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October 11: Trump Alienates Evangelical Supporters With Syria Policy

There was a lot of attention given in the media to GOP heartburn about Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria. But there was another angle that I wrote up at New York:

No one should have been surprised by the fury that arose in congressional Republican circles over the president’s green light to his fellow authoritarian, Recep Erdogan, for a Turkish invasion of Syria. Most of them, after all, have never bought into Trump’s particular Jacksonian mix of militaristic bluster and non-interventionism, reflected in his alternating desires to get U.S. troops out of Syria or deploy them to kill everything that moves. Traditional Republicans, moreover, feel a strong sense of attachment to the Kurds, U.S. allies in the Iraq War (which Trump considers a disaster pursued by losers) and the fight against ISIS (which Trump considers his own personal triumph, not to be shared with foreigners). The most unexpected thing, indeed, is that Trump chose to infuriate Republicans just when he needs them most in the battle against impeachment and the 2020 election. This is not the sort of statement he needs right now from the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham:

“Graham, who has been one of President Trump’s strongest allies in the Senate, on Wednesday said Kurdish fighters in Syria had been ‘shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration’ in its sudden decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria, leaving America’s longtime allies in the fight against the Islamic State group exposed to an attack by Turkey.

“’I hope he’s right — I don’t think so. I know that every military person has told him don’t do this,’ Graham said in an appearance on ‘Fox & Friends. “If he follows through with this, it’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

But if old-school neoconservative hawkishness explains part of the bad reaction Trump got for his invitation to Erdogan, there’s a separate reason that leaders representing another important slice of the MAGA coalition. Conservative Evangelicals have rebelled — some even more angrily than Graham — including the ancient Christian Right warhorse, Pat Robertson, as the Washington Post reports:


October 9: GOP Rigging Nomination Contest for Trump

This development, which has recently become more interesting, drew my attention for a piece at New York:

[T]he Republican Party, nationally and in the states, has been quietly working toward avoiding any unpleasantness surrounding Donald Trump’s planned reelection gala in Charlotte next August. Four states — including two of the protected early states, Nevada and South Carolina, plus Kansas and Arizona — have formally cancelled their 2020 caucuses or primaries, and plan to award all delegates to the MAGA king. That wasn’t unprecedented. As nominating contest maven Josh Putnam has noted, numerous states didn’t bother to hold Republican primaries or caucuses when George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004, and the same is true for Democrats during Barack Obama’s reelection run of 2012. The idea is that states (or in the case of caucuses, state parties) shouldn’t waste money on contests that are, well, no contest.

But neither Bush nor Obama had anything remotely like credible intra-party opponents, while Trump has two former governors (William Weld and Mark Sanford) and a former House member (Joe Walsh) publicly challenging his renomination. None of them have much traction at the moment, but rising impeachment sentiment (even among self-identified Republican voters) has to make Team Trump wonder if precautions are in order.

The canceled events aren’t the only measures Republicans are taking to protect the incumbent, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

“President Donald Trump’s campaign helped orchestrate rule changes at party conventions in dozens of states, including Georgia, to weaken a potential GOP insurrection before it can start.

“Three senior Trump campaign officials said on a conference call Monday that they pressed party officials in 37 states to make it harder for a Republican primary opponent to emerge at the nominating convention in Charlotte in August 2020.”

The key strategy is to monkey around with the proportional representation rules that Republicans introduced in 2016. Now states are being encouraged in order to let states move back towards winner-take-all or winner-take-most systems. Here’s how it will work in Georgia:

“Under the [new] rules, a candidate who wins a plurality of votes statewide automatically captures all of the statewide and at-large delegates. And the candidate who wins a plurality in each congressional district automatically captures all three delegates from the district.

“The previous rules used in the 2016 election let candidates capture at least a handful of delegates if they won 20 percent of the vote statewide or, in some cases, if they finished in a strong second place in a congressional district.”

As Putnam has noted, some state Republican parties have adopted rules that give candidates winning statewide majorities (as opposed to mere pluralities) winner-take-all awards. On a separate front, in 2018 the Republican National Committee abolished its debate-authorization commission. Wouldn’t want to give any pesky Trump rivals a platform to gain attention, would we?

It’s likely that these steps toward unanimity in the nominating process were motivated less by any fear that Trump might lose than by a desire to avoid the sort of divisive spectacle the party advertised in 2016, when Ted Cruz gave a big convention speech that did not include an endorsement of the nominee. Now that Trump truly controls the RNC, he can plan a convention that is, as his representatives have called it, a “four-day television commercial.” Don’t need any mixed messages when you’re revving up the party base to smite the anti-American, anti-God, baby-killing socialists in what will likely be a close general election.


October 3: Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump

It’s a historic moment in political history, and I was happy to engage in a historical discussion of past presidential impeachment proceedings at New York:

As we look forward to the possible — I’d say probable — impeachment of Donald J. Trump, it’s natural to look back at precedents from the last century: the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon (who resigned facing certain impeachment and likely conviction) and Bill Clinton (who was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate).

