washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

February 9: Democrats Must Resist Trump’s Authoritarian Tendencies More Quickly Than They Resisted W.’s

As unprecedented as the Trump administration seems, it is very important to look to history to see how to deal with him, as I argued this week at New York:

Efforts to put Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies into a historical context usually begin with the simultaneously troubling and reassuring precedent of Richard M. Nixon. Like Trump, Nixon was a mistrustful and self-conscious “outsider” who hated the news media and compulsively focused on “enemies.” As we fear Trump will do, Nixon harnessed government resources to harass those enemies, ordered widespread law-breaking, expanded presidential powers to the breaking point, and tried to hide his more nefarious activities from scrutiny. But despite his power and a reelection landslide victory that makes a mockery of Trump’s pretensions of popularity, Nixon was brought to heel and eventually forced to resign. A potential authoritarian threat to democracy was repulsed.

Nixon was not, however, unique in succumbing to the temptations of an imperial presidency. As Jonathan Rauch reminds us in an important new analysis of how to contain Trump if he goes off the rails, all presidents cross lines and seek to expand their powers. And in fact, the most relevant precedent may be a relatively recent one:

“For a good example, one need look back no further than the presidency of George W. Bush. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush claimed alarmingly broad presidential powers. He said he could define the entire world as a battlefield in the War on Terror, designate noncitizens and citizens alike as enemy combatants, and then seize and detain them indefinitely, without judicial interference or congressional approval or the oversight called for by the Geneva Conventions.”

It’s initially hard to think of the sometimes-comical and often self-deprecating W. as resembling the volatile narcissist in the White House today; when Bush call himself “the decider,” more people laughed than cowered. But whatever the 43rd president lacked in bully-boy arrogance the people around him — most notably his vice-president — supplied abundantly. And there is no getting around the fact that the Bush team deliberately exploited the national emergency of 9/11 to do all sorts of things it had no real popular mandate to do, most notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and to intimidate opponents with the charge of anti-Americanism. It is very easy to imagine Team Trump doing the same thing. The president’s charge that he would hold “the court system” responsible for any future terrorist attacks is a credible threat that like Bush he might convert a national-security failure into a warrant for near-total power.

As Rauch notes, however, Bush was, like Nixon, eventually brought to heel as well, without the trauma of a threatened impeachment and a resignation. He quotes one-time Bush administration Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith as describing a “giant distributed networks of lawyers, investigators, and auditors, both inside and outside the executive branch” that reined in a potentially authoritarian regime….

Eventually Congress and the courts joined this effort, and in 2006, so did the American electorate, in a midterm buffeting of the president’s party that ruined Karl Rove’s painstaking efforts to build a durable GOP majority based on a combination of national-security fearmongering and carefully targeted domestic initiatives. But it was a near thing.

The good news is that many of the same forces that helped rein in Bush are at hand today, and Trump’s open contempt for norms has put them on high alert. But as Trump’s election showed, the old norms don’t have the power they had in the past — even the most recent past.

It should be relatively apparent that the first step toward making sure the Trump administration doesn’t lurch down the path to authoritarian abuse of power via a national-security “emergency” is to deny it the sort of government-of-national-salvation status Bush and his team enjoyed in the wake of 9/11. If that means Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans (the few who are left, anyway) have to run the risk of being attacked for insufficient patriotism, so be it. It is their patriotic duty to do so. And as the example of George W. Bush shows, the sooner the president is denied imperial powers, the sooner his imperial pretensions can be exposed as mere power-grabs.

With luck, there will not be an incident like 9/11 — or the Iraq War — during the Trump presidency. But if there is, does anyone doubt he will exploit it to the hilt? That’s the authoritarian emergency for which we must all prepare.


Democrats Must Resist Trump’s Authoritarian Tendencies More Quickly Than They Resisted W.’s

As unprecedented as the Trump administration seems, it is very important to look to history to see how to deal with him, as I argued this week at New York:

Efforts to put Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies into a historical context usually begin with the simultaneously troubling and reassuring precedent of Richard M. Nixon. Like Trump, Nixon was a mistrustful and self-conscious “outsider” who hated the news media and compulsively focused on “enemies.” As we fear Trump will do, Nixon harnessed government resources to harass those enemies, ordered widespread law-breaking, expanded presidential powers to the breaking point, and tried to hide his more nefarious activities from scrutiny. But despite his power and a reelection landslide victory that makes a mockery of Trump’s pretensions of popularity, Nixon was brought to heel and eventually forced to resign. A potential authoritarian threat to democracy was repulsed.

