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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

January 6: White Working Class Trump Voters Who Hate Obamacare Will Hate Its Replacement Even More

As congressional Republicans vacillated and argued over how long to delay the effective date of an Obamacare repeal, they may not realize they have a bigger problem than how to transition into some ultimate “replacement” plan. Their own voters are going to be shocked when the see what GOP health care policy means for them. I wrote about this at New York:

[T]here is abundant evidence the white working-class voters whose sudden tilt toward the GOP in Rust Belt battleground states rewarded Donald Trump with the presidency and helped Republicans hang on to Congress really do dislike the Affordable Care Act disproportionately.

Here’s the problem, though: What these key Trump voters most dislike about life under the Affordable Care Act will get even worse under any plausible GOP replacement plan.

As the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Drew Altman reports in a New York Times op-ed, focus groups among Trump-voting Rust Belt white working-class voters who have obtained health insurance through Obamacare — i.e., those most familiar with the ACA — show a very consistent pattern:

“They spoke anxiously about rising premiums, deductibles, copays and drug costs. They were especially upset by surprise bills for services they believed were covered … When told Mr. Trump might embrace a plan that included these elements, and particularly very high deductibles, they expressed disbelief.”

Here’s what they’d rather have:

“If these Trump voters could write a health plan, it would, many said, focus on keeping their out-of-pocket costs low, control drug prices and improve access to cheaper drugs.”

The trouble is, of course, that keeping out-of-pocket costs high and letting market forces control drug prices are fundamental principles of conservative health-care policy, which have been reflected in every Republican health-care proposal for years. To conservative policy thinkers, overutilization of health services, encouraged by government subsidies and regulations (along with “defensive medicine” caused by consumer lawsuits), is the primary source of rising health-care prices and virtually every sin of the health-care system.

So when Republican policymakers talk about “personal responsibility” being critical to heath reform, that’s code for making sure Americans feel some pain every single time they access health services. The way you do that is by increasing exposure to out-of-pocket costs via premiums, deductibles, copays, and exposure to big bills if you don’t strictly obey your insurance company’s arcane rules. You can sugarcoat this a bit by offering a tax subsidy for personal savings so that you have more money for those out-of-pocket expenses; that’s the basic point of the Health Savings Account idea, a feature of every conservative health-care proposal since time immemorial, and a particular favorite of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Indeed, the goal many Republicans have long embraced is a system where everybody gets a high-deductible insurance policy covering catastrophic health conditions, with no insurance at all for routine services, which consumers would handle themselves with some help from an HSA.

But if the KFF research is correct, it’s the routine services that Trump’s white working-class base thinks they should have access to without emptying their wallets or being hassled by an insurance company. That is partly why so many of these people exhibit resentment toward Medicaid beneficiaries who don’t have the same problems in obtaining routine services. Given the chance, of course, Republican pols would introduce “personal responsibility” requirements to Medicaid as well, as GOP governors like Mike Pence have shown in the deals they’ve cut with the Obama administration to expand eligibility in exchange for generous new federal dollars. In the ideal GOP world, everyone would be paying more for routine services — even the very wealthy, who would have to shell out large premiums for concierge services to keep them from rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi in waiting rooms.

So will white working-class Trump voters realize this conflict between their views and those of their party before an Obamacare replacement plan goes into effect? Nobody knows. But it’s not like they won’t be paying attention. As Ron Brownstein notes, the savage antipathy these folks feel for Obamacare is based on an intimate familiarity with the law, because so many of them receive health insurance via the ACA:

“[I]n practice millions of blue-collar whites have gained coverage under the law, particularly in states critical to the Republican electoral map. Using census data, the Urban Institute recently calculated that from 2010 through 2015, more non-college-educated whites gained coverage than college-educated whites and minorities combined in all five of the key Rustbelt states that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016: Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Whites without a college degree also represented a majority of those gaining coverage under the law in core Trump states like Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

“These states often saw enormous reductions in the number of uninsured working-class whites: about 40 percent in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; roughly 50 percent in Ohio, Iowa, and Michigan; and 60 percent in West Virginia and Kentucky.”