But in some ways these examples are unsatisfying. When they had their impeachment crises, both Nixon and Clinton had recently been reelected to second terms by very comfortable margins. They were fairly conventional politicians whose behavior in most respects was also fairly conventional (even the famously paranoid and self-isolated Nixon had been a party stalwart and well-known elected official for 28 years when his Watergate cover-up and related misdeeds struck him down). Clinton famously “compartmentalized” his investigation, impeachment, and trial, and no one seriously argued his continuation in the presidency threatened the safety of the Republic. And Nixon didn’t become noticeably erratic until near the end of his failed efforts to escape the noose he had clumsily created for himself.

To find any situation like Trump’s, you really have to go back to the first presidential impeachment (there was an earlier effort to impeach John Tyler after he ascended to the presidency via the death of William Henry Harrison and proceeded to veto nearly all his party’s legislation, but it failed in the House). Like Tyler, Andrew Johnson was an accidental president (Lincoln’s assassination made him POTUS), and, like Tyler, he had once belonged to the party opposing the one that placed him on a national ticket. But unlike Tyler and much like Trump, Johnson entered office as something of a figure of scandal, having delivered an inaugural address inside the Capitol in a very apparent state of inebriation (“Do not let Johnson speak outside,” Lincoln reportedly said before the public inaugural address that many consider his own greatest speech).

Johnson also anticipated Trump in the violent abusiveness of his rhetoric toward political enemies. He had first attracted the support of Republicans as Lincoln’s 1864 running mate thanks to his frequent and intense denunciations of his fellow Southern secessionists as traitors who deserved to be strung up, if not killed in combat. But once Johnson committed himself to the restoration of white supremacy in the South after the Civil War, he unloosed his tongue on his former allies, as Tim Murphy of Mother Jones recalls:

“In 1866, he decided to go on the offensive, embarking on a national tour to shore up his support. It was called the ‘Swing Around the Circle,’ and it was insane. The closest I can come to describing is, maybe, what if George Wallace spoke at Altamont? It’s tough to find a true analogue. Presidents just don’t really talk like Johnson did on that tour, no matter what lurks in their hearts.”

Among other things, Johnson called for “hanging” his chief congressional Republican critic, Thaddeus Stevens, and abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. According to prevailing standards of the day, Johnson held the functional equivalent of MAGA rallies. Jamelle Bouie quotes a contemporary evaluation of Johnson’s events that sounds very familiar:

“His low cunning conspired with his devouring egoism to make him throw off all the restraints of official decorum, in the expectation that he would find duplicates of himself in the crowds he addressed and that mob diffused would heartily sympathize with Mob impersonated. Never was a blustering demagogue led by a distempered sense of self-importance into a more fatal error.”

Both before and during this campaign, Johnson struck a variety of observers as having a mind obsessed with resentment of what would later be called “elites,” and incapable of admitting error. But it was the context of his angry fight with Congress that led to his impeachment, and provides the most important link to Trump. Gripped by a determination to let the South reenter the Union with only the barest Reconstruction, Johnson was a law unto himself, and defied every effort to enact and then to enforce the most basic protections for ex-slaves, as Yoni Applebaum explained earlier this year:

“The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies—holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson’s Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the ‘blood-suckers and cormorants’ who frustrated his desires.’

“It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office. In Tennessee, where Johnson had until the year before served as military governor, a white mob opposed to black equality rampaged through the streets of Memphis in May, slaughtering dozens of people as it went. July brought a second massacre, this one in New Orleans, where efforts to enfranchise black voters sparked a riot. A mob filled with police, firemen, armed youths, and Confederate veterans shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and mutilated dozens, many of them black veterans of the Union Army. Johnson chose not to suppress the violence, using fear of disorder to build a constituency more loyal to him than to either party.”

And that wasn’t all. As Johnson prevented federal intervention, white ex-slaveholders enacted so-called Black Codes throughout the South aimed at, in the words of one advocate, keeping freedmen “as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as is practicable.” In the eyes of most Republicans at the time, Johnson wanted to squander the horrendous sacrifices of the Civil War and restore the South’s immense prewar power.

In this, Johnson anticipated Trump’s relentless fight against any accountability, any boundaries for his power, and any institutions or norms that might restrain his sovereignty as president.

It was hard, in the end, for congressional Republicans to figure out articles of impeachment that comprehended Johnson’s threat to the country. As Murphy notes, that too represents a parallel to today’s congressional Democrats in coming to grips with Trump’s lawlessness:

“[T]here was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different—the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement—they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.”

In the end, the centerpiece of the articles of impeachment against Johnson (and the sole grounds on which he was tried in the Senate) involved his willful defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, a law restricting his ability to fire Cabinet members without congressional approval, which was subsequently held unconstitutional. It was arguably an illustrative and more than definitive ground for impeachment: Because it was triggered by his effort to get rid of Edward Stanton just as the Secretary of War was deploying military force to halt ex-Confederate terrorism, it represented Johnson’s determination to fight for white supremacy. In that sense, it was similar to the apparent inclination of today’s House Democrats to impeach Trump for doing something equally illustrative of his overall pattern of lawlessness: using presidential powers to encourage a foreign government to drop a hammer on a domestic political threat.