Nixon was not, however, unique in succumbing to the temptations of an imperial presidency. As Jonathan Rauch reminds us in an important new analysis of how to contain Trump if he goes off the rails, all presidents cross lines and seek to expand their powers. And in fact, the most relevant precedent may be a relatively recent one:

“For a good example, one need look back no further than the presidency of George W. Bush. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush claimed alarmingly broad presidential powers. He said he could define the entire world as a battlefield in the War on Terror, designate noncitizens and citizens alike as enemy combatants, and then seize and detain them indefinitely, without judicial interference or congressional approval or the oversight called for by the Geneva Conventions.”

It’s initially hard to think of the sometimes-comical and often self-deprecating W. as resembling the volatile narcissist in the White House today; when Bush call himself “the decider,” more people laughed than cowered. But whatever the 43rd president lacked in bully-boy arrogance the people around him — most notably his vice-president — supplied abundantly. And there is no getting around the fact that the Bush team deliberately exploited the national emergency of 9/11 to do all sorts of things it had no real popular mandate to do, most notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and to intimidate opponents with the charge of anti-Americanism. It is very easy to imagine Team Trump doing the same thing. The president’s charge that he would hold “the court system” responsible for any future terrorist attacks is a credible threat that like Bush he might convert a national-security failure into a warrant for near-total power.

As Rauch notes, however, Bush was, like Nixon, eventually brought to heel as well, without the trauma of a threatened impeachment and a resignation. He quotes one-time Bush administration Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith as describing a “giant distributed networks of lawyers, investigators, and auditors, both inside and outside the executive branch” that reined in a potentially authoritarian regime….

Eventually Congress and the courts joined this effort, and in 2006, so did the American electorate, in a midterm buffeting of the president’s party that ruined Karl Rove’s painstaking efforts to build a durable GOP majority based on a combination of national-security fearmongering and carefully targeted domestic initiatives. But it was a near thing.

The good news is that many of the same forces that helped rein in Bush are at hand today, and Trump’s open contempt for norms has put them on high alert. But as Trump’s election showed, the old norms don’t have the power they had in the past — even the most recent past.

It should be relatively apparent that the first step toward making sure the Trump administration doesn’t lurch down the path to authoritarian abuse of power via a national-security “emergency” is to deny it the sort of government-of-national-salvation status Bush and his team enjoyed in the wake of 9/11. If that means Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans (the few who are left, anyway) have to run the risk of being attacked for insufficient patriotism, so be it. It is their patriotic duty to do so. And as the example of George W. Bush shows, the sooner the president is denied imperial powers, the sooner his imperial pretensions can be exposed as mere power-grabs.

With luck, there will not be an incident like 9/11 — or the Iraq War — during the Trump presidency. But if there is, does anyone doubt he will exploit it to the hilt? That’s the authoritarian emergency for which we must all prepare.


February 8: GOP Could Be Moving Quickly To End Medicaid As We Know It

Some alarming news is seeping out of Republican circles about designs on a program only Democrats seem to care about anymore, Medicaid. I promptly sounded an alarm at New York.

One of the peculiar aspects of the debate over Republican aspirations to “repeal and replace” Obamacare is how little of it revolves around the provision that has accounted for the majority of uninsured Americans obtaining coverage under the Affordable Care Act: the state option to expand Medicaid eligibility. Instead, most of the talk has been about the private insurance exchanges, and the subsidies that help pay for individual policies, and the purchasing mandates designed to encourage younger and healthier Americans to participate, and the mandated benefit packages, and the regulations against preexisting-condition exclusions and overcharging old folks. That’s understandable due to the incredible complexity of the exchanges and the high visibility of premium increases and insurers pulling out of the exchanges altogether.

But any “repeal and replace” scheme absolutely has to deal with Medicaid. And left to their own devices, Republicans would almost certainly pursue an idea that’s been nestled in various Ryan budgets and was embraced by Donald Trump on the campaign trail: a Medicaid “block grant” that would to a greater or lesser degree shift responsibility for indigent health care to the states, in the process saving the feds a big chuck of change and getting rid of all those headachy policy decisions related to a troublesome, Democratic-leaning constituency.

