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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 8: Trump Takes Republicans Back to Their Protectionist Heritage

As the debate over the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports raged, I though it was important to give the subject a bit more historical perspective. So I did so at New York:

A lot of the pushback the president is getting on his decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports suggests he is violating Republican economic policy orthodoxy. Here’s just one example from Russell Berman:

“The hastily arranged announcement horrified the veteran free-traders who lead the GOP in Congress: not only House Speaker Paul Ryan, but also the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade, Kevin Brady of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, respectively. Trump has rebuffed the efforts by Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers to slow his drive for tariffs, and GOP leaders appear to lack either the will or the votes in Congress to block him legislatively.”

Yes, Republicans have recently been the party of free-traders, more or less. But as the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan reminds them, there’s an older tradition in the GOP to which Trump is entirely faithful:

“From Lincoln to William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, and from Warren Harding through Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party erected the most awesome manufacturing machine the world had ever seen.

“And, as the party of high tariffs through those seven decades, the GOP was rewarded by becoming America’s Party.”

Buchanan is right. Certainly in the late 19th century the GOP was defined as the party of protectionism as much as it was identified with any other issue position. It was the great cause to which Benjamin Harrison devoted his career. William McKinley proudly put his name on the very high-tariff measure that Harrison signed into law. And McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Thank God I’m not a free-trader!” This was a policy tradition, moreover, that could be easily traced back to the GOP’s Whig ancestors and ultimately to Andrew Hamilton.

And Democrats were very much the party of free trade, at least from the days of Martin Van Buren. (Trump’s hero Jackson was not a free-trader in any systematic sense.) Tariffs were the key question separating the two parties in those close elections that capped the 19th century. But beyond that every single Democratic president since Van Buren has made lowering trade barriers a priority. That includes the last several Democrats in the White House; this is not an issue, like civil rights or economic regulation, where the two parties just exchanged positions in the 20th century, with “free trade” being a conservative position. FDR was perhaps the most rigorous free-trader ever, insisting on unilateral trade concessions to Western Europe after World War II. Going back further, the famous populist William Jennings Bryan was a big-time free-trader, too.

Republicans never completely stamped out their protectionist heritage, though market-based and internationalist trade policies became part of the anti-communist consensus after World War II. Recent GOP presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush found it necessary to impose the occasional retaliatory measure on imports affecting vulnerable and politically sensitive sectors like textiles and steel.

But when you listen to Trump talk about trade and tariffs, it’s clear that protectionism is at the center of his understanding of economic policy, not the periphery. I noticed this in June of 2016, when he had nailed down his party’s presidential nomination and was pulling no punches, going “high protectionist” in a speech in the ever-tariff-friendly state of Pennsylvania. Here’s a sample:

“Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

“When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.

“For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered.”

This isn’t the language of a pol who just thinks trade negotiators haven’t been tough or smart enough. He objects to the very idea that economic globalization is or can be a good thing. So why wouldn’t he be perfectly happy with restricting trade?

The big question economically is whether Trump’s new tariffs, which aren’t a huge thing in themselves, have a spiraling effect on other country’s policies and on global investment markets. But the big question politically is whether Republican pols and opinion-leaders follow him down this path, as they have done on so many other matters.

Democrats have their own sorting-out to do on trade policy; “free trade” is now an unsavory term for most of them, and even Hillary Clinton abandoned Barack Obama’s trade agenda in 2016. But it’s important for them to understand the back-to-the-future trend in the GOP.


March 2: Looks Like Trump Imposed Tariffs To Make Himself Feel Better On a Bad Day

No matter how you feel about the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that the president imposed this week, the way the decision was made and announced has to be concerning to everyone. I wrote about that at New York.

Taking the kind of action the president took this week in imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is a perilous endeavor for multiple reasons. It may impose more economic damage on Americans than it prevents. It arguably violates world trading rules. It invites retaliation. It can be very destabilizing for markets and investors.

And if you happen to be a Republican president, imposing tariffs can upset much of your party’s free-market opinion leaders, business constituencies, and campaign donors.

