Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Listen: diversity makes for better decisions.

The liberal penchant for diversity is not an act of charity.  It is good and just, of course -- don't get me wrong.  But it's not only morally right to choose diverse representatives and listen to diverse voices: it's also practical.  Those who look through only one window have a very narrow view of the world... and a hard time steering.  The Trump administration, which has little diversity, is risking a great deal by restricting their vision so tightly.  They should reconsider -- not for charity, but for their own benefit.

I'm not sure why this idea seems to get so little mention. Even those journalists or activists who push for more inclusion in government or business often skip right past this fundamental notion.  For instance, a few months ago in the Washington Post, David Nakamura and Abby Phillip wrote about the lack of diversity in Trump's Cabinet.  It's admittedly a story about optics -- about how terrible it looks to issue executive orders about women's health in front of a group of exclusively men -- but the article presents the dangers of a Cabinet dominated by old straight white guys as though it were purely a question of appearances or politics.  The fact that it is also just dumb to have a single perspective is only dropped as an allusion to "worldview."
But if the images from the White House aim to show a man of action, they also have delivered another unspoken message in the early days of the new administration: Most of the aides Trump relies on for counsel as he moves to dramatically reshape the country are men — and nearly all of them are white.
It’s a sharp change from the past eight years of the barrier-breaking Obama administration, and one that has reinforced the feeling among Trump’s critics that a narrow, anachronistic worldview is driving an agenda they consider hostile to women and minorities.
“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked rhetorically on the House floor last week, holding up a photo of Trump flanked by seven male advisers in the Oval Office a day after he signed an order restricting federal funds for abortions in foreign countries.
It's possible that the authors and many readers don't need this mentioned or discussed, but that's not my experience.  For many years, I've heard folks say that staffing like this "looks bad" or "isn't fair" or "doesn't represent the country."  But that's not the real issue.

The real issue is that it is important and useful to listen to the input of people from a variety of backgrounds because they have unique experiences and views, and anyone who fails to take advantage of that fundamental American strength is making a sub-optimal decision.  Excluding people of different backgrounds imposes a kind of ideological tunnel vision: yes, you might be able to get a clear and far-sighted view, and might even get good outcomes, but you're also likely to miss a lot of opportunities and solutions that you never even saw.

Further, many of our problems in America derive from sharp discrepancies among our citizens.  Issues in poverty, healthcare, justice, trade, and other problems are all dominated by sharp group conflict (indeed, that almost sounds like a tautology).  One of the best ways to address many of these issues are to break down some of the power structures that artificially perpetuate differences in class, culture, wealth, etc.  Some decent research has shown that people from elite backgrounds do not significantly benefit from elite educations; there's little difference in outcome for them over the years.  But people from more diverse backgrounds, either in terms of class or other aspects of their life, are much more likely to attain a higher income if they go to a more selective school.  Presumably this is linked to their new connections, opportunities, and resources -- advantages their privileged peers already enjoyed.

In other words, demanding diversity in government and business isn't just good for minorities.  It's not even just good for the government and those businesses.  It's actually good for our country as a whole.

I admit that this view is not universal, of course.  There are disagreements from both sides.

For example, some on the right point out a different sort of strength lies in homogeneity.  This is also true.  One of the keys to the success of communities in Scandinavia (or Utah, for that matter) lies in the fact that they have very little diversity.  Fewer schisms along the lines of religion or ethnicity means that it's that much easier for people to focus on other problems (such as social mobility).

The National Review's Kevin Williamson argues, for instance, that Scandinavian countries were (until recently) extremely homogeneous in various ways, in addition to remarkably xenophobic:
Progressives have a longstanding love affair with the nations of northern Europe, which are, or in some cases were until the day before yesterday, ethnically homogeneous, overwhelmingly white, hostile to immigration, nationalistic, and frankly racist in much of their domestic policy.
He then implicitly traces much of the strength of the Scandinavian model (to the extent they admit of any praise for the model at all) to a sort of blunt nationalism that eagerly welcomed immigrants to work in fish factories, but attempted to deny them any political power -- and he extrapolates this temporary strength to current problems when they refer to the dangers of an "unassimilated Muslim minority" burning Stockholm.  This argument is swallowed by a larger one which suggests that the welfare-state policies of Scandinavia are inherently violent and exclusionary when they deny individual freedom.

More directly, the same author extends the argument in "Homogeneity Is Their Strength" to say more plainly that diversity is a weakness:
Progressives who dream of a Nordic-style welfare state will find themselves challenged by the costs of greater diversity, as will those of us who hope, perhaps naïvely, for a politics and a culture that is more humane and individualistic, and less regimented along racial lines. We’ve been told that diversity is our strength, but the unhappy truth may be something closer to the opposite.
Williamson invokes some evolutionary biology in a Just-So Story sort of way, as well as social science, to argue that altruism and cooperation are more likely to occur in homogeneous populations, making a diverse culture less effective in providing consensus on difficult questions that would underlie any working solution for various social ills.  "[W]e are less inclined to trust and share with people who are less like us," he writes.
Up until quite recently, and with the critical exception of the situation of African-Americans, we handled our diversity with the best tools there are: localism, federalism, equality under the law, integration, participation in civil society. But the aggrandizement of the public sector has diminished civil society, multiculturalism has hobbled integration, the centralization of power in Washington has undermined federalism, and the grievance industry chips away at the idea of equality under the law.
He suggests that the diminishing expectation for immigrants to assimilate will lead to "ethnic enclaves" that threaten American unity, and draws a comparison with political partisanship, saying that the increasing level of extremism and disagreement between political groups has made practical solutions increasingly less likely.

I would suggest that this take is, at best, ahistorical.  Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants -- to pick only three -- all arrived en masse in waves, retained their individual cultures without assimilating over the course of generations, and endured discrimination and hardship.  The example of African-Americans held in chattel slavery certainly stands alone as our nation's original sin, but only a few moments of research reveals that ethnic enclaves and regional cultures have been frequent in American history.  Indeed, I would even argue that this history shows the practical value of bringing in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Folks on the left can also disagree.  Kẏra at Model View Culture, for example, suggests in one essay that promoting minority power should be an end unto itself, rather than sought for its practical benefits.  She argues that the latter goal ends with the continued control and oppression of minority groups, since it preserves the existing hierarchy and diverts energy and attention from promoting actual minority power.
So why do so many people seeking racial justice, female empowerment, and queer liberation still choose to advocate for “diversity” and “inclusion”? They appeal to liberalism. They prevent oppression from being named. They prevent us from speaking truth to power. They make progress sound friendly to those in power. Companies can tokenize women and people of color throughout their advertising. They can get way more credit than they deserve for being not 100% white men. They can profit from the increases in efficiency and productivity associated with more diversity. All of the above ignore the fact that companies needed to have diversity initiatives to make them less overwhelmingly white in the first place; that white people are the ones in the position of being able to grant access in the first place. When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.
But this view presents a strawman argument: that liberals are satisfied with representation and inclusion of minorities and do not further seek to put actual power in the hands of minorities, as well.  And reality bears out the current approach, as well: as minority groups have found power within organizations, they have been able to expand their own opportunities and those of their peers to acquire power as leaders or owners.  For example, the number of African-American-owned businesses has increased by 30% over the past 20 years -- more than four times faster than among the larger population.  The current total is nowhere near good enough, but it's hard to imagine it happening without an effort working towards diversity and inclusion (much less in spite of those efforts).

Despite all of these reasons, I suppose it should still be said that the color of someone's skin doesn't dictate the content of their character, and so, it might be hypothetically possible to find a group of unbelievably qualified elderly heterosexual Caucasian males who would strive to understand and advocate for the concerns and values of all of America's many diverse groups.  I can't say that's impossible.  And in that situation, we might only be talking about the moral necessity of promoting the visibility of subgroup leadership or the fairness of direct-group representation.

But we're not talking about this dream team.  We're talking about corporate leaders, military officials, alt-right ideologues, family members, and Wisconsin politicos.  These groups don't all agree on everything, sure -- sometimes the Goldman Sachs people push back against the Breitbarters -- but the lack of diversity and emphasis on loyalty means that this White House is vulnerable to groupthink.  They have a narrow focus and a limited scope on their experiences.

For example, there doesn't appear to be anyone in the West Wing who's worked a union job (including the Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, who would incidentally be the only Hispanic in the Cabinet).  There are no scientists (unless we count civil engineer Rex Tillerson or physician Tom Price, which might be fair?).  I mean, there's always a lot of lawyers, but there are just very few life experiences represented in this government.  In discussions of the value of organized labor, there's not going to be a lot of voices.  In discussions of the use of scientific grant money, no one will speak up for its utility.  That's a serious weakness, and I believe it accounts for some of the poor decisions they've made and will continue to make.

