washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

October 13: Are Panicked Democrats Showing Signs of Post-Trump Stress Disorder?

After reading several articles about the Virginia governor’s race, I was moved to do some psychoanalyis at New York:

The Virginia gubernatorial race concludes in just under four weeks. Democratic candidate and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam has a lead of 6.8 percent over Republican Ed Gillespie in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. The last time Gillespie led in a public poll was in March. Northam has maintained a fundraising advantage throughout most of the general election campaign and in mid-September had twice as much cash on hand as his rival. Virginia is arguably a “blue state” now, having been carried twice by Barack Obama and then by Hillary Clinton last year (by more than 5 percent). Just yesterday Morning Consult released state-by-state approval ratio numbers for Donald Trump; in Virginia, he was at 42/53, worse than his national average. And then there is Virginia’s historical pattern in gubernatorial elections of almost always voting against the party controlling the White House; the only exception since 1974 was posted by the current Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe.

You’d never know any of these data points if all you had to go by was the mood of Democrats concerning this contest. Earlier this week the Daily Beast’s veteran political reporter Sam Stein wrote that Democrats were “panicked” over Virginia, worried about a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate and the absence of the kind of massive national small-dollar investments in the campaign that characterized the congressional special election in Georgia earlier this year. A prominent Virginia activist penned a piece that rocketed around the internet with this headline: “Heads Up—An Impending Disaster in Virginia.” And Vox’s Jeff Stein penned a classic glass-half-empty assessment noting that polls showed the race as “surprisingly close” while “worried” Democrats fretted over Gillespie’s “culture war” attacks on Northam.

So what’s up with all the “panic” and “worry” and premonitions of “disaster” for Democrats in Virginia, given all the positive objective indicators of the state of the race? Jeff Stein may have touched on the underlying reason:

“The Virginia governor’s race this year is making some on the left queasy as a redux of Election Day 2016 ….

“Fear is creeping in that instead of beginning to beat back the tide of Trumpism and race-baiting dog whistles, Democrats will once again be submerged in it.”

In other words, the more Gillespie’s campaign begins to resemble Trump’s in its borderline-racist savagery about criminal gangs of immigrants and politically correct efforts to take down Confederate monuments, the more Democrats relive Election Night 2016, when all those objective indicators of a Clinton victory proved illusory.

Democrats may be suffering from their own version of PTSD — Post-Trump Stress Disorder — in which pessimism operates as a natural defense mechanism to prevent the kind of shocked disappointment they experienced on the night of November 8, 2016. After all, nothing’s really happened since then to dispel the irrational but powerful sense among left-of-center folk that they and their country are being punished by an angry God using this terrifying president as a scourge. Hopes of a quick recovery from the Trump madness were temporarily raised by Jon Ossoff’s special-election campaign in Georgia, which at one point looked like a certain win, but then that, too, turned out to be another bitter buzzkill.

So perhaps all the bad vibes Democrats are feeling about Virginia have less to do with the race itself than with the daily reality of waking up each morning and realizing that Donald Trump is president of the United States and apparently none of us will deserve good things for the foreseeable future.


October 10: The Nearly Extinct Moderate Republican

After reading various conservative complaints about the nefarious moderate Republicans on the Senate, I decided to do some research, and wrote it all up for New York:

The Senate’s moderate Republicans have been hunted nearly to extinction over the years. Within living memory, not only moderate but by any definition liberal Republicans were thick on the ground in the U.S. Senate. But today, “moderate” is mainly just a term of contempt for any GOP senator maverick-y enough to break ranks on something the heavily conservative party has decided it needs.

To illustrate the trend, I looked at the gold standard for measurements of congressional Republicans’ ideological fidelity since 1971, the American Conservative Union’s lifetime ratings for members of the Senate. I took a less-than-50-percent rating as a pretty noncontroversial benchmark for moderation.

Forty years ago, in 1977, there were 14 Senate Republicans with a less-than-50-percent lifetime rating from ACU: Ted Stevens, Lowell Weicker, Charles Percy, James Pearson, Charles Mathias, Edward Brooke, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Richard Schweiker, John Chafee, and Robert Stafford.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, the number of “moderate” Republicans in the Senate had dropped to nine: Lowell Weicker, David Durenberger, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, Robert Stafford, and Dan Evans.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, the Senate’s moderate GOP tribe had shrunk to five: Susan Collins, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, and Jim Jeffords.