While Trump’s action should not have surprised anyone who listened to him rant and rave on the campaign trail about Uncle Sucker getting kicked around by trading partners, it’s still unsettling how he made it. As Eric Levitz noted, it seems to have been an “impulsive action” that was made at a time when the elaborate advisory mechanisms set up to guide him on international economic issues were in chaos.

The more we learn about it, the picture gets even worse.

It’s important to understand that under the process laid out under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the domestic legal authority for these new tariffs, Trump had until April 11 to act on the Commerce Department’s recommendations on steel imports, and until April 19 to act on aluminum. He jumped the gun in a big way, trashing the usual procedures for explaining the action to the public, other countries, and various economic players. Why was that? According to NBC News, Trump was freaked out over other, entirely unrelated problems, and basically launched a trade war to make himself feel better. Seriously.

“On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

“A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

“Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade.”

This culminated in a seat-of-the-pants decision announced at a White House meeting that was advertised as a discussion:

“The Thursday morning meeting did not originally appear on the president’s public schedule. Shortly after it began, reporters were told that Ross had convened a ‘listening’ session at the White House with 15 executives from the steel and aluminum industry.

“Then, an hour later, in an another unexpected move, reporters were invited to the Cabinet room. Without warning, Trump announced on the spot that he was imposing new strict tariffs on imports.

“By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. stock market had fallen and Trump, surrounded by his senior advisers in the Oval Office, was said to be furious.”

And that’s the constant in this whole situation: The president is furious, and someone has to pay.


February 28: The GOP’s Especially Big Base/Swing Dilemma

Looking at recent polling trends and their relationship to political news, I had a thought that I explained in some detail at New York:

For a while there in January and early February, American politics revolved around phenomena other than the volcanic personality of our president: the effect of the December 2017 GOP tax cuts; positive economic news; the fate of Dreamers; an appropriations battle in which Trump was mostly on the sidelines. Coincidentally or not, both the president and his party had some of their sunniest polling numbers in a long time last month. Trump’s approval rating moved north of 40 percent and stayed there in most assessments, and the double-digit Democratic advantages in the generic congressional ballot that grew common in December were more than halved overall. One highly publicized poll from Morning Consult in early February had Republicans actually moving ahead.

But as Eric Levitz recently observed, the Democratic “polling panic” has now subsided, with the generic ballot numbers moving back toward the robust advantages for the Donkey Party we saw in December. And now it’s becoming clear Trump’s own approval ratings are following the same pattern: In FiveThirtyEight’s averages (which adjust the numbers for established partisan “leans” and also give slightly greater weight to more accurate pollsters), he’s back below 40 percent, where he spent most of 2017.

It’s possible these trends simply reflect a reversion to the mean after a short, atypical moment. But it may be less than coincidental that the end of that moment occurred during a period when Trump was very large if not necessarily in charge.

During the last three weeks, political news has been dominated by fresh evidence of turmoil in the White House (punctuated by the Porter scandal that represented a combo platter of incompetence and insensitivity about domestic violence), new developments in the Mueller investigation, and erratic Trump behavior on Twitter and elsewhere. A particularly dangerous juncture for Trump may have been the Presidents’ Day weekend when he went on an extended Twitter rampage, mostly about the FBI and the Mueller investigation, even as media focused on the Parkland massacre. The jury’s still out on the effect of the president’s personal involvement in the post-massacre debate on gun control, though his steadily increasing investment in the loopy idea of arming teachers doesn’t bode well for him.

If this theory is right, or even half right, we should expect some more short-term deterioration in the president’s approval ratings and the GOP’s standing in the generic ballot. More importantly, it underscores a persistent dilemma for the president’s team. Without question, Trump being Trump is important to the maintenance of maximum excitement within his electoral base, and that is an asset of great importance in relatively low-turnout midterm elections. But if Republicans need the simmering anti-liberal resentments of the MAGA crowd to remain at a near-boiling-point as November approaches, the presidential behavior that most reliably keeps the heat on also appears to repel voters who might be otherwise persuaded to stick with Trump’s party on policy grounds.