Diversity and inclusion is not just a moral imperative, it's a practical strength and a proud American tradition.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Listen: GA-06

Yesterday was a special election in Georgia to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.  The leading Democrat (almost the only Democrat), Jon Ossoff, came just shy of the 50% he needed to win the seat and avoid a runoff election.  So that means he will face the second-place finisher, Karen Handel, in a June runoff. What is the national significance of these results, and do they tell us anything?

We touched on this topic last week, after the Kansas and California special elections, and I wrote:
For months now, the president's polling has been slowly dropping.  He had a brief high point, as aggregated by 538, of 48% approval and 43% disapproval.  Since then, he has sagged to 42% approve and 53% disapprove.  Moreover, his chaotic leadership and the utterly bankrupt Republican policies have left his entire party scrambling to achieve some scraps of their promised policies.  Obamacare remains intact and healthy, tax reform is being pushed back to August (still optimistically!), and there's no movement on trade at all.
Yes, the Republican is going to win, but this should have been a cakewalk.  It was a fight.  Two is the start of a trend, and this is the sort of data point that no one can ignore.  Both of these elections swung twenty points to the left, compared with 2016.
No individual special election means much.  The question should be: did the trend hold?

The answer is that yes, it did, essentially.  When compared to the 2016 presidential race, Ossoff actually lost a few points from Hillary Clinton's total, but the more predictive comparison is with the generic Republican lean of the seat.  And there, we can say that the combined Democratic vote versus the combined Republican vote points to a swing of nine points to the Democrats.  For the significance of that, I can do no better than to quote Harry Enten of 538:
The Republican +2 aggregate margin in Georgia 6 implies a national environment in which Democrats are competitive in a bunch of GOP-held House seats in 2018. According to the weighted average of the past two presidential elections, there are 48 House districts that were won by GOP candidates in 2016 that are redder than Georgia 6. The district’s Round 1 results suggest Republicans could lose a good portion of those 48 seats. And Democrats need to win just 24 Republican-held seats for control of the House.
That’s clearly a good sign for Democrats.
Of course, the national political environment could change between now and November 2018. Moreover, the Georgia 6 result isn’t anywhere near as strong for Democrats as last week’s result in the special election in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District. The Georgia 6 Democrats outperformed the weighted average by 7.5 percentage points. In Kansas 4, Democrat James Thompson beat it by 22 points.
Still, that’s the difference between a good Democratic year in 2018, with the House in play, and a crazily, ridiculously good Democratic year, with the House a foregone conclusion to flip to Democratic control. (Again, that’s if the national political winds don’t shift between now and then — an unlikely proposition.)
The truth is we need a larger sample size of special election results before understanding what Kansas 4 and Georgia 6 tell us about the midterms.

So there we are.  A good sign for the future, but ultimately it's just one very early data point.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Listen: Trump's approval and reversion to the mean.

Trump's numbers will probably rebound somewhat, and you shouldn't be surprised when they do.

In statistics, there's a phenomenon known as reversion (or regression) to the mean.  The principle is simple: generally speaking and absent any continuous trend, any extreme metric will tend to become less extreme.  Another way of putting this is that there's a sort of center of gravity for most statistics, and they tend to drift towards that point over time.

To put this more concretely, imagine a tenth-grade teacher who has been working for ten years.  On average, that teacher's students tend to score slightly above average on the SAT.  If this teacher has a year when their students do exceptionally well, through whatever quirk of luck or fate, then it is likely that this teacher's students will return back to the average the next year.

I know it sounds very obvious when phrased that way, but it's an idea that it's easy to forget and hard to implement.  Take the recent United Airlines controversy.  You probably are familiar with it -- the New York Times summarizes it thus: "The video of Dr. David Dao, 69, of Kentucky, being bloodied as he was pulled off the flight in order to make room for four United employees has ignited conversation and outrage around the world."

Now, you'd be right to guess that this had an impact on the stock price for the company.  United shares plummeted the day of the incident, dropping from $72 a share to $67 a share.  Then it stayed around this level, dropping down a bit more to $65 within a few days.  It was tempting for people to write about how the incident had lowered the value of the company by $1.4 billion (the drop in price multiplied by number of shares, roughly).  But this was exactly the moment to look at the long-term average share price.  While technically true that the company had suffered a pretty severe hit, was it really likely that the price would stay at this point for the long term?

The long-term average for the company had hovered a bit above $70 a share since last year, and this is presumably driven by larger market forces such as labor, cost of fuel, etc.  Without a change in any of these essentials, and given the extremity of the drop, then, we should expect a reversion to the mean.  And sure enough, the fundamentals being basically the same, the price has now rebounded almost all the way back to where it was: $70 a share.

So what does this have to do with politics?  Well, this tendency of different sorts of trends dictates that extreme swings will tend to revert back to the mean in the long-term.  And in politics, partisanship is the average tendency of today's Americans.

President Trump started out his presidency with an aggregate approval/disapproval rating of 47.8%/42.5% at his high point, according to 538.  Considering he got 46% of the popular vote, that makes sense -- but it's actually a little unusual, since most presidents begin with approval ratings that extend past their own voters.  Obama's approval rating when he began, for instance, was 78%.  There's a widespread respect for the process and for democracy that combines with the very visible "fresh start" dynamic of a new presidency to boost the new chief executive during their "honeymoon" period.

Within two weeks, however, these numbers plunged to 44.8%/44.7%.  And by the end of the first month, Trump's aggregate approval/disapproval was 50.6%/44.1%.  And after two months, he was sitting at 53.6%/40.6%.

Of course, it's not unusual for presidents to experience a steady decline in support.  This is "political gravity" -- some voters become disillusioned by inevitable realities at the same time that the ineluctable hiccups of any major government erode the good-will of marginal supporters.

But political gravity usually takes time to assert itself.  Obama hovered around 60% approval for about 135 days, Bush stayed at 55% approval for about the same amount of time, and Clinton lurched erratically around between 50-60% for his first 110 days.

Trump's slumping poll numbers have been unusually terrible.  Presumably this is a reflection of his dramatic reversals on a host of key campaign promises, a demonstrable lack of results for many of the others, and a public and crushing failure on his first major legislative initiative.  And of course, it doesn't help that he began with historically low numbers -- he didn't have much of a cushion of soft support to lose, since he actively antagonized the press and soft Democrats.   But if we take a step back, we have to remember that not much time has passed.  It might seem like years, but he's only been president for 88 days.  And his most ardent supporters, just like the overt partisans in every presidency, have kept he faith.

As far as I see it, then, the bottom line is this: the partisan reflex and cognitive dissonance in Trump's initial supporters is strong enough to suggest that his numbers will bounce back a little.  Particularly at a time when he's taking highly visible and Extremely Presidential actions such as bombing the Middle East (a perennial favorite past-time of American presidents), there's a lot of potential for President Trump to bolster his support among marginal supporters and the disillusioned.  His current levels of support are at extreme lows for this time in a presidency, and so we should expect some reversion to the mean of partisanship -- particularly when he still has some cards to play.

So when Trump's approval rating increases somewhat, don't be surprised or dismayed.  We should expect it and plan for it, and none of the underlying dynamics are likely to change.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Listen: the apparent GOP plan and the actual reality.

As best we can tell from all public and leaked statements, the GOP plan for legislation this year was a pretty simple one.  At this stage, it's worth revisiting -- and comparing with reality.

Bear in mind that while there were numerous priorities and ideas, the Republicans coalesced around a few important ones -- some supported by the president and some supported by his party.  They wanted to repeal Obamacare, they wanted to permanently cut taxes for the rich and reform the system, and they wanted to pass an infrastructure bill.

Importantly, however, they would not be able to do these things in any order.  Thanks to legislative rules, financial reasons, and political issues, they were locked into a pretty set order.

Stage One: Obamacare Repeal

Obamacare has significantly slowed the rise of healthcare costs and given a lot more people healthcare.  It achieved these gains not only by subsidizing insurance for the sick and poor.  But since the law was also (astonishingly) revenue-neutral, it had to find that extra money somewhere.  Efficiency and cleverness got them halfway, but the law also instituted new taxes on the wealthy.

In other words, there's a big pile of money locked into Obamacare.  If you repeal most of it, you can get rid of the taxes on the wealthy and the coverage for the poor, and still keep some of the extra money.  Even better, in Republicans' view, would be to further cut the coverage for the poor.  That's even more money you get to keep, plus you get rid of Obamacare!

