washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

February 24: Trump Offers Conservatives the World If They Give Him Their Souls

After watching and pondering Donald Trump’s speech to a large roomful of conservatives at CPAC, I no longer had any doubt about the 45th president’s relationship with the GOP and its long-dominant faction. I wrote up my conclusions for New York:

Amazingly, Trump spoke for an extended period to an exclusively conservative audience and never used the terms liberty or limited government or free enterprise. He used the word freedom exactly twice. Once was in a reference to the TPP agreement being a threat to “our economic freedom,” a characterization that — until recently — few mainstream conservatives would support. The other was in boasting about his election win:

“The victory and the win were something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law. Our victory…(APPLAUSE)… was a victory and the win for conservative values.”

That was also the speech’s only clear reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the brand of conservative values that have dominated the discourse at CPAC for decades.

Trump did offer a lot of crowd-pleasing lines, roughly divided equally between attacks on common enemies like the non-conservative elements of the news media, and promises to pursue specific policies most conservatives like, from defense spending increases to tax cuts to deregulation to aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels.

But invariably Trump framed his policies not with the traditional memes of movement conservatism, but as expressions of his one clear guiding principle: nationalism. Or, as he put it: “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”

While patriotism, of course, is a common touchstone for American conservatives (and for liberals, though conservatives often have trouble acknowledging it), nationalism disassociated from the idea that America distinctively stands for universal values — e.g., freedom or “liberty” or limited government — is not a value Republicans have traditionally embraced. Presumably many of the same people who cheered Trump at CPAC also cheered George W. Bush when he used to talk about freedom and democracy being America’s gift to the world, a gift worth fighting to defend and extend — rhetoric Ronald Reagan also used throughout his career (otherwise his favorite rhetorical reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” is nonsensical).

The idea that Trump isn’t asking conservatives to change that much simply is not true. He’s asking them to acknowledge that discarding their most cherished positions in order to vanquish their foes and achieve their immediate goals is absolutely necessary, with his electoral victory after the defeat of more conventional leaders like McCain and Romney being the proof. And thus he represents the eternal temptation of right-bent political thinkers and actors everywhere and at every time to overcome their scruples and embrace “populist” demagogues.

As Trump ended his speech and the room was filled with his odd campaign anthem, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for the first time I saw the song as entirely appropriate. Conservatives cannot elect a president who talks only or mostly of freedom and capitalism or of those Western values that transcend the nation-state. But they can win with Trump, so they’ll get what they need, at the mere expense of their principles, if not their souls.

It’s a deal with the devil most of them seem more than willing to take.


Trump Offers Conservatives the World If They Give Him Their Souls

After watching and pondering Donald Trump’s speech to a large roomful of conservatives at CPAC, I no longer had any doubt about the 45th president’s relationship with the GOP and its long-dominant faction. I wrote up my conclusions for New York:

Amazingly, Trump spoke for an extended period to an exclusively conservative audience and never used the terms liberty or limited government or free enterprise. He used the word freedom exactly twice. Once was in a reference to the TPP agreement being a threat to “our economic freedom,” a characterization that — until recently — few mainstream conservatives would support. The other was in boasting about his election win:

“The victory and the win were something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law. Our victory…(APPLAUSE)… was a victory and the win for conservative values.”

That was also the speech’s only clear reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the brand of conservative values that have dominated the discourse at CPAC for decades.

Trump did offer a lot of crowd-pleasing lines, roughly divided equally between attacks on common enemies like the non-conservative elements of the news media, and promises to pursue specific policies most conservatives like, from defense spending increases to tax cuts to deregulation to aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels.

But invariably Trump framed his policies not with the traditional memes of movement conservatism, but as expressions of his one clear guiding principle: nationalism. Or, as he put it: “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”

While patriotism, of course, is a common touchstone for American conservatives (and for liberals, though conservatives often have trouble acknowledging it), nationalism disassociated from the idea that America distinctively stands for universal values — e.g., freedom or “liberty” or limited government — is not a value Republicans have traditionally embraced. Presumably many of the same people who cheered Trump at CPAC also cheered George W. Bush when he used to talk about freedom and democracy being America’s gift to the world, a gift worth fighting to defend and extend — rhetoric Ronald Reagan also used throughout his career (otherwise his favorite rhetorical reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” is nonsensical).

The idea that Trump isn’t asking conservatives to change that much simply is not true. He’s asking them to acknowledge that discarding their most cherished positions in order to vanquish their foes and achieve their immediate goals is absolutely necessary, with his electoral victory after the defeat of more conventional leaders like McCain and Romney being the proof. And thus he represents the eternal temptation of right-bent political thinkers and actors everywhere and at every time to overcome their scruples and embrace “populist” demagogues.