Unfortunately for the GOP, 31 states — including 16 governed by Republicans — accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion, going in exactly the opposite direction conservatives nationally have supported. Some —including the current vice-president of the United States (who was then governor of Indiana) — rationalized accepting the filthy federal lucre (a much higher federal match rate covering new enrollees) for an expansion because the Obama administration let them conduct conservative-sounding policy experiments, mostly involving the kind of premiums and co-pays Medicaid beneficiaries normally don’t have to deal with.

So the political and substantive complexity of squaring a Medicaid block grant with Medicaid expansion on the ground has helped place Medicaid on the back burner for the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, as something that would probably be handled in a second budget bill later in 2017, or perhaps even in freestanding legislation….

[But] [n]ow Politico’s Jennifer Haberkorn reports that the transformation of Medicaid could be in the very first budget-reconciliation bill aimed at “repealing” Obamacare — the bill already authorized by a budget resolution that was whipped through Congress last month. But the above-mentioned dilemmas have not gone away:

“Medicaid is proving to be the most complex piece of a replace plan in the repeal bill. Republicans want to dramatically overhaul the program by imposing spending caps tied to the number of enrollees in a state. But they are running into problems sorting out such details as whether funding should be allocated based on state enrollment before Obamacare or after.”

My guess is that they will come up with a Solomon-style solution, picking some arbitrary enrollment figure halfway between states that expanded Medicaid and states that did not — recognizing that there were major state variations even before Obamacare. But the key thing to understand is that putting a Medicaid block grant into the “repeal” bill means it can be enacted without Democratic votes. And more generally, doing so successfully would mean Republicans had succeeded in all but abolishing a key Great Society federal-safety-net program by making it “about” Obamacare. For the many millions of Americans who would ultimately be affected — including the majority of Republican voters who have no idea Obamacare repeal will affect Medicaid — it would represent a classic bait and switch.

It would be a very good time for Democrats and others who care about guaranteeing that the poorest and sickest Americans have access to lifesaving health care to stop playing the GOP game of getting down into the weeds of Obamacare’s private-insurance provisions and beginning pointing and shouting about what Republicans may be about to do to Medicaid.


GOP Could Be Moving Quickly To End Medicaid As We Know It

Some alarming news is seeping out of Republican circles about designs on a program only Democrats seem to care about anymore, Medicaid. I promptly sounded an alarm at New York.

One of the peculiar aspects of the debate over Republican aspirations to “repeal and replace” Obamacare is how little of it revolves around the provision that has accounted for the majority of uninsured Americans obtaining coverage under the Affordable Care Act: the state option to expand Medicaid eligibility. Instead, most of the talk has been about the private insurance exchanges, and the subsidies that help pay for individual policies, and the purchasing mandates designed to encourage younger and healthier Americans to participate, and the mandated benefit packages, and the regulations against preexisting-condition exclusions and overcharging old folks. That’s understandable due to the incredible complexity of the exchanges and the high visibility of premium increases and insurers pulling out of the exchanges altogether.

But any “repeal and replace” scheme absolutely has to deal with Medicaid. And left to their own devices, Republicans would almost certainly pursue an idea that’s been nestled in various Ryan budgets and was embraced by Donald Trump on the campaign trail: a Medicaid “block grant” that would to a greater or lesser degree shift responsibility for indigent health care to the states, in the process saving the feds a big chuck of change and getting rid of all those headachy policy decisions related to a troublesome, Democratic-leaning constituency.

Unfortunately for the GOP, 31 states — including 16 governed by Republicans — accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion, going in exactly the opposite direction conservatives nationally have supported. Some —including the current vice-president of the United States (who was then governor of Indiana) — rationalized accepting the filthy federal lucre (a much higher federal match rate covering new enrollees) for an expansion because the Obama administration let them conduct conservative-sounding policy experiments, mostly involving the kind of premiums and co-pays Medicaid beneficiaries normally don’t have to deal with.

