washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Trump Will Betray His White Working-Class Base

What Democrats should keep in mind, however, is that whichever way he goes he is very likely going to betray his white working-class base — the people who put him into office — sooner or later. The “later” part is the most certain. Donald Trump does not have the power to bring back the Industrial Era economy he has so avidly embraced. He will not be able to reopen the coal mines, rebuild the manufacturing sector, or repeal the international economic trends that would exist with or without NAFTA or TPP. And for that matter, he has little ability to reverse the demographic and cultural trends most of his voters dislike.
–Ed Kilgore

The Optimistic Leftist

The Optimistic Leftist

“…The case he makes cogent and persuasive. If you’re anywhere on the left side of the political spectrum, you’re feeling pretty glum these days. Well, read this book.”
 —Michael Tomasky
E. J. Dionne Jr

E.J. Dionne Speaks Out

Donald Trump cast himself as the champion of a besieged American working class and a defender of its interests. His early decisions tell us something very different: This could be the most anti-worker, anti-union crowd to run our government since the Gilded Age.
–E.J. Dionne Jr.

The Optimistic Leftist

Ruy Teixeira’s, “The Optimistic Leftist”

“…a powerful, provocative and persuasive case that progressives are in a better position than they realize to make our world better.”
—E.J. Dionne

The Daily Strategist

May 27, 2017

Teixeira: Why Liberals Will Prevail, Despite Trump’s Setbacks

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of “The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think,” is cross-posted from The Washington Post.

Is Donald Trump the end for the left? Is it really possible, as a baby boomer averred in an interview last month with The Washington Post, that “all the things we cared about for the past 40 years could be wiped out in the first 100 days”?

American leftists are not known for their optimism, and yet, even for them, the prevailing sentiment is that these are especially dark days. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats say they are “worried or pessimistic” about the future of the country in a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.

Historian Jeremi Suri, writing in the Atlantic, assessed that “with his barrage of executive orders, Trump is taking America back to the historical nightmares of the world before December 1941: closed borders, limited trade, intolerance to diversity, arms races, and a go-it-alone national race to the bottom.” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) spoke out against Trump’s attorney general pick, saying, “If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man.” Climate scientists offer a similarly bleak view, fearing that Trump will quickly unravel President Barack Obama’s legacy and that “the world, then, may have no way to avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming, including rising sea levels, extreme droughts and food shortages, and more powerful floods and storms,” as the New York Times put it.

But fears that Trump will set back the left’s agenda dangerously and irreparably are not well founded. Core advances can’t be undone. Although Trump could do some real temporary damage, he and his movement will fade, and the values and priorities of the left will eventually triumph.

Consider social equality and tolerance, where some of today’s greatest fears are concentrated. It is true that Trump has said many egregious things, like associating Mexican immigrants with criminal behavior, and has tried (though so far failed) to implement a ban on immigration from some Muslim countries. But people should not lose sight of the massive progress in the past half-century, led by the left. This includes the destruction of formal and many normative barriers to racial equality, the rise of the black middle class, the advancement of women in higher education and the professions, the dominance of anti-sexist views in public opinion, and the acceptance of gays, including the institution of same-sex marriage. We still have far to go in the attainment of full social equality, but it is also true that we have gone far.

Public-opinion data is quite clear that the United States has become more, not less, liberal in all these areas over time and that these trends are continuing. Take the standard question about whether immigration levels should increase, decrease or stay the same. The 38 percent of people who say “decrease” is about as low as it ever has been since Gallup started tracking the question in the 1960s. The current number represents a massive drop, of about 30 points, since the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan first raised his pitchfork high at the Republican National Convention. There has also been a considerable change in views about whether immigration is a good or bad thing for America — and it’s positive, not negative, change, even if one confines the data to white Americans. According to Gallup, the “good thing” response by whites was as low as 51 percent in the early 2000s but has been around 70 percent in the past two years.

Nor has there been any kind of spike in negative racial attitudes in recent years — in fact, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey , such attitudes were far more prevalent in the early 1990s than they are today, including among white Democrats and Republicans. This is true even as perceptions of the quality of race relations have been dimming, thanks primarily to conflict around police shootings and to a tiny minority of genuine haters whose rhetoric and actions have been widely covered. But the underlying trend toward racial liberalism continues.

So the idea that Trump will somehow successfully relitigate the role of immigrants, minorities, gays and women in American society is scary but absurd. He may continue the Republican campaign to restrict voting rights. He may seek to overturn Roe v. Wade (supported by 70 percent of the American public). He may promote prejudice against Muslim Americans. Such actions may in fact be cheered on by his hard-core supporters. But he will ultimately fail, because what he wishes to do is both massively unpopular and runs against the grain of legal precedent and institutional norms.

And he can’t hold back the one true inevitability in demographic change: the replacement of older generations by newer ones. Underappreciated in November’s election was the continuing leftward lean of young voters, once again supporting the Democratic candidate by around 20 points — and with younger millennials, including both college-educated and noncollege whites, even more pro-Democratic than older ones. That is huge. And don’t expect these voters to shift right as they age. Political science research shows that early voting patterns tend to stick.

Another locus of disquiet, if not hysteria, on the left is the environment. But consider this: In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire; in 1979, when Obama was attending college in Los Angeles and remembers constant smog, there were 234 days when the city exceeded federal ozone standards. Our water and air are now orders of magnitude cleaner than they were back then.