How to balance base mobilization and swing-voter persuasion is a perennial puzzle for any political party. But it’s especially complicated when the base glories in the very characteristics of a leader that actually frighten others. If Republicans become convinced that revving up the base is the only thing they care about in this midterm election cycle, they won’t have to do a whole lot to encourage Trump to go absolutely wild for weeks on end.


February 22: Partisan Gerrymandering Is Under Fire

After sorting through the various controversies over partisan gerrymandering, I wrote an analysis of how redistricting reform is changing for New York.

The recent decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn and redraw a congressional map it deemed an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by the GOP-controlled legislature illustrates a big and important trend in efforts to provide fair redistricting, just before a new decennial cycle begins.

Public (and sometimes judicial) opinion has long been scandalized by the common practice of partisan gerrymandering (particularly when it comes to state legislators drawing their own districts). But until quite recently, the focus of redistricting reform was on who drew the maps and what they looked like to the untrained eye. It’s not surprising that the most prominent national redistricting reform initiative has long been legislation developed by former Tennessee congressman John Tanner (reintroduced regularly after his 2010 retirement by Tennessee colleagues).

The Tanner bill would require that redistricting decisions be made by independent commissions whose members are appointed by the legislatures with formal responsibility for drawing maps. It also requires that the commissions to respect wherever possible what are generally called “traditional redistricting principles” such as compact and contiguous districts. This latter guideline was meant to avoid the unsightly lashed-together districts that gave “gerrymandering” (identified with early 19th-century Massachusetts pol Elbridge Gerry, who was complicit in drawing a district that looked like a salamander) its very name.

Despite the perennial popularity in good government circles of Tanner-style redistricting reform, its limitations have also become obvious. Thirteen states currently deploy some kind of independent redistricting body with responsibility for redistricting (though six of them do not handle congressional maps). But to the extent that members are appointed by partisan pols, their “independence” is perpetually suspect.

It’s also increasingly clear that the finely grained data available to map-drawers, which they can manipulate via sophisticated software, has made “traditional redistricting principles” less effective in combating gerrymanders. The Pennsylvania case in the news right now provides a great illustration: After the state Supreme Court told the legislature to come up with a new congressional map that was less partisan and also less disruptive of traditional redistricting principles, the solons promptly came up with a map that looked a lot neater and nicer but was just as partisan as the original.

So the Pennsylvania court emulated a federal district court in Wisconsin in looking beyond the usual considerations and challenging partisan gerrymanders not for how they were devised but for their partisan impact. And like that Wisconsin federal court, the Pennsylvania state court relied on new measurements of partisanship — notably a social science tool called “efficiency gap” — to measure the effect of partisan gerrymandering and determine an appropriate standard.

That’s why the timing of the Pennsylvania court intervention is so interesting. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Wisconsin case — and on an alleged Democratic partisan gerrymander in Maryland, which a district court in that state refused to overturn — before the current term’s end in June. And the decision is expected to turn, as is so often the case, on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in the last big gerrymandering case (Vieth v. Jubelirer) back in 2004, fretted over the lack of a workable standard for partisan bias.

“Kennedy was also looking for a “limited and precise rationale … to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases.” He didn’t find one in that case, ruling against Democrats challenging a Republican gerrymander in the state. But he signaled he would be open to striking down extreme partisan gerrymanders if the court could agree on a standard to do so, like in racial gerrymandering cases where it’s possible to prove a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act.

“Voting rights advocates are hoping that time has come.”

Whatever SCOTUS is or is not planning, the Pennsylvania decision is probably a done deal, and could serve as an inspiration to state courts elsewhere with similar state constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal protection of the laws and equal voting rights. Yes, Republicans are trying to get the decision thrown out on grounds that the Pennsylvania judges are usurping the legislature’s U.S. Constitutionally established power over redistricting. But SCOTUS has already rejected an emergency appeal on that basis, and one voting rights expert called the GOP legal effort “the mother of all Hail Marys in terms of its likelihood to succeed.”

