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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

August 10: Where Trump Is Really Losing Support

As always, Ron Browntein slices and dices public opinion data in an especially useful way, as I was happy to share with readers at New York:

It’s generally conceded (though not by the president himself, who argues the size of his rallies is the best indicator of his popularity) that Trump’s already weak public standing has softened somewhat. But there is less agreement about where he stands with this or that part of the electorate — particularly his “base,” however that is defined.

But now Ron Brownstein, working with some previously unpublished Gallup data from 13 current and projected battleground states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin), has given us the best snapshot yet of exactly where, geographically and demographically, Trump stands as compared to his performance last year. It shows that he is hemorrhaging the most support from college-educated white voters, though he’s lost a crucial bit of his strength from the non-college-educated white voters often considered his “base.”

“Trump’s approval rating among college-educated whites has declined relative to his 2016 vote in all 13 states. In seven of those states, his approval rating stands at least 10 points lower than his vote –a list topped by North Carolina and Florida (both 19 points lower), Georgia (18 points lower), Ohio (15 points), Virginia (12 points), and Michigan and Minnesota (11 points each.) His approval rating among these white-collar whites reaches above 50% only in Texas and Georgia, and exceeds 45% in just two other states, Nevada and Arizona. In seven states, his approval among these well-educated white voters has tumbled to 40 percent or less. (That includes four states essential to his victory: North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)”

Some might object that Trump managed to win last year despite poor approval numbers then. But that cuts both ways: In 2016, Trump was competing with a pol who was nearly as unpopular as he was. Hillary Clinton will not be on the ballot or in the consciousness of voters in 2018 —or presumably in 2020, either.

“These anemic numbers suggest how much Trump benefited last fall from the doubts these voters also held about Clinton; standing alone, without her as a foil, he’s facing much harsher assessments. (In a separate national Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 59% of college-educated whites said they “strongly” disapproved of Trump’s performance.) “I think the doubts about her blocked how big the potential was for those voters to vote against Trump,” says long-time Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.”

Relatively speaking, Trump’s support is holding up better among white working-class voters, the core of his base. But there are still problems:

“[Trump’s] standing still represents an erosion from his 2016 vote among blue-collar whites in 12 of those states; in five of them, he’s declined by double-digits. Perhaps most important are the trends in four of the Rust Belt states that proved decisive last year: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In all of them exit polls found Trump won between 62 and 64% of non-college whites. In each case, that was a substantial increase from Romney’s performance with those voters in 2012, when former President Barack Obama carried the states.”

In those four crucial states, which were where the 2016 upset was consummated, Trump’s white-working-class approval numbers are down around the levels of support Romney achieved in losing all four in 2012.

We sometimes forget in our awe at Trump’s astonishing rise to the presidency that it was a near thing, particularly in the general election. He doesn’t have much margin for error, and nor does his party in a midterm election that usually represents a referendum on the party controlling the White House (and in this case, the much-despised do-nothing Congress as well). The drops in support among white voters in battleground states that Brownstein documents aren’t massive, but they could spell the difference between Republican success and calamity just down the road.

August 4: A Huge 2020 Presidential Field Might Not Be Ideal For Democrats

It’s awfully early to be thinking about the 2020 election, but potential candidates are already seeing the next president of the United States in their bathroom mirrors, so observers must take notice, as I did at New York:

[T]here’s nothing unusual about speculation surrounding two fairly obscure Democratic House members, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio. Compadres in an unsuccessful revolt against Speaker Nancy Pelosi last November (Ryan was the alternative candidate, Moulton a vocal supporter), they are both already being mentioned in connection with 2020…. They will join another colleague who has attracted some national attention, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, as featured speakers at September’s Polk County Steak Fry, in Des Moines. This event is an effort to revive the annual Steak Fry event former senator Tom Harkin used to host in his home town of Indianola, which was a big-time magnet for future Democratic presidential candidates.

