washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

January 5: Trump’s Narcissistic Jobs Strategy

As you may have noticed, Donald Trump was given credit this week for a decision by Ford to keep some operations in Michigan that earlier seemed headed to Mexico. This is becoming a pattern, as I noted at New York:

From time immemorial corporate executives have played a certain back-scratching if fundamentally dishonest game with politicians, usually at the state or local levels. The corporate types make an investment or employment decision that appears to benefit a particular place, maybe because it makes sense generally, maybe in response to government inducements (maybe disclosed publicly, maybe not). And then they cooperate by giving credit to a friendly politician, who gets to announce a ribbon-cutting or ground-breaking or “jobs saved” claim which is supposed to symbolize the pol’s economic development chops. Usually the economic impact of the “deal” is small potatoes, and may even be offset by the cost of inducements. And in most cases the positive development would have probably happened anyway. But it is in not in the interest of any of the players in the game to admit that it’s all a shuck.

It is increasingly apparent that one of the distinctive features of the Trump administration will be raising that particular game to the national level. The first such Trump-brokered “deal” involved the Carrier Corporation, of course. But since that was a particular company Trump bashed during the presidential campaign for its outsourcing practices, and because Trump’s own running mate Mike Pence was in a position to create inducements as governor of Indiana, it looked like it could be a unique event.

Not any more. The automaker Ford has announced Trump is responsible for a decision to make certain cars in Michigan rather than Mexico. Ford claims they didn’t get any public subsidies or concessions to make this showy about-face, from Trump or anyone else; no, it was just a “vote of confidence” in the mogul’s plans to make America a lean, mean, job-creatin’ machine. Never mind that Trump attacked Ford for its Mexican plans during the campaign, or that he threatened to slap a 35 percent tariff on the company’s Mexican-produced vehicles — that’s apparently just a coincidence.

Now, aside from the rather ludicrous suggestion that Trump’s threats were not a factor in this decision, it is important to note that it involves 1,000 jobs (or so Ford claims, anyway). Yes, there are spin-off effects, and sure, if you are an unemployed or potentially unemployed autoworker living in Flat Rock, Michigan (the site of the plant now blessed by Ford and Trump) it’s a big deal.

Having said that, these 1,000 jobs or the alleged (though disputed) 1,100 jobs saved by the Carrier deal are not the stuff of a national economic strategy. It’s more like a Tinkertoy substitute for a national economic strategy at best, and a cynical exploitation of public misapprehensions about how the economy works at worst, with Lord only knows what kind of concealed price down the road. Is the President of the United States going to bribe or browbeat enough individual companies to double GDP growth? Or is this just a display for the benefit of Rust Belt Trump voters to keep them from concluding their hero has betrayed them when he kills Obamacare or plunges us all into a trade-related recession?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do suspect that if Trump continues this narcissistic approach to job creation it will soon be apparent he’s like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.


Trump’s Narcissistic Jobs Strategy

As you may have noticed, Donald Trump was given credit this week for a decision by Ford to keep some operations in Michigan that earlier seemed headed to Mexico. This is becoming a pattern, as I noted at New York:

From time immemorial corporate executives have played a certain back-scratching if fundamentally dishonest game with politicians, usually at the state or local levels. The corporate types make an investment or employment decision that appears to benefit a particular place, maybe because it makes sense generally, maybe in response to government inducements (maybe disclosed publicly, maybe not). And then they cooperate by giving credit to a friendly politician, who gets to announce a ribbon-cutting or ground-breaking or “jobs saved” claim which is supposed to symbolize the pol’s economic development chops. Usually the economic impact of the “deal” is small potatoes, and may even be offset by the cost of inducements. And in most cases the positive development would have probably happened anyway. But it is in not in the interest of any of the players in the game to admit that it’s all a shuck.

It is increasingly apparent that one of the distinctive features of the Trump administration will be raising that particular game to the national level. The first such Trump-brokered “deal” involved the Carrier Corporation, of course. But since that was a particular company Trump bashed during the presidential campaign for its outsourcing practices, and because Trump’s own running mate Mike Pence was in a position to create inducements as governor of Indiana, it looked like it could be a unique event.

Not any more. The automaker Ford has announced Trump is responsible for a decision to make certain cars in Michigan rather than Mexico. Ford claims they didn’t get any public subsidies or concessions to make this showy about-face, from Trump or anyone else; no, it was just a “vote of confidence” in the mogul’s plans to make America a lean, mean, job-creatin’ machine. Never mind that Trump attacked Ford for its Mexican plans during the campaign, or that he threatened to slap a 35 percent tariff on the company’s Mexican-produced vehicles — that’s apparently just a coincidence.

Now, aside from the rather ludicrous suggestion that Trump’s threats were not a factor in this decision, it is important to note that it involves 1,000 jobs (or so Ford claims, anyway). Yes, there are spin-off effects, and sure, if you are an unemployed or potentially unemployed autoworker living in Flat Rock, Michigan (the site of the plant now blessed by Ford and Trump) it’s a big deal.