Johnson, of course, was acquitted by the Senate, though by a much narrower margin than the one which will likely acquit Trump no matter what the impeachment inquiry uncovers. In the end, Johnson was vindicated not by his acquittal, but by the gradual abandonment of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow across the South. The fate of Trump’s reckless stand against equality, diversity, the rule of law, and those norms of decency that he contemptuously dismisses as “political correctness” may eventually rest in the hands of voters, if Trump’s party lets them be cast and counted. But don’t for a moment pretend he hasn’t invited impeachment just as Andrew Johnson did.


October 2: Polls and Impeachment: What We Can Learn From the Nixon and Clinton Experiences

As part of the effort to become an expert on All Things Impeachment, I did some recent historical research, and wrote up what I learned at New York:

Now that Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have, as Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff put it, “crossed the Rubicon” to support impeachment proceedings against President Trump, the big questions are how public opinion might evolve on the subject and then how it might affect the 2020 elections. Indeed, as long as the odds against the Senate convicting Trump on impeachment charges are roughly a billion to one, the political fallout is really the only ultimate question, other than, perhaps, some post-presidential legal consequences for Trump.

As my colleague Sarah Jones has noted, there’s some initial polling showing a quick uptick in support of impeachment in the immediate wake of the Ukraine scandal breaking. And that’s not too surprising: You’d figure the sudden lurch in the direction of impeachment among House Democrats in marginal districts that pushed Pelosi off the fence would be echoed among Democratic voters hearing the same evidence of presidential malfeasance.

But what can we expect in the near future? Obviously, much will depend on the nature of the evidence that unfolds and how the two parties and the media handle it. But there are the two recent precedents: the march toward impeachment of Richard Nixon (who resigned right as the House was poised to impeach him) and Bill Clinton (who was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate). In looking at how public opinion evolved during these two sagas, it’s helpful to distinguish three things: public support for impeachment and removal, the president’s job-approval ratings, and the most immediate electoral consequences.

It’s also important to understand the different timelines of the Nixon and Clinton “scandals.” The televised Senate Watergate hearings began in May 1973, with articles of impeachment not drafted by the House Judiciary Committee until late July 1974, just days before Nixon’s resignation. The Monica Lewinsky scandal went public in January 1998. The special prosecutor’s report from Ken Starr recommending impeachment of Clinton was released that September, with impeachment concluded in December and then the Senate trial in January and February of 1999.

One clear thing about public opinion in both of these incidents is that support for impeachment took a long time to develop in Nixon’s case and never developed at all in Clinton’s. On average, Americans are resistant to impeachment, even of presidents they really dislike.

As a Pew Research postmortem noted, Americans opposed impeachment and removal of Nixon by a 51-to-38 margin in November 1973, even after weeks of heavily watched Watergate hearings and the incident often thought of as the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency: his “Saturday Night Massacre” — the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, followed by the resignation of the attorney general and the top assistant attorney general in protest. Majority support for impeachment and removal did not emerge in Gallup polling until just prior to Nixon’s resignation.

In Clinton’s case, support for impeachment and removal over the Lewinsky scandal was never very high and actually got lower as Congress moved in that direction. Pew started asking this question in March 1998, when allegations of Clinton lying under oath about Lewinsky were far from being generally accepted: “If it turns out that President Clinton lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, do you think that he should be impeached and removed from office, or not?” The yes-no ratio in answering that question went from 40-55 in March to 31-63 in late July to 30-66 in late August. Even after the Starr report was released and the House held impeachment hearings, support for actual impeachment generally ranged from the mid-30s to the low 40s. It never became a popular option.

The biggest contrast between public opinion during Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal, though, involved presidential-approval ratings. In January 1973, the newly reelected (by a 49-state landslide) Richard Nixon had a Gallup job-approval rating of 68 percent. By April, after heavy publicity about Watergate and the forced resignations of Nixon’s top-two aides, his approval rating was down to 48 percent. And by and large, it just kept sinking: down to 31 percent in August 1973, then to 25 percent in May 1974. The Watergate scandal was not, of course, the only thing going on: the economy fell into recession accompanied by “stagflation” (high inflation and slow growth) in November 1973 (just after the OPEC oil embargo, which boosted oil prices fourfold in months), and the Vietnam War was lurching toward its unsatisfactory conclusion. But in any event, Nixon’s unpopularity far outstripped support for impeachment and removal until very near the end of the saga.

Clinton’s Gallup job-approval rating was at 58 percent the week after the Lewinsky story first broke, and if anything improved during the entire saga of investigation and impeachment. It was at 66 percent the week after the Starr report with its salacious details was published and widely read, it rose to a dizzying 73 percent the day after the House impeached Clinton, and it was at 68 percent the day after the Senate acquitted him. The more rarely measured (for sitting presidents, anyway) personal-favorability ratings for Clinton were unsurprisingly softer, but Pew had his favorable-unfavorable ratio at 55-43 the week he was impeached.

As with Nixon, there were other things going on: a sustained economic boom; an extended period of peace and prosperity; an atmosphere of relatively robust bipartisanship despite divided partisan control of the federal government (even as they were trying to remove him from office, congressional Republicans were begging Clinton to work with them on “entitlement reform”); a president who seemed able to “compartmentalize” very well (unlike Nixon, who slowly fell apart under the pressure of Watergate). But ultimately, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Americans didn’t condemn Clinton mostly because they didn’t regard lying about sex as an impeachable offense. An October 1998 Gallup–CNN–USA Today survey asked respondents to compare the gravity of Nixon’s and Clinton’s misconduct, and Nixon was the One by a landslide (his sins were adjudged as worse by a 64-to-10 margin, despite the obvious temptation for Republicans to go the other way).