Further, if you're going to rely exclusively on Republican votes, then Obamacare might be the only way you can get a big pile of money like that.  The special Senate reconciliation rules allow the GOP to pass all kinds of money-related bills with only their 52 senators (avoiding a Democratic filibuster), but they can't pass anything that increases the deficit.

So if the Republicans wanted a big pile of money to spend on anything they'd like, but didn't want to compromise at all, Obamacare was the place to go.

But what bill are you going to pass?

The initial plan was to just repeal Obamacare now and replace it later, but it soon became obvious that this was politically untenable.  Insurers would be outraged and people would be scared.  So they needed a plan.

While candidate Trump swore he had a great plan tucked away in his back pocket, it was obviously a lie.  Indeed, it was so transparent that Marco Rubio publicly mocked the future president for his ignorance during a debate.  (This was, of course, before the brutal Chris Christie takedown of Rubio in a later debate).  But it was not impossible that Trump could simply adopt the plan of a different person or group.  Most of his draft budget was copied from the conservative Heritage Foundation's budget, for example.  So most people expected that the new president would have some plans -- or at least some basic priorities -- that he would demand be included in the GOP bill.

But he didn't.  President Trump didn't appear to actually care about the details -- he just sort of trusted that the famous Speaker Paul Ryan, the noted wonk and legislator, would come up with a plan that would (a) make healthcare better somehow, (b) pass the House and Senate, (c) deliver that big pile of money.

In the original plans, they wanted to get this done by "late February or early March."

Stage Two: Tax Reform

The next thing would be tax reform.  Having already freed up a big pile of money by hurting the poor, they could now spend it on the rich.

Tax reform is different than tax cuts.  Republicans already tried passing ten-year temporary tax cuts during the Bush years -- you'll remember what a massive surge in growth those cuts produced, right? -- and weren't satisfied with a repeat.  They weren't even satisfied with the idea of permanent tax cuts.  They wanted to reform the whole system by reducing the number of tax brackets.  Right now, there are seven.  As you make more money, each dollar you make over certain amounts is taxed by an increasing amount.  This is a progressive system, since it tries to distribute the burden of taxation fairly.  $1,000 means a lot more to someone making $40,000 a year than someone making $400,000 a year, after all!  Republicans want to eliminate some of those tax brackets, lumping people together into fewer groups.  Not coincidentally, this would also give a massive tax cut to the very wealthy.

Now, tax reform would be incredibly difficult -- more difficult than healthcare reform, in fact.  It would be even more difficult to pass tax reform with only Republican votes through the reconciliation process.  But if you have a giant pile of money on hand, the process is a lot easier.

If worse came to worse and they couldn't get tax reform done, they could always shelve it for the future and pass some permanent tax cuts instead.  Just shovel that giant pile of money towards the wealthy -- not ideal, but still pretty great for Republicans.

As originally planned, they wanted to get this passed and signed by August.

Stage Three: Infrastructure

From here, the plan was a little less-defined.  That was by design, since the president and Congressional leaders only agree on Stages One and Two.  Trump wants a "trillion dollar infrastructure bill," but (naturally) hasn't offered a whole lot of specifics.  This might only require a moderate amount of new funding, since a substantial sum could be offered as loans to states and municipalities, but there's still the question of the source of that funding.  Do you tack hundreds of millions onto the national debt?  Republicans hate that idea.  Do you pass some new taxes (like a border tax) to pay for the plan?  Republicans hate that idea.

There is one optimistic scenario where this is easy: the Trump administration's removal of regulations and the Stage Two tax reform have magically sped up the economy.  We've been bouncing up and down around 2% growth since the Great Recession -- fairly steady and uneventfully mediocre.  But Trump has promised to double GDP growth, vowing to return the economy to 4% growth.  I'm not going to go into all the reasons why this is probably not going to happen, but suffice to say that it's very unlikely.  (If it does happen, that will be amazing and will force a lot of people like myself to re-evaluate our prior beliefs).

But these were problems for a later date, Congressional Republicans figured.

The Problems

Let's return to the present.  As you know, Stage One never materialized.  Stage One never even really got started, in fact, because Paul Ryan is not actually that good at legislating.  He produced the American Health Care Act.  And the rest is history: it crashed and burned spectacularly.

So there's no big pile of money, which makes Stage Two really hard.  And even worse, it's becoming clear that Republicans are going to have a hard time finding the votes for many things.  Stage Two was going to be hard under any circumstances, but in a scenario where they can't use Obamacare funds and where they can't even count on their own party's votes...

Where do they go from here?

No one seems quite sure what to do next, honestly.  Discussions are ongoing on a few different fronts, but it would be hard to point to any major bills that are under discussion.  And while Trump originally said he would insist on abandoning healthcare reform, a couple of days ago someone must have explained all of this to him, since now he's asking Congress to get back to work on healthcare.  It's chaos, and there's no sign it's getting better.

I don't know what they're going to do next.  It bears repeating that Stage One makes Stage Two a lot easier, and Stage Three is something even Republicans don't agree on.  So that does indeed suggest that they might want to buckle back down on healthcare.  But having just hideously lost a very nasty and public fight, is that really something that Republican leadership wants to fast-track again?  I think you only get one bite at the rush-through-insane-healthcare-proposal apple, myself.  But a slow and deliberate approach is just going to hurt them even more.

There are other possible Stage Threes that they could tackle now: a border wall, a trade deal, etc.  But all of them are hard and none of them even have universal Republican backing.  Does Trump try to cut some bipartisan deals?  That's also really hard, especially when you're unprecedentedly toxic among Democrats.

As I said in "Listen: what might be next on the Trump agenda," I predict that there are different possible bills in secret development.  They will eventually get behind a new bill -- Stage One, Stage Two, or some iteration of Stage Three.  But for right now, you don't need to worry about a reckless and dangerous Republican legislative train.  It's not hurtling forward towards us.  It's not even inching slowly our way.

Right now, that train hasn't even left the station.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Listen: Kansas-04, California-34, and the future.

Today was one of several special elections following the 2016 general election.  The race was in the Kansas 4th Congressional District.  If you barely heard of it before now, don't worry, you're not alone -- this race wasn't on anyone's radar.  It was being held to replace Mike Pompeo, the new head of the CIA, and it was a comfortably Republican seat.  Pompeo won his last three elections by margins of at least 30 points.  There really wasn't much reason to pay attention to this district, especially not with a lot closer elections pending (like in Georgia).  Republicans couldn't convincingly point to a safe seat as evidence of support for Trump or national policies, and Democrats didn't want to waste time or money highlighting a likely failure.  So it was left local.

That has changed.

Over the course of just the past couple of days, a race that had once looked like a lock... wasn't.  The Republican candidate (Estes) was dull and rambling, and the Democrat (Thompson) was a veteran with good messaging.  A Republican internal poll had Estes with only the narrowest of leads.  Cue the alarm bells.

The national Republican leadership and associated super-PACs poured money into the district.  Senator Cruz visited and did a rally.  Even the president made a robo-call for Estes.  Over two days, Republicans did everything they could to shore up Estes' numbers.

Why did the national party bother with all of this?  It's one single seat that the Republican was still pretty likely to win... doesn't it look bad to put this much effort into this?  After all, couldn't they very reasonably point to local factors -- a mediocre Republican candidate, an incredibly unpopular Republican governor who has crushed his state with insane policies, a special election with low turnout?

Here's the thing, though.  Last week, there was another special election to replace Kamala Harris in California (she's now a senator).  That was a comfortably Democratic seat... but it has swung even further to the Democrats, to the tune of nineteen points.  The Republican got 3.4% of the vote.

Right now, it's too early to say what the final vote in Kansas will be.  We can say pretty definitively that the Estes (the Republican) did win, but it's going to be hours before all the votes are counted in notoriously slow Kansas.

However, we can also say pretty definitively that this race was competitive and it was never supposed to be.  Even with Governor Brownback dragging down his party, even with a lousy GOP candidate and great Democratic one, even with a weird special election...

It's looking like only a single-digit victory for the Republican in KS-04.  That's crazy, but true.  And when combined with the California vote, we can reach a further tentative conclusion:

That's Trump.

For months now, the president's polling has been slowly dropping.  He had a brief high point, as aggregated by 538, of 48% approval and 43% disapproval.  Since then, he has sagged to 42% approve and 53% disapprove.  Moreover, his chaotic leadership and the utterly bankrupt Republican policies have left his entire party scrambling to achieve some scraps of their promised policies.  Obamacare remains intact and healthy, tax reform is being pushed back to August (still optimistically!), and there's no movement on trade at all.