Everybody should get used to the idea of a putative 2020 Democratic field the size of an Iowa cornfield. There are three potential candidates who would each become front-runners in the 2020 race if they decide to run: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. There are questions as to whether any or all of them are too old, particularly for a party looking to show it’s shed the barnacles exposed by the 2016 Clinton campaign. Sanders will be 78 when the 2020 Iowa Caucuses are held; Biden will be 77, and Warren will be 71 (for that matter, Donald Trump will be 73). But none of them has any particular reason to diminish their influence by declining interest in 2020. Their long shadows will make it harder for little-known alternatives to emerge. But the possibility of retirement or illness among the Big Three keeps open the gate to dark-horse fantasies.

If Sanders, Biden, and Warren do fall by the wayside, Democrats may suddenly find themselves with a presidential field that resembles the mob that ran for the GOP nomination in 2016. And as National Review’s Jim Geraghty reminds us, that did not work out to well for those Republicans who kept expecting someone to emerge to knock off Donald Trump, right up to the moment he was nominated:

“One chunk of the field convinced itself there was an ‘establishment lane,’ leaving Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all elbowing each other for the same base of support that proved insufficiently influential. On the other side, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker tried to occupy the ‘conservative lane.’ Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for an ‘outsider lane.’ But in the end, it turned out there were no real lanes, just a traffic jam. Every non-Trump candidate’s determination to be the last one standing against Trump was the strategic miscalculation of the cycle.”

There is no Donald Trump analogue gearing up for a presidential run on the Democratic side in 2020, so far as we know. But if one emerges, she or he will be helped enormously if there is a large field against which to pose as Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Geraghty counts 18 possible candidates right now, and while some will certainly not run, others may come out of the woodwork if the Big Three give the race a pass. Indeed, the Trump precedent has made the narcissism of long shots seem a lot more reasonable.

There are some things about the Donkey Party’s procedures that might help mitigate the risk of an accidental nominee. Most importantly, Democrats award delegates on a strictly proportional basis, making the occasional sweeps that helped Trump win in 2016 impossible. The Democratic practice of awarding nonelected “superdelegates”— if they preserve it — is also a hedge against a hostile-candidate takeover of the party.

But even if they have no reason to fear the fate that befell the GOP in 2016, Democrats should begin to think through the practical consequences of a very large presidential field. If nothing else, the two-tier debates Republicans were forced to undertake would be very controversial in a party where last year’s debate scheduling and formatting were a huge bone of contention. And an undifferentiated glut of candidates might be good for party unity but not so hot for voter interest.

Maybe one or two of the Big Three (it’s hard to envision all of them running) will enter the 2020 race and either lock up the nomination early or at least cull the field of electoral weaklings. If not, then just two short years from now, at the Iowa State Fair, the candidates may be so thick on the ground that you won’t be able to stir ’em with a stick.

August 2: “Trust Women” Is the Only Principle Democrats Need on Abortion Policy

One strategic conflict that Democrats can’t seem to shake involves abortion policy. I addressed this controversy at some length at New York:

Earlier this week Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the fundraising wing of the House Democratic Caucus) touched a chronically sore point with the vast majority of Democrats who are pro-choice:

“Democrats will not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights, the chairman of the party’s campaign arm in the House said in an interview with The Hill

“‘There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,’ said Luján, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. ‘As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.'”

Luján’s initial mistake, I would argue, was in framing the question as a matter of “litmus tests.” Unlike their counterparts in many other countries, America’s major political parties don’t have formal membership protocols, much less binding “tests” of what is or isn’t a common position on controversial topics. When it comes to candidates, the national party — and for that matter, state parties, in most cases — has no control over who calls her- or himself a “Democrat”; that’s the job of party primary voters.

The DCCC does make decisions every day about how to use its financial resources to maximize the number of House Democrats, and would probably cheerfully funnel money to a Koch brother if it added a vote to Nancy Pelosi’s column in the next House balloting for Speaker. Confusing that hammer-headed perspective with some sort of official pronouncement on the relative importance — or nonimportance — of reproductive rights is a bad idea from the get-go.

But as some of Luján’s critics immediately noted, it is not a good thing that a commitment to reproductive rights is often so high on the list of progressive principles Democratic officials seem willing to throw over the side in the pursuit of electoral victory — or as Luján put it, creating a “big family in order to win the House back.” Would anyone go out of their way to suggest, for example, that Democrats are happy to find and back candidates who oppose progressive taxation or want to radically reduce immigration? How about opponents of Social Security or of civil rights? Why is the right to choose so disposable?