Trump will not be able to suddenly wipe out all these gains. Sure, he says he will severely cut environmental regulations, especially ones put in place by Obama; hollow out the EPA; somehow bring back the coal industry; and much more. But saying and doing are two different things. Getting rid of Obama-era rules such as the Clean Power Plan would take years and be challenged by litigation. Reversing the decline of the coal industry is economically impossible. Abolishing the EPA and gutting the clean air and water acts is politically impossible. When the George W. Bush administration tried to eliminate one Clinton-era rule on levels of arsenic in drinking water, it ran into a political buzzsaw and had to retreat.

The left’s priority of a clean environment with clean air and water is immensely popular, with deeply entrenched programs and practices that sustain it. Trump will be able to slow down environmental advances, by chipping away at relatively obscure regulations and reducing enforcement, but he cannot reverse them.

Nor will Trump be able to derail the remarkable progress on another cherished goal of the left: a green economy that can stave off global warming. The key here is abundant, cheap, clean energy, and work toward that goal has been going forward at a breakneck pace. World investments in clean energy, chiefly wind and solar, have reached levels that are doublethose for fossil fuel. Renewables now provide half of all new electric capacity around the world. The cost of solar has fallen to 1/150th of its 1970s level, and the amount of installed solar capacity has increased a staggering 115,000 times. Indeed, it is increasingly common for clean energy in some areas to be fully cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Trump will not and cannot stop this trend.

Or take living standards and the middle class, where progress has admittedly been slow (though not absent) in the recent past. Capitalism is certainly capable of performing much better — but Trump is not the man to make that happen. All he’s going to succeed in doing is blowing up one of the main roadblocks to better economic performance: the conservative Republican anti-government, quasi-libertarian consensus around economic policy. A protectionist president who proposes to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, criticizes corporate decisions on job location, and swears to oppose any and all Social Security and Medicare cuts is miles away from that consensus, even if he does support slashing taxes for the rich and undermining unions. He is on a collision course with his own Congress that will result in incoherent economic policy with little or no benefit to the working-class voters who elected him.

Finally, consider the tremendous progressive achievements of the Obama era, from a stimulus bill that saved the economy and poured money into clean-energy investments to the Dodd-Frank act regulating the financial sector to the Affordable Care Act and much more. These were remarkable gains for the left, attained despite severe headwinds in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Of course, Trump and the Republican Congress have declared their intention to roll back these advances and then some. The president has already signed executive orders that seek to weaken Dodd-Frank and undermine the ACA. But can Trump and his GOP allies really get rid of these programs, as opposed to nibbling at their edges? It will not be as easy as they expect and as many on the left fear.

The chaos surrounding Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act illustrates just how difficult this rollback would be. The idea of repealing the ACA first and coming up with a replacement later died quickly, forcing Republicans to confront the fact that they cannot agree on what the new plan should be. Some want to keep the Medicaid expansion, some balk at requiring higher deductibles, some worry about reducing subsidies, and many fear political damage from throwing millions of people off health insurance. The disunity of the repeal forces is so palpable that former House Speaker John Boehner, who once led the charge to repeal the ACA, now admits that repeal is “not going to happen” and that “most of the framework of the Affordable Care Act” will remain in place.

Trump and the Republican Congress fail to understand, and the left would do well to remember, one of the most enduring features of American public opinion. The dominant ideology in the United States is one that combines “symbolic conservatism” (honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label) with “operational liberalism” (wanting government to take more action in a wide variety of areas). As political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson, the leading academic analysts of American ideology, note: “Most Americans like most government programs. Most of the time, on average, we want government to do more and spend more. It is no accident that we have created the programs of the welfare state. They were created — and are sustained — by massive public support.”

That’s why, now that the ACA has delivered concrete benefits for many people, it is so very hard to get rid of. As a constituent of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put it: “I’m on Obamacare. If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance. With all due respect, Sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panel. We’re going to create one great big death panel in this country if people can’t afford to get insurance.” In the long run, it is far more likely that the ACA will be built upon and improved, so that it extends coverage and tamps down rising medical costs even further (that will be the “something terrific” Trump has talked about), than truly be eliminated.

The Trump administration could still do some real damage. There will be lax enforcement of financial and environmental regulations. There will probably be tax cuts for the rich and underfunding of important social programs. There will be more harassment of immigrants and no progress on comprehensive immigration reform. But its ability to remake America in the libertarian image (privatize Social Security! voucherize Medicare!) envisioned by Paul Ryan is distinctly limited — even assuming that Trump backs such moves wholeheartedly, which he very well might not, given his public pronouncements on these programs.

In the end, the Trumpian populism of the 2010s will probably have no more staying power than the agrarian populism of the 1880s and 1890s, which was also driven by demographic groups on the decline and was similarly undercut by structural change and the transition to a new economic era. That earlier populist era was followed by an era of strong social advancement in the early 20th century — the Progressive Era.

What will have staying power in the 21st century is the values and priorities of the left. They will not win every battle, but they will win the war.


Political Strategy Notes

At CNN Politics Tom Lobianco and Davis Siegal explore why “Democrats say long-term success starts with 2018 governors’ races,” and notes “House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi huddled privately with the leaders of the Democratic Governors Association last weekend and looked over maps of top targets. The group has 14 states in its sights and believes it would be impossible to lose more states to Republicans, especially if President Donald Trump continues to struggle…The organization has picked out nine states that Hillary Clinton won and another five that went to President Barack Obama. Some of the targets are clear — true blue bastions like Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, where Republicans upset Democratic favorites in 2014. But others are likely to be a slog reminiscent of the drubbing Clinton took in the Rust Belt, like fights in Wisconsin and Ohio…The bright spot for Democrats is that they are only defending 11 out of 38 seats over the next two years. But Democratic strategists who have been in the trenches of the states are leery that national Democrats, and Obama’s own redistricting group, are ready to support them after years of ignoring them.” 2017 tests set for this year include New jersey and Virginia.