Having said that, these 1,000 jobs or the alleged (though disputed) 1,100 jobs saved by the Carrier deal are not the stuff of a national economic strategy. It’s more like a Tinkertoy substitute for a national economic strategy at best, and a cynical exploitation of public misapprehensions about how the economy works at worst, with Lord only knows what kind of concealed price down the road. Is the President of the United States going to bribe or browbeat enough individual companies to double GDP growth? Or is this just a display for the benefit of Rust Belt Trump voters to keep them from concluding their hero has betrayed them when he kills Obamacare or plunges us all into a trade-related recession?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do suspect that if Trump continues this narcissistic approach to job creation it will soon be apparent he’s like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.


December 29: Lessons For Republicans From W.’s Administration

As Paul Starr reminds us, Republicans are about to enjoy only their third “trifecta”–control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government–in 74 years. The most recent example should be of interest to those who want to avoid disaster, as I discussed this week at New York:

[T]he George W. Bush administration offers all sorts of recent evidence about how to profit from and squander a trifecta.

An incoming administration with this kind of power can go two different ways: using it to the hilt to achieve enduring ideological goals at the risk of losing popularity, or using it judiciously to expand the party’s base.

W.’s administration, despite the incredibly controversial nature of its claim on the White House, did not begin with much humility or ideological moderation. Its first policy thrust was to fight for a huge upper-income-targeted tax cut. While that cut was enacted after some adjustments to win Democratic Senate votes, the prevailing atmosphere of ideological warfare cost Republicans control of the Senate almost immediately as Jim Jeffords switched parties. It looked at the time like the newly ascendent conservative Republicans had been taken down a peg. Then came 9/11, and an enormous accretion of popularity for Bush, which he largely used to pursue the ideologically tinged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that eventually did so much to erode Republican power.

On the domestic front, however, Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, directed a highly strategic effort to expand the GOP base via targeted policies aimed at seniors (the Medicare prescription-drug benefit), women with kids (the No Child Left Behind education initiative), and Latinos (comprehensive immigration reform). The whole mix was enough to get Bush narrowly reelected in the first presidential year after 9/11. But he went for ideological gold again with a proposal to partially privatize Social Security that backfired spectacularly. The rest of his second term was dominated by growing pubic dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, a sluggish economy drifting toward catastrophe, and big management/public relations mistakes like the handling of Hurricane Katrina. In the background, moreover, Rove’s outreach agenda produced a growing backlash from conservatives, who did not appreciate the political attractiveness of “amnesty,” a “new health care entitlement” or “federal interference with local control of schools.”

By the time Bush left office, about the only policy legacy conservatives took special pride in was the tax cuts. And the conservative backlash to his heresies eventually manifested itself in the rise of the Tea Party Movement and a general radicalization of a frustrated right-wing-dominated GOP.

What are the lessons for today’s GOP as it looks forward to using or abusing its trifecta? Probably that party unity is critical, ideological overreach is dangerous, and foreign-policy hubris can be deadly — nearly as deadly as ignoring signs of a housing bubble and an impending financial collapse. But the problem Republicans face now isn’t congressional RINOs like Jeffords or a too-clever-by-half “Mayberry Machiavelli” like Rove. It’s the figure supposedly at the wheel, the incoming president of the United States.

Trump and his closest associates have sometimes exhibited a deep interest in achieving big — or to use his language, “huge” — ideological goals. But it is not clear the ideology in question is conventional conservatism. They’ve also eagerly shown they want to use their power to build political support for the GOP. But that may be at the cost of deposing the Republican “Establishment” and turning the GOP into a cult of personality revolving around the Boss. As for the foreign adventures and economic malfeasance that brought down George W. Bush and wasted his trifecta, it is absolutely anybody’s guess what might happen in the next four years.

What should make the whole situation alarming to Republicans is that for all their chest-beating about their party being stronger than it has been since the Coolidge administration, they know they are one really bad midterm away from the situation they were in during the last two years of the second Bush administration. They should remember that not long before he became a figure of ridicule, W. was being hailed as the Liberator of Iraq, the savior of the conservative movement, and a world-historical figure standing astride a supine world like a colossus. Are they really sure Donald J. Trump will succeed where Bush failed, and for that matter, will not stab them in the back and leave them behind? If so, they truly are the Party of Faith.


Lessons For Republicans From W.’s Administration

As Paul Starr reminds us, Republicans are about to enjoy only their third “trifecta”–control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government–in 74 years. The most recent example should be of interest to those who want to avoid disaster, as I discussed this week at New York:

[T]he George W. Bush administration offers all sorts of recent evidence about how to profit from and squander a trifecta.

An incoming administration with this kind of power can go two different ways: using it to the hilt to achieve enduring ideological goals at the risk of losing popularity, or using it judiciously to expand the party’s base.

W.’s administration, despite the incredibly controversial nature of its claim on the White House, did not begin with much humility or ideological moderation. Its first policy thrust was to fight for a huge upper-income-targeted tax cut. While that cut was enacted after some adjustments to win Democratic Senate votes, the prevailing atmosphere of ideological warfare cost Republicans control of the Senate almost immediately as Jim Jeffords switched parties. It looked at the time like the newly ascendent conservative Republicans had been taken down a peg. Then came 9/11, and an enormous accretion of popularity for Bush, which he largely used to pursue the ideologically tinged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that eventually did so much to erode Republican power.