These very different trends in job approval during an impeachment crisis turned out to be a pretty good guide to the electoral consequences as well. Obviously, Nixon left office, but in part because his successor immediately took the very unpopular step of pardoning him, Republicans were drubbed in the 1974 “Watergate election” midterms, losing 49 House seats, four Senate seats, and four governorships. Democrats subsequently regained control of the White House in 1976 in a sharp reversal of the 1972 Nixon landslide.

The 1998 midterms fell smack in the middle of the Republican Congress’s drive toward impeachment of Clinton, and the party that did not control the White House failed to gain House seats in a midterm for the first time since the 1930s. It was considered such a disaster for Republicans that Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned. This development is often cited as a warning to today’s House Democrats about pursuing an impeachment that is not supported by the public. On the other hand, as Ron Brownstein points out, the 1998 midterm was really more of a status-quo election than a rebuke of the GOP:

“[W]hen the House considered impeachment in December 1998, almost all of them voted for at least one of the two articles of impeachment that the chamber approved. (Just four House Republicans, each of them representing districts that voted for Clinton, opposed both articles.)

“And then, after effectively voting to cancel out their constituents’ presidential votes, almost all of the Clinton-district Republicans who sought reelection won it in both 1998 and 2000.”

Republicans, of course, also regained the White House in 2000 (though not without a big assist from the U.S. Supreme Court) after an election campaign in which Al Gore visibly struggled to separate himself from Clinton.

So what are the implications of this history?

First, support for impeachment and removal appears to be a lagging indicator of how the public feels about an embattled president caught in unsavory misconduct. House Democrats probably shouldn’t worry about it that much early on unless the trend lines go south on them.


September 27: Trump’s War on California Escalates

As a resident of California, I’ve been following this story, and wrote up the latest development for New York:

Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has generally been more interested in relaxing rather than strictly enforcing laws regulating pollution. Keeping water clean, in particular, has not been a priority, as the Los Angeles Times observes:

“Earlier this month, the agency [EPA] announced that it was rolling back Obama-era protections on wetlands and streams — regulations that environmentalists said are necessary to protect drinking water but that farmers and developers have long opposed.

“Under Trump, the EPA has also delayed setting a drinking water safety standard for a class of cancer-causing chemicals, known as PFAS, that has been found in public water systems throughout the country.”

So the EPA’s suddenly stern attitude about water pollution in California, which it blames partly on the homeless, is pretty clearly just another front in the administration’s ongoing war with the Golden State:

“The Trump administration notified California officials on Thursday that it is ‘failing’ to meet federal water-quality standards, attributing this in part to homelessness.

“An oversight letter addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom alleges that San Francisco, Los Angeles and the state “do not appear to be acting with urgency to mitigate the risks to human health and the environment that may result from the homelessness crisis.”

“EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler warned that the agency is ‘concerned’ about the state’s handling of public water systems.

“’The agency is aware of the growing homelessness crisis developing in major California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the impact of this crisis on the environment,’ Wheeler wrote. ‘Based upon data and reports, the agency is concerned that California’s implementation of federal environmental laws is failing to meet its obligations required under delegated federal programs.'”

You may recall that Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the coal industry, and also a former aide to Senator James Inhofe, author of that great environmentalist tomeThe Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

It’s clearly not a coincidence that on a recent fundraising trip to California, the president spent considerable time mocking the Democrats who govern the state and its largest cities for a homelessness crisis that he and his allies attribute to excessive regulation — particularly environmental regulation. This was his parting shot, as reported by NBC News:

“From Air Force One, Trump, who had been in California for a two-day fundraising trip, blamed the homeless population for environmental issues. ‘There’s tremendous pollution being put into the ocean,’ he said, noting ‘there are needles, there are other things.’

“’We’re going to be giving San Francisco — they’re in total violation — we’re going to be giving them the notice very soon,’ Trump said.

“’The EPA is going to be putting out a notice and you know they’re in serious violation and this is environmental, very environmental,’ Trump said. ‘And they have to clean it up. We can’t have our cities going to hell.'”

Wheeler’s letter indicates that Trump wasn’t just trolling Californians and the homeless when he complained that homeless people keep wealthy people like himself from going about their important business. In theory, the EPA could take over enforcement of clean water rules in the state, though that would be pretty bad for clean water. But the targets of the administration’s ire are pretty hot about it, as Nathan Click, Governor Gavin Newsom’s spokesperson, told the Washington Post:

“’The president is abusing the powers of the presidency and weaponizing government to attack his political opponents,’ Click said. ‘This is not about clean air, clean water or helping our state with homelessness. This is political retribution against California, plain and simple.'”

There’s a lot of that going on, particularly when it comes to environmental protection:

“In recent weeks, Newsom and other top California officials have denounced Trump for targeting the state on several fronts. In the past month alone, the administration has moved to revoke the state’s long-standing right to limit air pollution from cars, began investigating an agreement with four automakers for possible antitrust violations and threatened to withhold federal highway funds if California does not do more to clean up its air.”