It’s not a matter of intra-party democracy. According to the most recent Pew survey of how Americans feel on the basic matter of whether abortion should be mostly legal or mostly illegal, self-identified Democrats are pro-choice by a 79/18 margin. Pew also finds that Democrats oppose overturning a constitutional right to choose by an even larger 84/14 margin — an opposition that has been in every Democratic national platform since 1976, just as overturning Roe v. Wade has been a staple in Republican national platforms since the same year. No one is stopping individual Democrats, including candidates, from dissenting from that long-established consensus position. But the implicit encouragement of heterodoxy on abortion policy that Luján (like other party leaders) offers cannot help to be maddening to the many millions of Democratic women for whom this is a question of basic personal rights, not some policy preference. That this suggestion came from a man makes it even worse.

Political parties inevitably encompass multiple views on multiple things. But some are more fundamental than others, touching on values and mutual respect…. The conviction that women should have control of their reproductive health is clearly a value; protecting it is also clearly a policy goal. Exactly how to do that is another matter, and I don’t think any pro-choice Democrats are insisting on uniformity as to the details of abortion policy.

If Democrats continue, as they probably will, to argue about this topic, there is another level of self-discipline that Democratic men should exercise. The most appropriate slogan for progressive men is the one the late Dr. George Tiller adhered to, right up until the time he was murdered during Sunday services at his own church: “Trust women.” And if you can’t bring yourself to trust them with decisions over their own bodies, Democratic men, at least respect them enough to keep your own counsel about it.

July 28: Not With a Bang But a Whimper

After watching CSPAN2 into the wee hours of last night, tuning out only when a bitter Mitch McConnell abruptly ajourned the Senate, I offered this immediate take for New York:

The drama on the Senate floor was palpable as the vote on Mitch McConnell’s “skinny repeal” substitute amendment neared. A previous vote was held open for more than an hour as rumors circulated among the journalists watching nearby and following on Twitter and C-Span. Was Vice-President Mike Pence in the chamber to cast the deciding vote? Was John McCain yucking it up with Democrats? Might Lisa Murkowski succumb to pressure or bribes and rejoin Team Mitch?

When the ayes and nays finally started on the “skinny repeal,” some observers figured McConnell must have gotten the 50 senators he needed; otherwise why was he forcing a vote? But in the end, Collins and Murkowski held fast against the bill, and John McCain put it down with a loud “No!” and a visible thumbs down, provoking a shocked roar among his colleagues…..

[T]he high drama of this vote provided a sharp contrast to the low comedy that led Republicans to this breaking point after so many weeks and months of efforts to enact health-care legislation. In January, they abandoned the “repeal and delay” strategy for dealing with Obamacare. In May, after a false start, they finally got a partial-repeal-and-replace bill out of the House on a wave of shady deals, and with the promise of Senate improvements. In unprecedented secrecy, Mitch McConnell tried to fine-tune the scheme of tax and Medicaid cuts and insurance deregulation known as Trumpcare. But its unpopularity steadily grew, its baleful effects were serially exposed by the Congressional Budget Office, and deal after deal lost as many senators as could be gained. Just this week, the Senate voted down both Trumpcare and a revised repeal-and-delay scheme, leaving Republicans with no real proposal to enact.

That is what brought the Senate to the “skinny repeal” idea, McConnell’s phantom legislation that was at best a deceptive means of kicking the can down the road to a House-Senate conference that might revive Trumpcare, and at worst (if, as McCain and others feared, the House simply rubber-stamped it) a nasty piece of work that would boost insurance premiums and deny 16 million Americans health coverage. For all the drama of the vote that killed “skinny repeal,” it was really a moment when the Republican drive to do something — anything — to claim a victory over Obamacare finally lost momentum and ground to a halt. To borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, the GOP health-care crusade ended “not with a bang but a whimper.”