So if they lose insurance altogether or are forced into new health-insurance plans that double-down on the very features they hate about Obamacare, these key Trump voters will not be very happy. And Trump tweets about how “terrific” the post-Obamacare world of health-care policy has become won’t help.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


December 14: Trump’s Team of Saboteurs

As Donald Trump’s proposed Cabinet takes shape, we are all a bit taken aback by the number of people he is choosing who have no experience or whose experience is a total mismatch with the job in question. But there is a more alarming feature of Team Trump, which I discussed earlier this week at New York:

[T]he most disturbing feature of the Trump cabinet so far is the number of appointees who do not believe in the core missions of the agencies they are being asked to run. Indeed, they seem designed to sabotage any effort to fulfill those missions.

We will have a pretty dramatic example in former Texas governor Rick Perry, whom Trump has tapped as his secretary of Energy. Perry famously proposed to eliminate that department (and two others) during his first run for president in 2012, and even more famously could not remember its name in a candidate debate that probably doomed his White House aspirations. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t repeat that same pledge in his subsequent presidential run, though his underlying hostility to any energy policy deeper than “Drill, baby, drill” did not seem to change.

Other Trump cabinet picks are equally conspicuous in their near-hatred for the historic roles of the entities they may soon supervise.

Perhaps by the time of his confirmation hearings, EPA Administrator–designee Scott Pruitt may be able to think of a single EPA regulation he favors. But it will take some hard work and ingenuity to find it. His official biography as Oklahoma’s attorney general boasts that this fossil-fuel enthusiast is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” The venerable Sierra Club described his appointment as “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”

Labor Secretary–designee Andrew Puzder, CEO of the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardees fast-food chains, will if confirmed have the rare distinction of rapidly moving from being a prime target of a federal agency’s regulatory efforts to becoming its chief. He has opposed higher minimum wages, the expanded overtime pay rules promulgated by the Obama administration, and (of course) making companies that operate through franchises accountable for the labor practices of franchisees. The department he has been tapped to lead found that more than half of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations had wage violations, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis this year.

Trump’s choice for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is part of a husband-wife billionaire team that has devoted its time for decades to the cause of making public funds available to private schools via vouchers or to minimally regulated charter schools. It says a lot that some education advocates are reassuring themselves that the damage she could do to public schools will be contained by the relatively limited role of the federal government in K-12 education.

It would not be accurate to say putative attorney general Jeff Sessions would just as soon shut down the U.S. Department of Justice. But it is true that in many respects he will execute a 180-degree turn in the policies and priorities of his department, much like Puzder can be expected to do. Sessions is almost certain, for example, to stop prosecuting recently proliferating incidents of state and local government voting-rights violations and instead ramp up prosecution of the phantom menace of “voter fraud.”

The appointment that is perhaps hardest to explain (other than as perpetuation of the job involved as a “diversity hire”) is Dr. Ben Carson at HUD. He has zero experience in this field. But he has manifested a strong hostility to federal anti-poverty efforts, which makes him another potential warrior against his own employees.

It is easy to say Trump has decided to make these sort of “screw you” appointments because he and/or his voters hate Washington generally, or hate do-gooder “liberal” agencies especially. But he could have used appointments to “enemy agencies” to build bridges to potentially hostile constituencies — or even to supply patronage.

Why is he waging war on big elements of the Executive branch of government that is now his own turf? That will only become clear when his administration’s full agenda is rolled out. Quite likely he plans big cuts in federal programs and/or changes of direction in the energy, environmental, labor, housing, and legal-affairs areas, and wants people in his cabinet who will cheer the evisceration of their jurisdictions instead of lobbying him to reverse it. An alternative theory is that he doesn’t much care about some of these agencies and is giving them over to people with powerfully bad intentions as a reward or inducement for loyalty. And as is the case with many new presidents, Trump could grow tired of his initial team and remake it before long.

As it stands, he’s going to need to make sure his cabinet members have funding for their own food tasters. Instead of a creative “team of rivals,” Trump seems to have decided on a destructive team of saboteurs.