As Trump ended his speech and the room was filled with his odd campaign anthem, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for the first time I saw the song as entirely appropriate. Conservatives cannot elect a president who talks only or mostly of freedom and capitalism or of those Western values that transcend the nation-state. But they can win with Trump, so they’ll get what they need, at the mere expense of their principles, if not their souls.

It’s a deal with the devil most of them seem more than willing to take.


February 23: Trump Bending Conservatism To His Will

Going into this week’s annual CPAC conference, I thought it would be a good idea to examine the power dynamics between the new regime and the conservative movement that once kept its difference from Trump. I did so at New York earlier this week:

The chief celebrant [at CPAC] will, of course, be the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who welcomes every chance to display his political success and bask in the adulation of people who very likely viewed him as a sideshow act during his previous appearances at CPAC in 2011, 2013, and 2015. This year’s CPAC caps the remarkable process whereby this heretic not only became acceptable to conservatives during the course of the 2016 campaign, but is rapidly placing his stamp on conservatism as we know it —in the past a durable ideology that transcended constant arguments over strategy and tactics. It is safe to say that a lot, perhaps a majority, of those who will hear Trump speak Friday morning could not have imagined the scene just two years ago. So the question that will come up again and again at CPAC is whether Trump is adjusting himself to conservatism now that he leads America’s conservative party, or whether conservatism is fundamentally changing to accommodate his power and voter appeal.

Luckily for Trump, CPAC is occurring before any major rifts have opened up between his nascent administration and the Republican leadership of Congress. So the mood is likely to be upbeat, with various factions on the right all seeing what they want to see in the road just ahead. Don’t let the brouhaha over Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled and then canceled appearance fool you, though: The furor he aroused among conservatives was more about issues relating to his provocative treatment of his own gay sexuality (very recently CPAC was roiled by arguments as to whether pro-gay-rights conservative groups were even welcome as paying sponsors of the event) than about his role as a legitimizer of the seedier side of the alt-right. Yes, an ACU board member is scheduled to assail the alt-right in a speech Thursday morning. But that may be part of a process to limn the limits within which Trumpian nationalism will be fully embraced.

And embraced it most definitely will be. The Washington Post’s veteran conservative watchers Robert Costa and David Weigel had this assessment:

“This year’s CPAC schedule represents a marked shift toward Trump’s politics and penchant for showmanship. Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit politician from Britain who spoke to an emptying room in 2015, will speak the same morning as Trump. Reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear with a super PAC trying to draft Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a regular Trump supporter on the cable news circuit, into Wisconsin’s 2018 Senate race.

“’There used to be Pat Buchanan’s people, the populist ­revolt-types and the establishment of the anti-establishment, who’d get a third of the vote in the primaries and we’d beat them back,’” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who led a super PAC that supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. ‘Now they’ve hijacked the Republican Party.’”

Murphy is the rare bitter-end #NeverTrump conservative who is still speaking out against the new regime. The vast majority of former Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich supporters who are going along with Trump, with or without private misgivings, are probably more likely to think CPAC is seducing Trump rather than succumbing to his sinister blandishments. But it is hard to deny the different tone of this particular CPAC. I count eight separate appearances by Brietbart writers on the agenda. The very first speaker when the full event begins tomorrow is Kellyanne Conway. Later that day Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus will appear together. As Costa and Weigel explain, the symbolism of that appearance is not lost on anyone:

By sitting with Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bannon aims to showcase how the party guard and formerly obscure players on the right are in power and working together to enact a new kind of conservative agenda, the official said, one that is directed at reaching working-class voters who are disillusioned with the global economy and elites.
The new crowd at CPAC will displace certain once-prominent members of the old crowd. From 2007 through 2015, the CPAC presidential straw poll was won four times by Mitt Romney, twice by Ron Paul, and three times by Rand Paul. Romney and the Pauls will be nowhere in sight at this CPAC. That may help answer the underlying question of (to borrow Aretha Franklin’s phrase) who’s zooming who in the relationship between conservatism and Team Trump.