In the shocked Senate chamber after the crucial vote, McConnell seemed near tears, furious at the three apostates who frustrated his Republicans-only process, and completely out of ideas. He instantly canceled the scheduled “vote-a-rama” series of amendments scheduled for the wee hours, and dispensed with any “final passage” vote; with the failure of “skinny repeal,” the only thing on the floor to pass was the House-passed American Health Care Act, the bill Donald Trump himself called “mean.” Even as he bitterly taunted Democrats to come forward with their own ideas, McConnell seemed to take one immediately critical bipartisan idea — funding Cost-Sharing Reduction subsidies to keep individual insurance markets functioning — off the table.

Moving from a failed effort to enact transparently phony legislation to the sabotaging of anything else would indeed be a logical next step for McConnell, and likely would put him in tune with the vengeful, destructive mood we can expect from Donald Trump the next time he approaches his Twitter account. But Republicans earned this defeat a long time ago, when they chose to pretend they could improve health care while denying universal coverage and restoring discrimination against the sick and the poor. They have also earned a long and bitter series of internal recriminations over their failure to bring down the Great White Whale of Obamacare. If the GOP chooses to blame it all on three senators who refused to vote for a bill no one actually wanted to see enacted, their road back to relevance on health-care policy will be very long.

July 27: GOP Burying Its Past Health Care Initiatives

As the madness surrounding the U.S. Senate’s consideration of health care legislation continued, it occurred to me Republicans are burying their own past, as explained at New York:

Amid the confusion and procedural obscurity surrounding Senate consideration of the FY 2017 budget reconciliation bill this week, something remarkable is happening that should not be missed: The Republican-controlled chamber is in the process of repudiating two solid years of GOP health-care policy.

[T]he latest version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act went down to defeat on a procedural vote with no less than nine Republican senators voting to kill it. Lest we forget, the BCRA is really just a variation of the House-passed American Health Care Act. It represents the closest thing Republicans have to a consensus repeal-and-replace plan for Obamacare.

Before the GOP made the fateful decision to develop an Obamacare “replacement,” its big plan was known as “repeal and delay,” based on the legislation Congress passed late in 2015 to simply repeal key elements of the Affordable Care Act with effective dates delayed long enough to allow for future “replacement” legislation. A replica of that 2015 legislation, now known as the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, is up for a vote in the Senate today. It is universally expected to fail [it actually lost on a 45-55 vote], and in fact is probably only on the floor because Senator Rand Paul and other hard-core conservatives wanted to register a vote for it badly enough to make that a condition for their support of yesterday’s must-pass motion to proceed.

So in less than 24 hours, the 2015–16 and 2017 GOP plans for dealing with Obamacare will be tossed into the dustbin of history. Yes, it is possible that yet another version of BCRA/AHCA — also known as Trumpcare — will emerge from the ashes for another Senate vote or, more likely, will be adopted by a House-Senate conference if the Senate can pass anything. That’s what is behind the talk of a “skinny repeal” bill that simply kicks the can down the road and into a conference where the real decisions will be made.

It’s instructive, though, that all this misdirection and deception are necessary. For seven years Republicans behaved as though getting rid of Obamacare was a fait accompli once they won both Congress and the White House. Now the two main strategies they devised for achieving this no-brainer are going down to defeat in “their” Washington, and can only be revivified, if at all, by stealth. It’s a sign of both intellectual bankruptcy and political fecklessness that does not bode well for the rest of the GOP agenda.

July 22: From 2016 Landslide to 2018 Defeat: Why Some “Safe” House GOP Seats Really Aren’t

I ran across a fascinating analysis of House midterm elections at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and condensed and extended it at New York:

The good news for House Republicans, according to a detailed analysis of the midterm landscape from Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is that 226 of the 241 GOP winners last year won by a double-digit margin, typically the definition of a “landslide.”

The bad news is that in the last three midterm elections (2006, 2010, and 2014), the average House incumbent representing the party that controlled the White House suffered a negative swing of 12 points. So even “landslide” winners in the previous cycle got quickly into hot water when the midterms rolled around.

Indeed, fully 21 House Republican incumbents won by 12 points or less in 2016. Ten of them also represent districts won by Hillary Clinton.