Regarding Trump’s latest distraction: “He signaled his lack of evidence first by reportedly pushing his White House staff to ransack sensitive intelligence information to find support for his claim. Then on Sunday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump wanted Congress to look into the matter and that the administration would offer no further comment. Trump has a problem either way. If he was not wiretapped, he invented a spectacularly false charge. And if a court ordered some sort of surveillance of him, on what grounds did it do so?” — from “Trump has gone completely through the looking glass” by E. J. Dionne, Jr. in his syndicated Washington Post column.

“About two-thirds of Americans say a special prosecutor should investigate contacts between Russians and Trump campaign associates” in a new CNN/ORC poll, reports Jennfer Agiesta at CNN Politics. However, “At the same time, Trump’s approval rating for handling the economy has increased to 55%, up from 49% a few weeks into his tenure…The economy, which 26% of Americans call the most important issue facing the country, remains his strongest issue..the only issue tested where Trump earns clearly positive reviews.”

WaPo’s Philip Bump highlights the idiocy of Trump’s false equivalence of Sessions’s secretive meeting with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak with a photograph of Sen Schumer and the Ambassador “noshing on doughnuts and gas station coffee” in full public view.

James Hohmann and Breanne Deppisch describe the Sessions mess succinctly at The Daily 202: “The country’s chief law enforcement officer made a false statement to Congress, while under oath, about his contacts with one of this nation’s biggest adversaries. (Legal experts, including Republicans, note that others have been prosecuted for less.) When he got busted, the attorney general initially claimed through a spokeswoman that he couldn’t recall specifics of what had been said during his undisclosed sit-down with the Russian ambassador, except that it wasn’t political in nature. Then, with his job on the line, he miraculously remembered supposedly exculpatory details…Last Thursday, Sessions said at his press conference that he would write the Judiciary Committee “today or tomorrow” to clarify his misleading testimony. It’s now been four days, and he has yet to formally clean things up. A spokesman said he’ll submit amended testimony later today. We’ll see. Either way, a delay this long only happens when one is trying to get one’s ducks in a row.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders continues with his impressive one-man, 50-state strategy. In his PowerPost article, “Bernie Sanders backs unionization campaign in Mississippi as Democrats draft populist agenda,” David Weigel quotres from a Sanders speech at a Nissan plant Canton, Mississippi: “…the facts are very clear, that workers in America who are members of unions earn substantially more, 27 percent more, than workers not in unions,” Sanders (I-Vt.) said in an interview before the speech. “They get pensions and better working conditions. I find it very remarkable that Nissan is allowing unions to form at its plants all over the world. Well, if they can be organized everywhere else, they can be organized in Mississippi…Some of the poorest states in this country, where large numbers of people have no health insurance and have experienced stagnating wages, have not had the support from progressives that they need,” Sanders said. “It’s time we change that. It means standing up for working men and women…These workers are incredibly courageous,” Sanders said. “One thing we already know is that workers who have stood up for their rights are being harassed, are being discriminated against and are being lectured about the so-called perils of trade unionism. There’s a massive anti-union effort going on, and these guys are standing out their own. They deserve our support.”

There’s a lot for progressives to argue with in conservative Democrat Joel Kotkin’s Los Angeles Daily News article “How the Democrats can rebuild.” But Kotkin is on target in writing that “Sanders’ key plank — a single-payer, Canadian-like health care system — also could appeal to many small businesses, consultants and the expanding precariat of contract workers dependent on the now imperiled Obamacare. Critically, both health care and economic mobility priorities cross the color line, which is crucial to spreading social democracy here.” The rest of Kotkin’s critique reflects the way many  less extreme Trump voters see the Democratic Party.

Sen. Rand Paul calls Republican’s bill providing repeal/replace of the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare Lite,” reports Tami Luhby, also at at CNN Politcs.

Congratulations to Rachel Maddow. “Rachel Maddow Has a Top 10 Show on All of TV,” reports Chris Ariens of TV Newser. “In an interview with The Wrap, Maddow says the secret to her coverage–which almost exclusively covers politics–is pretty simple: “I stopped covering [Trump’s] Twitter feed and we started covering only what they do rather than what they say.” She has to be one of the most fearless reporters ever.


So Much For Sessions’ Integrity

When the revelation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador broke, I did this instant reaction for New York. Nothing that’s happened subsequently changed my opinion:

The revelation that then-Senator Jeff Sessions did not disclose two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States when asked about such contacts during his confirmation hearings may or may not expose him to a perjury charge. Perjury is a rarely prosecuted crime, and it is unclear who would be in a position to prosecute the man who now heads up the federal government’s machinery of justice.

But there’s the rub: Should anyone willing to lie under oath — or even play shyster word games with the truth in a unquestionably mendacious effort to hide contacts with a foreign government suspected of tampering with a presidential election — continue as chief law enforcement officer of the United States? That is the question that will be asked many times in the days just ahead.