Ten years ago, in 2007, there were two moderate Republican senators left according to the ACU standard: Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter.

And now, there’s just one: Susan Collins (who temporarily lifted herself to a 50-plus ACU lifetime rating before lapsing back into heresy).

Collins is now thinking about leaving Washington for the cozier confines of Augusta, Maine, by running for governor. Not everyone left is a hard-core conservative; Lisa Murkowski will still be around with her 60 percent lifetime ACU rating. But it’s not like there is a bench of moderate Republicans out there moving inexorably toward the U.S. Senate. So in a very real sense, Collins could be the last of the breed. It’s been a long sharp downward road to nowhere.


October 6: Trump Blunders Into the Virginia Governor’s Race

We’re now about a month out from Virginia’s gubernatorial election, one of the two being held this year. I looked at the latest developments at New York:

Yesterday morning the Washington Post released a new poll of the Virginia gubernatorial contest showing Democrat Ralph Northam blowing out to a 13-point lead over Republican Ed Gillespie among likely voters, by far the biggest lead he’s managed in a general election survey.

Early last evening Donald Trump took to Twitter with this nasty-gram:

Perhaps it was a coincidence, given the president’s spotty consumption of news and other information that is not about his own self. But it’s likely some alarms went off in the White House about an impending Gillespie loss being treated (as off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey often are after a change of administration in Washington) as a referendum on the Trump presidency. That would have gotten POTUS’s attention for sure. And the tweet itself, directly accusing the lieutenant governor of Virginia of “fighting for” a violent criminal gang, is not subtle.

We don’t know at this point whether the Gillespie campaign invited, or even had advance knowledge of, Trump’s intervention. The MS-13 smear Trump deployed does track Gillespie’s own borderline racist ads attacking Northam for breaking a tie in the State Senate against a bill that would preemptively outlaw “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has none now), which has little to do with MS-13, but whatever.

Gillespie has for the most part given his party’s president a wide berth in this race. That makes sense. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by more than five points last year. According to Gallup, his job-approval ratio in Virginia over the first six months of his presidency averaged 39/56. The new Post poll showed Trump currently at 34/60 among the Old Dominion’s registered voters, with half of voters disapproving strongly of his job performance. In addition, Virginia has a history of rejecting gubernatorial candidates from the party that controls the White House: In the last ten gubernatorial elections, the White House party has lost nine (the only exception is actually the current, term-limited Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe).

So you wouldn’t figure that Trump leaping into the Virginia race would do much to help Gillespie, who has been in striking distance of Northam in most polls prior to the WaPo bombshell (in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Northam’s lead is a modest 5.4 percent).

Still, the White House may be reinforcing a decision by Team Gillespie to go big on making this a “culture war” campaign. Not only are Virginia Republicans pounding the Democrat on his alleged sympathy for Hispanic criminals; they’re also trying to exploit the relatively positive feelings Virginians have toward Confederate monuments, the issue that blew up in Charlottesville this summer. This doesn’t necessarily reflect rampant racism: Virginia is saturated with Civil War monuments of all kinds (when I lived in the state, I passed through three Civil War battlegrounds on my daily commute to work). Gillespie’s primary opponent Corey Stewart, at one point Trump’s 2016 campaign manager in Virginia, made protecting Confederate monuments a signature issue and nearly upset the front-runner. Perhaps Gillespie now thinks such issues can work magic for him, too, along with fear of immigrants.

The bottom line is that, a month out, Northam has history and the polls on his side, along with a significant financial advantage. Making the race more explicitly a referendum on Trump will probably help him as well.


October 5: No, Polarization Isn’t Just a Washington Thing

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in a new Pew Research report on parties and polarization. I wrote up some key findings for New York:

[T]here is an abiding belief among some academics and professional centrists that the warring tribes of Washington are fundamentally misrepresenting Americans who pretty much agree on the important things and wonder why we can’t just all get along.