[E]ven if all 21 seats fell to the Democrats — and they lost none of their own — that still wouldn’t be enough to flip control of the House.

The hunt for additional pickups might begin with the 13 House incumbents who did win by more than 12 points in 2016 — but whose districts were carried by Hillary Clinton. And perhaps even more promising are open seats, as Kondik notes:

“[T]he results in open seats defended by the presidential party [in the last three midterms] saw huge swings in favor of the opposite party. In such seats, the presidential party share declined about 11 points from the presidential to the midterm elections — or 22 points in terms of margin — and the president’s party only held 25 of the 46 seats included in the study over the three midterms.”

At the moment, there is only one open GOP House seat where the Republican stepping down won by fewer than 22 points (the 27th district in South Florida, long represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 20 points). But additional retirements in the next few months will produce more open GOP seats, and probably more targets.

There is no guarantee, of course, that 2018 will be an “average” midterm. But given President Trump’s persistently low approval ratings and the current high level of political engagement among Democrats, if anything, the next midterm is likely to produce an anti–White House wave that is above average. So while Republicans have done a good job via gerrymandering in making a very high percentage of their incumbents safe, the benchmark for “safety” may be higher than ever, too.

July 20: Sessions Defines Trumpism, But Russia’s More Important To the Boss

After reading the president’s remarkable interview with the New York Times, I had this to say at New York about one strange revelation:

[T]he president extensively vented his fury at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, inquiring minds obviously wanted to know if Sessions might be stepping down. Trump had, after all, basically said he regretted his choice of Sessions and would not have made it had he known what he knows now.

But today Sessions briefly and mildly responded to questions about Trump’s comments by saying he planned to stay on in the Justice Department “as long as that appropriate,” as the Times reported.

Trump has complained about Sessions’s recusal before, though in the past his anger has been expressed behind the scenes and via intermediaries. But more generally, this is also not the first time the president has accused subordinates of fireable offenses without trying to fire them, as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi has pointed out:

“Although Trump once tried and failed to trademark the words, ‘You’re fired!’ — his catchphrase from The Apprentice — it seems that he doesn’t actually enjoy repealing and replacing the loyalists that surround him. Like so much with the president, it’s shtick designed to make him look tough. ‘At the end of the day, he’s a natural-born salesman and he likes people to like him,’ a…senior administration official said. ‘He’s a conflict-avoider. He hates firing people.'”

So long as Sessions is willing to put up with his boss’s public abuse, his job is probably secure for the time being. That is particularly true because Trump’s post-Sessions options at Justice are not good, and a Senate confirmation hearing for a subsequent nominee might not go very well.

But Sessions’s feelings aside, the optics of Trump’s tirades against the attorney general are terrible. He owes an awful lot to Jeff Sessions, his earliest real supporter on Capitol Hill. They have no significant policy disagreements that we know of. If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” Sessions is its chief acolyte.

For Trump to ignore all that and repeatedly trash-talk his attorney general because of his prudent recusal over the Russia investigation is a pretty clear indication that the president is not just distracted by the probe, but intensely fears it. He can claim all he wants that the whole thing is “fake news” that the failed media or the loser Democrats invented, but his behavior shows otherwise.

July 15: Democratic Senators In Trump Country Looking Solid for 2018

I don’t usually pay much attention to Karl Rove’s predictable writing. But the one-time Boy Genius’ latest column just begged for a response, which I provided at New York.

[V]eteran spinner Karl Rove devoted a Wall Street Journal column to a baleful assessment of the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats running in states carried handily by Donald Trump last year.

There’s a certain dated quality to Rove’s analysis; he writes as though these senators are fresh from gazing in awe at Trump’s 2016 victory and are trying to decide whether to fight back or run for the hills. In reality, these pols have for the most part chosen to oppose every unpopular thing Trump and the congressional GOP have proposed this year, which fortunately for red-state Democrats is nearly their entire agenda. Still, the 2016 numbers are indeed daunting for some:

“The 25 Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018 are already gearing up for a fight. Their latest quarterly fundraising reports, released over the past two weeks, show impressive totals, ranging up to $3.1 million. But for the 10 Democrats from states carried by President Trump, a well-stuffed war chest may not be enough.