And in the specific case of Jeff Sessions, the damage to his reputation from this disclosure could be even worse. He is, after all, a self-styled Mr. Law-and-Order, whose supposed respect for the rule of law is so unshakable that it leads him to turn a cold shoulder to those who would lighten the sentences of low-level drug offenders or provide a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally. During his confirmation hearings and the debate in the Senate, Sessions’s friends again and again cited his “integrity” as so unquestionable that those alleging impure motives on his part during his days as a federal prosector were guilty of slander and even character assassination. The notion that Sessions’s reputation for integrity was the crown jewel of his career was also the basis for Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary action in silencing Elizabeth Warren for trying to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King challenging his self-characterization as an evenhanded enforcer of civil-rights laws.

McConnell himself went to great lengths to reinforce the argument that whatever one thought of Sessions’s politics and policy positions, his straight-arrow awe for the law made it all good.

“It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks. This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law.”

Well, maybe not so much in the equal application of the law to himself.

Under pressure from Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress, Sessions has agreed to recuse himself from any investigation of possibly inappropriate discussions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials or agents. But even if nothing more comes out about his contacts with the Russian embassy or what went through his mind when he chose not to forthrightly answer questions about such contacts, Sessions is now seriously damaged goods after all the endless and interminable and redundant assurances he and his friends have made about his spotless honesty and love for the majesty of the law. He should have told the whole truth during his confirmation hearings. That’s the simple proposition that all the finger-pointing and blame-shifting his allies try to utilize to get him out of this self-imposed jam cannot obscure.

Whether or not he keeps his job, Sessions’ reputation for probity is gone for good.


Political Strategy Notes

In his  New York Times column, “Goodbye Spin, Hello Raw Dishonesty,” Paul Krugman writes, “The latest big buzz is about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. It turns out that he lied during his confirmation hearings, denying that he had met with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. In fact, he met twice with the Russian ambassador, who is widely reported to also be a key spymaster…But let’s not focus too much on Mr. Sessions. After all, he is joined in the cabinet by Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who lied to Congress about his use of a private email account; Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, who lied about a sweetheart deal to purchase stock in a biotechnology company at a discount; and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who falsely told Congress that his financial firm didn’t engage in “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents, seizing homes without proper consideration…At this point it’s easier to list the Trump officials who haven’t been caught lying under oath than those who have. This is not an accident…No president, or for that matter major U.S. political figure of any kind, has ever lied as freely and frequently as Donald Trump. But this isn’t just a Trump story. His ability to get away with it, at least so far, requires the support of many enablers: almost all of his party’s elected officials, a large bloc of voters and, all too often, much of the news media.”

Jeff Sessions Is Losing Republican Support Fast,” report Tim Mak and Jackie Kucincih at The Daily Beast.

At The Upshot Neil Irwin explains why “Why the Trump Agenda Is Moving Slowly: The Republicans’ Wonk Gap.” Apparently the GOP is a little long on ideologues and short on serious policy thinkers at this political moment. “Large portions of the Republican caucus embrace a kind of policy nihilism. They criticize any piece of legislation that doesn’t completely accomplish conservative goals, but don’t build coalitions to devise complex legislation themselves…The roster of congressional Republicans includes lots of passionate ideological voices. It is lighter on the kind of wonkish, compromise-oriented technocrats who move bills.”

So how good are your senators and house representatives on on working-class issues? The AFL-CIO has Senate and House scorecards right here.

In a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Rev. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina, provides an update on the struggle against Republican-driven voter suppression, transgender discrimination and other injustices in that state: “…We had a unanimous resolution that was passed at the state level and unanimously passed at the national board, first saying that we would remove consideration of our national convention coming to North Carolina, as has the NCAAand the ACC, the NBA, and we would call on our other human rights friends, civil rights friends and conventions to do the same thing….We would form a special task force to explore a full boycott and escalation over the next few months on these lines: Number one, we call on the Legislature to repeal, undo racially gerrymandered districts and create fair elections, that not only have we accused them of, but the courts have ruled that our Legislature has passed racial—racialized districts. Number two, we want a repeal of the entire HB 2 law, because it’s not a bathroom law. That bill is an anti-LGBTQ law against transgender people. But it’s also an anti-workers bill, because it does not allow municipalities to raise the living wage or to have minority set-asides. And it is also an anti-access to state courts for employment discrimination cases. Number three, we want a repeal of SB 4, the law that was passed last December after extremists lost, that strike down the governor’s power and don’t—no longer allows the governor to have his own appointments, and they tried to change the board of election. And lastly, we want a repeal of the law that forces us to go to the appellate court rather than the Supreme Court, once our Supreme Court became more progressive in the state.”

Democrat Jon Ossoff leads 18-candidate field in race to rep GA-6 by 7 percent in new poll. Republicans are getting nervous about the April 18 jungle primary and are now running an exceptionally lame ad against him.

Crystal Ball’s Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik explore “How Midterms Do (and Do Not) Differ From Presidential Elections: What recent history tells us about the likely size and makeup of next year’s electorate” and note a possible plus for Democrats, in that miderm voters tend to be more educated than general election voters, which may matter more substantially, since Trump did not perform as well as other Republicans with that demographic, and these voters may want to vote against his Republican supporters next year.