And if SCOTUS does rule in favor of the gerrymandering challengers, it could have a large impact on the next round of redistricting due to begin in 2021, whether or not it has the kind of effect on 2018 House races that Democrats hailing the Pennsylvania decision hope for.


February 16: No Slam Dunk for Republicans in PA-18 After All

Perusing the polls this week, some good news for Democrats popped up. I wrote about it at New York.

Democrats have been going through a sort of Poll Panic of late, agonizing over the apparent loss of a big advantage in the congressional generic ballot, and also small but steady improvements in the president’s job approval ratings.

Today, it’s Republicans’ turn to look at poll numbers and freak.

A rare public poll (from Monmouth) of the special congressional election race in the 18th Congressional District of Pennsylvania shows Democrat Conor Lamb within the margin of error of the lead of Republican Rick Saccone. The lead for Saccone ranges from five points (50/45) in a low-turnout scenario, to four points (48/44) in a very-high-turnout scenario, to just three points (49/46) in a scenario based on the turnout patterns in 2017 special elections.

That’s newsworthy because this is a race where the Republican should be far ahead. PA-18 is both strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. The GOP congressman (Tim Murphy) whose sex-scandal-driven resignation forced this special election faced no Democratic opponent in 2016 or 2014; even in the Democratic landslide years of 2006 and 2008 he won with 58 percent and 64 percent of the vote, respectively. There is not, moreover, any reason to expect an anti-Trump backlash to demoralize Republican voters: Trump carried the 18th by 20 points (as compared to his one-point margin in Georgia’s Sixth District, the historically Republican district that was the site of last year’s hottest House special election).

Some observers of the race have noted that Lamb, a young former prosecutor with deep roots in Pittsburgh politics, is a more attractive figure than Saccone. But the Republican has been given every bit of help money and power can arrange. Trump is scheduled to make his second appearance with Saccone next week. Mike Pence has been thumping the tubs for him as well.

For poll skeptics, Monmouth has a very good reputation, and it’s not some routinely pro-Democratic outfit (indeed, a January Monmouth poll showing the Democratic congressional generic ballot lead dropping to two points probably started the current Poll Panic among members of the Donkey Party). And for the record, it used the same variable-turnout-model approach in the run-up to December’s Alabama general election, and its 2017 special election model showed a dead heat, even as most pollsters predicted a Moore win.

If Lamb does pull the upset, or even gets close, it will provide fresh evidence that 2018 could be a big year for House Democrats — and that Trump Country territory like southwest Pennsylvania isn’t safe.


February 15: “Pocahontas” Fights Back

Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a major speech this week that not only affects her political career, but is an instructive example of how to deal with Republican racial slurs. I wrote about it at New York.

The president’s inveterate use of the name “Pocahontas” in mockingly referring to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is a bit more than an example of Trumpian boorishness or of his habit of giving people derogatory nicknames. He’s picking up on a slur that certain Massachusetts opponents of Warren have been using since 2012, when the conservative Boston Herald found out Warren had self-identified as having a Native American background in a Harvard faculty directory back in the 1990s. Subsequent digging by various unfriendly and neutral sources discovered that Warren had no formal ties or right to identify with the Cherokee tribe she had been told was prominent in her mother’s Oklahoma background — but also that there was no evidence the highly regarded law professor had ever benefited from a Native connection.

Still, attacks on Warren for exaggerating her Native background struck a conservative chord by raising the familiar targets of diversity, affirmative action, and “political correctness,” then and now. Staff of her 2012 Senate opponent Scott Brown were caught on camera doing various pseudo-Native war chants at a campaign rally. By 2016, one of the most aggressive weaponizers of the “Pocahontas” slur, the hammerheaded Boston radio personality Howie Carr, introduced Donald Trump at a campaign rally with similar war whoops.