On the domestic front, however, Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, directed a highly strategic effort to expand the GOP base via targeted policies aimed at seniors (the Medicare prescription-drug benefit), women with kids (the No Child Left Behind education initiative), and Latinos (comprehensive immigration reform). The whole mix was enough to get Bush narrowly reelected in the first presidential year after 9/11. But he went for ideological gold again with a proposal to partially privatize Social Security that backfired spectacularly. The rest of his second term was dominated by growing pubic dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, a sluggish economy drifting toward catastrophe, and big management/public relations mistakes like the handling of Hurricane Katrina. In the background, moreover, Rove’s outreach agenda produced a growing backlash from conservatives, who did not appreciate the political attractiveness of “amnesty,” a “new health care entitlement” or “federal interference with local control of schools.”

By the time Bush left office, about the only policy legacy conservatives took special pride in was the tax cuts. And the conservative backlash to his heresies eventually manifested itself in the rise of the Tea Party Movement and a general radicalization of a frustrated right-wing-dominated GOP.

What are the lessons for today’s GOP as it looks forward to using or abusing its trifecta? Probably that party unity is critical, ideological overreach is dangerous, and foreign-policy hubris can be deadly — nearly as deadly as ignoring signs of a housing bubble and an impending financial collapse. But the problem Republicans face now isn’t congressional RINOs like Jeffords or a too-clever-by-half “Mayberry Machiavelli” like Rove. It’s the figure supposedly at the wheel, the incoming president of the United States.

Trump and his closest associates have sometimes exhibited a deep interest in achieving big — or to use his language, “huge” — ideological goals. But it is not clear the ideology in question is conventional conservatism. They’ve also eagerly shown they want to use their power to build political support for the GOP. But that may be at the cost of deposing the Republican “Establishment” and turning the GOP into a cult of personality revolving around the Boss. As for the foreign adventures and economic malfeasance that brought down George W. Bush and wasted his trifecta, it is absolutely anybody’s guess what might happen in the next four years.

What should make the whole situation alarming to Republicans is that for all their chest-beating about their party being stronger than it has been since the Coolidge administration, they know they are one really bad midterm away from the situation they were in during the last two years of the second Bush administration. They should remember that not long before he became a figure of ridicule, W. was being hailed as the Liberator of Iraq, the savior of the conservative movement, and a world-historical figure standing astride a supine world like a colossus. Are they really sure Donald J. Trump will succeed where Bush failed, and for that matter, will not stab them in the back and leave them behind? If so, they truly are the Party of Faith.


December 23: A Plan For Thwarting Trump

Tis the season for Democrats to get over November 8 and begin to plan ahead for how they intend to turn things around. I wrote up a nine-step recovery plan at New York this week:

Now that the 2016 election has formally ended, and there’s no denying Donald Trump the presidency, Democrats can finally and fully focus on their strategy for opposing him. I say “opposing him,” because everything Trump has done since November 8 shows beyond a reasonable doubt that there’s not going to be some shockingly moderate Trump administration as open to Democratic as to Republican policies and priorities. Becoming a “loyal opposition” is not an option, and if Democratic leaders actually went in that direction (beyond a few formulaic expressions of willingness to cooperate with Trump if he turns out to be someone other than himself), the Democratic rank and file would probably find themselves new leaders.

There is not much question that most congressional Democrats will be taking as a template Mitch McConnell’s declaration of scorched-earth opposition to all Barack Obama’s policies and initiatives in early 2009. Partly it’s a matter of payback, but the more important motive is that it worked: Democrats lost their control over Congress at the very first opportunity, in the 2010 midterms; even before that, major elements of Obama’s agenda — including climate-change legislation — were derailed. But there are some major differences between the situation of Democrats today and that of Republicans in 2009 and 2010 that should be reflected in the party’s strategy.

Democrats controlled 60 Senate seats as the Obama era began; today’s Republicans only control 52. That theoretically gives today’s Democrats more leverage — or, at the very least, it forces Republicans to squeeze as much of their agenda as possible into budget-reconciliation legislation that cannot be filibustered. At the very beginning of 2010, however, Republicans got a huge break when GOP candidate Scott Brown won a special election for the seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died, ending the Democrats’ ability to overcome a filibuster without Republican votes. Henceforth, Senate Republicans displayed impressive unity, and 41 votes were enough to pretty much end the really productive period of Democratic rule.

Can 48 Democrats accomplish as much obstruction as 42 Republicans did in Obama’s first two years? That’s not as clear as you might think, thanks to an unbelievably difficult 2018 Senate landscape that will constantly tempt the ten Democrats up for reelection in states Trump carried to defect. Six Republican senators from states carried by Obama in 2008 were up in 2010, but all of them were from states that were narrowly blue in 2008 and ripe for reversion to the GOP in midterms where turnout patterns favored Republicans.

Unify their ranks. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to keep potentially wayward colleagues inside a “big tent” with a broad leadership team that includes the especially vulnerable Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But it will take constant vigilance and even imagination to offer a message and agenda that gives senators like Manchin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana — all from states Trump carried by landslide margins — some opportunities to sound bipartisan without actually joining Senate Republicans on important votes. Outside Washington, the best template for party unity may be Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” at the Democratic National Committee (working in harness with Democratic Party committees in Congress) that helped keep Democrats focused on Republican weaknesses from the party’s 2004 defeat until its 2006 midterm landslide win.