Many of the press corps deserve a sound thrashing for their low expectations gush about Trump’s insubstantial SOTU address, and Brian Beutler gives it to them at The New Republic in his article, “The Worst Performance of Trump’s Presidency Now Belongs to the Press Corps: The media’s reaction to his speech to Congress was shameful.” As Beutler writes, “What Trump didn’t do was reprise his assault on the press corps, which he has described as an “evil” “enemy of the people.” For that simple omission, Trump was able to deliver a tour de force of lies and insincerity, and be rewarded…All he did was demonstrate once again that his supposed antagonists in the political media have short memories, which makes them easy marks for a tired con.”

No bump, Trump. Ed Kilgore has the details on his lackluster job approval in polls following the SOTU.


Stoehr: Dems Can Win By Focusing on Trump’s Weaknesses

The Trump campaign — it’s more that than an actual functioning government — is all puffed up about some favorable feedback he got for his State of the Union speech. But it remains weak at the core, which for any Administration, rests on the twin pillars of integrity and competence.

In that regard, Yale political scientist John Stoehr, a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor who has written for a broad range of progressive newspapers and magazines, has some strategic insights for highlighting Trump’s weaknesses. As Stoehr addresses his readers at The Washington Monthly,

I really want you to understand the connection between Trump’s appearance and the trust his supporters place in him. What the Democratic opposition needs to do is undermine that trust. Part of doing that is pointing out every time Trump lies. (The Washington press corps is doing that.) But the opposition must also attack the president where it really hurts him—by appealing to logic and reason, but not only logic and reason. The opposition must wound the president by focusing on his weakness

….When confronted with the fact that he did not win a bigger electoral victory than anyone since Reagan, he immediately backed down, spluttering something about how he had been given that information so it’s not his fault. Some have implied he will never accept the truth, so don’t bother. But that’s an argument of logic and reason. What happened in that brief exchange needs to happen a million times over in order to reveal that the president is weak and that in that weakness his supporters have misplaced their trust.

So, say it with me: The president is weak. Say it again. Over and over. Then when the president really does demonstrate weakness, as he did when confronted by the reporter about his fake electoral landslide, the president will have substantiated the opposition’s charge of weakness.

That will hurt.

Trump ran on strength. Only he was strong enough to solve our problems. And people believed him. They still believe him. But if the opposition can establish an image of weakness, it will come close to breaking trust in him.

Stoehr is revealing something unique here. He advises watching Trump on television with the sound turned off to get a sense of how much he relies on projecting the visual image of strength, even while confidently spouting transparent lies and nonsense that contradicts what he said a few days before. More importantly, many of his supporters are mesmerized by his blustering boldness, longing as they do for a simplistic authoritarianism, somewhat like the ‘strict father‘ paradigm referenced by George Lakoff.

In his U.S. News & World Report column, “Trump Can’t Govern: The Democrats’ best play may be to highlight the Trump administration’s incompetence,” written just before Trump’s SOTU address, Stoehr explains further,

More than exposing Trump for his white nationalist sympathies, the best way forward may be stressing what’s emphatically evident: Trump can’t govern.

This president sold an image of himself as a billionaire businessman who knows how to get things done. He hires the best people. He has the best words. He knows the system better than anyone. He said: Vote for me and I will bring real change.

But after more than a month, it’s clear the Trump administration is broken. It’s equally clear the public is noticing. The president’s popularity has sunk to historic lows. His White House has lurched from one trumped up crisis to another. It leaks like a sieve. Aides can’t corral Trump in person, so they corral him through the media. His executive orders have been a mix of pixie dust and plagiarized text (literally) from previous administrations. Hundreds of positions remain vacant while Trump does photo-ops at Boeing before alighting to Florida for rounds of golf.

 The closest we got to non-crisis normal was last week. But by Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer banned some media outlets from a briefing. As Roll Call put it: “an otherwise routine Friday morning at the White House had suddenly given way – yet again – to confusion, chaos, deflecting and denials.”
The incompetence appears baked in.

Ben Carson never ran anything, much less the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he is nominated to lead. Betsy DeVos literally bought her place as head of the Department of Education. Scott Pruitt was best buds with Big Oil before taking the Environmental Protection Agency’s helm. Trump’s first pick for labor secretary was toxic and withdrew. His first replacement for Michael Flynn on the National Security Council said no thanks. Wilbur Ross, the new commerce secretary, is chair of a European bank known to launder Russian mafia money. Trump’s nominees for secretaries of the Army and Navy have taken a pass. White House aides told Axios they believe the Russia story is a useful distraction rather than a scandal threatening to take down a president. And an adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has the makings of a 100 percent grade-A con artist.

Stoehr has even more to say about the Trump Administration’s incompetence, but warns, “none of this is to say Trump’s critics are wrong. Though incompetent, this administration could still fumble blindly into fascism…But it’s important to be clear about the disease in order to cure it.”

“The Democrats are already making a play for Republican-held congressional districts that voted for Hillary Clinton,” notes Stoehr, “targeting affluent white voters who normally support Republicans but who found Trump’s overt bigotry beyond the pale.” Stoehr concludes, presciently,

Trump can bring those voters back by muting his ethno-nationalist rhetoric (we’ll see what happens at tonight’s joint session of Congress), but the Democrats know, or should know, that to affluent educated white voters, muted rhetoric is one thing. Basic competence is another.

All of which puts Trump’s SOTU speech and a key challenge facing Democratic activists and candidates in clearer perspective.


Trump Says He Really Wants To Leave Hundreds of Key Federal Positions Empty

The day before giving his address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump said something astonishing in a Fox News interview that should have freaked out conservatives as well as liberals. I tried to draw attention to it at New York:

Here’s what [Trump] said to Fox News this morning:

“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint someone because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump said. “In government, we have too many people.”