So the political and substantive complexity of squaring a Medicaid block grant with Medicaid expansion on the ground has helped place Medicaid on the back burner for the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, as something that would probably be handled in a second budget bill later in 2017, or perhaps even in freestanding legislation….

[But] [n]ow Politico’s Jennifer Haberkorn reports that the transformation of Medicaid could be in the very first budget-reconciliation bill aimed at “repealing” Obamacare — the bill already authorized by a budget resolution that was whipped through Congress last month. But the above-mentioned dilemmas have not gone away:

“Medicaid is proving to be the most complex piece of a replace plan in the repeal bill. Republicans want to dramatically overhaul the program by imposing spending caps tied to the number of enrollees in a state. But they are running into problems sorting out such details as whether funding should be allocated based on state enrollment before Obamacare or after.”

My guess is that they will come up with a Solomon-style solution, picking some arbitrary enrollment figure halfway between states that expanded Medicaid and states that did not — recognizing that there were major state variations even before Obamacare. But the key thing to understand is that putting a Medicaid block grant into the “repeal” bill means it can be enacted without Democratic votes. And more generally, doing so successfully would mean Republicans had succeeded in all but abolishing a key Great Society federal-safety-net program by making it “about” Obamacare. For the many millions of Americans who would ultimately be affected — including the majority of Republican voters who have no idea Obamacare repeal will affect Medicaid — it would represent a classic bait and switch.

It would be a very good time for Democrats and others who care about guaranteeing that the poorest and sickest Americans have access to lifesaving health care to stop playing the GOP game of getting down into the weeds of Obamacare’s private-insurance provisions and beginning pointing and shouting about what Republicans may be about to do to Medicaid.


February 3: Trump Revives Call For Tax-Subsidized Politicking From the Pulpit

Since church-state relations are such a complicated and often-misunderstood topic, I decided to take on one of them at New York that Donald Trump has revived in a big and nasty manner:

It is beginning to look like a big week for the Christian right in Washington. On Tuesday night President Trump gave them the SCOTUS nominee most of them wanted, in Neil Gorsuch. Then word got out that the administration had drafted a sweeping executive order on “religious liberty” that could have been drafted by Jerry Falwell Jr. And then on Thursday morning, at the National Prayer Breakfast (itself an annual ritual of presidential deference to conservative Christians), Trump repeated a campaign promise to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law preventing open electioneering by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Actually, the term he used was not “repeal,” but “totally destroy.” Very presidential of him.

What this would mean in practice is that people employed by religious bodies (and other kinds of nonprofit organizations), most especially ministers of the Christian Gospel, could endorse and exhort support for special candidates and other matters decided at the ballot box right there in the pulpit — or perhaps more importantly, through utilization of church resources (signs, flyers, phone and email lists, and presumably even paid ads). It would save the time and trouble involved in the winking and nodding that often goes on with clerical politicking. But less innocently, the proposed new policy might also pave the way to coerced electioneering statements imposed on individual ministers and congregations by denominational leaders. It would definitely politicize the Sabbath in a big way.

Trump, of course, tries to make this sound like a simple matter of freedom, daring to cite as an authority the predecessor for whom separation of church and state was a first principle:

“Jefferson asked, ‘”Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution — I will do that.”

Put aside for a moment the fact that religious groups violating the Johnson Amendment practically have to hit the IRS over the head with their views to attract the rare investigation or enforcement action. Even if it were regularly enforced, nothing in the Johnson Amendment keeps anyone from worshiping as they wish; “representatives of faith” could have devoted every 2016 sermon to demanding votes for Donald Trump or excoriating the baby-killing devil-woman Hillary Clinton if they wanted. They just cannot at the same time accept taxpayer subsidies.

That is the real misunderstanding here. Groups demanding the freedom to say and do whatever they want, and/or to violate anti-discrimination laws in the name of God, seem to view tax-exempt status as quite literally a matter of divine entitlement. But it’s a very secular thing conveying crass, material benefits in great abundance. Not only does church property (and some forms of church employee compensation) escape taxation: The dollars placed in the collection plate convey a tax benefit to the contributors. All told, the value of the tax exemptions for churches has been estimated in one recent study as amounting to $71 billion annually. That’s certainly enough to justify a bit of self-control in playing with electoral politics.