The Pew Research Center now offers some fresh and abundant data illustrating the extent, nature, and implications of polarization among regular Americans. Pew’s central finding is that Americans are indeed much more polarized than they were in 1994, when they began asking the same questions to some of the same kinds of people.

“The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

“And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.”

Much of the Pew data reinforces the hypothesis that we are experiencing the tail end of what one influential analyst called “The Partisan Sort,” the drift of liberals toward the Democratic Party and conservatives toward the Republican Party, severing ancient partisan ties based on ethnic loyalties and events as remote as the Great Depression or even the U.S. Civil War. Here’s one particularly rich finding:

“[I]n 1994 there was substantially more overlap between the two partisan groups than there is today: Just 64% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, while 70% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”

In other words, rank-and-file voters are separating into their “natural” parties just as much as are their representatives in Congress.

The murkier question about polarization is whether voters are becoming more extreme in their ideological leanings, not just following them into one party or the other. But Pew suggests our more consistently conservative and liberal party groupings are also becoming more liberal and conservative as they sort.

“[A]lthough many Americans continue to hold a mix of liberal and conservative views across different issue areas, that share has declined over time.”

It’s increasingly clear that the great object of traditional political persuasion, the “median voter” who holds positions equidistant from partisans and ideologues, is becoming a much less dominant element of the electorate.

There are obviously multiple ways to look at these phenomena. The most common is to wring hands and deplore both partisan and ideological polarization as preventing things from “getting done,” and as thwarting the natural goodness and reasonableness of Americans.

Another approach is to applaud polarization as creating political parties that consistently stand for important principles, and that aren’t just devoted to deal-cutting and constituency-tending. There was plenty of bipartisanship in the decades prior to the 1960s, much of it devoted to maintaining or turning a blind eye to Jim Crow, and supporting the kind of consensus foreign policy that led to the Vietnam War.

Still another approach is to examine the structural impediments to “getting things done” that don’t depend on a return to a lost, bipartisan “paradise,” whether it’s the filibuster, the creaky procedures for enacting legislation, or the dependence of the federal government on states and localities to implement national policies. Perhaps Democrats are presently rejoicing at the trouble Republicans are having in implementing a party agenda while controlling Congress and the presidency, but this ongoing fiasco also illustrates that “polarization” is not the only problem bedeviling democracy.

Love it or hate it, though, polarization is real, it isn’t a purely Washington phenomenon, and there’s no reason to think it’s going away any time soon.


September 29: Roy Moore’s Abortion Extremism Is Beyond Comparison

In the brief period since Roy Moore won the GOP Senate nomination in Alabama, conservatives have tried to paint Democratic nominee Doug Jones as an “extremist” on abortion policy. As I argued at New York. nobody’s an “extremist” like Roy Moore.

Roy Moore has staked out the most hard-core position imaginable on abortion, and has maintained an uncomfortably close relationship with activists who justify violence against abortion providers and punishment of women for exercising their right to choose. And that’s aside from his regular comments suggesting that legalized abortion and homosexuality have brought down divine wrath on America.

Wherever Doug Jones would draw the line between legal and illegal abortions, there is zero question where Roy Moore would draw it: He wants to make every abortion under any circumstances illegal from the moment of conception, and punish those who procure them, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says. He made that clear not in some op-ed, but in an opinion from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in a 2014 case involving prosecuting a woman for endangering her fetus by using drugs:

“Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Therefore, the interpretation of the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, § 26-15- 3.2, Ala. Code 1975, to include all human beings from the moment of conception is fully consistent with these first principles regarding life and law.”

As this quote illustrates, Moore is a leader in the “Personhood Movement,” which holds that from the moment of conception a zygote enjoys the full protections of the Equal Protection Clause, which precedes and preempts any claim by the woman involved. If there was any doubt about Moore’s position, it should have been removed by a 2012 amicus brief he and his Foundation for Moral Law signed in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a proposed personhood constitutional amendment in Oklahoma. Moore and his group noted they were promoting a personhood initiative in Alabama similar to Oklahoma’s, and then argued:

“While Personhood laws may challenge the legitimacy of the so-called ‘right’ to abort that person under Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, by blocking personhood protection for every preborn child, ‘threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and rejected the many other ways a state may protect the life and dignity of the preborn child.