December 7: Chamber Willing to Cut Grand Bargain With Trump

Remember the friction between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Trump during the presidential primaries? It is important to understand why that may not matter now, as I discussed this week at New York:

The steady drift of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce toward becoming a reliable constituency group of the Republican Party has been going on for many years. But it still represented a landmark to learn that in 2016, for the first time, the Chamber abandoned even the slightest fig leaf of bipartisanship. Every dime of the $29 million the group spent on congressional races went to Republican candidates. As recently as 2014, the Chamber was still endorsing a handful of business-friendly Democratic members of Congress.

The all-in-on-the-GOP decision-making at the Chamber is all the more remarkable because of the recent trends within the Republican Party that have discomfited its business allies. Most notably, the Chamber frowned upon the tea-party movement that threatened to take over the GOP after the 2010 midterms — mostly because said movement threatened to do terrible things like forcing a national debt default, but also because the tea people tended to oppose Chamber priorities like immigration reform, trade agreements, educational testing, and infrastructure spending. Yes, the Chamber reasserted its power in the GOP in the 2014 primaries, but many of the very things that upset business interests about the tea party were subsequently championed in a big, violent way by Donald Trump. The Chamber’s longtime president, Tom Donahue, got into a brief but intense war of words with Trump during the primaries over trade and immigration policy, and the hatchet was never really buried.

So why did the Chamber go so deep-red in its political spending? It’s pretty simple: Like most knowledgeable observers at the beginning of the general election campaign, Donahue and company figured Trump was going to be a stone loser, dragging Republican control of the Senate and maybe even the House right down to the bottom of hell alongside his bizarre garbage-fire of a campaign. So it became more important than ever to anti-Trump Republicans to invest heavily in the rest of the party. And they did, from the Chamber to the Koch network and back again.

But now this particular chicken has come home to roost: The Chamber and other Republican interests originally hostile to Trump undoubtedly helped him win by boosting Republican turnout, and have now given him a Republican Congress that could wind up rubber-stamping his agenda.

No wonder there is a new wariness in Chamber pronouncements about the new administration:

“Mr. President-elect, our country needs a strong president to help ensure peace, security, and prosperity at home and abroad. In the days ahead, we will agree on many issues and we may disagree on a few—but we share your commitment to this country and we stand ready to work with you and the new Congress to unleash a new era of growth and opportunity.”

Translation: If you give us most of what we want, we’ll look the other way when you insist on things we don’t like.

And so the Chamber’s relationship with Trump is one of those many phenomena that will depend very strictly on how the new administration gets along with congressional Republicans.

If GOPers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can agree on a common agenda of big tax cuts, regulatory “relief,” attacks on unions and pro-union policies, and a general rollback of the New Deal and Great Society programs to the extent that is politically possible, then the Chamber probably won’t get too upset if its trade and immigration preferences are ignored.

In this respect the Chamber’s transactional relationship with Donald Trump is a microcosm of the GOP’s. Many Republicans for have a price for fully supporting the Trump administration. But it may not be as high as you might imagine.


December 2: Don’t Forget About Medicaid, Democrats!

I feel like I’ve issued this reminder all too often over the years, but it’s time for it again: Medicare-focused Democrats should not forget about Medicaid! I wrote it up again for New York this week:

Congressional Democrats are gearing up for a big campaign to head off or exploit Republican plans to significantly change the Medicare program. The nomination of Representative Tom Price, the House Budget Committee chair, to serve as HHS Secretary has served as a convenient news hook for these Democratic plans, always kept close at hand ever since Paul Ryan made radical changes in Medicare a key feature of his various budget proposals. Price has long supported Ryan’s schemes to turn Medicare benefits into vouchers used to buy private health insurance, and more to the point, has urged Republicans to tackle Medicare “reform” in 2017.

We still don’t know whether the Trump administration and congressional Republicans will actually risk other elements of their common agenda to go after Medicare. But Democrats aren’t taking any chances. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is already accusing the newly ascendant GOP of incipient granny-starving: “Between this nomination of an avowed Medicare opponent and Republicans here in Washington threatening to privatize Medicare, it’s clear that Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year. Every senior, every American should hear this loudly and clearly Democrats will not let them win that fight.”