Since the Johnson Amendment is a matter of statutory law (enacted, as it happens, by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by a Republican president), not executive-branch policy, Trump cannot “get rid of and totally destroy it” by fiat. But because it involves the tax code, congressional Republicans can almost certainly nestle a Johnson Amendment repeal into one of the two “budget reconciliation” bills on tap this year — perhaps the first one, mainly aimed at whatever the GOP decides to do with Obamacare, which will supposedly be unveiled this month or next.

One way or another Trump will try to redeem this campaign pledge to the Christian Right. And it’s hard to imagine Republicans standing in his way, whatever their private misgivings.

Democrats need to expose this exercise in clerical welfare before it happens.


Trump Revives Call For Tax-Subsidized Politicking From the Pulpit

Since church-state relations are such a complicated and often-misunderstood topic, I decided to take on one of them at New York that Donald Trump has revived in a big and nasty manner:

It is beginning to look like a big week for the Christian right in Washington. On Tuesday night President Trump gave them the SCOTUS nominee most of them wanted, in Neil Gorsuch. Then word got out that the administration had drafted a sweeping executive order on “religious liberty” that could have been drafted by Jerry Falwell Jr. And then on Thursday morning, at the National Prayer Breakfast (itself an annual ritual of presidential deference to conservative Christians), Trump repeated a campaign promise to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law preventing open electioneering by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Actually, the term he used was not “repeal,” but “totally destroy.” Very presidential of him.

What this would mean in practice is that people employed by religious bodies (and other kinds of nonprofit organizations), most especially ministers of the Christian Gospel, could endorse and exhort support for special candidates and other matters decided at the ballot box right there in the pulpit — or perhaps more importantly, through utilization of church resources (signs, flyers, phone and email lists, and presumably even paid ads). It would save the time and trouble involved in the winking and nodding that often goes on with clerical politicking. But less innocently, the proposed new policy might also pave the way to coerced electioneering statements imposed on individual ministers and congregations by denominational leaders. It would definitely politicize the Sabbath in a big way.

Trump, of course, tries to make this sound like a simple matter of freedom, daring to cite as an authority the predecessor for whom separation of church and state was a first principle:

“Jefferson asked, ‘”Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution — I will do that.”

Put aside for a moment the fact that religious groups violating the Johnson Amendment practically have to hit the IRS over the head with their views to attract the rare investigation or enforcement action. Even if it were regularly enforced, nothing in the Johnson Amendment keeps anyone from worshiping as they wish; “representatives of faith” could have devoted every 2016 sermon to demanding votes for Donald Trump or excoriating the baby-killing devil-woman Hillary Clinton if they wanted. They just cannot at the same time accept taxpayer subsidies.

That is the real misunderstanding here. Groups demanding the freedom to say and do whatever they want, and/or to violate anti-discrimination laws in the name of God, seem to view tax-exempt status as quite literally a matter of divine entitlement. But it’s a very secular thing conveying crass, material benefits in great abundance. Not only does church property (and some forms of church employee compensation) escape taxation: The dollars placed in the collection plate convey a tax benefit to the contributors. All told, the value of the tax exemptions for churches has been estimated in one recent study as amounting to $71 billion annually. That’s certainly enough to justify a bit of self-control in playing with electoral politics.

Since the Johnson Amendment is a matter of statutory law (enacted, as it happens, by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by a Republican president), not executive-branch policy, Trump cannot “get rid of and totally destroy it” by fiat. But because it involves the tax code, congressional Republicans can almost certainly nestle a Johnson Amendment repeal into one of the two “budget reconciliation” bills on tap this year — perhaps the first one, mainly aimed at whatever the GOP decides to do with Obamacare, which will supposedly be unveiled this month or next.

One way or another Trump will try to redeem this campaign pledge to the Christian Right. And it’s hard to imagine Republicans standing in his way, whatever their private misgivings.

Democrats need to expose this exercise in clerical welfare before it happens.


February 2: Conservative “Base” Voters Only Have Eyes For Trump

After looking at some public opinion polling about conservative feelings towards Donald Trump, I came to a pretty interesting conclusion and decided to write it up at New York.

The announcement of Neil Gorsuch as SCOTUS nominee represented a new high point in Donald Trump’s relationship with the conservative movement and the GOP. It was a full-on love-fest — and beyond the immediate and overwhelmingly positive response among right-of-center folk, the nomination has established significantly more trust for Trump among serious conservatives.