“Finally, the Holy Scriptures provide additional support for the personhood of the preborn child. Though some interpretations of scriptural passages try to devalue the preborn, the Bible, rightly divided, consistently protects the life of preborn persons from murder and assault as equally as it does those already born.”

How extreme is the zygote-personhood position, which would arguably ban in vitro fertilization clinics and various forms of contraception? Extreme enough that initiatives to place personhood provisions into state constitutions have failed by large margins on the five occasions they’ve made it to the ballot: three times in Colorado, once in North Dakota, and perhaps most relevantly for Alabama, once in arch-conservative Mississippi.

Even though it had widespread support from Republican and even a few Democratic elected officials, Mississippi’s Amendment 26 was defeated by a 59–41 margin in 2011.

Roy Moore’s position on abortion was too extreme for Mississippi. Is it just right for Alabama? Perhaps that question should be answered before anyone starts picking apart Doug Jones’s interview answers. But without question, Jones needs to occupy more, not less, of the vast ground between Moore’s positions and those of regular Alabamians, who may frown on late-term abortions but don’t want to treat women as distrusted, ungodly bystanders in the reproductive process.


September 28: How Doug Jones Might Upset Roy Moore in Alabama

After watching Judge Roy Moore dispatch GOP Senator Luther Strange in a Republican special election runoff, I took a long look at New York at the possibility of Democrat Doug Jones pulling off a general election upset. \

The bad news — and it’s really bad — for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones heading toward a December 12 special general election is that no one from his party has won a statewide election since 2008. And that was just the chairmanship of the Public Service Commission. The good news is that the one time it nearly happened since then (in 2012) the Republican candidate was Roy Moore.

That’s right: the Ten Commandments Judge, who had been stripped of the state’s Chief Justice’s gavel in 2003 for defying a federal court order to remove a giant monument to the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, and then lost two GOP gubernatorial primaries, made it back to the Chief Justice position five years ago by a narrow four-point margin over Democratic circuit court judge Bob Vance. As has generally been the case throughout Moore’s career, he was heavily outspent (better than six to one), but like the rest of the GOP ticket, won anyway.

Moore subsequently got into another fight with the federal judicial system, this time over compliance with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. While he technically still holds his judicial office, in September 2016 he was suspended from the exercise of its powers until his term ends early in 2019.

The question now is whether Moore — who finished first in the GOP primary and then trounced incumbent Luther Strange in a runoff — is sufficiently controversial to enable Jones to break Alabama’s recently but firmly established mold of race-based partisan voting.

As in several other Deep South states, the tipping point where Republicans began routinely winning statewide and a majority of other contests in Alabama was in 2010, when the GOP conquered both state legislative chambers and every statewide position up for election. Before then, a coalition of 90 percent of African-Americans and 30–40 percent of white voters kept Democrats competitive, and even dominant at the state legislative level. Since then the Democratic share of the white vote in Alabama has regularly fallen below 20 percent; Barack Obama got around 10 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2012, according to exit polls (there were no exit polls in Alabama in 2016, but Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the total vote than did John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and it’s unlikely that enhanced margin came from African-Americans). Doug Jones is going to have to beat that performance significantly, while pulling off the difficult task of mobilizing minority voters in what is normally a low-turnout special election where Moore’s conservative Evangelical base will definitely show up.

One might normally think Jones could batten on embittered supporters of the GOP candidate Moore just beat. But it’s unclear there is a distinctive “Luther Strange vote.” Some voters probably pulled the lever for the incumbent because he was an incumbent, and others because the president and vice-president, along with the senior senator from Alabama (Richard Shelby), endorsed him. Moore is already getting solid GOP support, particularly from the White House.

There are, however, certainly Alabama Republicans who either don’t agree with Roy Moore’s theocratic views, and/or who fear he will damage the state’s image (and its attractiveness to transplants and investors) with the kind of extremist antics he’s performed so often in the past — but this time on the higher-profile platform of the U.S. Senate. Alabama, after all, is still sensitive to the hilarity surrounding their former governor (dubbed the Luv Guv) Robert Bentley, who was forced to resign after a lurid sex-and-corruption scandal. For reasons of his own, Luther Strange did not talk about Moore’s extremism during the primary and runoff (he tried, somewhat hilariously, to attack Moore as a “liberal” and a career politician). Doug Jones can and will, perhaps with quiet encouragement from the Alabama business community and other “respectable” opinion-leaders.