Keep in mind the jobs we are talking about here include the top sub-Cabinet positions that set policies and provide the day-to-day operations for vast government departments. Just yesterday, the conservative Washington Examiner explained that these are precisely the positions someone like Trump needs to fill if he is serious about “draining the swamp” in Washington:

“Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said the quality of political appointees below the Cabinet level can have a dramatic effect on how administration policies are ultimately executed.

“‘Do they affect the operation of government? The short answer is very much,” Reeher said. ‘These are the folks who actually attempt to implement the policy changes that the administration is trying to push down from above.’

“Reeher said the relationships between politically appointed officials in top positions and the career bureaucrats who make up the rest of the federal government are ‘critical’ for ensuring policies get put in place smoothly.

So using these top positions to achieve reductions in the size of the bureaucracy, as Trump seems to suggest is his rationale, is a pretty classic unforced error. It’s like trying to reduce overcrowding in schools by firing most of the teachers.

One might be tempted to think the president misspoke out of a desire to avoid admitting his team hasn’t gotten its act together just yet. Earlier he tried to blame the slow pace of appointments on Senate Democrats obstructing confirmations, before it was pointed out how few nominations had been made in the first place.

But Trump seems serious about this claim that he wants empty offices all across the top tier of his administration. So we can only hope his Cabinet secretaries don’t mind working nights and weekends, to make up for the lack of help — or significantly scaling back their plans.

Yep, that’s some “fine-tuned machine” Donald Trump is running.


Trump’s Divisive SOTU Needs More Resistance

There’s not much a political party out of the White House and lacking majorities in the Senate and House can do to challenge the President’s State of the Union Address in real time. But, stewing in silence should not be an option, while the president serves up a rancid mash of nasty stereotypes, gross exaggerations, lies and hypocritcal pieties.

Granted, the optics of the SOTU address are rigged from the get-go, favoring the President, particularly one who has majorities in both houses of congress. And the Republicans have to be credited with making the most of it, putting on a sparkly, glitch-free show for the TV audience. Riddled though his speech was with toxic ingredients, Trump’s delivery was sharp and uncharacteristically disciplined.

Not that the substantive elements of Trump’s presentation were all that impressive. As Ed Kilgore notes in his New York Magazine coverage of the SOTU, Trump “failed to give Americans the details that separate bogus and magical promises from an actual, realizable agenda” and “And there was nothing at all about how to pay for whatever comes next after Obamacare.”

Kilgore’s colleague at New York, Jonathan Chait focuses on Trump’s insincere pleas for bipartisanship, and concludes:

On the whole, Trump’s agenda shows a president who has not departed from the plutocratic agenda that has dominated his party for a quarter-century, but only added grotesque, cruel, racist, and deeply stupid selling points. He has nothing to offer a party not enamored of the opportunity to carry out a massive and historic upward redistribution of wealth.

At The Nation, John Nichols notes a worrisome uptick in Trump’s enthusiasm for increasing the already bloated military budget at the expense of jobs and other human needs:

The rhetoric was, by the standards of this presidency, disciplined. But the specifics were few. Only toward the end did the president get specific, saying, “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”

Trump was not at all specific about paying for that increase—aside from mentioning the fact that he had “placed a hiring freeze on non-military and non-essential Federal workers.” But his administration has been clear about its hope that the money will come from deep cuts to domestic programs.

At The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky observed,

But the big clash point of this speech was Obamacare. You noticed that the Democrats sat still in their seats for that. Trump said he had some six-point plan, blah blah blah; most of those six points were Paul Ryan talking points, and I felt Ryan applauded more wholeheartedly during that section of the speech than any other.

All the Republicans applauded, it seemed, but remember that polls are coming out right now showing that their position on this is now the minority position. I think Mitch McConnell knows this in his bones. I’m not sure that the positions Trump stated tonight on health care are positions that can win 60 votes in the Senate, and I’d wager that McConnell isn’t sure they can, either.

 This speech will get very positive reviews. But remember—government isn’t a speech. Today, before this speech, with little fanfare, Trump signed into law an NRA-backed bill that will allow more mentally ill people to buy guns. And remember, there is still Russia. That is not going and cannot go away.

Trump showed tonight that he can sound like a president. That’s not nothing. It’s something he’s never done before. But can he be a president we can respect, even if we disagree? Each day tells us he can’t, and this speech doesn’t change that at all.

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear delivered a solid critique in the official Democratic response:

Unless the audio in the chamber was dialed down during the response to Trump’s more divisive remarks, it sounded to me like the Democrats were grumbling at moments which begged for booing, or at least a loud “No!” or two. Yes, civility is usually the order of the hour at the SOTU, and the party out of power doesn’t want to look too undignified. But Trump is no ordinary president, and his low regard for civility and decency merits a proportional response on occasion. It’s not like the Dems have a lot to lose with a tougher response at this political moment.

If you have to be a captive audience, it doesn’t mean that you can’t protest boldly against the speaker’s worst distortions and mean-spirited attacks. Trump won the presidency by working the hell out of his base. The one thing Democratic factions are unified about now is the need for a more vigorous response to Trump’s worst policies and comments. It’s time to amp it up.


Will Trump’s abysmal polling numbers sink his administration?

The following post is by Keith Gaby from the EDF Action.