Trump Bending Conservatism To His Will

Going into this week’s annual CPAC conference, I thought it would be a good idea to examine the power dynamics between the new regime and the conservative movement that once kept its difference from Trump. I did so at New York earlier this week:

The chief celebrant [at CPAC] will, of course, be the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who welcomes every chance to display his political success and bask in the adulation of people who very likely viewed him as a sideshow act during his previous appearances at CPAC in 2011, 2013, and 2015. This year’s CPAC caps the remarkable process whereby this heretic not only became acceptable to conservatives during the course of the 2016 campaign, but is rapidly placing his stamp on conservatism as we know it —in the past a durable ideology that transcended constant arguments over strategy and tactics. It is safe to say that a lot, perhaps a majority, of those who will hear Trump speak Friday morning could not have imagined the scene just two years ago. So the question that will come up again and again at CPAC is whether Trump is adjusting himself to conservatism now that he leads America’s conservative party, or whether conservatism is fundamentally changing to accommodate his power and voter appeal.

Luckily for Trump, CPAC is occurring before any major rifts have opened up between his nascent administration and the Republican leadership of Congress. So the mood is likely to be upbeat, with various factions on the right all seeing what they want to see in the road just ahead. Don’t let the brouhaha over Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled and then canceled appearance fool you, though: The furor he aroused among conservatives was more about issues relating to his provocative treatment of his own gay sexuality (very recently CPAC was roiled by arguments as to whether pro-gay-rights conservative groups were even welcome as paying sponsors of the event) than about his role as a legitimizer of the seedier side of the alt-right. Yes, an ACU board member is scheduled to assail the alt-right in a speech Thursday morning. But that may be part of a process to limn the limits within which Trumpian nationalism will be fully embraced.

And embraced it most definitely will be. The Washington Post’s veteran conservative watchers Robert Costa and David Weigel had this assessment:

“This year’s CPAC schedule represents a marked shift toward Trump’s politics and penchant for showmanship. Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit politician from Britain who spoke to an emptying room in 2015, will speak the same morning as Trump. Reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear with a super PAC trying to draft Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a regular Trump supporter on the cable news circuit, into Wisconsin’s 2018 Senate race.

“’There used to be Pat Buchanan’s people, the populist ­revolt-types and the establishment of the anti-establishment, who’d get a third of the vote in the primaries and we’d beat them back,’” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who led a super PAC that supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. ‘Now they’ve hijacked the Republican Party.’”

Murphy is the rare bitter-end #NeverTrump conservative who is still speaking out against the new regime. The vast majority of former Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich supporters who are going along with Trump, with or without private misgivings, are probably more likely to think CPAC is seducing Trump rather than succumbing to his sinister blandishments. But it is hard to deny the different tone of this particular CPAC. I count eight separate appearances by Brietbart writers on the agenda. The very first speaker when the full event begins tomorrow is Kellyanne Conway. Later that day Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus will appear together. As Costa and Weigel explain, the symbolism of that appearance is not lost on anyone:

By sitting with Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bannon aims to showcase how the party guard and formerly obscure players on the right are in power and working together to enact a new kind of conservative agenda, the official said, one that is directed at reaching working-class voters who are disillusioned with the global economy and elites.
The new crowd at CPAC will displace certain once-prominent members of the old crowd. From 2007 through 2015, the CPAC presidential straw poll was won four times by Mitt Romney, twice by Ron Paul, and three times by Rand Paul. Romney and the Pauls will be nowhere in sight at this CPAC. That may help answer the underlying question of (to borrow Aretha Franklin’s phrase) who’s zooming who in the relationship between conservatism and Team Trump.


February 17: Trump Kills the Traditional Presidential Presser

Like most political observers, I watched Donald Trump’s Thursday press conference–if that’s what you want to call it–with a mixture of fascination and horror. On reflection, I wrote these observations for New York:

Donald Trump’s impromptu 80-minute press conference today was by all accounts an unprecedented event. To journalists accustomed to the traditional presidential press conference, it was an interminable violation of all the rules — not just of presidential-media relations, but of grammar, logic, decorum, and even political common sense. Trump brought up, unbidden, his own past mistakes in order to fulminate about how they were covered months ago. He changed subjects constantly and unpredictably, beginning with the fact that the whole thing began as an announcement of his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, but soon went far, far afield and never returned. He insulted members of the working press before, during, and after their questions; he suggested one African-American reporter set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus because he assumed they were probably “your friends.” And just when one outrage concluded, another began, world without end.

Here was Politico’s take:

“It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump will hit the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds would be ‘massive.'”

What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.” Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.

And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again. And why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded. Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”

“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it….”

Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism —the more the better — the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it — and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine — makes it all the harder to treat him normally.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.