Yes, the Republican is going to win, but this should have been a cakewalk.  It was a fight.  Two is the start of a trend, and this is the sort of data point that no one can ignore.  Both of these elections swung twenty points to the left, compared with 2016.

There's blood in the water, and everyone can smell it.  Tentative Democrats are going to run for office, when they might have been shy.  Republicans are going to start worrying about their seats, even in "safe" districts.  Everyone has their eye on the next election.

Do you?

Are you ready for this?

Are you ready for 2018?

Are you ready to win?

Because there's only 573 days to get ready.  And we'll need to be ready.  Because we're going to storm every district in every state.  Because we're going to make the GOP answer for their actions at every podium we can find.  Because we're going to march and call and write and vote.

California spoke.  Kansas is speaking.  America is speaking.

Soon, it will be your turn.

Be ready.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Read: some people to keep you informed.

Do you want to know what's going on in the world and in American politics?  It can be difficult to know who to read and trust, since there's a lot of reporters and pundits who engage in wild speculation or who lack the deep knowledge necessary to provide context.  I follow all these people on Twitter, but you can also just read them directly or subscribe with an RSS reader like Feedly.

A great source for legal matters (especially the Muslim ban) as well as LGBT issues is Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed (@chrisgeidner).  His assessment of legal arguments and proceedings is first-rate.

The New York Times' Maggie Haberman (@MaggieNYT) (often with Glenn Thrush) is an excellent and relentless reporter on the White House in general, particularly the internal dynamics and Trump's thinking.  I read everything she writes, without exception.

Dave Weigel of the Washington Post (@daveweigel) spent years covering libertarian and conservative groups, and as a result he has a great handle on their thinking and that of other movement groups -- without losing his superbly cynical insight into their goals or what's likely to actually happen.

I also read Harry Enten (@ForecasterEnten) and Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) of 538, who give an invaluable look at demographics and the numbers behind elections.  Before the election, their site got a lot of criticism from the left for giving Trump a 33% chance of winning the presidency (even though the numbers didn't lie and her lead in the electoral college was more tenuous than it appeared).  After the election, the right criticized them for not predicting the outcome (even though they predicted a 3% popular vote victory for Hillary, which turned out to be exactly right).  Spot on and solid analysis.

For much the same reason, I also read Nate Cohn of The New York Times (@nate_cohn).  He analyzes a lot of electoral data as well, and provides good commentary on likely possibilities.

More broadly, I try to keep in touch with general events by reading my local paper, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, as well as whatever comes my way from Twitter recommendations or the like.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Read: the Democratic path to electoral success in 2018.

After every election, debates over that election's meaning begin to consume both the winners and the losers.  Few people actually change their minds, regardless of the outcome or their previous predictions.  Few people ever walk away from an election and think, "Most Americans disagree with me."  Instead, they tell themselves that they lost because of deceit (the people were conned by lies and manipulated by powerful forces -- the Koch brothers or George Soros), messaging (we had the wrong spokespeople or the wrong campaign strategy, but the informed people actually agree with us on issues), or uncontrollable events (war, terrorist attacks, recession).  No movement or group is immune to this.  Indeed, the very premise of this blog is to reassure readers of what I perceive to be the positive realities that underlie a very negative state of affairs!

This tendency reveals a flaw in one of the essentials of democracy: political parties and movements tend to react to demographics rather than electoral feedback.  Elections are blunt instruments, passing judgment on people, policies, and parties all at once; in their aftermath, we see modern-day reenactments of ancient divination, as politicians and pundits grope around in the guts of a sacrifice to try to interpret the will of the holy American People.  Polling makes this easier, since people accept individual polls as factual representations of the will of the nation -- even though a poll's wording, methodology, or timing might completely change its outcomes.

Given this, there is no certain answer to the questions, "What do the people really want?" or "How do we appeal to voters?"  Different people have different arguments, instead.  For right now, they mostly revolve around the degree of obstruction that Democrats should present.  Should it be total?

In "Democrats’ Best Bet for 2018: Accentuate the Negative," Ed Kilgore argues in New York that the best chance for success for Democrats lies in obstructing Trump and the GOP as much as possible while still appearing reasonable and approachable:
It is true that midterm negativity can be taken to counterproductive lengths, as occurred in 1998 when the GOP effort to impeach Bill Clinton backfired pretty badly. Four years later, Democrats struggled even more in a midterm, partly because they alternated between attacking and agreeing with George W. Bush in that security-haunted era, and partly because 9/11 gave Bush a level of extraordinary popularity that had only partially worn off by 2002 (his approval rating on Election Day was 63 percent).
By and large, though, the presidential party loses ground in midterms, and the opposition party can enhance the natural backlash by piling on, not by offering alternative courses of action that most voters will simply ignore.
In "The New Party of No," Michelle Cottle, writing for The Atlantic, essentially agrees.
While nobody does obstructionism like McConnell, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has a keen appreciation of the value of just saying no. In early 2005, a freshly reelected George W. Bush was hot to overhaul Social Security. Republicans held the White House and both chambers of Congress. They had the vision. They had the numbers. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Even thinking about messing with entitlements is politically fraught, and Pelosi decided to make Bush bleed for it. For months, she kept her troops focused on beating the bejesus out of Bush’s proposal, driving public support for it down, down, down. The negativity became so relentless that some Democratic members began to get twitchy. When would the caucus move beyond slamming Bush and put forth a reform plan of its own? Famously, Pelosi’s stock response became: “Never. Does never work for you?”
By spring, Bush’s plan was deader than disco—and stayed dead despite his efforts to revive it, which ran right through the 2006 midterms. That November, Democrats retook both chambers of Congress in a wave election that startled pretty much everyone.

In the New York Times, Will Marshall suggests in "Why Democrats Should Work with Trump" that now is the time for Democrats to try to strike a deal on infrastructure with a deal-hungry White House -- in exchange for major concessions.
Unlike depriving millions of Americans of health insurance, revamping America’s outdated tax code and modernizing our run-down infrastructure are progressive causes Democrats should be for. And unlike Republicans, whose ideological rigidity and strident partisanship often border on nihilism, Democrats still hew to the quaint notion that the people elected them to solve problems, not prevent them from being solved. McConnellism is not in the party’s DNA.
But if moderate Democrats are disposed to cooperate with the deal-maker in chief, they ought to exact a high price. On tax reform, for example, they should insist that Mr. Trump deliver tax relief to the middle class, not the wealthy, and that he jettison Mr. Ryan’s proposed border-adjustment tax, which would hit consumers and business with big price hikes. The administration needs to find better ways to pay for a sharp reduction in the corporate tax rate. Democrats don’t have to love big business to recognize that our antiquated tax system forces companies to pay much higher taxes than their overseas competitors. That makes American workers less competitive and gives our companies incentives to move investment abroad — and keep profits there — to avoid the higher rate.

Jonathan Chait of New York strongly disagrees in "Delusional Democrats Want to Prove They Can Work with Trump," as he consistently has, arguing that the electoral history is clear: voters reward presidents who get big accomplishments finished in a bipartisan way, and any proponents of a Democratic deal need to recognize that hidden cost: Democrats will not only be conceding whatever concessions they give up to meet in the middle with the White House, but they will be badly damaging their chances of victory in 2018 and 2020.
Trump also seems to grasp that infrastructure gives him the chance for a high-profile bipartisan deal. Describing his “beautiful” relationship with leaders of both parties yesterday, Trump boasted, “We’re about to make a big deal.” The infrastructure bill would provide the sweet bipartisan coating to the bitter pill of his otherwise orthodox right-wing agenda. Democrats think they’re calling Trump’s bluff, when in all likelihood, Trump is calling theirs.
...
The Democrats’ most deeply mistaken premise is their belief that the voters will make specific judgments about which congressional party is more effective. That is simply not how voters think. They make judgments about the state of the country, and hold the president and his party accountable. They do not separate their judgments about the congressional party from the president — indeed, they are so single-minded in their focus on the president that voters actually base their vote for state legislature on their assessment of the president.
For what it's worth, I agree with Chait.  Any bipartisan bill needs to be spectacular for Democrats to justify giving bipartisan cover and a major achievement to the Trump agenda.  It shouldn't be ruled out, but no bill that seems like a prima facie fair compromise is remotely worthwhile.  The enormous, electoral advantages are a hidden concession that needs to be considered.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Listen: how Trump imagined it would go.

President Donald J. Trump sat down behind the Resolute desk, folding his hands in front of himself.  He settled into the chair, and then scanned the room.  Slowly.  Commandingly.

A dozen men sat before him.  The Cabinet was a diverse group: spindly lawyers sitting next to grizzled generals, fierce advisers rubbing shoulders with soft-talking bankers.  But they all had two things in common.  Every one of them was smiling, although those smiles ranged from broad grins right on down to a grudging smirk of pleasure.  And every one of them was looking to him for leadership.