Schumer and others are comparing this moment to a similar juncture in 2004 when a newly reelected George W. Bush announced he would expend some political capital in seeking a partial privatization of Social Security. It was a big mistake, and aside from failing almost immediately in Congress as a significant number of Republicans headed for the hills, it marked the beginning of a long decline in Bush’s political fortunes punctuated by a Democratic midterm landslide in 2006.

Democrats are hoping for a similar cycle of Republican overreach and voter backlash today — or at least a tactical victory in public opinion forcing Trump (who once promised to protect Medicare benefits), Price, and Ryan to leave Medicare alone.

But there is some risk that by concentrating all their fire on Medicare, Democrats are potentially shirking other health-care safety-net programs, notably Medicaid, the low-income health-care entitlement that has been the object of conservative contempt for decades. Medicaid, after all, is inextricably connected to the Affordable Care Act (and in fact has accounted for a majority of the coverage gains attributable to ACA, despite the Supreme Court decision making Medicaid expansion optional), and if we know one thing for sure about Republican plans, it is that Obamacare repeal (if not replacement) will happen as quickly as possible using budget reconciliation rules that prevent filibusters.

GOP plans for Medicaid are as unclear as those for Medicare. Every Ryan budget has included the conversion of the program into a block grant (or a very similar fixed per capita allotment) whereby the federal contribution would be capped (if not reduced) in exchange for states having more (and perhaps total) flexibility over how to use the money — i.e., they would not have to continue the same benefits for the same population. Trump endorsed the Medicaid block-grant idea during his campaign as well. While there is no question that moving Medicaid over to block grants is intended to massively reduce federal support for low-income health care over time, there are some big questions about how it might play out. The largest is probably what to do about the 31 states that did indeed expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The budget reconciliation bill enacted by Congress last year (and vetoed by Obama) simply canceled the expansion, which would put states in the position of either abandoning new enrollees or footing the bill for their benefits. The House Republicans’ more recent “Better Way” agenda doesn’t cancel the expansion, but does eliminate the elevated federal match rate designed to encourage states to accept it. So it looks like some combination of state budgets and new Medicaid enrollees would take a big hit.

While congressional Democrats aren’t talking much about this threat to Medicaid, it’s a big deal to governors and state legislators — and the 12 Republican governors in states that did accept the Medicaid expansion are probably the biggest obstacles to a slashing federal support. One of them happens to be Mike Pence….

Perhaps Democrats think they can count on Republican governors or their congressional allies to save Medicaid from evisceration, leaving them to concentrate on Medicare. But more likely, Schumer and others are simply obsessed with the political benefits of identifying themselves as defenders of Medicare. And there’s a lot of cynical logic supporting that approach. The seniors who are most concerned about Medicare — and the middle-aged people most affected by a voucher scheme that “grandfathers” current and near-future beneficiaries — vote at much higher rates than young folks and poor folks. They are also a great electoral prize for Democrats, who have been bleeding support among older voters lately. It’s no accident that the last time Democrats had a good midterm election, in 2006, they actually won the senior vote.

There is another factor that makes the self-conscious progressives you would expect to care most about Medicaid beneficiaries instead focus on Medicare. For supporters of a single-payer health-care system, Medicare is the great model of what they want all Americans to enjoy as an entitlement. Meanwhile, Medicaid is the classic “poor people’s program” they would just as soon abandon in favor of universal single payer. In the meantime, many left-bent pols supposedly transfixed by income inequality and its victims may not expend much effort on protecting Medicaid.

But precisely because they are less politically powerful, Medicaid beneficiaries are far more vulnerable to the new Republican regime than the older and wealthier (and for that matter, whiter) population of those on or anticipating Medicare. They are also more likely to feel the hammer come down earlier, either through administrative decisions by the Trump administration or an early budget reconciliation bill that includes an Obamacare “repeal.” It would be nice to hear more about them, particularly from their ostensible champions in the Democratic Party.


December 1: The Party of Permanent Voter Suppression

Donald Trump’s tweet this week claiming he would have won the presidential popular vote had not “millions of people…voted illegally” for his opponent is chilling beyond the light it casts on the president-elect’s personality and character. I wrote about the long-term implications for New York.