Trump Kills the Traditional Presidential Presser

Like most political observers, I watched Donald Trump’s Thursday press conference–if that’s what you want to call it–with a mixture of fascination and horror. On reflection, I wrote these observations for New York:

Donald Trump’s impromptu 80-minute press conference today was by all accounts an unprecedented event. To journalists accustomed to the traditional presidential press conference, it was an interminable violation of all the rules — not just of presidential-media relations, but of grammar, logic, decorum, and even political common sense. Trump brought up, unbidden, his own past mistakes in order to fulminate about how they were covered months ago. He changed subjects constantly and unpredictably, beginning with the fact that the whole thing began as an announcement of his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, but soon went far, far afield and never returned. He insulted members of the working press before, during, and after their questions; he suggested one African-American reporter set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus because he assumed they were probably “your friends.” And just when one outrage concluded, another began, world without end.

Here was Politico’s take:

“It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump will hit the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds would be ‘massive.'”

What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.” Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.

And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again. And why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded. Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”

“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it….”

Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism —the more the better — the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it — and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine — makes it all the harder to treat him normally.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.


February 15: GOP Struggling To Escape Self-Imposed Trap On Obamacare

The agony of congressional Republicans as they try to figure out how to keep various promises on repealing and replacing Obamacare is becoming fascinating to watch. I tried to explain their plight this week at New York:

[T]he GOP congressional leadership seem[s] to be coalescing around a strategy sometimes called “repeal-plus”— using the pending budget-reconciliation bill they authorized last month to repeal the non-regulatory portions of the Affordable Care Act and at the same time enact those elements of a replacement plan on which most Republicans can agree.

But the strategy must somehow thread the needle between the desire of the public (reinforced by Donald Trump’s promises) for maintaining Obamacare levels of health coverage, and conservative pressure to get rid of as much of the socialist abomination as is possible. This latter pressure point is gaining strength as House conservatives threaten to vote against anything that’s not a straight repeal of Obamacare, while the venerable tea party group FreedomWorks plans to mobilize grassroots support for the least Obamacare-like alternative out there, Rand Paul’s let-’em-eat-markets approach.

As Politico reports, as many as 50 House Republicans are prepared to demand a vote on the “dry run” Obamacare repeal legislation Congress sent to Barack Obama for a certain veto early last year. It was a straight repeal without replacement provisions, and, for dessert, also included defunding Planned Parenthood. This is the same bill, it should be remembered, that the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated would cost 18 million Americans their health coverage almost immediately (and 32 million within ten years), while boosting individual insurance-policy premiums by more than 20 percent.

The odds of such legislation getting through the Senate are vanishingly small, even though (a) no Democratic votes would be necessary and (b) all non-freshman Senate Republicans voted for it last year, when of course they knew it would not become law. This latter factor means that Mitch McConnell would use all his leverage with Paul Ryan to avoid such a bill coming over from the House and showing up GOP senators as having something less than the courage of their alleged convictions.

Everybody understands these dynamics, so it’s likely the real purpose of the House conservative gambit in pushing a politically disastrous repeal-without-replace plan — aside from signaling impatience about inaction — is to keep GOP leaders from going too far in the direction of continuing the very Obamacare policies the public (and presumably fearful Republican senators) would like them to continue. Provisions that might lead to a full-scale conservative revolt range from maintenance of the taxes that financed Obamacare coverage (and that would be supremely useful in paying for a GOP replacement), to too-generous subsidies for private insurance purchases, to excessive generosity to states that accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, to inadequate “freedom” for insurers to discriminate against the old and the sick.

That could leave Republicans with not much more in the way of “replacement” items as such hardy GOP perennials as subsidies for Health Savings Accounts, authorization of interstate insurance sales, and sharp reductions in mandatory benefits for those receiving subsidies. As Ron Brownstein pointed out recently, all these ancient conservative health-policy ideas would erode coverage for the older Americans who happen to be most likely to vote Republican, while boosting out-of-pocket costs for the white-working-class voters who think costs are too high under Obamacare.

These cross-pressures to avoid anything that looks like Obamacare Lite but at the same time to avoid disruption of existing coverage are why Republicans are in such disarray on the subject to begin with. Just punting tough decisions down the road with a repeal-and-delay strategy that maintains Obamacare for years no longer seems like a viable option; conservatives hate it and it creates too much uncertainty in markets. But doing a mini-replacement (which is where “repeal-plus” seems headed) in the current budget-reconciliation vehicle means that any further replacement elements will require 60 Senate votes, meaning at least eight Democrats would have to go along.