Just yesterday, California attorney general Xavier Becerra announced he was participating in a 17-state effort to stop the administration’s evisceration of the Endangered Species Act. It’s the 62nd federal lawsuit Becerra has launched against Team Trump.

By sheer coincidence, Wheeler’s “notice” to California came out the same day as a Los Angeles Times analysis of new polling data suggesting that Trump is “on track for the poorest showing by a Republican presidential candidate in the state since the Civil War.” POTUS almost certainly could not care less.


September 25: House Democrats Must Decide Scope of Impeachment Proceedings

During this momentous week in Washington, a critical question came up that I discussed at New York:

Now that Nancy Pelosi has set House Democrats firmly and (probably) irreversibly on the road to impeaching Donald Trump, she and they must make the fateful decision about which examples of misconduct to prosecute. As Lawfare observes today, Trump’s behavior “presents what the military calls a target-rich environment.” Should they go wide and include various high crimes and misdemeanors? Or go narrow and stick to the latest and hottest controversy, i.e., the president’s petitioning a foreign government to help his administration smear a political enemy?

Already, people are weighing in:

And from longtime impeachment enthusiast Brian Beutler, this dissent from the idea of single-issue impeachment:

It’s a little hard to determine exactly where Pelosi is. Multiple outlets are reporting that she wants the House to narrowly focus on Trump’s Ukraine gambit. Here’s how Politico has heard it:

“The strategy, described by Democratic lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks, would center on streamlining the consideration of articles of impeachment to focus exclusively on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden — a push they say included an implicit threat to withhold military aid to the eastern European country….

“’This has clarity and understanding in the eyes of the American people,’ Pelosi told her leadership team, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.”

But then the very next sentence of Pelosi’s quote undermines the idea of staying narrow: “If we do articles, then we can include other things.”

“Articles” means “articles of impeachment,” presumably the endgame for House Democrats at this point. So perhaps Pelosi wants to begin with hearings focused on Ukraine, see how it goes, and then consider broadening the scope of impeachment articles before taking the final leap. Nobody really knows at this point.

The author also thinks that pursuing Trumpian malfeasance before he became president would create an unhelpful side dispute as to whether actions as a private citizen can be impeachable.

That doesn’t mean the “crisp and clear” approach requires a narrow scope: Lawfare recommends four major areas of inquiry beyond the Ukraine scandal: (1) obstruction of justice (as shown by Mueller and others); (2) use of law-enforcement resources to attack or punish political opponents; (3) obstruction of lawful congressional investigations and oversight; and, my personal favorite, Trump’s habit of lying:

“The 1974 article of impeachment concerning Nixon’s obstruction of justice also noted his lies to the public about the Watergate investigation: Nixon, the Judiciary Committee charged, made ‘false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted’ on the Watergate matter and that White House and Nixon campaign officials had no involvement in the burglary. Kenneth Starr also suggested an article of impeachment against Clinton for ‘mis[leading] the American people,’ though Congress declined to adopt this article. Trump has rather outdone prior presidents in the lies department. The Washington Post ‘Fact Checker’ database of presidential dissembling as of Aug. 5 had documented 12,019 “false or misleading statements” by Trump since he took office. The Mueller report documents multiple instances in which the president and administration officials speaking on his behalf knowingly lied to the public. His tenure has genuinely posed the question of whether the president has any obligation at all to tell the truth about anything—ever. His presidency is, among other things, advancing the proposition that the idea of “faithful” execution of the law implies no duty of candor at all.”

So even if the House impeachment inquiry in its next, more purposeful phase begins with a narrow focus on the latest Trumpian outrage, you have to figure it will eventually broaden to include some of the lowlights of this president’s low behavior — unless the Ukraine scandal has the kind of yet-to-be-revealed details that will get a majority of the public behind impeachment. Since the odds of the Senate’s actually convicting the president are virtually nil, impeachment might still damage the president’s credibility enough to make his ejection from office by the public very likely.


September 19: The Case for Court-Packing–Or At Least a Credible Threat

During a week in which there was a lot of talk about the Supreme Court, Jamelle Bouie wrote an interesting column that I decided to build on for a bit of history and strategy at New York.

American history classes often treat FDR’s 1937 “court-packing” scheme — a proposal to expand the size of the Supreme Court by adding as many as six justices — as a classic example of presidential overreach, which led to a widespread backlash even among Democrats and represented a high-water mark for New Deal audacity, subsequently curtailed. It’s not as well remembered that the Lochner-era conservative majority on the Court, in the habit of holding that virtually all economic regulation by Congress violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, was posing an existential threat not only to the New Deal but to democratic governance. It’s also sometimes forgotten that while FDR’s court-packing threats failed to secure congressional support, they did help frighten Justice Owen Roberts into quietly switching sides and ensuring validation of key New Deal legislation by the Supreme Court (the legendary “switch in time that saved nine”).