“This is especially true for six senators in states where Mr. Trump’s victory last November was huge. He won Joe Manchin’s West Virginia by an astonishing 42 points; Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota by 36 points; Jon Tester’s Montana by 20; Joe Donnelly’s Indiana and Claire McCaskill’s Missouri by 19, and Sherrod Brown’s Ohio by 8.”

Rove goes on to make a very dubious assertion that we are going to hear a lot from Republicans between now and November of 2018:

“They must all keep an eye on the president’s favorability ratings. On Election Day, Mr. Trump was viewed favorably by 37.5% of voters and unfavorably by 58.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average. As of this Wednesday, his ratings stood at 40.4% favorable and 53.6% unfavorable.

“Mr. Trump is likely to be more popular in states he won than his national average: The larger his margin in those states last November, the better he stands now. If this trend holds through 2018, Democrats in states Mr. Trump won by double or nearly double digits could face stiff re-election contests.”

This argument ignores the rather pertinent fact that Trump was running against a rival who was almost as unpopular as he was. In 2018, Republicans won’t have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, they will be up against well-known Senate incumbents with their own public profiles, and in a midterm environment where there is usually a wind blowing against the party controlling the White House.

So while we should indeed “keep and eye on the president’s favorability ratings,” those of the senators in question are even more relevant. As it happens Morning Consult just released an update of its home-state favorability assessments for all 100 U.S. senators, and the very Democrats Rove thinks are in inherently deep trouble are actually doing quite well. Joe Manchin’s ratio is 57/31; Heidi Heitkamp’s is an even more impressive 60/28. Jon Tester (50/39), Joe Donnelly (53/25), and Sherrod Brown (50/29) are at or above the magic 50-percent level that often connotes future victory, with limited “unfavorables,” and Claire McCaskill (46/38) isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of unpopularity, either.

In fact, the one senator up in 2018 whose favorability numbers are underwater is a Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona (37/45).

Another problem for the GOP is that it is struggling to find credible challengers to theoretically vulnerable Democrats in some states (as in Missouri, where consensus GOP favorite Representative Ann Wagner decided not to take on McCaskill), and is facing potentially fractious Republican primaries (as in Indiana, where Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are already attacking each other) in others.

There is plenty of time for things to change in the months ahead, and nobody on the Democratic side has any reason to feel complacent about holding onto Senate seats in one of the more lopsided landscapes in living memory. But for now, a Democratic red-state bloodbath in 2018 looks unlikely. And if congressional Republicans continue to flail around in the clumsy pursuit of an unpopular agenda, the odds of survival for Democrats in Trump Country will only go up.

July 12: Do Republicans Even Support Health Insurance?

As congressional Republicans continue to stumble around in search of a workable and politically non-toxic health care plan, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that there’s something very old-school about their rhetoric on health insurance. I wrote up my ruminations at New York:

As Senate Republicans go through the valley of the shadow of death for their health-care plan, questions are again being raised about what they really want. Is it lower premiums for individual health insurance, particularly for the people (presumably many of them Republicans) who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Obamacare’s purchasing subsidies? Is it “entitlement reform,” focused on rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and then capping that program’s growth forever as a government-shrinking exercise? Is all the talk about health policy really just a disguise, as many liberals suspect, for an agenda of high-end tax cuts and low-end spending cuts that have little or nothing to do with Obamacare?

The answers to these questions may be as various as the micro-factions of the GOP in Congress, and a lot of the answers most definitely lack coherence. But one policy impulse shared by some conservatives is important to understand because it encourages a very destructive attitude toward the existing health-care system. Some conservatives really just don’t like the idea of health insurance as we know it.

This has again become apparent in some of the senatorial reactions to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of how many Americans (22 million) would lose health insurance under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Here’s the classic from the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn:

He wants to celebrate the “freedom” of Americans to go without health insurance, though he surely understands most of the 22 million would not “choose” this option if affordable health insurance was available.

That’s not as exotic a belief as you might imagine.