But before mainstream Republicans get too comfortable with the 45th president, they should consider the bad news: That he is stealing their voter base away from them, even as they cheer him on for nominating Gorsuch.

That is the most obvious lesson to derive from some new large-sample data from Morning Consult (via The Upshot):

“54 percent of registered voters in districts represented by Republicans viewed Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42 percent who view him unfavorably. More important, people who identify with the party overwhelmingly view him favorably. In districts represented by Republicans, fully 87 percent of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.

“Support for Mr. Trump in G.O.P. districts is even higher among registered Republicans who are extremely interested in politics (94 percent favorable), identify as strong Republicans (92 percent favorable) or say they are very conservative (94 percent favorable). These groups are especially likely to vote in primaries and are key constituencies in nomination contests for higher office. As a result, they wield disproportionate influence on legislator behavior.”

To put it simply, while Republicans may have assumed their most conservative “base” supporters would help them bend Donald Trump to their will when push came to shove, the opposite may prove true: the GOP base increasingly looks like it may become a whip with which Trump lashes establishment conservative elected officials and opinion-leaders to keep them in line.

It’s been true for quite some time that most Republicans in Congress feared primary challenges from their right more than anything Democrats could throw at them. What has changed is that the voters most likely to participate in Republican challenges seem to have fallen in love with Donald Trump, and could keep elected officials who previously thought themselves safe on their toes and ready to defend Trump even when long-cherished ideological tenets would otherwise have them supporting different policies. The alternative would be to likely face a primary challenge by a more robustly Trumpian politician, with the knowledge that the base would probably be with the populist.

While it’s premature to predict the potentially wild course of events just ahead, friction between Trump and his party could be relatively manageable — and a visible schism might never open up between the president and the party mainstream. We could see an implicit deal where Trump gives the older forces in the GOP most of what they want on economic and fiscal policy so long as they go along with Trump on trade, immigration, crime, and maybe some token “populist” gestures like jobs initiatives or protecting Social Security and Medicare.They can probably reach rough agreement on most national security matters so long as defense spending goes up and the administration doesn’t completely abandon Europe to Putin.

But if there is a rupture that threatens the smooth-functioning machine Republicans need to enact an agenda with little or no Democratic support, don’t assume Trump will have to come hat in hand to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or beg for support from conservative think-tanks or opinion outlets.

In that context, it’s less surprising, if no less scandalous, that the GOP has surrendered to Trump so quickly.


Conservative “Base” Voters Only Have Eyes For Trump

After looking at some public opinion polling about conservative feelings towards Donald Trump, I came to a pretty interesting conclusion and decided to write it up at New York.

The announcement of Neil Gorsuch as SCOTUS nominee represented a new high point in Donald Trump’s relationship with the conservative movement and the GOP. It was a full-on love-fest — and beyond the immediate and overwhelmingly positive response among right-of-center folk, the nomination has established significantly more trust for Trump among serious conservatives.

But before mainstream Republicans get too comfortable with the 45th president, they should consider the bad news: That he is stealing their voter base away from them, even as they cheer him on for nominating Gorsuch.

That is the most obvious lesson to derive from some new large-sample data from Morning Consult (via The Upshot):

“54 percent of registered voters in districts represented by Republicans viewed Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42 percent who view him unfavorably. More important, people who identify with the party overwhelmingly view him favorably. In districts represented by Republicans, fully 87 percent of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.

“Support for Mr. Trump in G.O.P. districts is even higher among registered Republicans who are extremely interested in politics (94 percent favorable), identify as strong Republicans (92 percent favorable) or say they are very conservative (94 percent favorable). These groups are especially likely to vote in primaries and are key constituencies in nomination contests for higher office. As a result, they wield disproportionate influence on legislator behavior.”

To put it simply, while Republicans may have assumed their most conservative “base” supporters would help them bend Donald Trump to their will when push came to shove, the opposite may prove true: the GOP base increasingly looks like it may become a whip with which Trump lashes establishment conservative elected officials and opinion-leaders to keep them in line.

