and unpopular.”  It’s funny how the unpopular policies also tend to be described as untimely.

Entitlement reform enacted sooner will be less painful later.  But just as voters would always prefer someone else be taxed, voters prefer that someone else’s benefits be reformed, even if those reforms don’t affect current benefits much.

And this is ultimately the problem with a fair amount of reform conservatism.  It’s practical, insofar as the prospect of more benefits is usually popular.  But one of the GOP’s redeeming features is that it is at least in theory aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

As Iowahawk has observed over the years:

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Can Trump Triangulate?

Upon the news of Pres. Trump siding with Democrats on a short-term debt ceiling increase, The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, declares: “The Pivot Is Real, And It’s Spectacular.”  I like a good Seinfeld allusion as much as anyone, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it just yet.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ben may well be correct.  And there would be a fair amount of schadenfreude in it for me.  I always thought that the “burn it down” faction of the GOP didn’t realize that Trump wouldn’t stop burning it down if he got elected.  I always thought Trump supporters were foolish to back a man so likely to return to his NYC Democrat roots.

I thought in July that we were entering the “Let Trump Be Trump” phase of the administration.  I thought as far back as February that the triangulating Bill Clinton was one example of how a heterodox Trump presidency might function.

In short, if Ben is correct it would confirm many of my priors.  But one function of this sideblog is for me to challenge my priors.  And in this instance, there are a number of reasons to question whether those priors ultimately back Ben’s thesis.

First, the “pivot” theory would seem to assume that Trump’s move on the debt ceiling is part of some actual strategy.  But Trump is an improviser, with very little sense of strategy.

The main reason to think Trump’s chumminess with the Dems might be more than a one-off is not that Trump is executing some pivot (see, e.g., Trump’s many failed pivots to being presidential).  Rather, the reason to potentially take it seriously would be that Trump is not pivoting so much as reverting to type.

And reverting to type was the approach I thought Trump was attempting with hiring Anthony Scaramucci as White House Comms Director.  That the Mooch never officially served in that capacity illustrates the potential difficulties of executing on a “strategy” of Letting Trump Be Trump.

Second, the theory overlooks the fact that the GOP leadership was blindsided by Trump’s move.  Going forward, Trump loses the element of surprise in similar situations.  Implicit in Ben’s argument is that leadership will accept what Trump dishes out.  In fairness, history would suggest this is likely.

But Ben’s further claim that Trump wins a popularity contest against the GOP Congress and its leaders (a theme Ben to which returns this morning )strikes me as possibly missing the point.  Within Congress, it may be true that the GOP caucuses are less high on Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan than they have been in years.  OTOH, it may also be true that Trump’s problem is broader than with leadership.

Off Capitol Hill, the calculation cannot be limited to Trump being more popular to McConnell, Ryan, or Congress generally.  Trump has to maintain — and expand, probably — a national coalition, while legislators need only be popular with their more local constituencies.  And unlike, McConnell or Trump critic Sen. Jeff Flake, most legislators probably remain more popular with their voters than Trump.

Moreover, Trump is more popular nationally than McConnell or Ryan, but fighting with them may cost Trump soft GOP supporters at the margin.  Ben is right to assert that Trump is much stronger than the Congressional GOP, but he’s still a guy who eked out an Electoral College victory and currently sits at record low levels of job approval.

Trump can’t afford to lose anyone on net, and whether triangulation picks up a Dem or Indie voter for every GOP voter he loses is an untested proposition.  The argument for triangulation is that he needs to do something to reverse his eroding job approval, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that triangulating is the something that does it.  Bill Clinton got re-elected, but by another plurality in a three-way contest that hurt Clinton.

Third, the calculus of whether dealing with Dems helps Trump change is also greatly affected by the subject of the deal.  Trump’s debt ceiling move is a crappy deal, but I wouldn’t expect him to suffer much for it directly, as budget process stories make people’s eyes glaze over.  And even if things go smoothly for Trump in December, when the next round of votes would be due, the result is largely that disasters get averted, and the “win” is quickly forgotten.

Those are the direct effects.  The indirect effects of Trump’s raging idiocy are to give Democrats further leverage on an immigration bill, and perhaps on tax reform as well (esp. with the House Freedom Caucus drafting their own plan and venting at Ryan, per usual).

Ben’s theory is that “the path of popularity for him, is to dismiss the demands of Congressional Republicans on virtually everything except abortion, judges, education, free speech, and regulations. ”  I haven’t asked Ben whether omitting tax reform from that list was deliberate; I suspect it was, and defensibly if debatably so.  But going left on immigration would be a yuge gamble for Trump.  And going left on healthcare (which won’t go away as an issue, even if the GOP wishes it would) would seem like a similar gamble with the grassroots.

[Aside: Ironically, the “burn it down” crowd has been flaying GOP leadership as RINOs for years by being just rebellious enough to force leadership to cut budgetary deals with Congressional Dems, calling it “failure theater.”  But if Trump cuts a deal with his pals Chuck Schumer & Nancy Pelosi, it’s political genius, or something.  And Lou Dobbs still picks Ryan as the RINO in this scenario.]