"Let's get to it, all right?  Let's get to work," Trump said, tapping one finger on the desk in front of himself.  He paused, then grinned.  "And let's work hard, or I'll take you all off salary and make you hourly."  The tension melted away, and the men glanced at each other with quiet chuckles.

"Sir?  First of all, we have some promises to keep, I think," said Reince, opening a folder.  He held up a list: Trump's Contract with the American Voter.

"Right," said Trump, decisively.  "First of all: ISIS.  Mad Dog, what do we have?"

"Well, Mr. President," said the hardened former general, suspiciously, "our hands are tied.  We have a battle plan to go after them -- the XK-327 Turbo Missile destroys radical Islamic terrorists with zero civilian casualties, every time -- but we haven't been allowed to do it.  The bureaucrats say it would be politically incorrect to wipe out ISIS."

"Oh?" said Trump.  He felt indignation rising up within him, but he mastered himself.  He stared his Secretary of Defense in the eye and said firmly, "Well, you tell those bureaucrats to come see me.  As of right now, I want you to go in there and wipe them out.  Launch the Turbo Missiles, and to hell with political correctness."

"Yes, sir," said Mad Dog, his eyes alight with respect and admiration for his commander-in-chief's virility.  "We'll get them, sir.  In one month, ISIS will be gone."

But Trump was already moving on to other things.  "North Korea.  Where do we stand?"

"We're not sure what to do," admitted Tillerson, speaking up from the other side of the room, Mad Dog nodding in agreement as he did.  "Every time we try to make inroads to them, they take our money and just start their nuclear program again.  But we can't attack them -- it would destabilize the entire region and risk nuclear war.  We just don't -"

"Sir!" interrupted an aide, running into the room.  His voice was panicked.  "It's Iran!  Their warship has come within five hundred yards of our own ship -- they're testing us, sir!  They're testing our strength and trying to push us around with disrespect!"

Murmurs rippled through the room, some fearful and some angry.  Trump stood up, leaning forward on the desk, and the Oval Office subsided into silence.  The quiet of the room was so complete that the only noise came from the masses of people gathered outside, assembled in the millions near the site of an inauguration that had drawn historically huge crowds.  All eyes turned back to the president.

"Get ready to send a message to Iran," he said.  Then he checked himself, and thumped his fist down on the desk.  "No, forget that.  Get ready to send a message to Iran and North Korea.  And China.  China too.  And Germany."

The aide nodded obediently, almost in eye, setting a pen to paper and waiting with bated breath.

"I want you to tell those countries that America is no longer led by a weak Indonesian Muslim.  America is back in the hands of Americans, and the people have put me here to say that our country is not going to be the loser any more.  From this moment on, any country or person that crosses the United States of America will regret it, believe me."  His voice was iron and magic.  "Tell them that I am putting them on notice."

His voice rang out, and the cold fire of his bold words set a chill on every neck in the room.  The aide finished writing the note with trembling fingers, but turned hesitantly to look at the Secretary of State.  In his eyes was an unspoken question: should I really send this courageous and beautiful message?

"Send it, son," said the Secretary of State.  "It might seem unpredictable and strong, but I think it just might work.  In fact," Tillerson said, turning back to the president with frank approval in his voice, "It's just the kind of thinking America has needed for a long time."

"Mr. President," said Reince, speaking into the respectful silence that ensued after the aide's departure.  "Obamacare?"

"We're going to repeal it today," Trump said, turning to his chief of staff.

"Sir, that will cause a lot of people to lose their health insurance," pointed out the Secretary for Health and Human Services, his doughy chin trembling.  "We need to do something for them."

The president absorbed this advice, nodding slowly and thoughtfully.  He was the sort of man who listened to everybody and then found the best path forward.  "Yes, we have to take care of everybody.  You're right.  Okay, here's what we do.  Is there a replacement plan?"

"Yes," said Secretary Price, nervously.

"How good is it?  How good does it provide healthcare, and to how many people?"  snapped a question in return from the masculine commander-in-chief.

"Well, it's not very good," admitted Price.  "And it only covers a few people."

Trump stabbed a finger at Price.  "Change it.  We want it to cover everybody and we want the best care.  Especially for our veterans."

"But... we can't do that!" said Price.  "The people won't stand for it!"

"Tough," said the president, making his hand into a fist.  "We have to do this for our great people.  It's a promise I made."

"Yes, sir," said Price, marveling.  "But great healthcare for everyone... it's crazy!  No one's ever wanted to do that."  He scribbled some notes on a pad.  "We'll get it through Congress today, but I don't know how the public will like it."

"And trade, sir?" said Reince.  Like everyone else in the room, he leaned forward after he said it, anticipating more quick and bold decisions from the powerful and turgid president.  "Did you want to take any actions on trade today, or should we wait a few months until we need to put on a show for distraction?"

"No, we act now," said Trump.  "We need to renegotiate NAFTA.  And we're only going to give Mexico half of what they're getting now."  He smirked, glancing over at Tillerson again.  "They can take it or leave it, right?  Maybe they can move to some other continent if they don't like it."

"Half?  Sir, they'll collapse under that strain!" objected Mnuchin, his voice shrill.

But Tillerson put a hand on the banker's arm and shook his head, murmuring, "No, don't you see?  The president wants a deal.  They can't take this, and so they'll negotiate... and they'll be happy with anything better than half.  Even if we only cut the trillions we send to Mexico by a third, that'll still be big league savings for us."

Mnuchin nodded, his face lighting up as he slowly grasped the situation.  The president watched them with a warm and paternal gaze, commenting only, "And some of their money... it's going right into a wall."

"Sir," said a voice.  It was the same aide as before, pushing his way back into the room insistently.  But whereas before his voice was panicked and afraid, now it was calm and still -- almost awed.  "Iran... they've recalled their warships.  Not just the one near our boat... all of their warships.  And North Korea is on the phone.  They want to talk about... about... disarmament.  They say they want to get rid of the nuclear."  The aide looked not just respectful when he stared at the president.  He looked reverent.

"All right, then," said the president, nodding firmly and pleasantly, and the men in the room exchanged proud smiles.  Mad Dog, his eyes widened, could do nothing less than stand up, straighten his back, and salute his commander-in-chief.  Trump sat back down at his desk and picked up the phone.  "It sounds like I have to take this, boys.  We'll meet again tomorrow and knock out a few more of these things.  Thanks, everyone."

As the president lifted the phone to his ear and began to discuss terms with the North Korean leaders, the rest of the Cabinet quietly filed out of the room.  Their voices were hushed as they discussed what they'd just seen, and several of them were already communing with underlings to make arrangements to carry out the crisp orders that they'd just received.

Only that same aide, amazed at what he'd seen, paused to examine the bronze bust of Winston Churchill that sat on a small table near the door.  It looked different, somehow.

He leaned down and squinted at it.  Huh.  He'd been sure that the metal face of the great British leader hadn't looked like that the last time he saw it.  That was nonsense, though... statues didn't just change. He must be wrong, since he'd thought he remembered Churchill's face as a taut and serious grimace.

But looking at it now, he could see that the Prime Minister had a proud and approving smile, instead.

Strange, he mused, as he backed out of the room.  He shut the door behind him, giving privacy to the potent man within who was busy Making America Great Again.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Listen: Nunes and Flynn and Russia, oh my!

The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), has been in the news a lot.  So has Mike Flynn, the former general who was briefly the National Security Advisor.  And unfortunately, there's way too much speculation accompanying most articles about both of these figures, so it's hard to know what's going on and how important it is.  Here's what we know, as best I can figure out.

If you don't have time to read this, here's my bottom line:

1. The House investigation of the Russian connections is a farce, and the Republican in charge has been exposed as working to help justify the president's unhinged accusations by deceiving to the press and public.  Seriously, this isn't being exaggerated: Nunes went way too far to help Trump.

2. Mike Flynn's request for immunity might indicate he did something wrong or knows someone who did, or not -- we just don't know.  Don't believe anyone's unfounded speculation.

Here we go:

Russia and Trump: background

To start with, it's been fairly well-established that Russian hacking teams tried to intervene in the 2016 election.  Every American intelligence service has endorsed a report to that effect.  A hacking group called "Fancy Bear" used a fairly simple phishing attack on a bunch of American politicians and staffers (both Republicans and Democrats) and then publicly released much of what they found.  And the way they released these hacked emails seemed designed to do maximum damage to the Democrats.