In other words, the legitimacy and independence of the Court were called into question not by FDR but by his opponents, and he found a way, however indirect and noisy, to restore the balance. As Jamelle Bouie notes in a New York Times column, a future Democratic president may find herself in similar straits:

“Trump’s Supreme Court appointments are mired in controversy. Justice Neil Gorsuch occupies a stolen seat, held open during Obama’s tenure by a blockade conducted for nearly a year by McConnell, who cited a previously nonexistent “tradition” of tabling nominations made in an election year. (In the 20th century alone, the Senate confirmed Supreme Court nominees in five different presidential election years — 1912, 1916, 1932, 1940 and 1988). And of course Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed last September under clouds of suspicion that stemmed from accusations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct to a bevy of ethics complaints.

“Democrats are left in an unenviable position. Should they win a federal ‘trifecta’ — the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives — they’ll still have to deal with a Trump-branded judiciary. It’s entirely possible that a future Democratic agenda would be circumscribed and unraveled by a Supreme Court whose slim conservative majority owes itself to minority government and constitutional hardball.”

You could add to Bouie’s case that the traditional norms of judicial politics have already been shattered. There’s the fact that Donald Trump broke every taboo by explicitly promising conservative Evangelicals a SCOTUS that would abolish a federal constitutional right to choose abortion, and then set up an outsourced and fiercely ideological judicial-selection process that is radically reshaping all federal courts. But he’s fundamentally and critically correct that what’s at stake in the immediate future isn’t just this or that constitutional precedent, but the ability of a popular majority to enact an agenda, at a time when one of the two major parties has committed itself to minority rule. So if Democrats gain power in 2020 or 2024, they could find themselves in the same position as their New Deal predecessors — or perhaps an even more dire situation, since today’s reactionaries are deliberately entrenching their allies throughout the federal judiciary, not just the Supreme Court.

So is it time for Democrats to openly talk about court-packing or something similarly radical-sounding? Bouie thinks so, and seven Democratic presidential candidates (Cory Booker, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Wayne Messam, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang) have told the Washington Post they are “open” to the idea. Only Buttigieg has released a specific proposal (an expansion of the court to 15 members, with five nominated by each party and five more with short-term appointments chosen by SCOTUS consensus). Perhaps the alarming head count of Trump judges, and/or fresh allegations against sitting SCOTUS justices like Brett Kavanaugh, will make judicial appointments and their number and duration a 2020 primary issue among Democrats.

But it’s even more likely that any such talk will provide new fodder for the Trump/GOP message that today’s Democrats are dangerously radical and contemptuous of constitutional norms (not that court-packing is the least bit unconstitutional if it’s done by Congress). At a minimum, conservatives will spend a lot of time telling Christian-right audiences that Democrats are now fighting fire with fire and plan to thwart their own government-by-judiciary schemes aimed at a constitutional counterrevolution. And let’s face it: All the threats to democracy that Bouie and others are warning of will get a lot worse right away if Republicans hang on to the White House and the Senate in 2020. If discussion of judicial reform makes that even infinitesimally more likely, it’s probably a topic that should be placed on a back burner until after the election.

And if things do turn out well for Democrats and they enjoy a governing trifecta in 2021, they could emulate FDR in utilizing court-packing or similar reforms as a way to get the attention of conservatives and perhaps secure their agreement to de-escalate their politicization of the courts. There’s quite a bit of evidence that FDR really wanted to change the pattern of ancient justices hanging on to Court seats forever (their retirement incomes had recently been slashed by Congress, which didn’t help) while awaiting a president of their party to appoint a successor. If moral suasion doesn’t work, term limits for judges could have a much larger and more permanent impact than court-packing schemes (especially if expanded beyond SCOTUS), and just as importantly, it’s a popular idea. A 2018 Ipsos/UVA poll showed 70 percent of Americans — and big majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — favoring term limits for SCOTUS.

In any event, whether or not they embrace specific reforms, Democratic presidential candidates and the progressives whose votes they are currently seeking need to make the shape of the federal judiciary a big-time campaign issue for 2020 — much as Trump’s conservative Evangelical backers did in 2016.


September 18: Josh Hawley No Fit Defender of the Constitution

In the back-and-forth over Kavanaugh and other SCOTUS-related talk this week, I saw the name of a senator weighing in that make the bile rise, so I wrote about it at New York:

Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the lurch toward impeachment of Brett Kavanaugh that some Democrats made over the weekend. And I’m at least ambivalent about the court-packing schemes that Pete Buttigieg and others have embraced. But in both cases we don’t need any lectures from Republican officeholders about respect for precedents involving the judicial branch — not unless they are willing to admit their party denied President Obama’s SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland the hearings and confirmation vote he deserved.

And of all the Republicans who need to keep a low profile on this issue, I’d put Missouri’s young semi-theocratic Senator Josh Hawley near the top of my list. Yet here he is telling The Hill he’s terrified for the Constitution:

“’You know, they want to impeach Justice Kavanaugh, they want to pack the Supreme Court, I mean talk about destroying any institution they can’t control. It’s really unbelievable. This is a Democrat party that increasingly is at war with the American constitution,’ Hawley said.”

Last time I looked, both impeachment of judges and Congress’ power to regulate the size of the federal courts were right there in the constitution. I’m sure Hawley, a Yale Law School grad and a very bright boy, knows that. So maybe he is referring to that hazy concept, the spirit of the constitution?