This nonsense has created a dilemma for Warren. Does she go out of her way to publicly confess her extremely minor misconduct in the faculty-directory listing, thus fanning the “scandal?” Does she ignore it entirely? Or does she find an effective way to fire back?

A Warren speech today to the National Congress of American Indians showed she has decisively settled on firing back.

For one thing, she’s insisting that Cherokee heritage was indeed part of her family’s life, even as she acknowledges that only tribes themselves can establish Native status.

“[M]y mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship. So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped …

“They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built, and the story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away …

“I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”

At the same time, Warren ripped into Trump’s derisive references to her — which at one point he irrelevantly repeated during an Oval Office ceremony honoring Native military veterans — as an example of age-old racist distortions of Native history. After briefly recounting the actual tale of the actual Pocahontas, Warren offered this indirect jab:

“Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas — the real Pocahontas — for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain.

“And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”

Including you-know-who.

Warren later took a more explicit shot at Trump and at his favorite predecessor:

“It is deeply offensive that this president keeps a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, honoring a man who did his best to wipe out Native people.”

And she linked advocacy for Native Americans to the more standard liberal causes she has embraced, including opposition to Big Oil profiteering from Native lands, the fight against GOP-supported safety-net cuts that disproportionately affect minorities, and even banking reform (“[I]t’s about 12 miles on average from the center of tribal reservations to the nearest bank branch.”)

It’s reasonable to assume that Warren will hearken back to this speech whenever Trump or anyone else calls her “Pocahontas” in the future, ensuring that the nastier aspects of the slur will not go unnoticed.That’s morally necessary and politically smart.


February 9: California GOP Poised to Miss Senate and Gubernatorial Special Elections

I ran across a poll finding from California and realized the press accounts were missing something big. So I explained it at New York.

[S]hortly before Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she was indeed running for another term, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing that half of the state’s likely voters wanted her to retire.

The sense that the 84-year-old Feinstein might be getting a bit too old, combined with long-simmering lefty hostility to her for being insufficiently progressive, helped draw one of California’s rising Democratic stars, State Senate Majority Leader Kevin de León, into a challenge to the incumbent.

A new PPIC poll indicates that Feinstein’s doing pretty well, leading de León by a robust 46 percent to 17 percent margin among likely voters, with significant leads among virtually every subgroup.

Of perhaps even greater significance, there were no Republican Senate candidates with sufficiently viable campaigns for PPIC to even include them in the poll. With less than a month left before the candidate filing deadline for the June 5 nonpartisan primary, that almost certainly means that for the second election year in a row, Republicans won’t have a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the November general election (under the top-two system, the top two finishers, regardless of party or percentage, advance to the general election).

And while California Republicans do have three candidates for governor this year, that could be two too many for the party to place someone in the general election. The new PPIC poll shows Democrats Gavin Newsom (the lieutenant governor and retiring Governor Jerry Brown’s heir apparent) and Antonio Villaraigosa (former mayor of Los Angeles) dominating a large field with 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The top-performing Republican, state legislator Travis Allen, is at 8 percent, and it’s not entirely clear his candidacy will survive recently disclosed allegations of sexual harassment in 2013. The other two Republicans in the race hold a combined 10 percent of the vote.

And while Kevin de León, with a virtually assured general election slot, can console himself with the fact that he will have nine months to make a race of it against Feinstein, it’s soon or never for GOP candidates, actual or potential.

If, as appears likely, there are no Republicans at the top of the ballot for the Senate and gubernatorial races in November, it could have a baleful effect on GOP turnout. And that could be a real problem for Republicans trying to hold onto six endangered U.S. House seats.


February 8: No Excuses for Trump & GOP If They Lose Pennsylvania Special Election

Looking at the upcoming special congressional election in Pennsylvania, I offered these thoughts at New York.

The spin wars over the results of the special and off-year elections in the Trump era have been as intense as the races themselves. Democrats can rightly point to a regular pattern of over-performance in congressional and state legislative special elections once you look at the jurisdictions involved. At the congressional level, the playing field was heavily tilted to the GOP by the fact that most of the vacancies involved were produced by Trump lifting incumbents into his administration. So the most common GOP rationalization for obvious Democratic gains in dark-red territory was: “We won, didn’t we?”