However, there is also a concern on the part of many Democrats (and some Republicans) that the Russian intervention went even further, and may have included some coordination with the Trump campaign.  Even if there were not some circumstantial evidence to this effect, such as longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone bragging about his connections to WikiLeaks (where the Russian hacks were released) or the fact that the solitary change that the Trump campaign made to the Republican platform was extremely friendly to Russia, the behavior of the Trump campaign itself probably would have invited scrutiny.  Numerous people on the Trump campaign and in the administration have been weirdly sympathetic to Russian interests.  An exhaustive listing is probably beyond my scope here, but there are several advisors and key staffers who have worked on behalf of Russian interests.  The two key ones are (1) Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, was once a lobbyist in Europe and America on behalf of the Putin goverrnment, and (2) Trump National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, who gave paid speeches for Russian state media and seems to have gone behind the back of the Obama administration after the election to speak with the Russian ambassador about new policy (a revelation once denied by the White House, but that led to Flynn's resignation when discovered).

Nunes

Okay!  So naturally, there was a lot of outcry over all of that nonsense.  The FBI Director, James Comey, confirmed publicly that the FBI is investigating Trump campaign staff and the administration That's pretty huge news, and there's no other way to spin it... it's never a good thing when the FBI is investigating White House staff or campaign officials.  There's no certainty they'll find anything, remember! -- but it's not good that they feel there's reason to take a look.

More than that, Congress feels obligated to investigate.  And both Democrats and Republicans have said they are looking into Russian interference in the election -- and also that they are investigating Trump's tweeted accusation that President Obama "wiretapped Trump Tower" before the election.  Unfortunately, it looks like not everyone wants to actually find the truth.

There doesn't seem to be any problem in the Senate.  The Democrat and Republican on the relevant intelligence committee are holding hearings, cooperating, and looking into it.  It's a very good sign that this Senate investigation isn't leaking or fighting -- it means everyone feels earnestly invested in a real search for the truth.

The House is another matter.  It's beginning to look like Devin Nunes (R-CA) is actively trying to hinder the investigation.  And that's a big deal.

Right now, the major event centers around something Nunes did more than a week ago: the mysterious night of the 21st.  Nunes was in an Uber when he got a call from a mysterious source, he says, and he diverted to the White House to meet with this person.  That's a strange thing to do, since he has an office in the Capitol and there's a secure room there, but Nunes said he needed special access to computer networks there at the White House.

Nunes then went to the president and briefed him on what he'd seen.  That's a very strange thing to do, since Nunes is supposed to be leading an investigation into the activities of the president's staff and he hadn't even shown these new documents to his own committee.  Indeed, it's the sort of thing that should disqualify him from leading that investigation, since it indicates that he is more interested in protecting a fellow Republican than finding the truth.

Nunes then went on to hold a press conference and announce that he'd just been shown secret information about how Trump officials were swept up in surveillance of other figures (known as "incidental" surveillance).  He refused to give any details or really be clear at all -- he seemed to be trying to be unclear, in fact -- but overall seemed to imply that the president had been correct in his accusation of wiretapping by Obama.

Well, we now know that this whole thing seems to have been artifice -- play-acting.  Nunes' secret sources were two White House officials.  Nunes directly lied to at least one reporter, Eli Lake, to try to hide that fact, and otherwise was clearly putting on a show for everyone else.  The real reason he had to rush to the White House was not any sort of secure computer connection, but because his sources were Trump officials -- Trump officials who appear to be disclosing extremely classified material in order to try to justify their boss' lunatic claims.

All of this happens at the same time that Nunes has canceled all hearings this past week, including that of former Acting Attorney-General Sally Yates -- who has said she will be giving pretty significant testimony.

No one, not even most Republican officials, can really now say that they expect Nunes to conduct a full and fair investigation.  Nunes is trying to protect Trump and the Trump administration, and cannot credibly claim to be working to discover the truth.  I am not exaggerating the evidence or circumstances: his behavior is bizarre and suspicious, and he has disqualified himself and the results of any report he might produce.

Flynn

Tangentially related to this is the fact that Mike Flynn has now offered to testify to relevant committees, as long as he is granted immunity.  That means that he could not be convicted of a crime based on anything he said during his testimony.

That sounds terrible, but frankly, it doesn't mean much.  It is extremely common for anyone going to testify at these sorts of hearings to ask for immunity, out of fear that a mistake or small misdeed to which they admit while under oath could then be used against them.  If you remember, some of those people who testified about Hillary Clinton's email server or the Benghazi incident were also granted immunity.

In other words, the Flynn request (which so far no one has granted) doesn't really give us much new information.  He might have big bombshells that implicate others; he might be afraid of prosecution and is trying to get out ahead of it; he might have nothing and just wants to clear his name.  This isn't television, and the situation is not analogous to a small-time criminal offering to turn on another criminal.  Many innocent people have been perfectly justified in asking for immunity before testifying before Congress, and it does not indicate anything -- or even hint at anything.

At this point, incidentally, no one has taken up Flynn on his offer.  He does not have immunity.

So again, to sum up:

1. The House investigation of the Russian connections is a farce.

2. Mike Flynn's request for immunity tells us nothing.

And that's what you need to know, as far as I know.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Do: thank (or scold) your representatives about their healthcare stance.

Obamacare is alive and Trumpcare is dead.  Let's thank some people.

The war's not over, of course.  Some Republicans are responding to conservative pressure by pretending to return to healthcare.  But we're in good shape for three reasons: (1) there's no sign that this is actually serious -- no one has changed their position and there's no bill under consideration, (2) everything I said yesterday is still true about the obstacles they'd face if they tried again, and (3) there's a ton of things that they need to urgently address right now, like the SCOTUS nomination and a looming budget deadline.

We won a major battle, publicly and gloriously, and we should thank (or scold) our representatives.  They deserve it, and it will harden their resolve for the next fight.

If you live in the Berkshires, it's pretty easy to figure out whether your representatives deserve your thanks or your scorn.

BERKSHIRE COUNTY
THANK Senator Edward J. Markey:  413-785-4610
THANK Senator Elizabeth Warren: 202-224-4543
THANK Representative Richard Neal: 202-225-5601

BENNINGTON COUNTY
THANK Senator Bernard Sanders:  802-862-0697
THANK Senator Pat Leahy: 202-224-4242
THANK Representative Peter Welch: 202-225-4115

RENSSELAER COUNTY:
THANK Senator Charles E. Schumer:  518-431-4070
THANK Senator Kirsten Gillibrand:  202-224-4451
SCOLD Representative John Faso:  202-225-5614 (author of the Buffalo Bribe, no less!)

If you live elsewhere, it's almost as easy.  First, find your representatives.  If you're represented by a Democrat, thank them: Democrats were united from top to bottom against the AHCA.  If you're represented by a Republican, scold them unless they're one of these thirty-three representatives:

    AL-5     Mo Brooks
    AR-1     Rick Crawford
    AZ-4     Paul Gosar
    AZ-5     Andy Biggs
    FL-3     Ted Yoho
    FL-8     Bill Posey
    FL-27     Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
    IA-1     Rod Blum
    IA-3     David Young
    ID-1     Raúl R. Labrador
    KY-4     Thomas Massie
    MI-3     Justin Amash
    NC-3     Walter B. Jones
    NC-11     Mark Meadows
    NC-13     Ted Budd
    NJ-2     Frank A. LoBiondo
    NJ-4     Christopher H. Smith
    NJ-7     Leonard Lance
    NJ-11     Rodney Frelinghuysen
    NV-2     Mark Amodei
    NY-11     Dan Donovan
    NY-24     John Katko
    OH-4     Jim Jordan
    OH-14     David Joyce
    PA-8     Brian Fitzpatrick
    PA-15     Charlie Dent
    TX-1     Louie Gohmert
    TX-14     Randy Weber
    VA-1     Rob Wittman
    VA-5     Tom Garrett
    VA-7     Dave Brat
    VA-10     Barbara Comstock
    WA-3     Jaime Herrera Beutler

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Listen: might they try again on healthcare -- is Obamacare safe?

Even though a lot of people are happy about the death of Trumpcare/Ryancare/Affordable Health Care Act, many of them are still afraid that the Republicans will soon try again.  This is a reasonable fear, since (a) they have promised to repeal Obamacare for seven years, and (b) they just suffered a humiliating and very public defeat on that very issue.

So what are the chances of that, and what are the chances of success if they do try again?