The difference between so-called process issues and substantive policy likely also matters on the Dem side.  Again, the casual Dem likely doesn’t know or care much about process, absent a government shutdown or other “crisis” situation.  And those Dems who understand how Trump got rolled yesterday, both directly and indirectly, are laughing, not complaining.

But Jonathan V. Last fairly notes that on issues of policy, it may be far more difficult for Congressional Dems to be seen as making deals with Trump.  Ben responds that vulnerable Dems like Heidi Heitkamp may be open to deals (assuming they calculate they won’t draw a primary challenge), but he may be overestimating the number of votes he can get that way on various issues, which would constrain Chuck & Nancy’s ability to deal.

Fourth, as I’ve noted previously, heterodox presidencies can go poorly and their fate may be more dependent on external circumstances supporting them.  Most of Bill Clinton’s triangulation was either on issues where he expressly campaigned as heterodox (NAFTA, welfare reform), or occurred after the GOP won Congress in 1994.  Dems understood Clinton as acting to preserve the party’s priorities: Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment (the ME-ME internal formulation of his 1996 campaign).

Here, Trump going left on spending is something arguably within his campaign mandate, while (as noted above) an immigration bill Dems support is probably outside it.  Whether a tax reform bill that gets Dem support is acceptable to the GOP grassroots is more of a “the Devil is in the details” question.  Ben’s suggested issue matrix for retaining a level of GOP support may or may not suffice.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter alienated a Congressional majority of his own party and suffered for it.  The culmination of that dysfunction was Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge in 1980, a classic sign of a dangerously weak presidency.  A triangulating Trump might avoid a Carter-esque fate if he chose his issues carefully, the economy continues to perk up and he doesn’t blow foreign policy (as Carter did with respect to Iran and Russia/Afghanistan).  But we –and Trump — have no way of knowing how those latter two factors turn out.

Lastly (for now), there is a potential ripple effect that in other circumstances might be small, but are potentially large regarding Trump’s political future.  In the current environment, the theory is that Trump will rely again on negative partisanship to drive any re-election campaign.  If Trump jumps into bed with Chuck & Nancy too often, and gets plaudits from the evil media for doing so, it will become more difficult to paint his eventual opponent as a terrorist in a Flight 93 scenario.

Running substantially against GOP dogma won Trump the GOP nomination in 2016.  But it also made him one of the weakest nominees and candidates in modern political history.  Most re-elect campaigns are referenda on the incumbent.  Intentionally dividing your own party in that context may be different than doing it in the 2016 context of a “change” election against a historically weak opponent.

In sum, it’s possible to see how Trump might succeed in theory through triangulation.  The dysfunction of the GOP Congress helps provide a rationale for it.  But it requires a President capable of acting deftly and strategically.  And Trump is someone torn between his NYC Dem roots and his reflexive resort to massaging the ids of his core supporters.  So practice may diverge from theory.

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Trump’s DACA Move Drops the Mask. Who Will Notice?

Did Pres. Trump do the right thing in rescinding Pres. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for so-called “DREAMers” who arrived in the U.S. as children?  Sure; it had the same legal problems as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program, already enjoined by the federal courts.

Did Trump want to do the right thing? No.

If Trump had wanted to do the right thing regarding DACA, he could have kept his promise to rescind it on Day One of his administration, instead of breaking it.  If Trump had wanted to do the right thing, he could have rescinded DACA on any of the days since, instead of waiting until just before the deadline given by state attorneys general for a threatened lawsuit like the one that effectively ended DAPA.

The only thing Trump wanted to do less than rescind DACA was defend it in court.  And so he finally acted, leaving the dirty work of a public announcement to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  That’s how excited Trump was about doing the right thing.

Trump has now handed the issue back to Congress, where it belongs.   As Sessions put it: “Congress should carefully and thoughtfully pursue the types of reforms that are right for the American people.”

But consider Trump’s own official statement:

The temporary implementation of DACA by the Obama Administration, after Congress repeatedly rejected this amnesty-first approach, also helped spur a humanitarian crisis – the massive surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America including, in some cases, young people who would become members of violent gangs throughout our country, such as MS-13.

Only by the reliable enforcement of immigration law can we produce safe communities, a robust middle class, and economic fairness for all Americans.”

Sessions also stated that the administration’s policy already “will further economically the lives of millions who are struggling.”

These aren’t legal arguments.  These are arguments against a DREAMer amnesty.

If amnesties act as an incentive to more illegal immigration, humanitarian crises and economic harm to millions of Americans, why would Trump sign some bill granting an amnesty?  To be sure, Trump’s official statement only objects to “an amnesty-first approach” and he likely thinks whatever he gets from Congress will contain some sweeteners, like some version of the RAISE Act, or increased spending on enforcement.

Mind you, the GOP is unlikely to be able to get the RAISE Act through Congress over Democratic opposition.  And that there are other vehicles for getting more spending on enforcement.  Let’s set that aside for a moment.