Opportunities for unity will be enhanced if Democrats can get through a DNC chair contest early next year without too many recriminations, and avoid going back down the rabbit hole of finger-pointing about the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign or what might have happened with Bernie Sanders as the nominee.

Find a way to pick off three Republican senators. This will be absolutely crucial for confirmation and budget votes. Unlike Republicans eight years ago, Democrats cannot filibuster executive-branch or non–Supreme Court judicial nominations. This is a result of the party’s 2013 decision to invoke the “nuclear option” — that is, changing the Senate rules to provide for simple majorities in those situations. A key test of power in January and February will be whether 50 Senate Republicans (or fewer, if they can flip Democrats) can hang together to confirm Trump’s entire cabinet and enact a budget bill that repeals Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood (and perhaps other goodies for conservatives). There are already Senate Republican misgivings about Rex Tillerson at State, and all sorts of concerns about the structure and timing of an Obamacare repeal. So alert Democrats could find an opportunity to register early wins over Trump, but the need to appeal to Republicans could temper their rhetoric as well.

Beginning even before Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have to keep a keen eye out for opportunities (which may or may not arise) to split the GOP coalition — not just by picking off three senators now and then, but by exploiting any big differences of opinion between Trump and congressional Republicans (over budget, trade, or immigration policy, for example), or within the congressional Republican caucuses (perhaps a House Freedom Caucus revolt over raising the debt limit in March or a budget that does not sufficiently cut federal spending later in the year).

Develop an effective strategy for dealing with Trump’s SCOTUS nominee. A great deal of early drama will come from Trump’s pick to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court. In theory, Democrats will be able to filibuster that nomination and beat it with 41 votes, but the odds are extremely high that would trigger the GOP’s own “nuclear option” eliminating SCOTUS filibusters, too. So again it will be a matter of keeping Senate Democrats together and “flipping” three Republicans, which will only be possible if Trump nominates a real judicial extremist.

Decide when and how to fight for Obama’s executive orders. Still another theoretical opportunity to thwart Trump will be on votes to overturn recent Obama regulations via the Congressional Review Act (which will probably be amended to allow bundling of regulations to be killed into a single bill). Democrats must decide if such measures, which may attract Senate Democrats, are worth trying to stop with a filibuster. And they must also keep in mind that if they become too frustrated, Republicans could take the ultimate step of “nuking” filibusters of regular legislation.

Get prepared for what will probably be the most important bill of all — the GOP’s 2018 budget. After all these exciting preliminaries, the 115th Congress will settle down to “normal” business, though later in the year the odds are very high that Republicans will try to move a second, much larger budget-reconciliation bill that will likely include high-end tax cuts, defense spending increases, and potentially very large cuts in safety-net programs — in effect some version of the Ryan budgets congressional Republicans have been kicking around for years.

Hope that they’ll have a chance to fight for Medicare. Democrats are already expressing hopes that Trump and the GOP will overreach in their legislative onslaught and do something politically perilous like big changes to Medicare (entirely possible) or Social Security (much less likely). If that happens, congressional Democrats and their allies will replay the successful 2005 effort to beat back George W. Bush’s partial privatization proposal for Social Security, and no matter what happens the subject will be a big part of Democrats’ midterm message in 2018.

Barring that easy call for Democrats, they may be able to find other initiatives Trump and congressional Republicans are pursuing that can be exploited for public-opinion advantage or even a rare congressional victory. For example, if either in the Obamacare repeal bill or later Republicans pursue the plans both Ryan and Trump have embraced to turn Medicaid into a block grant (flat or reduced federal funding in exchange for state flexibility in running the program), the blowback from Republican governors and legislators worried about funding could cause problems, especially in the Senate.

Try to flip the House in 2018. Ultimately, of course, any Democratic strategy for dealing with the new realities created by the 2016 elections must aim at an electoral payoff, and again, their prospects do not quite resemble those of Republicans heading into what turned out to be a 2010 landslide. The aforementioned Senate landscape probably makes any Senate Democratic takeover in 2018 all but impossible. And so in contrast to 2016, Democrats, their donors, and advocacy groups will likely focus on the House, where the 26-vote gain necessary to flip the chamber could become feasible if the Trump administration stumbles badly or Republicans overreach. Democrats will also, of course, spend a lot of time going into 2018 on state-level elections, in preparation for the round of redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. And in both efforts they will need to solve the puzzle of how to get constituencies that typically do not turn out proportionately in nonpresidential elections to vote in a midterm.

Get ready for 2020. If Democrats fail where Republicans succeeded in decisively winning that first midterm after the White House has changed hands, they could still succeed where Republicans failed against Obama by denying Trump a second term. How to do that is a subject for many separate columns, but obviously doing damage to the ruling party wherever possible is part of the prep work.

Find tea-party-levels of intensity in the base. Above and beyond all the “inside baseball” strategies I’ve been talking about, Democrats must begin building the kind of “outside” organized pressure that the Republicans benefitted from when the tea party arrived on the scene in 2009. If the specter of Donald Trump in the White House does not generate immense energy for a popular opposition that need only be organized to unleash regular fury on a Republican-dominated Washington, it will be even more surprising than the mogul’s election.