“'[Democrats are] willing to destroy an entire branch of government, the independent judiciary; they want to destroy it why? Because it won’t rule the way they want it too. I mean is there anything more dangerous to constitutional government than that way of thinking.'”

I dunno, senator. I’d say this way of thinking is pretty inimical to constitutional government, too:

“Scripture teaches that political government is mandated by God for his service and is one means by which the enthroned Christ carries out his rule….

“These things together tell us something quite important about what government is for, and what Christians should be trying to do with it and with politics. Government serves Christ’s kingdom rule; this is its purpose. And Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God — to make it more real, more tangible, more present.”

That was Hawley in 2012. If that’s too long ago to be considered relevant (I don’t think it is, at all), there’s this reflection on constitutional liberty from a speech he made earlier this year:

“Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’

“It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.”

I’d say treating the idea of individual liberty as the devilish reflection of an ancient heresy professing the perfectibility of human nature is more than a little hostile to the spirit of the constitution.

Perhaps a clue to Hawley’s strange attitude on this subject is that he likes to use the self-identifying label of “constitutional conservative.” This particular code-term, which was briefly in fashion at the height of the Tea Party Movement, is actually pretty radical, as I explained in 2014:

“It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of ‘traditional culture’ is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t–all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or ‘foreign’ delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America.”

That sounds like Josh Hawley, all right, who in 2018 had this to say about his wicked country:

“Excerpts of an audio tape have leaked of Hawley speaking to a conclave of Christian-right activists in December that’s more than a little out there, blaming the scourge of human trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Sexual freedom leads to sexual slavery, he explained.

“’It ends in the slavery and exploitation of young women. It will destroy our families,’ he said, per the Kansas City Star. ‘You know what I’m talking about, the 1960s, 1970s, it became commonplace in our culture among our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media, to talk about, to denigrate the biblical truth about husband and wife, man and woman.'”

Yes, that’s the sort of thinking that has made Hawley the poster boy for a sinister sort of post-Trumpian conservatism that tends to pursue authoritarian means to achieving its godly ends.


September 13: 2020 Swing Voters May Have To Be Mobilized As Well As Persuaded

It’s never too late to do some fresh thinking about old political assumptions, and that’s what I tried to do this week at New York:

There are two bits of conventional wisdom about “swing voters” in this day and age that are often accepted without discussion. The first is that these critters have been all but hunted to extinction, or more specifically, have fled into one of the two partisan trenches from the “middle ground” poisoned by polarization. The second is that swing voters are discerning and sensitive souls who equally disdain the fanatics in the donkey and elephant herds, and long for sweetly reasonable compromise “solutions” between left and right. You know, people who nod their heads at newspaper editorials and think Howard Schultz makes sense.

With the benefit of a robust data set of registered voters provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Charlie Cook does a pretty good job of blowing up both of those preconceptions.

First off, there are a lot more swing voters than you might think — as long as you understand how they are defined:

“Thirty percent of the respondents, a total of 603, can be called swing voters, who were either undecided or only ‘probably’ going to vote for either Trump or the Democrat. Of the 9 percent who said they would probably vote for Trump, just over half (5 percent of all voters) said there was a chance they would vote for the Democrat, while 4 percent said no chance. Of the 13 percent who would probably vote for the Democrat, just a quarter (3 percent of all voters) said that there was a chance they would vote for Trump, while the others said there was no chance. Those who only probably would vote for one candidate but definitely would not vote for the other have a good chance of either not voting or throwing a vote to a third-party candidate.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. The genuine “undecided” vote is only 8 percent — a number which, historically, is likely to go down as we near the general election. And of the 22 percent who are leaners, 14 percent are not “swinging” between the two major parties, but swinging between voting for one of those parties, voting for a minor party, or staying home. So nearly half of “swing voters” are really more like base voters who need to be convinced to show up at the polls without straying into the ranks of the Greens or the Libertarians. And of the other half, roughly equal shares are truly undecided or are predisposed toward one party or the other (with Democrats holding a significant advantage in that respect).

“When asked, ‘How much attention do you normally pay to what is going on in national government and politics?’ 57 percent of voters and 68 percent of decided voters said they pay a lot of attention, but only 39 percent of swing voters said so. Twice as many swing voters said they pay only a little attention or none at all—17 percent, compared with just 8 percent of those who are decided.

“Not surprisingly, fewer swing voters believe it is important who wins. When asked whether it really matters who wins, somewhat matters, or doesn’t really matter, 82 percent of all voters and 92 percent of decided voters said they believe it matters, but just 66 percent of swing voters said they believe it really matters.”

So these are on average less informed, less discerning voters who often can’t tell the difference between two parties that offer wildly different visions for America’s future and the rights our citizens should possess. They tend to be younger, which means higher personal mobility, fewer connections to civic life, and a significantly lower probability to vote. I strongly suspect their relatively high level of self-identification as “moderates” has little or nothing to do with some “centrist” policy agenda, and more to do with a disinclination (or incapacity) to think ideologically at all.