The Trump administration is in the midst of one of the most chaotic presidential launches in American history. Intelligence agencies are reportedly withholding information from the White House for fear of it being passed to Moscow, a senior general has publicly fretted about the stability of the government, and the president creates daily distractions with tweets and false information.

By historical standards, the president is deeply unpopular. A recent CNN poll showed that just 44% of the American people believe he is doing a good job – in what should be his “honeymoon” period. By contrast, a majority of Americans approved of the job performance of the last nine newly elected presidents in their first months in office, averaging a positive rating of 61%.

There were almost as many people (43%) who had “strongly” negative feelings as approved of him at all. How does that compare to former presidents? At this point in their first terms, strong disapproval was Reagan 9%, Clinton 16%, Bush 9%, and Obama 18%. In other words, intense feelings against Trump are more than triple the average of four of his immediate predecessors.  Since intensity drives activism and voting in mid-term elections, this is a dangerous sign for the president and his allies in Congress.

The administration’s early moves on environmental policy will not likely be met with favor. During the campaign, Trump said he would dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate 70% of governemnt rules and safeguards. The leader of his EPA transition suggested cutting the agency’s staff by two-thirds and the president nominated a famous opponent of clean air and water rules, Scott Pruitt, to lead EPA. But polling suggests moves like these will not sit well, even with those who voted for Trump. A Morning Consult poll revealed that 78% of Trump voters want the same or stronger federal limits on air pollution.

Trump has also said he is not a “big believer” in climate change and wants to end the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon pollution. But the same poll showed that 61% of his voters want to “require US companies to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.”

The public at large, of course, is even less disposed to giving industry whatever it wants. A Quinnipiac Poll found that just 39% of voters want the administration to “remove regulations on businesses and corporations” and only 29% want to end rules “designed to limit climate change”.

Until the next presidential election, the most important impact of the president’s unpopularity will be the effect it has on members of Congress. With his party in control of both houses, and 10 Democratic senators from Trump states up for re-election in 2018, a popular president should be able to push through his agenda. But Congress is watching the spectacle at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue warily. Aligning themselves with a failing president is a dangerous thing.

However, they are not ready to abandon him yet. Because a primary challenge is often the greatest threat to their political careers, most members of the House and Senate focus on views within their own party. At the moment, nearly 90% of Republican voters are sticking with Trump. But even in a highly partisan atmosphere, the missteps of the administration will eventually begin to drag on voters who are now giving Trump the benefit of the doubt as a fellow-Republican. (The polling cited above was taken before the resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor and the accompanying revelations about Russia. In a Gallup survey taken after the Flynn events, Trump’s job approval had sunk, at least for the moment, to 38%.) And only one-third of Independent voters approve of Mr. Trump.

Despite all that’s happened and historically low approval ratings, the Trump administration still threatens our most important environmental protections. With just executive powers, he could sharply curtail enforcement and strip away important safeguards. But the president’s initial unpopularity, and the incompetence of his White House staff provide progressives with a unique opportunity to limit the damage.


Political Strategy Notes

DNC race in rear view, Bernie Sanders heads to Kansas to rip Republican policies” — Love this headline and the story by Dave Weigel at PowerPost. As Sanders says in the article, “One of my goals as outreach chair of the Senate Democrats is to do everything I can to make the Democratic Party competitive in red states…I think the Democratic Party has been embarrassingly bad at that recently, and we need to expand our reach.” Wouldn’t it be great if a team of top Democrats began visiting states controlled by Republicans and called attention to metrics of their failures? If they can’t visit, then have the national Democratic leaders hammer away at the state GOP establishments on twitter and Facebook. Sow the seeds of a real 50-state strategy with some message discipline displayed by national leaders, as well as local Democrats.

Another encouraging story about a successful Democratic uprising: Paul Blumenthal’s “Buoyed By Anti-Trump Activism, Democrat Wins Delaware Special Election:An army of volunteers, many from out of state, flooded the state Senate district for Stephanie Hansen” at HuffPo. As Blumenthal reports, “The last time her opponent, John Marino, ran in this district, in 2014, he lost by just 2 points. [Stephanie] Hansen’s 58-42 percent victory over Marino on Saturday ensured that Democrats will maintain control of the state Senate. It also notched a big Donald Trump-era win for a new generation of Democratic activists shocked into action by the November election.”

Greg Sargent gets down to raw specifics in his Plum Line post “Trump will likely sell out his working-class white base. Here’s how.” In one section, Sargent writes, “…Trump strongly signaled to working-class white voters that, while he’d repeal the Affordable Care Act, he isn’t like those other mean old Republicans when it comes to government’s role in expanding health care to the poor and sick. He and his advisers recently insisted that under the GOP replacement, no one will lose coverage. But they’ve already backed off that promise, instead signaling that they may embrace the block-granting of Medicaid, which would probably lead to cuts over time. The bottom line: The Trump/GOP replacement is likely to end Obamacare’s effort to create a universal coverage guarantee.”