The big regular off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia were Democratic routs by any measure, and produced new excuses for failure: Trump blamed Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie for not running a cookie-cutter campaign based on his own, and Republicans could blame the New Jersey debacle on Chris Christie’s profound unpopularity.

Now, though, a special election is approaching on March 13 in Pennsylvania that will leave no excuses for Trump or for Republicans if the GOP loses. The district itself is both strongly Republican (its Cook Political Report PVI is R+11, which means it has recently voted more Republican in presidential elections than the nation as a whole by 11 percent) and unlike, say, Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District (that district’s PVI is R+8, but Trump only won it by one point), strongly pro-Trump as well (the president carried it by 20 points).

This district is also, not to put too fine a point on it, in perhaps the most stereotypical Trump Country segment of the United States: southwest Pennsylvania, whose bars and living rooms are regularly trawled by conservative journalists like Salena Zito for validation of Trump’s appeal. And the GOP candidate to succeed disgraced GOP congressman Tim Murphy (who had no Democratic opponent in 2014 or 2016), state legislator Rick Saccone, might as well be campaigning in a Trump mask. The fiery conservative likes to boast that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Raising the profile of this race still more as a potential 2018 bellwether is that the Democratic candidate, former local prosecutor Conor Lamb, is regularly described as being “straight out of central casting” — a 33-year-old Marine veteran with deep roots in the district and a moderate issues profile and style.

Unsurprisingly, reports Politico, the national GOP and the Trump administration are taking no chances in this race. Trump himself and Vice-President Mike Pence have already appeared in the district with Saccone, and are prepared to do so again, with Cabinet members also on call to take the short trip up to Pittsburgh. Saccone is not a particularly good fundraiser, so the GOP and outside groups are already making up for that abundantly; at the moment, “Republicans [are] outspending Democrats on TV by nearly 5-1,” with more money on the way.

All this national and conservative-movement activity is occurring at a time when their huge built-in advantages in the district are potentially being strengthened by an abatement — perhaps temporary, perhaps not — in the intensity of the Democratic “wave” that was so evident at the end of 2017. The Democratic advantage in the congressional generic ballot — a regular measurement of national party strength in a midterm election — has by most accounts shrunk by more than half since its peak just before Christmas.

There’s more than a month to go before voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th District go to the polls, and a lot could happen in the interim. But it’s pretty clear this is the GOP’s race to lose.


February 4: Ryan Discovers Job Training As a Way to Cut Safety Net Benefits

For anyone concerned about safety net programs, Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan bears close watching. I noted a fresh example of his bad and deceptive intentions at New York last week:

House Speaker Paul Ryan is a very frustrated man. His great passion in public life seems to be the destruction of the federal safety net created by the New Deal and the Great Society. But political reality keeps getting in the way. His long-standing support for partial privatization of Social Security is a nonstarter since George W. Bush got burned for broaching it back in 2005. His plans to voucherize Medicare benefits have been rubber-stamped by GOP members of Congress when they were in no position to actually implement them; they’ve gone nowhere after Republicans took over the entire federal government last year.

Ryan’s best shot yet at “entitlement reform” went down in flames with the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — and permanently cap Medicaid spending. And when he raised the trial balloon late last year of coming at entitlements under the rubric of “welfare reform,” that hardy race-inflected favorite of conservatives everywhere, Mitch McConnell shut him down almost instantly.

But ever ingenious, at the GOP congressional retreat this week, Ryan tried one more gambit, as Politico reported:

“[T]he Wisconsin Republican is back at it again, repackaging his proposals in hopes of gaining traction on welfare reform.

“During a GOP retreat here in Appalachia, Ryan urged congressional Republicans to tackle ‘workforce development.’ He messaged the somewhat amorphous phrase as a matter of ‘helping people’— not a budget-cutting excursive.”