Trump — if he actually cared about the issue — ought to be signaling that he would veto a bill with an amnesty.  He’s not doing that — and so far, he’s not given any indication of what he might sign, let alone any indication that he’s going to back any GOP effort in Congress, or support nervous Representatives who might face primaries over the issue.  He has no political strategy, despite the fact that the White House should know these would be issues arising from rescinding DACA.

In short, he’s flailing.  That’s what alpha males do.  No, wait, that’s not what alphas do; it’s what con men do when the con is exposed.

Trump didn’t run as the candidate of “amnesty if I get something.”  And how much that “something” really means to Trump ought to be measured by the fact that he’s only rescinding DACA because he didn’t want to lose a lawsuit brought to force him to keep a campaign promise on his signature issue.

DACA reveals Trump to be the blowhard con man so many warned about.  And it will reveal the partisan hackery of a swath of supposedly conservative commentators, who will pretend Trump’s Fall line is haute couture.  The so-called tough guys — with the possible exception of Breitbart — will go soft, if not downright flaccid.

The interesting question, however, is whether (or how) the DACA dance affects Trump’s support, if he winds up signing a compromise bill.  On the one hand, close to half of Trump voters say they have a restrictionist view on immigration.  And many of them believe the Trumpian rhetoric about a rigged system.

How do Trump’s core supporters react, then, if Trump himself signs an amnesty?  Do they recoil in disgust that Trump has become a swamp creature, part of the rigged game?

Not necessarily.  If the past couple of years have taught us anything, they have taught us the power of partisanship.  This will be the chance to shine for those who tell pollsters there’s nothing Trump could do that would cause them to disapprove… if they really mean it.  They could embrace some lazy rationalization about Trump acting as dealmaker, blaming Congress even if he signs their bill, etc.

If Congress manages to pass a bill, Trump will likely sign it.  The reaction will be a fascinating real-time experiment in political science.

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Despairing Over the GOP? Try Less Cynicism, and More Cynicism.

Post-Charlottesville, I’ve noticed an uptick in despair over the state of the GOP, and not just from pundits like Kristen Soltis Anderson and Charlie Sykes.  As someone who has long been in a transactional relationship with the party, I would advise anyone freaking out to be less cynical about some things and more cynical about others.

Anderson, a pollster, told Ron Brownstein, “What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them.”

The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.

At the outset, I generally agree with Anderson’s sentiments, with the silver lining being that (I hope) the post-Charlottesville discussion has shown people that the problem of racial politics is bigger than many want to acknowledge.  But I’ll work my way backwards to explain why people like Anderson who are more invested in the GOP need not sink into despair over the problem.

According to the most recent ABC/WaPo poll, 10% of adults support the alt-right and 9% find neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable; alt-right supporters include similar shares of Democrats and Republicans.  I’d prefer those numbers be zero, but there it is.  And I mention the Dems not to engage in whataboutism (which I’ll address later), but to note that no one thinks the Democratic Party is particularly tolerant of white nationalism or in danger of embracing it.

The reason the GOP is viewed as more at risk (in addition to decades of diligent narrative-building by the Left) is not due to a general enthusiasm for white nationalism, but to the GOP’s turn toward white identity politics.  Given some of the feedback I received from writing about white identity politics, it’s worth noting that it’s correlated with prejudice, but a separate phenomenon of racial consciousness.

That doesn’t make white identity politics a good thing; it’s a bad thing that may need to be addressed differently than white nationalism (which may require a greater understanding of youth radicalization, for example).

The silver lining here is that the current iteration of right-wing, white identity politics is substantially a reaction to left-wing, nonwhite identity politics (particularly privilege theory) — a dynamic recognized by some on the Left as well.  Orienting the GOP against the latter would likely deflate interest in the former.  The Right as a whole does not support identity politics, but it has done fairly little other than complain, particularly when it comes to education, to halt the spread of identity politics.

Yet what should we make of all those Republicans who defended or agreed with Pres. Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks?  Has white identity politics consumed the GOP this quickly?

No. This is where it helps to be more cynical.

The polling cited above is concerned with ideas — noxious ideas, but ideas.  Polling about Charlottesville is polling about an event, one in which white nationalists violently and tragically clashed with some left-wing counter-protesters, notably the antifa.

The presence of the antifa allowed Trump his “both sides” rhetoric, which will be embraced by partisans because whataboutism is driven by partisanship.  You will see (for now, anyway) that there is roughly the same percentage of GOPers — 20%, give or take a margin of error — who will disapprove Trump’s unpresidential conduct in general.  Almost all of the rest will go along.  Trump’s Charlottesville remarks are no different.

Nor should people have expected that GOPers were going to abandon him in droves over those comments.  People who chose to support Trump despite (or in some cases, because of) his pained disavowal of David Duke, his smear of federal district Judge Curiel, etc. already had an idea of who Trump is.  It doesn’t mean these people all have a pair of jackboots stashed in the back of the closet.

Rather, it means that partisans are really good at rationalization.  As Michael (Jeff Goldbum) says in The Big Chill:

Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

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