It is clear from the get-go that Jones understands Moore’s main vulnerability: In his initial statement on the general election, variations on the word “embarrassment” are used often:

“After years of embarrassing headlines about top public officials in this state, this race is about the people of Alabama and about choosing a candidate with character and integrity they can be proud of. I will never embarrass the people of Alabama.”

Jones’s own profile as the prosecutor of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombers certainly comports with what Alabamians would prefer to think about themselves. Beyond that, there are some things about the prospect of Roy Moore serving in the Senate that haven’t really been explored adequately. Is he going to ask his enemy Mitch McConnell for Jeff Sessions’s old seat on the Judiciary Committee? How appropriate would it be for a senator who has twice defied federal court orders to vote on confirmation of federal judges? And to what extent can a man who quite literally believes God Almighty is directing his career be expected to behave himself in Washington for the sake of his state’s reputation?

National Democrats have some decisions to make about Alabama. Putting a third GOP-held Senate seat into play (right now only Arizona and Nevada are deemed competitive) could convert 2018 from a purely defensive struggle for Senate Democrats into a drive — a long shot, but hardly impossible given the near-certainty of a midterm trend against the party controlling the White House — for actual control. Moore’s career-long aversion to fundraising could provide a real opening. But anything heavy-handed could help Judge Roy play the martyr and stimulate Alabama’s ideological and partisan juices in an unfortunate way for Doug Jones. The Democrat has a chance, but will have to run a much smarter campaign than Luther Strange’s.


September 24: Trump Goes To Alabama To Acknowledge Luther Strange’s Worship

I watched all 85 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, and after a brief period of recovery, I offered these thoughts for New York:

[A]s at all the Trump campaign events before and after his election, a recording of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was played. Listening to the familiar tune, it occurred to me that Luther Strange didn’t get what he wanted from Trump’s visit, but he may have gotten what he needed — a last-minute boost from the pol Alabama Republicans adore.

Had the Strange campaign been scripting it all, they could have probably done without Trump’s suggestions that their candidate was on the road to sure defeat until the president’s endorsement, or his confession that intervening in this race represented a big political risk, or his pledge to campaign for opponent Roy Moore if he won. I’m sure they cringed when Trump explained how he came up with the nickname “Big Luther” (he had it long before Trump knew who he was) and also when he asserted that Alabama’s new senator has barely met the Senate Majority Leader (who has arranged for virtually all of Luther’s campaign financing). And Team Strange would have probably preferred a few more references to Strange’s accomplishments beyond the abject sycophancy to the president that Trump mentioned again and again, and that the candidate has been displaying to an embarrassing degree on the campaign trail.

But Trump’s speech, even though it spiraled farther and farther away from any coherent message during the course of 85 minutes, did return regularly to the subject at hand. And if Mitch McConnell’s super-pac wants footage for some last-minute ads showing Trump thumping the tubs for Big Luther or standing with him in his MAGA hat, there’s plenty of material at hand.

Perhaps some people beyond Alabama tuned into the speech to see if the president would visibly freak out over today’s developments in the Senate, where John McCain announced his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy legislation that Trump and other Republicans were pushing as a last-gasp effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump did mention it several times, at first mildly, as though it was a minor setback, but eventually he was bellowing at the GOP (not McCain or anyone else specifically) for once again breaking its promise to repeal Obamacare. Perhaps the oddest moment was when Trump suggested that it’s no time to stop the Obamacare repeal effort when Republicans are so close to 50 votes. Does he not understand the September 30 deadline for qualifying the bill as a budget-reconciliation measure? Does he want to put aside his tax bill to go after health care one more time? It’s not clear, but it makes no less sense than Trump’s constantly repeated claims (and yes, he said it again tonight) that getting rid of the power of Democrats to stop bills with a filibuster would somehow get Republicans the votes of 50 of their own senators.