It’s all quite a challenge for a Donkey Party that did not expect to be in this situation, and that is still tempted to engage in recriminations over Hillary Clinton’s nomination and campaign, or to struggle to define its own soul.

But if Republicans could succeed in thwarting a president as popular as Barack Obama was at this point eight years ago, Democrats ought to be able to do as well against the president who won the White House despite a historically low approval rating and immense concerns about his very legitimacy.

This is just a first draft for Democratic recovery; others are welcome.


A Plan for Thwarting Trump

Tis the season for Democrats to get over November 8 and begin to plan ahead for how they intend to turn things around. I wrote up a nine-step recovery plan at New York this week:

Now that the 2016 election has formally ended, and there’s no denying Donald Trump the presidency, Democrats can finally and fully focus on their strategy for opposing him. I say “opposing him,” because everything Trump has done since November 8 shows beyond a reasonable doubt that there’s not going to be some shockingly moderate Trump administration as open to Democratic as to Republican policies and priorities. Becoming a “loyal opposition” is not an option, and if Democratic leaders actually went in that direction (beyond a few formulaic expressions of willingness to cooperate with Trump if he turns out to be someone other than himself), the Democratic rank and file would probably find themselves new leaders.

There is not much question that most congressional Democrats will be taking as a template Mitch McConnell’s declaration of scorched-earth opposition to all Barack Obama’s policies and initiatives in early 2009. Partly it’s a matter of payback, but the more important motive is that it worked: Democrats lost their control over Congress at the very first opportunity, in the 2010 midterms; even before that, major elements of Obama’s agenda — including climate-change legislation — were derailed. But there are some major differences between the situation of Democrats today and that of Republicans in 2009 and 2010 that should be reflected in the party’s strategy.

Democrats controlled 60 Senate seats as the Obama era began; today’s Republicans only control 52. That theoretically gives today’s Democrats more leverage — or, at the very least, it forces Republicans to squeeze as much of their agenda as possible into budget-reconciliation legislation that cannot be filibustered. At the very beginning of 2010, however, Republicans got a huge break when GOP candidate Scott Brown won a special election for the seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died, ending the Democrats’ ability to overcome a filibuster without Republican votes. Henceforth, Senate Republicans displayed impressive unity, and 41 votes were enough to pretty much end the really productive period of Democratic rule.

Can 48 Democrats accomplish as much obstruction as 42 Republicans did in Obama’s first two years? That’s not as clear as you might think, thanks to an unbelievably difficult 2018 Senate landscape that will constantly tempt the ten Democrats up for reelection in states Trump carried to defect. Six Republican senators from states carried by Obama in 2008 were up in 2010, but all of them were from states that were narrowly blue in 2008 and ripe for reversion to the GOP in midterms where turnout patterns favored Republicans.

Unify their ranks. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to keep potentially wayward colleagues inside a “big tent” with a broad leadership team that includes the especially vulnerable Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But it will take constant vigilance and even imagination to offer a message and agenda that gives senators like Manchin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana — all from states Trump carried by landslide margins — some opportunities to sound bipartisan without actually joining Senate Republicans on important votes. Outside Washington, the best template for party unity may be Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” at the Democratic National Committee (working in harness with Democratic Party committees in Congress) that helped keep Democrats focused on Republican weaknesses from the party’s 2004 defeat until its 2006 midterm landslide win.

Opportunities for unity will be enhanced if Democrats can get through a DNC chair contest early next year without too many recriminations, and avoid going back down the rabbit hole of finger-pointing about the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign or what might have happened with Bernie Sanders as the nominee.

Find a way to pick off three Republican senators. This will be absolutely crucial for confirmation and budget votes. Unlike Republicans eight years ago, Democrats cannot filibuster executive-branch or non–Supreme Court judicial nominations. This is a result of the party’s 2013 decision to invoke the “nuclear option” — that is, changing the Senate rules to provide for simple majorities in those situations. A key test of power in January and February will be whether 50 Senate Republicans (or fewer, if they can flip Democrats) can hang together to confirm Trump’s entire cabinet and enact a budget bill that repeals Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood (and perhaps other goodies for conservatives). There are already Senate Republican misgivings about Rex Tillerson at State, and all sorts of concerns about the structure and timing of an Obamacare repeal. So alert Democrats could find an opportunity to register early wins over Trump, but the need to appeal to Republicans could temper their rhetoric as well.

Beginning even before Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have to keep a keen eye out for opportunities (which may or may not arise) to split the GOP coalition — not just by picking off three senators now and then, but by exploiting any big differences of opinion between Trump and congressional Republicans (over budget, trade, or immigration policy, for example), or within the congressional Republican caucuses (perhaps a House Freedom Caucus revolt over raising the debt limit in March or a budget that does not sufficiently cut federal spending later in the year).

Develop an effective strategy for dealing with Trump’s SCOTUS nominee. A great deal of early drama will come from Trump’s pick to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court. In theory, Democrats will be able to filibuster that nomination and beat it with 41 votes, but the odds are extremely high that would trigger the GOP’s own “nuclear option” eliminating SCOTUS filibusters, too. So again it will be a matter of keeping Senate Democrats together and “flipping” three Republicans, which will only be possible if Trump nominates a real judicial extremist.