It's true that they could try again.  The GOP tried to enact healthcare reform first, after all, because it was going to make tax reform a lot easier; they could use a trillion dollars of healthcare funding to pay for some big, permanent tax cuts.  Why is that?  Well, thanks to the rules of the Senate, Congress essentially has these options on tax reform:
  • Option A: Repeal Obamacare and use the savings to pay for permanent tax cuts with Republican votes.
  • Option B: Don't repeal Obamacare and pass some temporary (ten-year) tax cuts with Republican votes.
  • Option C: Enact bipartisan tax reform with Democrats.
The Republicans really wanted to avoid Option C, because it means they would have to compromise.  They also don't really like Option B, since they don't want the tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.  If you remember, Obama only kept the parts of the Bush tax cuts that applied to the lower and middle classes.  The GOP wants to avoid that, so Option A was very much their preferred choice.

Given this set of facts, then, Republicans may indeed want to return to Option A, despite their first failure.  The president says he wants to move on, of course, and GOP leaders are uncertain about a second attempt, but that doesn't mean they can't all change their mind.  And given their other options, they might do so.

But a few things stand in their way.

First and most importantly, the facts of healthcare are no different now than they were a month ago, when I wrote that Obamacare will be fine.  Obamacare's most important benefits are still really popular, and the unpopular mandate is still the best way to pay for them.  Republican voters benefit enormously from Obamacare and many of them know it, and any replacement that doesn't at least approximate Obamacare's level of coverage is going to be unpopular.  There is no magical bill out there that will do all the good things without any of the bad things (if there is such a bill, we should pass it immediately!).

Further, there is no prospective bill that will make Republican legislators happy.  Rand Paul's bill can't pass (moderates hate it).  The Cassidy-Collins bill can't pass (extremists hate it).  A simple repeal can't pass (the sane hate it).  Right now, Republicans don't have any viable path forward.  Someone might propose one soon, but it doesn't yet exist.

The clock is ticking, too.  Congress doesn't really work that much, and they've wasted weeks on the AHCA -- and got brutally criticized for their haste, to boot.  They won't be able to rush and railroad through a second attempt, which means the process would have the potential to consume months of Congressional effort.  It took nine months to pass the ACA... does anyone believe that Republicans have the stomach for that, after this AHCA debacle?

And finally, the loud pronouncements that "Obamacare is the law of the land" were heard by everyone.  The Kansas legislature is now in the process of approving Medicaid expansion under the ACA and five other states (North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota) are likely to join them.  Even more importantly for Obamacare, if unfortunate for some citizens, numerous states are not expanding Medicaid, including states like Virginia and Texas.  That makes it very complicated to change the system -- if all states had expanded Medicaid, a uniform solution could perhaps be found.  But when some big conservative states have declined to do so, it's harder.

Republican legislators have every incentive to put on a show of reform, but very little incentive to actually repeal Obamacare. And right now, even the show doesn't seem very convincing.

The bottom line is this: Republicans can try again, but right now there is little chance that they will succeed.

Read: the right's reaction to the AHCA failure.

What is the right saying about the failure to pass the AHCA?  Below is a selection of stories.  I have tried to make them representative of the overall trend.

Jim Jamitis at RedState says that Trump is mostly to blame, although it's embarrassing for everyone:
There is probably no avid Trump supporter who did not attempt to win him votes with some variation on the idea that he’s not a professional politician. What the AHCA battle revealed is that in the sense of actually understanding and promoting policy, Trump is indeed not a politician. He lacks the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to do the technical aspects of the job effectively. However when it comes to the self serving ambition and ruthlessness we associate with professional politicians, Trump excels. He is very much a politician, just not a very good one.

Leon Wolf at The Blaze says that the process reveals that Speaker Ryan was just trying to crush the power of the Freedom Caucus:
Now, in Ryan’s mind, he has a scapegoat for the GOP’s failure to pass a “repeal” bill, and if he can hoodwink Trump (who is popular in the deeply conservative districts the Freedom Caucus represents) into supporting primary challenges from docile Chamber of Commerce-types against Freedom Caucus members, then it’s a win-win, as far as he is concerned. And it appears, at the very least, that he has succeeded in convincing the media and the president that House conservatives are to blame.
In other words, House conservatives were not given a choice — they could either publicly support an unpopular bill or publicly repudiate the wishes a president who is popular with their voting base. Moderates and liberals, on the other hand, were let off scot-free.

Scott Adams of Dilbert says that it's all a brilliant ploy to make Trump look incompetent rather than evil, and thereby lower the guard of liberals.  Seriously, that's what he says!
With the failure of the Ryan healthcare bill, the illusion of Trump-is-Hitler has been fully replaced with Trump-is-incompetent meme. Look for the new meme to dominate the news, probably through the summer. By year end, you will see a second turn, from incompetent to “Competent, but we don’t like it.” ...
No one wants an incompetent president, but calling the other side a bunch of bumblers is routine politics. We just went from an extraordinary risk (Trump=Hitler) to ordinary politics (The other side=incompetent). Ordinary politics won’t spark a revolution or make you punch a coworker. This is a good day for all of us. It just doesn’t look that way because the news is distracting you with the healthcare issue, which is also important, but a full level down in importance from electing Hitler (in your mind).

Veronique du Rugy at National Review says that everyone is to blame, but that the most important thing is that it was an incredibly bad bill:
[B]y focusing on the politics of who is to blame, the policy dimension of the bill’s failure is mostly ignored. Maybe that’s not all that surprising since Speaker Ryan, who has a reputation of being a policy guy, delivered a bill that was driven by politics and got a lot of the policy wrong. But let’s face it, as Klein mentioned in his article, the bill just wasn’t a good bill. It wasn’t a conservative or a free-market bill, either. Sure it had some merits — which isn’t saying much considering that Republicans had been supposedly working on this for seven years — but overall it had serious and lethal problems. As such, the blame should fall on those who put out a bad bill not on those who prevented it from going through the House.

Virgil at Breitbart says that the president wasn't really much of a supporter to begin with, and that this experience is similar to the early days of the Reagan presidency:
In fact, the President had often expressed skepticism about AHCA, as well as the strategy of leading off 2017 with Obamacare repeal.  As Trump said as recently as March 15, “The Republicans, frankly, are putting themselves in a very bad position.  I tell this to [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tom Price all the time.”  That is, the Republicans would be better off leaving Obamacare alone, letting it collapse on its own—without getting GOP fingerprints on it.  And in fact, on Friday afternoon, Trump told at least one reporter that he would revert to that stance; that is, let the Democrats, who voted for Obamacare in the first place, “own” the legislation.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that the GOP missed a bullet by not enacting AHCA.  On Friday the 24th, a shudder went through Republican ranks when Breitbart’s Neil Munro reported on a new Democratic poll, purporting to show that when voters heard the details of the AHCA as it would have played out in the months and years ahead, they shifted 34 points in their assessment, from mild approval to sharp disapproval.  To be sure, it was a partisan Democratic poll, but still, we might ask ourselves: Have we heard anybody, really, saying anything good about the legislation?  So with a political albatross around its neck, what would it have been like for the GOP in the 2018 midterms?

The hardcore Trump subreddit The_Donald doesn't talk about the AHCA very much.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Listen: what might be next on the agenda.

President Trump and his administration are keenly aware of public perception.  They have been focusing on knocking down as many of his promises as possible, and doing so in the most dramatic way.  Given the frequency with which Team Trump has mentioned the idea of the "first one hundred days" -- the mythical time during which every president is supposed to emulate FDR and revolutionize the country -- it seems clear that they want to look strong when they hit that marker.

Unfortunately for their hopes, it's been sixty-seven days, and the Trump presidency doesn't have much to boast about.

Sure, they can fool some supporters (and maybe even fool themselves) with the flashy executive orders.  But almost all of those orders have been promotional: declaring intentions rather than taking action.  An order declaring, in a confused sort of way, that two existing regulations must be eliminated for every new regulation... well, that doesn't actually accomplish anything, does it?

The only executive orders that would have had really dramatic impact were the Muslim ban orders, and courts have blocked both of them.  Even if they're eventually carried out, months after Trump's first attempt, they're not going to offer much satisfaction.

No, it seems as though a lot of Trumpian hopes were pinned on the Obamacare repeal.  Eliminating much of Obamacare would have been a deeply symbolic victory.  Instead, it became a humiliating failure that played out before the eyes of the nation in slow motion.  The "policy wonk" Speaker created a bill that everyone loathed, including almost every conservative all.  The "closer" President couldn't get a deal done with his own party, much less anyone serious.

At this point, the major achievements of the Trump administration include nominating a SCOTUS justice, the repeal of some regulations, and some minor executive orders.  Along the way, their efforts have been hampered by continual scandals and mis-steps, comical lies, and bizarre behavior.