The longer Trump spoke, the more it became a typical Trump speech, full of rambling boasts and expressions of long-held grievances. He returned to familiar attacks on “Crooked Hillary” and extended chest-beating about the brilliance of his presidential campaign. And he veered off into a condemnation of the namby-pamby nature of contemporary pro football, and of a player whose approval ratings in Alabama are surely worse than Hillary Clinton’s — Colin Kaepernick, whom he called a “son of a bitch” he wished NFL owners would “get off the field.”

If you listened to his speech carefully, it became obvious that Trump’s biggest anxiety about Luther Strange is that a loss by his candidate would be blamed on himself and tarnish his own luster. In this, as in so many respects, Luther Strange can hardly complain about becoming an afterthought in his own campaign. When your campaign message is one of slavish devotion to a narcissist, which aspect of you do you expect the narcissist to praise?

Some Alabama Republicans — the ones most likely to turn out in a special runoff election — are such intense culture warriors that nothing short of the grim theocrat Roy Moore will do as a Senate nominee. But your run-of-the-mill reactionaries will be fine with Luther Strange, and Trump’s appearance (along with a quick swing by Mike Pence the day before Tuesday’s balloting) may be just enough to get enough of them to the polls. For the rest of his career, though, Luther Strange will be reminded on many occasions exactly who saved his bacon.


September 21: Republicans Try To Pass the Health Care Buck to the States

After considerable analysis of the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, I discussed its irresponsible essence at New York:

Amateur psychologists everywhere are grappling with the sudden viability of this slapdash piece of legislation that seems to fail so many of the policy tests Republicans set for themselves in earlier debates over how to repeal and replace Obamacare. Most notably, it does not provide for an orderly transition out of the Medicaid expansion (it terminates it abruptly in 2020), and does not offer adequate protections for people with preexisting conditions (states can let insurers charge them crazy-high premiums). If the bill doesn’t meet basic efficacy standards that key lawmakers have already publicly wed themselves to, why does it now seem quite possible that it might pass and throw a multi-trillion-dollar sector of the economy into chaos?

The prevailing explanation is simply that Republicans have run out of time to redeem their incessantly repeated promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this bill, for all its obvious flaws, is the only available measure that hasn’t already been rejected by the Senate. And that may ultimately be the rationale for heaving this gummy mess across the finish line.

But there’s an equally basic motive that makes this particular bill an ideal vehicle for bringing the frustrating cycle of failed GOP health care legislation to a merciful close: More than past templates, Graham-Cassidy allows members of Congress to shift many real and consequential decisions on health-care policy to the states. CNN’s Lauren Fox sums it up nicely:

“One big advantage of Graham-Cassidy is that the bill outsources many of the toughest decisions about health care – what to prioritize, how to regulate the marketplace and cover health care for the poor – to the states. Graham-Cassidy allows individual senators to imagine health care policy in their own image even if outside groups have warned a number of states – some even led by Republicans – would lose federal dollars if the bill passes.”

Do those mean old health-care policy wonks mock your claims as a conservative lawmaker that we’re wasting taxpayer-financed Medicaid dollars on lazy able-bodied adults who ought to get off their duffs and get jobs? Let the states, the “laboratories of democracy,” put it to the test and see who’s right! Are you caught between insurers’ complaints about having to cover people with expensive chronic health conditions and the empathy so many have for sick people who can’t get health insurance? Why let Jimmy Kimmel beat up on you when you could just point to the nearest state capital as the proper place to sort it all out!

It’s entirely appropriate that one of the chief architects of Graham-Cassidy is former senator Rick Santorum, who is sort of the Johnny Appleseed of block grants, having run for president twice touting his responsibility for the 1996 welfare-reform bill that “solved” that ancient policy problem by handing it off to the states. Sure, states mostly used their new flexibility over cash public-assistance payments to cut eligibility, and “welfare” was a relatively small part of the means whereby poor people somehow made ends meet. But from Washington’s point of view, the problem just went away.