This goes to a third misconception about swing voters that Cook doesn’t explicitly address, but that follows from his analysis. Traditionally, it is assumed that parties and candidates must choose between “mobilization” strategies aimed at base voters and “persuasion” strategies aimed at swing voters. Ideally, you want to do both, but there is an inevitable tension between beating on people with big sticks to go smite the partisan foe (one of the oldest and most important “mobilization” techniques is known as “knock and drag,” which means exactly what it sounds like), and convincing voters who are likely to vote to go your way rather than the other.

But if the most typical swing voters are, as Cook suggests, those who aren’t motivated to vote, and need convincing not that one candidate is better than the other but that the choice is consequential, then beating on them with big sticks makes a lot of sense, too — particularly for Democrats who lost a lot of crucial voters in 2016 because they figured Clinton had already won. Will such efforts sometimes fail? Yes, but again, the odds are that the turned-off swing voter won’t join the ranks of the opposition but will go to work or stay home on Election Day and make evening plans to watch washed-up pols compete on Dancing With the Stars.

As Cook concludes, we may not know how many “swing voters” are actually going to vote until the last minute:

“The key takeaway from this analysis is that while swing voters don’t look too different from the overall electorate in terms of demographics, they are very different temperamentally. Since they pay less attention than other voters and are less likely to believe that the outcome is important, you just have to wonder how many of these undecided will really vote. Further, we can expect those who do to check into the race very late.”

If the 2020 race goes down to the wire looking very close, swing voters “checking in” to politics at the last minute will be hit with an intense barrage of claims that this is the most important moment in American history since at least 1861. And that’s more likely to get them off the sofa than all the split-the-differences compromise policy proposals you can imagine.


September 12: Trump Decided To Build a Clintonesque Ground Game As Soon As He Could Afford One

Something in a report about Trump 2020 plans caught my eye as ironic, so I wrote about it at New York:

When you look back at why so many people thought Hillary Clinton was a lock late in the 2016 campaign despite tightening polls, two reasons stand out. The first is that in the month before the election, half the Republicans in captivity distanced themselves from their nominee (with many denouncing him as a disgusting pig) following the release of the Access Hollywood tape. The other was the belief that Hillary Clinton’s massive field operation gave her a thumb on the scales in the event that things really did get iffy.

In the postelection mythology of 2016, there was a tendency to go far in the other direction and argue that HRC’s “ground game” somehow lost the election for her. Nate Silver responded to that strange claim in his series on “the real story of 2016”:

“[W]hat went wrong with Clinton’s vaunted ground game? There are certainly some things to criticize. There’s been good reporting on how Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn ignored warning signs on the ground and rejected the advice of local operatives in states such as Michigan. And as I wrote in a previous installment of this series, Clinton did not allocate her time and resources between states in the way we would have recommended. In particular, she should have spent more time playing defense in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado and less time trying to turn North Carolina into a blue state or salvage Iowa from turning red.

“Here’s the thing, though: The evidence suggests those decisions didn’t matter very much …

“For one thing, winning Wisconsin and Michigan — states that Clinton is rightly accused of ignoring — would not have sufficed to win her the Electoral College. She’d also have needed Pennsylvania, Florida or another state where she campaigned extensively.”

Another part of the counter-mythology of 2016 held that the Clinton campaign was playing conventional checkers with its ground game, while Team Trump was playing some sort of three-dimensional social media chess with all those Facebook ads and maybe a little outside help from people who happen to drink a lot of vodka. Unsurprisingly, one person responsible for promoting this view of the election has been 2016 Trump digital director Brad Parscale:

“In an interview with CBS News’ ’60 Minutes’ that aired Sunday, Brad Parscale said Facebook ‘was the method’ for President Donald Trump’s stunning rise to the White House. Parscale, who spearheaded the small Trump campaign team’s digital and fundraising efforts, contended that the team took advantage of Facebook in a way Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not.

“’Facebook now lets you get to places and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads,’ Parscale, web director at San Antonio-based marketing and design firm Giles Parscale, told CBS. ‘Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.’”

Parscale has since been named as Trump’s overall 2020 campaign manager, and has continued to make noise suggesting he’s some sort of political Zen master who has transcended polls and other timeworn tools of the trade. But Team Trump is also rolling in the kind of money that its 2016 predecessor could barely imagine. So how are they planning to spend it? Pretty much like Hillary Clinton did in 2016, or so it sounds in this account from Brian Bennett, which emphasizes the blue states Trump is targeting but also indicates a very personnel-heavy field operation:

“Trump’s campaign is betting it can win in New Mexico. Flush with cash, the campaign is planning to announce a state director and additional ground staff there in the coming weeks, a campaign official tells TIME. Internal campaign data has convinced Trump’s political advisors they can energize a slice of the state’s Hispanic voters to vote for Trump in 2020 by emphasizing Trump’s handling of the economy, border security and his trade confrontation with China. According to U.S. Census data, 49.1 percent of New Mexico’s residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino …

“The move is part of a series of bets Trump is making to win states that went for Clinton in 2016. Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner says that voter data has convinced the reelection effort to fund robust field operations in a much larger number of states than in 2016. ‘I can see us very aggressively playing in 18 swing states,’ Jared Kushner tells TIME, adding that in his view, the 2016 Trump campaign “seriously played” in about 11 swing states.

It sure sounds like Team Trump disparaged the kind of ground game Hillary Clinton had in 2016 up until, but not beyond, the moment it could afford one of its own.