For those who believe that Democrats can regain lost ground by focusing more on economic issues, Alexander Burns has a New York Times article of interest, “Angling for a Comeback, Democratic Governors Sharpen Focus on Jobs.” As Burns explains, “Gov. Gina M. Raimondo of Rhode Island, a Democrat who is in her first term, said her party had too often failed to put jobs and economic opportunity at the forefront of its agenda. Democrats had erred, she said, by treating jobs merely as one issue in a “check list” of positions…“My own view is, we have to say: The whole game is job growth,” Ms. Raimondo said. “People feel left behind because they are left behind. People feel the playing field isn’t level because it’s not level. So let’s level it.”…Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, the vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Democrats had to make job growth their organizing theme on all subjects, including immigration and the Affordable Care Act. The most effective attacks on Mr. Trump, he said, would cast the president’s policies as harmful to the economy. “We as a party have to wrap all of our messages and all of our issues in a central jobs and economic message…”

Tip of the hat to both Rep. Keith Ellison and former Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, the latter just elected head of the DNC, for the classy way they handled their rivalry, despite some acrimony among their respective followers. As NYT’s Jonathan Martin reports, “Taking the microphone from Mr. Perez, Mr. Ellison pleaded with his fervent backers: “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided…Directly appealing to his disappointed supporters, Mr. Ellison said, “If they trust me, they need to come on and trust Tom Perez as well.” Perez, who also called for unity, is expected to leverage some of Ellison’s interesting ideas for maximizing voter turnout.

In his column, “Bannon’s dangerous ‘deconstruction’,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. provides a crisp description of Bannon’s use of the expression “deconstruction of the administrative state” and what it means on the ground: “In practice, this is a war on a century’s worth of work to keep our air and water clean; our food, drugs and workplaces safe; the rights of employees protected; and the marketplace fair and unrigged. It’s one thing to make regulations more efficient and no more intrusive than necessary. It’s another to say that all the structures of democratic government designed to protect our citizens from the abuses of concentrated private power should be swept away…Trump and Bannon are happy to expand the reach of the state when it comes to policing, immigration enforcement, executive-branch meddling in the work of investigative agencies, and the browbeating of individual companies that offend the president in one way or another. The parts of government they want to dismantle are those that stand on the side of citizens against powerful interests.”

In bad news for Betsy Devos, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll finds that a healthy majority, “58 percent of Iowans oppose taking public school funds to help parents pay for non-public schools, while only 35 percent support it,” reports Mackenzie Ryan in the Register. It’s “just” Iowa, conservatives will say. But ‘just Iowa’ was a heartland Trump state, and a 23 percent gap (+/- 3.5 m.o.e.) is pretty significant, especially because Iowa’s popular Republican governor Terry Branstad and a host of state Republican leaders supported it. Secretary of Education Devos has been an ardent advocate of  public school privatization schemes.

John Schuppe of NBC news shares a revealing quote by Speaker John Boehner at a recent health care forum: “In the 25 years I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time, agreed on what a healthcare proposal should look like. Not once.” When the ‘repeal and replace’ follies are all played out, the only thing certain is that some major provisions of Obamacare will endure because they are higly popular, but they will call the package something else. Whether the ‘replacement’ will actually function remains much in doubt.

CNN’s Jake Tapper sticks it to Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, who had the hypocrisy to blast the New York Times for not noting his birthplace accurately: “I imagine it must be really annoying when someone puts out false info about where you were born,” tweets Tapper. “Must really bother you!!”


Trump Offers Conservatives the World If They Give Him Their Souls

After watching and pondering Donald Trump’s speech to a large roomful of conservatives at CPAC, I no longer had any doubt about the 45th president’s relationship with the GOP and its long-dominant faction. I wrote up my conclusions for New York:

Amazingly, Trump spoke for an extended period to an exclusively conservative audience and never used the terms liberty or limited government or free enterprise. He used the word freedom exactly twice. Once was in a reference to the TPP agreement being a threat to “our economic freedom,” a characterization that — until recently — few mainstream conservatives would support. The other was in boasting about his election win:

“The victory and the win were something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law. Our victory…(APPLAUSE)… was a victory and the win for conservative values.”

That was also the speech’s only clear reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the brand of conservative values that have dominated the discourse at CPAC for decades.

Trump did offer a lot of crowd-pleasing lines, roughly divided equally between attacks on common enemies like the non-conservative elements of the news media, and promises to pursue specific policies most conservatives like, from defense spending increases to tax cuts to deregulation to aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels.

But invariably Trump framed his policies not with the traditional memes of movement conservatism, but as expressions of his one clear guiding principle: nationalism. Or, as he put it: “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”

While patriotism, of course, is a common touchstone for American conservatives (and for liberals, though conservatives often have trouble acknowledging it), nationalism disassociated from the idea that America distinctively stands for universal values — e.g., freedom or “liberty” or limited government — is not a value Republicans have traditionally embraced. Presumably many of the same people who cheered Trump at CPAC also cheered George W. Bush when he used to talk about freedom and democracy being America’s gift to the world, a gift worth fighting to defend and extend — rhetoric Ronald Reagan also used throughout his career (otherwise his favorite rhetorical reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” is nonsensical).

The idea that Trump isn’t asking conservatives to change that much simply is not true. He’s asking them to acknowledge that discarding their most cherished positions in order to vanquish their foes and achieve their immediate goals is absolutely necessary, with his electoral victory after the defeat of more conventional leaders like McCain and Romney being the proof. And thus he represents the eternal temptation of right-bent political thinkers and actors everywhere and at every time to overcome their scruples and embrace “populist” demagogues.

As Trump ended his speech and the room was filled with his odd campaign anthem, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for the first time I saw the song as entirely appropriate. Conservatives cannot elect a president who talks only or mostly of freedom and capitalism or of those Western values that transcend the nation-state. But they can win with Trump, so they’ll get what they need, at the mere expense of their principles, if not their souls.

It’s a deal with the devil most of them seem more than willing to take.