In reality, Graham-Cassidy would create hellish substantive and political difficulties for state policymakers who would have just two years to put together an entirely new system around the new block grants they would receive. As the New York Times’ Margot Sanger-Katz explains, the states would be flying through the air without a net:

“In contrast with an earlier bill from Mr. Cassidy, which offered a default option for uncertain states, there is no backup plan in the bill. The Obamacare coverage programs would disappear everywhere in 2020, and any state unable to make a plan and submit an application would be ineligible for the new grant funding. If a state succeeds in obtaining the funding but doesn’t have a functioning new system on Jan. 1, 2020, consumers and markets would be thrown into chaos.”

That wouldn’t be the U.S. Senate’s problem, though.

The long arc of federal health-care policy since the 1960s has been to create certain national expectations for care and coverage against a backdrop of states with different needs, different fiscal capacities, and different political dynamics. California representative Henry Waxman devoted much of his long career in Congress to incremental and bipartisan efforts to make Medicaid (and the closely associated Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP) a bit less geographically capricious every year. And the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and preemption of the crazy-quilt system of state insurance regulations took the next logical step.

Graham-Cassidy would begin to unravel all those decades of progress toward treating Americans as Americans when it comes to the right to health-care coverage. But much as it would make life more difficult for state policymakers and the people affected by their decisions, it would make life much easier for Republican members of Congress, who would not only “keep their promise” to blow up Obamacare, but would wash their hands of all the devilish complications of health-care policy for years to come. Graham-Cassidy might as well be called the Pontius Pilate Act of 2017.


September 16: The Risk of Fighting the Last War

After reading some of the initial commentary on Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which despite her candor and self-criticism has subjected her to a whole new round of criticism, it occurred to me that the 2016 “hangover” for Democrats is becoming a real problem. I wrote about this at some length for New York:

[J]ust like anyone else, the most recent Democratic nominee is entitled to a take….But worthwhile as all these assessments are, at some point Democrats will need to close the book on 2016 and fight the tendency to assume that the next presidential election will be a do-over.

The reality, as Clinton’s own self-examination illustrates all over again, is that the 2016 presidential election was so close — and the popular-vote loser winning the Electoral College by insanely close margins in three states is about as close as it gets this side of Florida 2000 — that there are multiple credible explanations. Using a “but for” test, Clinton lost because of gender bias and the email “scandal” and excessively vague messaging and media bias and James Comey and dangerous dependence on election modeling and bitter-end Sanders supporters and the Wall Street speeches and accumulated resentments against her husband and Russian hacking and fake-news dissemination and third- and fourth-party votes and GOP hypocrisy and the Trump campaign being forced by its narrow path to victory to better target resources and … on and on.

The understandable but dangerous temptation for frustrated Democrats is to throw up their hands and blame the whole mess on their centrist woman nominee, resolving right now to go with her polar opposite. That would be a left-leaning man.

As it happens, there is a left-leaning man available who nearly derailed Clinton in the 2016 primaries, and who is thought by many of his supporters to have been a sure winner against Donald Trump.

Like many counterfactuals, there is no way to prove or disprove the “Bernie woulda won” assumption. Yes, there were polls showing him enjoying significantly better approval ratings than Trump or Clinton, and there’s an argument that he would have done better than HRC in precisely the Rust Belt states that decided it all. But we’ll never know what might have happened if the vast infrastructure of the GOP, conservative media, and the MSM had devoted a billion dollars or so to exposing and attacking Sanders vulnerabilities that primary voters did not care about or that Clinton chose not to bring up. These range from his favorable rhetoric about Cuba and Venezuela to his agreement to serve as a presidential elector for the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Workers Party to his so-called “Soviet Honeymoon” with his wife, Jane (Trump’s Russian friends would have had some rich, ironic fun with that chestnut), and might have also extended to the tax increases his various policy proposals, most notably single-payer health care, could have required. Maybe none of this would have mattered in the end, particularly as compared to the vast damage to HRC’s image decades of attacks had wrought. But there is no good-faith case to be made that Clinton was the worst of all possible Democratic nominees.

As it happens, we have a very good recent example of the folly involved in excessive retrospection about a presidential defeat: the post-2012 Republicans. In the famous “autopsy report” authorized by the Republican National Committee in 2013, and much praised at the time, some very smart people reverse-engineered Mitt Romney’s nearly successful campaign and made a series of recommendations based on addressing his weaknesses. They mostly involved outreach to young and minority voters, and especially emphasized unqualified support for comprehensive immigration reform. The winning candidate and message Republicans actually took into battle just over three years later could not have been more distant from what party leaders set out to produce.