It’s been true for quite some time that most Republicans in Congress feared primary challenges from their right more than anything Democrats could throw at them. What has changed is that the voters most likely to participate in Republican challenges seem to have fallen in love with Donald Trump, and could keep elected officials who previously thought themselves safe on their toes and ready to defend Trump even when long-cherished ideological tenets would otherwise have them supporting different policies. The alternative would be to likely face a primary challenge by a more robustly Trumpian politician, with the knowledge that the base would probably be with the populist.

While it’s premature to predict the potentially wild course of events just ahead, friction between Trump and his party could be relatively manageable — and a visible schism might never open up between the president and the party mainstream. We could see an implicit deal where Trump gives the older forces in the GOP most of what they want on economic and fiscal policy so long as they go along with Trump on trade, immigration, crime, and maybe some token “populist” gestures like jobs initiatives or protecting Social Security and Medicare.They can probably reach rough agreement on most national security matters so long as defense spending goes up and the administration doesn’t completely abandon Europe to Putin.

But if there is a rupture that threatens the smooth-functioning machine Republicans need to enact an agenda with little or no Democratic support, don’t assume Trump will have to come hat in hand to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or beg for support from conservative think-tanks or opinion outlets.

In that context, it’s less surprising, if no less scandalous, that the GOP has surrendered to Trump so quickly.


January 27: Republicans Are Wandering Around in the Dark, Looking For a Legislative Strategy

One of the strangest phenomena of this strange week was to watch congressional Republicans gather in Philadelphia to get their act together, only to wind up more lost than ever. I wrote about the first two days of their “retreat”–and a retreat it was!–at New York:

The congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia this week was supposed to foster highly efficient private discussions and briefings, and let the solons emerge from their labors revealed as a lean, mean, legislating machine. From reports at the end of the first day, however, they looked more like lost sheep, disappointed at the inability of their leaders to provide clear direction on how they would negotiate the tangle of health care, budget, and tax legislation they’ve committed to enact. There is particular anxiety about the very first item on everyone’s agenda: the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

“Exact, specific and detailed — that’s what people want,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re going to own this stuff, and we better be able to explain it.”

They sure didn’t get that kind of guidance. Here’s an example:

“I don’t think you will see a plan,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of a key subcommittee on health care. “I think you will see components of a plan that are part of different pieces of legislation that will make up what will ultimately be the plan.”

That’s clear as mud, isn’t it?

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan tried to generate a sense of decisiveness and momentum by talking about the timetable for one reconciliation bill to repeal (and replace?) Obamacare, another to cut taxes, and additional actions required on appropriations. But the content of all this frenetic activity was left maddeningly vague.

The big problem Republicans face, of course (beyond the unpopularity and the fiscal unfeasibility of much of what they want), is that they’ve chosen a partisan strategy to enact their agenda, which means precision timing and, most of all, advance assurances their own president is onboard are critical. Nobody wants to be halfway through an amendment vote-a-rama on a budget-reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare to find out via Twitter that Donald Trump has changed his mind or finally understood some key issue thought to be long resolved. So the Republicans in Philadelphia expected some guidance and feedback from the president, scheduled to address them on the second day.

Instead, Trump gave them a ton of headaches even as they arrived in Philadelphia, with a bunch of executive orders on hot-button issues. It was painfully clear nobody at the gathering had been given a heads-up on what he planned to do while they were away from Washington, and new issues to grapple with were absolutely the last things they needed.

But the senators and congressmen dutifully cheered the new boss during his pithy remarks today, even as many inwardly cringed at his cavalier disregard for their needs, and his insistence on pursuing entirely imaginary priorities like “voter fraud,” a reminder that he is still upset about losing the popular vote last November.

What they did not get from Trump’s speech was even an ounce of guidance. His comments on tax reform amounted to one vague sentence. On Obamacare, he spent most of his time making the strange and incredible claim that he had thought seriously about letting the present system stay in place until it collapsed, but instead decided to “help out” Democrats by putting it to the sword. He did mention his interest in a big fat infrastructure spending binge, which most Republicans, worried about the red ink he seems determined to spill, would love just to go away. All in all, it was a sort of unplugged version of a 2016 Trump campaign speech.

Sure, Trump or his underlings could convey more concrete hopes, wishes, and instructions informally whenever they wanted. But listening to Republicans in Philadelphia and elsewhere, it sure sounds like that’s not happening, at least not yet. And so they rush toward the deadlines they’ve set for themselves, without the slightest assurance any of their complex legislative maneuvers will turn out well.