As budget expert Stan Collender notes, that brilliant GOP plan for a legislative blitzkrieg this year that would repeal and replace Obamacare, slash taxes, and “reform” the welfare state, all through budget vehicles that made Democrats irrelevant, is looking mighty iffy now. Congressional Republicans cannot put off decisions about Obamacare much longer without imperiling the timetable for everything else they need to do. And there is always the possibility they will be caught by some random Trump tweet and forced to change direction. You have to figure Republican discussions on the legislative agenda, which were supposed to be resolved at a GOP retreat nearly three weeks ago, are in danger of descending into sweaty white-knuckled madness.

It would almost be fun to watch, if it did not affect health coverage for tens of millions of Americans.


GOP Struggling To Escape Self-Imposed Trap on Obamacare

The agony of congressional Republicans as they try to figure out how to keep various promises on repealing and replacing Obamacare is becoming fascinating to watch. I tried to explain their plight this week at New York:

[T]he GOP congressional leadership seem[s] to be coalescing around a strategy sometimes called “repeal-plus”— using the pending budget-reconciliation bill they authorized last month to repeal the non-regulatory portions of the Affordable Care Act and at the same time enact those elements of a replacement plan on which most Republicans can agree.

But the strategy must somehow thread the needle between the desire of the public (reinforced by Donald Trump’s promises) for maintaining Obamacare levels of health coverage, and conservative pressure to get rid of as much of the socialist abomination as is possible. This latter pressure point is gaining strength as House conservatives threaten to vote against anything that’s not a straight repeal of Obamacare, while the venerable tea party group FreedomWorks plans to mobilize grassroots support for the least Obamacare-like alternative out there, Rand Paul’s let-’em-eat-markets approach.

As Politico reports, as many as 50 House Republicans are prepared to demand a vote on the “dry run” Obamacare repeal legislation Congress sent to Barack Obama for a certain veto early last year. It was a straight repeal without replacement provisions, and, for dessert, also included defunding Planned Parenthood. This is the same bill, it should be remembered, that the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated would cost 18 million Americans their health coverage almost immediately (and 32 million within ten years), while boosting individual insurance-policy premiums by more than 20 percent.

The odds of such legislation getting through the Senate are vanishingly small, even though (a) no Democratic votes would be necessary and (b) all non-freshman Senate Republicans voted for it last year, when of course they knew it would not become law. This latter factor means that Mitch McConnell would use all his leverage with Paul Ryan to avoid such a bill coming over from the House and showing up GOP senators as having something less than the courage of their alleged convictions.

Everybody understands these dynamics, so it’s likely the real purpose of the House conservative gambit in pushing a politically disastrous repeal-without-replace plan — aside from signaling impatience about inaction — is to keep GOP leaders from going too far in the direction of continuing the very Obamacare policies the public (and presumably fearful Republican senators) would like them to continue. Provisions that might lead to a full-scale conservative revolt range from maintenance of the taxes that financed Obamacare coverage (and that would be supremely useful in paying for a GOP replacement), to too-generous subsidies for private insurance purchases, to excessive generosity to states that accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, to inadequate “freedom” for insurers to discriminate against the old and the sick.

That could leave Republicans with not much more in the way of “replacement” items as such hardy GOP perennials as subsidies for Health Savings Accounts, authorization of interstate insurance sales, and sharp reductions in mandatory benefits for those receiving subsidies. As Ron Brownstein pointed out recently, all these ancient conservative health-policy ideas would erode coverage for the older Americans who happen to be most likely to vote Republican, while boosting out-of-pocket costs for the white-working-class voters who think costs are too high under Obamacare.

These cross-pressures to avoid anything that looks like Obamacare Lite but at the same time to avoid disruption of existing coverage are why Republicans are in such disarray on the subject to begin with. Just punting tough decisions down the road with a repeal-and-delay strategy that maintains Obamacare for years no longer seems like a viable option; conservatives hate it and it creates too much uncertainty in markets. But doing a mini-replacement (which is where “repeal-plus” seems headed) in the current budget-reconciliation vehicle means that any further replacement elements will require 60 Senate votes, meaning at least eight Democrats would have to go along.

As budget expert Stan Collender notes, that brilliant GOP plan for a legislative blitzkrieg this year that would repeal and replace Obamacare, slash taxes, and “reform” the welfare state, all through budget vehicles that made Democrats irrelevant, is looking mighty iffy now. Congressional Republicans cannot put off decisions about Obamacare much longer without imperiling the timetable for everything else they need to do. And there is always the possibility they will be caught by some random Trump tweet and forced to change direction. You have to figure Republican discussions on the legislative agenda, which were supposed to be resolved at a GOP retreat nearly three weeks ago, are in danger of descending into sweaty white-knuckled madness.

It would almost be fun to watch, if it did not affect health coverage for tens of millions of Americans.


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.