Democratic primary voters, not backward-looking pundits and activists, will ultimately decide what kind of candidate and campaign to send up against (presumably) Donald Trump in 2020. Bernie Sanders has a lot of tangible assets to take into a 2020 candidacy, as do Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. They will also be 77, 78, and 72, respectively, in 2020, making their health and durability unavoidable issues and perhaps, if they so choose, reasons not to throw their hats in the ring. Democrats also don’t know for sure if Trump will run again, and if not, whether his “brand,” for good or ill, will be passed on to his successor as Republican nominee. Depending on the condition of the country and the blame or credit born by the GOP administration, the dynamics of 2020 may or may not resemble those of 2016. The more you think through it all, there are many, many things we don’t know about the next presidential contest. That’s all the more reason for Democrats to stop fighting the last war. They’ll have plenty of options once the midterm cycle is over and things get serious, but none of them should involve a systematic effort to avoid the missteps and bad luck endured by Hillary Clinton. Praise the Lord, we will never again see a presidential election just like 2016.


September 14: Don’t Forget the “Tax Reform” Bill Will Probably Include Big Domestic Spending Cuts

After reading about the 100th article discussing which tax loopholes Republicans would choose to close to “pay for” the big tax cuts they want, I finally objected at New York:

When we look forward to congressional action (or inaction) on taxes, it is important to remember that it’s going to come packaged as a budget resolution, which means that it’s going to deal with spending as well as revenue. The draft resolution approved by the House Budget Committee in July calls for $203 billion in mandatory spending (basically, entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps) cuts. Many House Republicans think that spending-cut target is much too small.

Yet you can read for hour after hour about the dynamics of the tax bill without seeing the word “spending” mentioned at all.

The Washington Post’s latest big-picture take on the bill, for instance, begins with this description of the choices involved:

“Trump advisers and top congressional leaders, hoping to assuage conservatives hungry for details, are working urgently to assemble a framework that they hope to release next week, according to White House aides and lawmakers. But after months of negotiations, the thorniest disagreement remains in view: how to pay for the giant tax cuts Trump has promised.

“Negotiators agree with the goal of slashing the corporate income tax rate and also cutting individual income taxes. But they have yet to agree about which tax breaks should be cut to pay for it all.”

The administration, we’re told, is “pressing to eliminate or reduce several popular tax deductions, including the interest companies pay on debt, state and local income taxes paid by families and individuals, and the hugely popular mortgage interest deduction.” But there’s not a word about spending cuts. We are supposed to believe that Republicans are seriously thinking about an assault on the mortgage interest deduction, by far the most powerfully defended sacred cow in the entire tax code — but they aren’t thinking about cutting Medicaid, which they’ve been trying to do all year.

Yes, the commentariat is intermittently aware — thanks to writers like my colleague Eric Levitz — that the conservative zealots of the House Freedom Caucus have never stopped demanding cuts in “welfare” (a term they apply to any federal benefits that don’t have work requirements and time limits) as part of the tax package. Indeed, HFC leaders talk about this constantly. But journalists aren’t listening. Just today Vox reports:

“The Freedom Caucus’s alternative [to revenue-increasing offsets] is to make up the difference with deep cuts to welfare programs. Meadows said his caucus has identified upward of $500 billion in mandatory savings options Republicans could exercise.”

Perhaps HFC members are the only Republicans primarily focused on using the tax bill to force spending cuts, but others will arrive at this conclusion soon enough. Lest we forget, the whole point of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace escapade was to cut taxes and cut Medicaid, a fact that was often obscured by massively more extensive talk about changes in individual health-insurance regulations.

With tax cuts and entitlements both squarely on the table, why wouldn’t the GOP help “pay for” the former with the latter? This is, after all, the party that repeatedly and redundantly passed a series of Ryan budgets that paid for tax cuts with the same kind of deep cuts in low-income programs (plus Medicare) that HFC members dream of each night.

Congressional Republicans are going to try to slash spending. The only question is how much and how quicky.

So let’s stop calling this a “tax reform bill,” okay? It may well be something more and worse.