Decide when and how to fight for Obama’s executive orders. Still another theoretical opportunity to thwart Trump will be on votes to overturn recent Obama regulations via the Congressional Review Act (which will probably be amended to allow bundling of regulations to be killed into a single bill). Democrats must decide if such measures, which may attract Senate Democrats, are worth trying to stop with a filibuster. And they must also keep in mind that if they become too frustrated, Republicans could take the ultimate step of “nuking” filibusters of regular legislation.

Get prepared for what will probably be the most important bill of all — the GOP’s 2018 budget. After all these exciting preliminaries, the 115th Congress will settle down to “normal” business, though later in the year the odds are very high that Republicans will try to move a second, much larger budget-reconciliation bill that will likely include high-end tax cuts, defense spending increases, and potentially very large cuts in safety-net programs — in effect some version of the Ryan budgets congressional Republicans have been kicking around for years.

Hope that they’ll have a chance to fight for Medicare. Democrats are already expressing hopes that Trump and the GOP will overreach in their legislative onslaught and do something politically perilous like big changes to Medicare (entirely possible) or Social Security (much less likely). If that happens, congressional Democrats and their allies will replay the successful 2005 effort to beat back George W. Bush’s partial privatization proposal for Social Security, and no matter what happens the subject will be a big part of Democrats’ midterm message in 2018.

Barring that easy call for Democrats, they may be able to find other initiatives Trump and congressional Republicans are pursuing that can be exploited for public-opinion advantage or even a rare congressional victory. For example, if either in the Obamacare repeal bill or later Republicans pursue the plans both Ryan and Trump have embraced to turn Medicaid into a block grant (flat or reduced federal funding in exchange for state flexibility in running the program), the blowback from Republican governors and legislators worried about funding could cause problems, especially in the Senate.

Try to flip the House in 2018. Ultimately, of course, any Democratic strategy for dealing with the new realities created by the 2016 elections must aim at an electoral payoff, and again, their prospects do not quite resemble those of Republicans heading into what turned out to be a 2010 landslide. The aforementioned Senate landscape probably makes any Senate Democratic takeover in 2018 all but impossible. And so in contrast to 2016, Democrats, their donors, and advocacy groups will likely focus on the House, where the 26-vote gain necessary to flip the chamber could become feasible if the Trump administration stumbles badly or Republicans overreach. Democrats will also, of course, spend a lot of time going into 2018 on state-level elections, in preparation for the round of redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. And in both efforts they will need to solve the puzzle of how to get constituencies that typically do not turn out proportionately in nonpresidential elections to vote in a midterm.

Get ready for 2020. If Democrats fail where Republicans succeeded in decisively winning that first midterm after the White House has changed hands, they could still succeed where Republicans failed against Obama by denying Trump a second term. How to do that is a subject for many separate columns, but obviously doing damage to the ruling party wherever possible is part of the prep work.

Find tea-party-levels of intensity in the base. Above and beyond all the “inside baseball” strategies I’ve been talking about, Democrats must begin building the kind of “outside” organized pressure that the Republicans benefitted from when the tea party arrived on the scene in 2009. If the specter of Donald Trump in the White House does not generate immense energy for a popular opposition that need only be organized to unleash regular fury on a Republican-dominated Washington, it will be even more surprising than the mogul’s election.

It’s all quite a challenge for a Donkey Party that did not expect to be in this situation, and that is still tempted to engage in recriminations over Hillary Clinton’s nomination and campaign, or to struggle to define its own soul.

But if Republicans could succeed in thwarting a president as popular as Barack Obama was at this point eight years ago, Democrats ought to be able to do as well against the president who won the White House despite a historically low approval rating and immense concerns about his very legitimacy.

This is just a first draft for Democratic recovery; others are welcome.


December 29: Final Results In a Crazy Close Presidential Election

The longest, strangest campaign year since, well, 2000, is finally over. I had some appropriately ruminative thoughts about it all at New York this week:

The final shoe to drop that really matters to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election fell yesterday as the Electoral College lifted Donald Trump to the White House, ending quite possibly the most unlikely winning bid for the office ever. Today we have the denouement: the final certified popular vote returns from the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,864,974, which is 2.1 percent of the total vote. That is the second-largest margin (by percentage) by which anyone who lost the electoral vote has won the popular vote since the 1824 election, which was actually resolved by the U.S. House. The still-all-time champion among votes decided by the Electoral College remains the 1876 contest (wherein the “loser,” Samuel Tilden, actually won the popular vote by 3 percent), but that’s a misleading precedent since a bipartisan commission adjudicated disputed electoral votes and the whole thing was the subject of a vast bargain which, among other things, ended congressional Reconstruction of the South. Clinton’s margin significantly exceeds that of the most recent victim of the Electoral College, Al Gore in 2000, who won the popular vote by a mere 543,816. Whatever indirect assistance Trump may have received from a certain country where vodka is very popular, he did not need judicial intervention to prevail, the way George W. Bush did.