Conservatives have long believed that “third-party” health insurance — health insurance provided by employers or the government — encourages over-utilization of health services and thus is responsible for high rates of medical inflation. And many believe the only legitimate purpose of health insurance should be to cover catastrophic costs, not the routine medical services that people used to pay out-of-pocket in the days before a combination of tax subsidies, collective bargaining, and employer competition made employer-sponsored comprehensive insurance plans common.

So, unsurprisingly, most conservatives who can be coaxed into a discussion of their actual aims propose getting rid of or expanding to individuals the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health plans, to reduce the incentive to access care whenever you think you need it. And they envision a system in which everyone pays for routine care via a tax-preferred health savings account — basically paying the doc out-of-pocket the way Americans did back in the Good Old Days of individual responsibility — and has a relatively cheap catastrophic-care policy to cover life-threatening conditions.

Whether you find this vision frightening or invigorating, it is clearly very different not only from the Obamacare status quo, but from the status quo ante long before Obamacare. This longing for really old-school health-care policy causes all sorts of political problems for the Republicans that harbor it. For one thing, it cuts against the hatred of high out-of-pocket costs that unites most middle-class folks regardless of party or ideology. And for another, as Cornyn has learned, treating comprehensive health insurance as a socialistic vice corrosive of American values just does not accord with the actual values of actual Americans.

At the moment, Republicans clearly do not have the power or the popular support to impose an early-1950s vision of health care on the country. They nonetheless fight every feature of the health-care system that involves spreading the risk — and the cost — of poor health, which is the basic function of private as well as “government” health care.

July 7: The 1996 Democratic Presidential Win Was a Lot More Complicated Than a “Move to the Center”

When former Bill/Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn kicked up a storm with some controversial “lessons” from a campaign many of us graphically remember, I waited for the dust to settle a bit and then weighed in at New York.

Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up….

I have actually written a semi-positive review of a Mark Penn book, and don’t necessarily think he has always exuded the smell of brimstone (though his Clinton White House colleague Dick Morris most definitely did), or that he personally doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. But Penn’s trajectory into Fox Democrat hackery has been confirmed by a new op-ed [co-authored with Andrew Stein], principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer as the peak of his political career.

Here’s the Penn/Stein summation of what happened in 1996:

“After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.”

That is at best a massive oversimplification of what happened in 1996. For one thing, if Clinton “moved the party back to the center,” it was in 1992, when he billed himself as a “different kind of Democrat” and won a plurality victory that indeed broke a long Democratic losing streak. His “centrist” agenda alienated a lot of more-traditional Democrats, and the Donkey Party lost a historic landslide defeat in the 1994 midterms. In 1996, the Clinton-Gore campaign, as Mark Penn knows quite well, did not just “move to the center,” but fought and benefited from the GOP extremism that the “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich represented.

The signature mantra of the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign was nicely presented by the vice-presidential candidate in a debate with his rival, Jack Kemp:

“The plan from Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp is a risky, $550-billion tax scheme that actually raises taxes on 9 million of the hardest pressed working families. It would blow a hole in the deficit, cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.”

This mantra — Medicare, Medicaid, education, environment — was so formulaic that it was reduced, literally, to a formula: M2 E2. Perhaps the welfare-reform and community-policing initiatives helped make the election revolve around M2 E2. But the idea that this was how Democrats won is really sketchy. The more plausible theory of 1996 is that Gingrich’s Republicans overreached in attacking very popular New Deal–Great Society safety-net programs, and the Clinton-Gore campaign made them pay the price. This is exactly what the Democratic “resistance” to Donald Trump plans to do in 2018 and beyond, and it is more than a little ironic that Penn and Stein are touting the 1996 campaign in attacking them for it.

Beyond that, as many Penn/Stein critics have pointed out, a lot has changed since 1996, particularly in the Democratic Party’s own base.

But again, it’s not clear Mark Penn and Andrew Stein are really all that interested in influencing Democrats. If they offer dubious advice Democrats are sure to reject, then they are mainly recommending themselves as apostates ready to bash the donkey on conservative media. That’s a very profitable line of business, and if Mark Penn pursues it, his most adamant progressive critics will be entirely vindicated.