After I wrote all that, the Washington Post published an account of their discussions on Obamacare, based on a recording of the GOP retreat, and believe it or not, they sound even more confused than I had imagined. They’re not at all in any sort of agreement on timing, substance, procedures, or what kind of health system they think will exist when they are through with their efforts. According to their own budget resolution, they were supposed to start putting together the reconciliation bill that would repeal Obamacare today. They are miles and miles away from that point right now, and may never get there, at this rate.


Republicans Are Wandering Around in the Dark, Looking For a Legislative Strategy

One of the strangest phenomena of this strange week was to watch congressional Republicans gather in Philadelphia to get their act together, only to wind up more lost than ever. I wrote about the first two days of their “retreat”–and a retreat it was!–at New York:

The congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia this week was supposed to foster highly efficient private discussions and briefings, and let the solons emerge from their labors revealed as a lean, mean, legislating machine. From reports at the end of the first day, however, they looked more like lost sheep, disappointed at the inability of their leaders to provide clear direction on how they would negotiate the tangle of health care, budget, and tax legislation they’ve committed to enact. There is particular anxiety about the very first item on everyone’s agenda: the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

“Exact, specific and detailed — that’s what people want,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re going to own this stuff, and we better be able to explain it.”

They sure didn’t get that kind of guidance. Here’s an example:

“I don’t think you will see a plan,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of a key subcommittee on health care. “I think you will see components of a plan that are part of different pieces of legislation that will make up what will ultimately be the plan.”

That’s clear as mud, isn’t it?

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan tried to generate a sense of decisiveness and momentum by talking about the timetable for one reconciliation bill to repeal (and replace?) Obamacare, another to cut taxes, and additional actions required on appropriations. But the content of all this frenetic activity was left maddeningly vague.

The big problem Republicans face, of course (beyond the unpopularity and the fiscal unfeasibility of much of what they want), is that they’ve chosen a partisan strategy to enact their agenda, which means precision timing and, most of all, advance assurances their own president is onboard are critical. Nobody wants to be halfway through an amendment vote-a-rama on a budget-reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare to find out via Twitter that Donald Trump has changed his mind or finally understood some key issue thought to be long resolved. So the Republicans in Philadelphia expected some guidance and feedback from the president, scheduled to address them on the second day.

Instead, Trump gave them a ton of headaches even as they arrived in Philadelphia, with a bunch of executive orders on hot-button issues. It was painfully clear nobody at the gathering had been given a heads-up on what he planned to do while they were away from Washington, and new issues to grapple with were absolutely the last things they needed.

But the senators and congressmen dutifully cheered the new boss during his pithy remarks today, even as many inwardly cringed at his cavalier disregard for their needs, and his insistence on pursuing entirely imaginary priorities like “voter fraud,” a reminder that he is still upset about losing the popular vote last November.

What they did not get from Trump’s speech was even an ounce of guidance. His comments on tax reform amounted to one vague sentence. On Obamacare, he spent most of his time making the strange and incredible claim that he had thought seriously about letting the present system stay in place until it collapsed, but instead decided to “help out” Democrats by putting it to the sword. He did mention his interest in a big fat infrastructure spending binge, which most Republicans, worried about the red ink he seems determined to spill, would love just to go away. All in all, it was a sort of unplugged version of a 2016 Trump campaign speech.

Sure, Trump or his underlings could convey more concrete hopes, wishes, and instructions informally whenever they wanted. But listening to Republicans in Philadelphia and elsewhere, it sure sounds like that’s not happening, at least not yet. And so they rush toward the deadlines they’ve set for themselves, without the slightest assurance any of their complex legislative maneuvers will turn out well.

After I wrote all that, the Washington Post published an account of their discussions on Obamacare, based on a recording of the GOP retreat, and believe it or not, they sound even more confused than I had imagined. They’re not at all in any sort of agreement on timing, substance, procedures, or what kind of health system they think will exist when they are through with their efforts. According to their own budget resolution, they were supposed to start putting together the reconciliation bill that would repeal Obamacare today. They are miles and miles away from that point right now, and may never get there, at this rate.