In the end, Trump won by taking three key battleground states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) by a combined margin of 77,744 votes. That, my friends, is crazy close in an election where more than 136 million votes were cast: just over one-twentieth of one percent of the vote. And that is why the debate over the reasons for the electoral-vote outcome may never end: It’s the kind of swing-state margin that could have been caused by any of the big things we have all been talking about, such as James Comey’s reminders of the email “scandal,” strategic leaks from Russian hacks, or a strategic error by the Clinton campaign about where its resources were committed. But it’s also small enough to be caused by tiny and remote things, like tactical decisions on the very last day, the weather, election-law decisions made years ago, or the tides of the moon….

We will never really know why Donald Trump appeared to be the luckiest and Hillary Clinton the unluckiest candidate in history in terms of the distribution of votes. But we will live with the consequences for far longer than even the longest postmortem.


Final Results in a Crazy Close Presidential Election

The longest, strangest campaign year since, well, 2000, is finally over. I had some appropriately ruminative thoughts about it all at New York this week:

The final shoe to drop that really matters to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election fell yesterday as the Electoral College lifted Donald Trump to the White House, ending quite possibly the most unlikely winning bid for the office ever. Today we have the denouement: the final certified popular vote returns from the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,864,974, which is 2.1 percent of the total vote. That is the second-largest margin (by percentage) by which anyone who lost the electoral vote has won the popular vote since the 1824 election, which was actually resolved by the U.S. House. The still-all-time champion among votes decided by the Electoral College remains the 1876 contest (wherein the “loser,” Samuel Tilden, actually won the popular vote by 3 percent), but that’s a misleading precedent since a bipartisan commission adjudicated disputed electoral votes and the whole thing was the subject of a vast bargain which, among other things, ended congressional Reconstruction of the South. Clinton’s margin significantly exceeds that of the most recent victim of the Electoral College, Al Gore in 2000, who won the popular vote by a mere 543,816. Whatever indirect assistance Trump may have received from a certain country where vodka is very popular, he did not need judicial intervention to prevail, the way George W. Bush did.

In the end, Trump won by taking three key battleground states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) by a combined margin of 77,744 votes. That, my friends, is crazy close in an election where more than 136 million votes were cast: just over one-twentieth of one percent of the vote. And that is why the debate over the reasons for the electoral-vote outcome may never end: It’s the kind of swing-state margin that could have been caused by any of the big things we have all been talking about, such as James Comey’s reminders of the email “scandal,” strategic leaks from Russian hacks, or a strategic error by the Clinton campaign about where its resources were committed. But it’s also small enough to be caused by tiny and remote things, like tactical decisions on the very last day, the weather, election-law decisions made years ago, or the tides of the moon….

We will never really know why Donald Trump appeared to be the luckiest and Hillary Clinton the unluckiest candidate in history in terms of the distribution of votes. But we will live with the consequences for far longer than even the longest postmortem.


December 16: Will Trump Rubber-Stamp Congressional GOP Budget?

As we get closer to the fateful day when Donald Trump becomes president, there remains a lot of mystery about what, exactly, he and congressional Republicans plan to do. I speculated about the role of the budget in this scenario at New York this week:

After November 8, the prospect of sweeping budget legislation implementing long-desired conservative policies gained even more ground, with talk of a really early budget bill that would address urgent GOP priorities like the repeal of Obamacare and defunding of Planned Parenthood — perhaps to be whipped through Congress in time to arrive on Trump’s desk when the Oval Office is still full of boxes to be unpacked. There’s been a lot of talk about how, exactly, this momentous bill will handle the difficult question of how quickly to phase out Obamacare, and the differences of opinion among congressional Republicans on that subject. But no one seems to doubt the reconciliation train, whatever its exact cargo, is coming down the track very rapidly.

A lot of Congress watchers assume Paul Ryan always has a budget bill in his pocket, ready for use at a moment’s notice. Senate Republican leaders also have a lot of experience in drafting budget legislation, thanks to their many efforts to force Barack Obama to veto their work.

But what about the new administration’s input? If a January Budget Blitz is in the offing, you wouldn’t guess that from the scant attention apparently being given to budget matters in the Trump transition effort. As longtime budget maven Stan Collender has pointed out, the many Cabinet appointments made so far do not include a director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“Yes, OMB isn’t the only major cabinet position that hasn’t yet been announced. But given all of the budget-related work that Trump will be have to face early next year – a 2017 budget resolution in January or February, a debt ceiling suspension that expires in March, the possibility of a government shutdown when the continuing resolution runs out at the end of April and the possible submission of a 2018 budget, not to mention budget-related issues such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – you would think that the selection of the OMB director would be one of the president-elect’s most pressing needs.”

But no. And more surprising still, as Collender earlier reported, there’s some buzz that Trump could break every precedent by refraining from submitting his own federal budget for the fiscal year that will begin next October.

Now that might help explain why an OMB director is not a very high priority for Team Trump. But what does that say about administration involvement in a Budget Blitz, whether it is in January or later on (whatever is leftover from the first budget bill — including major tax and spending cuts — will probably be rolled over into a second and much larger bill later in the year)?