What Ryan is deploying is a massive bait and switch: Get people talking about beefing up job-training resources for the able-bodied but unemployed or underemployed poor, and then drop the hammer on the entitlement benefits they currently receive. Phase one of that hammer dropping, of course, would be work requirements:

“[A]t least a half-dozen Republicans told POLITICO that Ryan’s proposal could include work requirements for welfare beneficiaries, which could repel senators. Indeed, at least two Senate Republicans said Thursday that they liked the idea in theory — but weren’t sure the upper chamber would ever take it up.”

Ryan is likely counting on support from the White House, given the administration’s cautious moves toward letting states impose work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. But more generally pushing people out of entitlement benefits and into jobs that may or may not exist requires more cover. And that’s where Ryan’s sudden enthusiasm for upgrading the workforce’s skills comes in.

“He emphasized the ‘jobs’ piece of the equation, pointing out that there are 6.6 million people on unemployment and more than 5.8 million open jobs. That skills gap, he said, could be filled by the unemployed population if the government provided the facilities to link the two.”

Here’s the trouble, though: Lawmakers from both parties and at every level of government have struggled for decades to come up with a successful system for job training. The Manpower Training and Development Act of 1962, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, have all, according to nearly every assessment, largely failed to address the enormous problems for workers caused by automation and globalization.

If Ryan has some brilliant ideas for overhauling this system, we’d all like to hear them. But if talk about job training is just a pretext for cutting benefits, then it’s just the same old same old from the inveterate enemy of the welfare state.


February 1: Is the GOP’s Era of Small Government Already Over?

After watching the State of the Union Address, and reading many assessments, I made this observation about what Trump did not discuss in a take for New York.

[T]he president’s 2018 State of the Union Address was a big hit on the right. It’s probably true that some of them were mostly relieved that he performed competently in a venue that does not play to his extemporaneous strengths.

But the praise was somewhat less fulsome from those who take the substance of conservative policy seriously — because it was almost entirely absent from the speech. Here’s National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru:

“[T]here was almost nothing of substance about 2018. The great exception is immigration, where he laid out a relatively detailed proposal in a way that will strike people without strong views on the subject as fair and sensible. Long stretches of the speech were, however, simply vacuous, as when Trump endorsed higher infrastructure investment and lower opioid addiction rates without saying a word about how these goods would be achieved. These were goals, not policies.

“One reason the speech was so heavy on shout-outs to heroes and victims in the audience was that the policy cupboard is pretty bare”

Ponnuru’s colleague Jonah Goldberg was even more pointed in what the speech omitted:

“[E]xcept for some laudable bits about streamlining the bureaucracy and improving FDA policy, there wasn’t a hint of fiscal conservatism to it. Trump wants a huge increase in infrastructure spending and an end to the sequester for military spending, but he never mentioned the debt or deficit. Well, there was one mention of the word ‘deficit’ — the ‘infrastructure deficit.’ And he endorsed a new entitlement — paid family leave — while failing to mention any effort to reform the existing entitlements.”

Indeed, if there was any lingering possibility that Paul Ryan’s dreams of an assault on entitlements this year would be realized, this speech eliminated them once and for all. Given Trump’s equally conspicuous refusal to mention additional efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare (a major emphasis in his proto-SOTU address to a joint session of Congress a year ago), it may well be that the White House is going along with Mitch McConnell’s inclination to rule out any use of the congressional budget process at all this year.

That is certainly the safest route for a majority party facing an adverse midterm-election-year climate. And perhaps the massive deficit-expanding GOP tax bill is too fresh a memory for Republicans to risk derisive guffaws by pretending to care about fiscal probity.

But it’s bound to bother conservatives who do care about Big Government that so little of their concerns animate this president who is so ferocious toward criminal immigrants and disrespectful foreigners and athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem. If Trump won’t treat fiscal hawks as a constituency worth pandering to in a speech this long, the odds are pretty good that he figures feeding them cultural red meat and sheer partisanship is enough to keep them on the reservation. And if so, he’s almost certainly right.