I promise you, they will want to do something big in the next month.  They have 33 days left in the "first hundred days," and they want something in the history books. The obvious place to look for predictions is Trump's "Contract with the American Voter," a document to which he's adhered closely.  It is explicitly his plan for the first one hundred days, and there's a lot left undone.  However, many of these promises are (frankly) bonkers, and unlikely to ever occur.  There's simply no point in declaring China a "currency manipulator," for example, or for crashing the economy by withdrawing from NAFTA.  So what might happen?

Legislative.  Congress has devoted a lot of time and energy into Obamacare repeal, and that means there's not much time left to draft, debate, and pass bills on anything else (especially with the Easter recess).  If they want to get something done in Congress in the next month, the smart thing to do is introduce existing language from previous bills or think tanks.  In fact, the smart thing is to introduce several new bills in different committees, and see which ones get traction or opposition.  Leadership has stated they want to move on to tax reform, but that will take time... far more time than they have right now, especially since no one agrees on the possible reforms.

Why that's hard: Again, there's only 33 days left.  And there's a week-long recess included in that period.  If they started immediately, they probably still don't have time to pass anything.  Bills must be marked up by committees, debated on the floor, and passed by both houses of Congress... there just isn't time.

Executive.  There are a few major steps that Trump could still take from his list of priorities.  He could use existing spending authority to send a large aid package to Flint, Michigan.  He could get some form of new wall built along the Mexican border, even just a section of it, and do a ribbon-cutting.  He could start canceling or altering visas again in a more targeted fashion (such as by canceling H1-B employment visas), or impose some sort of loyalty test for new citizens.  These actions would make a splash and might seem "big" enough to satiate a president hungry for recognition.

Why that's hard: Without a budget in place, Trump has already done most of the flashy things that he can do unilaterally.  Certainly he can still do a lot of damage day-to-day, but in terms of weighty things that he can promote, the well is running dry.  He'll need to find some new ideas.

Bipartisanship.  After the nasty fight with his own party over healthcare, President Trump has resumed the idea of reaching out to Democrats for votes.  Specifically, infrastructure and prescription drug prices are two points that he has in common with the Democratic mainstream.  If he were to reach out and make a big show of working with Democrats on one of those issues, he would stand a good chance of bypassing his own party's hard-liners.

Why that's hard: For the past couple of months, the Trump administration has delighted in being pointlessly cruel and divisive.  Democrats are going to be loathe to openly support the administration, since their base will hate it.  That's the problem with burning bridges with open hostility... it makes it a lot harder to work with people on the other side of the river.  And of course, conservative Republicans will not be happy if the president attempts to make them irrelevant -- they'll have every reason to try to kill such a bill.

Diplomacy.  There's an avenue of executive action that the Trump administration has mostly neglected: diplomacy.  A significant diplomatic deal -- on something, anything -- could provide a desperately-needed victory.

Why that's hard:  They haven't even begun the necessary efforts to make something like that happen, and they have almost no time left to do so.


In conclusion, then, by far the easiest avenue for Trump to find some significant victories in the next 33 days lies in the avenue of executive action.  While there are a lot of obstacles to making any immediate and significant changes in these areas, thanks to regulatory processes and funding challenges, the president has proven thus far that he has a hard time working with others.  Flashy executive actions allow his team full control and require no compromising.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Listen: the cavalry isn't coming -- and that's good news.

"President Trump will resign," says someone, confidently.  "The press or the FBI will uncover something too big and he'll have to."

"No, he'll be impeached," says someone else, smiling and shaking their head.  "Congress isn't going to want him around forever."

These people are waiting for the cavalry: the mounted troops thundering onto the battlefield to join us, sweeping the president from office.  In this vision, the FBI's investigation eventually shows that President Trump is acting under orders from Russia's Vladimir Putin.  Or some newspaper's exposé reveals that the president's top aides plan to give clandestine support to neo-Nazis.  Or Congress is shocked at some foul deed and votes to impeach President Trump, ejecting him from office.

I don't blame these optimists for hoping for the FBI, the press, or Congress to rescue them.  But it's probably not going to happen.  Donald J. Trump will be our president for the next four years.  There's no cavalry on the way to save us.  But here's the thing: that's good news.

Why isn't the FBI going to save us?  Well, first of all, it's really unlikely that the Trump campaign engaged in the sort of misdeeds that would lead to the president's indictment and conviction.  I'm not underestimating their incompetence or skullduggery, but rather, I'm looking at it from the other side: Russia.

If I'm a Russian oligarch, there's a clear upside to throwing the U.S. presidential campaign into chaos and badly weakening the likely winner, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  But very few people, including my own Russian analysts, think Trump can really win.  By the best estimates, he has maybe a 30% chance of victory.  I am not going to risk a catastrophic international incident by directly working with Trump -- not with chances like that!  Instead, I just try to muddy the waters as much as possible, using asymmetric methods that allow me to expend few resources to achieve maximum gain.  My hacker teams cost -- what, a few million rubles?  That's a cheap price to pay for a good chance of causing damage, and there's very little risk to myself.  Why would I screw up a good thing by trusting an incompetent and reckless long-shot like Trump?

At absolute best, the Russia investigation will reveal an infiltration throughout the Trump campaign of Russophiles, plus an eager willingness on behalf of the campaign to capitalize on Russian hacking efforts.  And we already know those things are true.  The president already openly praises Putin, and he once stood at a podium and requested further hacking help.

His covert misdeeds can't possibly eclipse his overt ones.  The FBI isn't going to save us.

Why isn't the press going to save us?  Because that would require him resigning.  And there's a single dominant reason why no number of editorials or investigations is going to pressure Trump into resigning: Trump has no shame.  I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, but rather quite literally: he does not appear to feel shame when publicly exposed.  He becomes angry and defensive, he lies and blusters, and he happily deflects -- but he shows no evidence that he actually feels shame.

You cannot shame someone who refuses to take responsibility, who views reality as flexible, or who always responds by going on the attack.  The president was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, and weeks of public fury barely managed to elicit a brief, rote, and insincere apology.

One must be capable of grace before they can be threatened by disgrace.  The press isn't going to save us.

Why isn't Congress going to save us?  Congress has a majority of Republicans, and it will likely retain that majority until 2020.  And Republicans will not impeach a Republican president.  I would love it if this weren't true, but tribalism is unbelievably fierce.  Even after these disastrous first couple of months, for example, Trump retains the loyalty of virtually the entire Republican party -- both voters and politicians.  His approval numbers have gotten steadily worse as independents and undecided voters have turned away... but Trump's tribe has not yet deserted him.  It will take many months or years before that happens.  In terms of pure showmanship, after all, there are still a number of cards he can play, as I talk about in this post (particularly prescient, if I do say so myself).  And he has already shown with the Muslim ban that he is perfectly willing to do cruel and inane things if he believes it will please his base.  Until such a time as Trump's unpopularity with the Republican base begins to hurt the bulk of Republican politicians, who represent safely red seats, they will not desert him.

Even if the 2018 elections deliver a Democratic majority in the House (which is possible, though not easy) or a Democratic majority in the Senate (incredibly difficult), there probably won't be enough votes to impeach without some sort of smoking gun that directly implicates the president.

The red tribe will protect its own.  Congress isn't going to save us.

So don't look to the FBI.  Don't look to the press.  Don't look to Congress.  They're not the cavalry, and they're not going to save us.  But here's the good news:

We are going to save ourselves.  The cavalry is already here, and it is you.


You're going to rescue us.  You're going to register people to vote.  You're going to call your representatives.  You're going to demand town halls and show up to them -- and if your representative won't hold a town hall, you're going to go to their office or their fundraiser.  You're going to seek out the truth, reading the news and thinking about the issues.  You are going to march and protest.

You want the FBI or the press or Congress to save you?  They work for you.

We don't need to wait for heroes to show up.  I was at the Women's March on Washington.  I saw heroes.  I have gone to Greylock Together and other activist meetings.  I saw heroes.  I have worked on voter registration drives.  I saw heroes.

This past week, we saved Obamacare.  Countless rallies across the country put pressure on representatives of every ilk.  Democratic congresspeople and senators held the line because they knew they had the support -- the insistent support of their supporters.  Moderate Republicans were made to fear their constituents, those who angrily crowded their town halls to tell about how Obamacare saved their lives.  Even extreme Republicans were forcibly made aware of the dangerous consequences of a terrible repeal bill.  We were assisted by Trump's ham-handed attempts at negotiation, general incompetence among GOP leaders, and pressure from interest groups, but politicians respond to voters above all else.

There are more fights in the future.  Victories beget victories.  We can keep it up.  We can call and write and march and protest.

You shouldn't wait for heroes to ride in and save the day.  We are the heroes.  You are the hero.

You can save the day.