Trump’s persistence in alleging — without a shred of evidence so far — massive voter fraud even after the election is most unfortunate. It will reinforce the fatal temptation on the political right, extending from non-ideological partisan hacks to the most race-crazed of white nationalists, to declare permanent open season on voting rights. And once universal suffrage stops being a principle to which both major parties subscribe in theory if not always in practice, reestablishing it could become as difficult as it was in the darkest days of the southern struggle for civil rights.

It is bad enough that loose and almost entirely unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have become routine ammunition in the battle of Republican state lawmakers and elected officials to shave a little bit here (fewer early voting opportunities) and a little bit there (unnecessary and discriminatory voter-ID requirements) from the exercise of the franchise by the young and minority voters most likely to support Democrats. What Trump seems to be buying into is something much more sweeping and ominous: the argument that large-scale voting for Democrats in any particular demographic category is prima facie evidence of fraud because Democrats are offering minority voters — specifically immigrants — inducements no legitimate government should be able to extend, from a path to citizenship to “welfare.”

The idea that the power of “takers not makers” is reaching a tipping point where confiscatory socialism becomes inevitable is an old idea among conservatives, although one they do not often broadcast. It was, after all, the basic point of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” gaffe. In 2016, it was reflected in one of the most pervasive conservative memes: that 2016 could be the “last election” thanks to the success of Democrats in expanding the electorate to achieve a permanent majority based on lawbreakers and dependents. Indeed, some anti-Trump conservatives used this argument to justify voting for the mogul despite all their misgivings about him: It was the “Flight 93 election,” in which hurling oneself suicidally into the fight to deny liberals an electoral victory was the only patriotic course of action. But Trump himself endorsed this meme in September in an interview with Christian right journalist David Brody:

“I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’re going to have a whole different Supreme Court structure. That has to do a lot with what we’re doing because the Supreme Court, as you know with Justice Scalia gone, I think you could probably have four to five judges picked by the next president. Probably a record number, David, probably a record number of judges. If they pick the super-liberals, probably to a certain extent, people that would make Bernie Sanders happy, you will never have a Supreme Court, we’re going to end up with another Venezuela, large scale version. It would be a disaster for the country.”

If, indeed, the very continuation of constitutional government depends on resisting the enfranchisement of new Democratic voters, then efforts to disenfranchise them are always in order, in good times and bad, and even in victory as well as defeat. I am afraid that is the new reality we are already seeing in Trump’s “voter fraud” tweet.

With the election of a president who embraces the idea that universal suffrage is political suicide for the GOP and demographic suicide for real Americans, we may have already lost the hard-won bipartisan support for the proposition that voting is a right for everyone who has not done something terrible to forfeit the vote. The entity that is charged with protecting the right to vote, moreover, is being entrusted by Trump to Jeff Sessions, a man whose entire career has been devoted to maintaining and restoring the kind of highly ordered traditionalist society the civil-rights and voting-rights revolutions endangered in the 1960s and endanger now. Thanks to a conservative Supreme Court majority (soon to be reestablished and perhaps expanded by Trump) that vitiated the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sessions will, if he wishes, be able to pursue a “voter fraud” witch hunt without significant contradictory obligations to defend the right to vote from those who would deny or restrict it.

What this ultimately means is that much of what voting-rights advocates have taken for granted for decades now is again in question. It will take some exceptionally principled Republicans to keep their party from adopting voter suppression as a day-in, day-out political strategy followed in broad daylight rather than the shadows. And the more the GOP fights letting those people vote, the more it will depend on restricting the franchise in the future if its shrinking white voter base is to continue to prevail. In effect, every election will be the “last election” unless voter suppression is not only maintained but intensified to turn back the nonwhite demographic tide.

It is always possible that Donald Trump will decide he’s made America so great in so short a time that his party no longer has to rely on giving disproportionate power to old white people in a sort of truncated quasi-democracy. But if that is where this most unlikely leader of the Party of Lincoln is headed, he is off to a terrible start.