Two possible explanations come to mind right away. The first is that Trump intends to outsource budget policy to congressional Republicans for the time being, letting Ryan & Co. have their way with the evisceration of liberal programs and policies they have been rehearsing for the last eight years. That would certainly make those conservatives who have so conspicuously distrusted Trump very happy, and would probably convince them to let the new president pursue his own policy hobbies in other areas without a lot of GOP carping.

The more unsettling possibility from the GOP point of view is that Team Trump simply hasn’t come to grips with budget policy and personnel just yet, and will at some point abruptly put the brakes on any Ryan Express aimed at setting federal spending and revenue priorities very early next year. One can imagine the pleasure presidential chief strategist Stephen Bannon would take in calling up Ryan and telling him to cool his jets on any budget bills until otherwise instructed by the White House.

Which is the right explanation? I certainly don’t know. But if there’s any significant chance Trump and congressional Republicans are on very different pages when it comes to how they will together reshape the federal government and its funding, the prospects for GOP unity that have been glimmering on the horizon since November 8 could turn out to represent a false dawn.

The issue has major implications for the opposition party, too, of course. If Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are ready to rock and roll with one or more budget bills to be dealt with on up-or-down votes that cannot be delayed by filibuster, then Democrats’ only hope is to close ranks and fight like hell to turn the three Senate Republicans they’ll need to throw a monkey wrench into the process. But if behind the scenes the White House is planning some nasty surprises for Paul Ryan and other conventional Republicans eager to enact his budget blueprint, then Democrats may simply need to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the show.


Will Trump Rubber-Stamp Congressional GOP Budget?

As we get closer to the fateful day when Donald Trump becomes president, there remains a lot of mystery about what, exactly, he and congressional Republicans plan to do. I speculated about the role of the budget in this scenario at New York this week:

After November 8, the prospect of sweeping budget legislation implementing long-desired conservative policies gained even more ground, with talk of a really early budget bill that would address urgent GOP priorities like the repeal of Obamacare and defunding of Planned Parenthood — perhaps to be whipped through Congress in time to arrive on Trump’s desk when the Oval Office is still full of boxes to be unpacked. There’s been a lot of talk about how, exactly, this momentous bill will handle the difficult question of how quickly to phase out Obamacare, and the differences of opinion among congressional Republicans on that subject. But no one seems to doubt the reconciliation train, whatever its exact cargo, is coming down the track very rapidly.

A lot of Congress watchers assume Paul Ryan always has a budget bill in his pocket, ready for use at a moment’s notice. Senate Republican leaders also have a lot of experience in drafting budget legislation, thanks to their many efforts to force Barack Obama to veto their work.

But what about the new administration’s input? If a January Budget Blitz is in the offing, you wouldn’t guess that from the scant attention apparently being given to budget matters in the Trump transition effort. As longtime budget maven Stan Collender has pointed out, the many Cabinet appointments made so far do not include a director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“Yes, OMB isn’t the only major cabinet position that hasn’t yet been announced. But given all of the budget-related work that Trump will be have to face early next year – a 2017 budget resolution in January or February, a debt ceiling suspension that expires in March, the possibility of a government shutdown when the continuing resolution runs out at the end of April and the possible submission of a 2018 budget, not to mention budget-related issues such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – you would think that the selection of the OMB director would be one of the president-elect’s most pressing needs.”

But no. And more surprising still, as Collender earlier reported, there’s some buzz that Trump could break every precedent by refraining from submitting his own federal budget for the fiscal year that will begin next October.

Now that might help explain why an OMB director is not a very high priority for Team Trump. But what does that say about administration involvement in a Budget Blitz, whether it is in January or later on (whatever is leftover from the first budget bill — including major tax and spending cuts — will probably be rolled over into a second and much larger bill later in the year)?

Two possible explanations come to mind right away. The first is that Trump intends to outsource budget policy to congressional Republicans for the time being, letting Ryan & Co. have their way with the evisceration of liberal programs and policies they have been rehearsing for the last eight years. That would certainly make those conservatives who have so conspicuously distrusted Trump very happy, and would probably convince them to let the new president pursue his own policy hobbies in other areas without a lot of GOP carping.

The more unsettling possibility from the GOP point of view is that Team Trump simply hasn’t come to grips with budget policy and personnel just yet, and will at some point abruptly put the brakes on any Ryan Express aimed at setting federal spending and revenue priorities very early next year. One can imagine the pleasure presidential chief strategist Stephen Bannon would take in calling up Ryan and telling him to cool his jets on any budget bills until otherwise instructed by the White House.

Which is the right explanation? I certainly don’t know. But if there’s any significant chance Trump and congressional Republicans are on very different pages when it comes to how they will together reshape the federal government and its funding, the prospects for GOP unity that have been glimmering on the horizon since November 8 could turn out to represent a false dawn.

The issue has major implications for the opposition party, too, of course. If Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are ready to rock and roll with one or more budget bills to be dealt with on up-or-down votes that cannot be delayed by filibuster, then Democrats’ only hope is to close ranks and fight like hell to turn the three Senate Republicans they’ll need to throw a monkey wrench into the process. But if behind the scenes the White House is planning some nasty surprises for Paul Ryan and other conventional Republicans eager to enact his budget blueprint, then Democrats may simply need to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the show.