Cracks in the Foundation

So much winning.

Donald Trump wanted congress to send him legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act and leave him alone to formulate foreign policy with Vladimir Putin. Instead, congress tied his hands on Russian sanctions and failed spectacularly to give him the victory he craved on Obamacare repeal. This led to a predictable stream of angry tweets toward the Republican Congress from a chief executive incapable of accepting responsibility for anything. But congressional Republicans are not afraid of Trump’s bluster and they were not cowed. Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray announced that their Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would hold hearings in September on bipartisan plans to strengthen the individual insurance market rather than follow the president’s wishes and allow Obamacare to collapse. Meanwhile, Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Cory Booker have teamed up on two separate bipartisan initiatives protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russian connections, while the Senate quietly approved a procedural maneuver that will prevent Trump from replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a recess appointee who could potentially fire the special counsel.

Even if this doesn’t signal the start of a golden age of bipartisanship, it is a meaningful step toward congress asserting its institutional prerogatives for the first time in the Trump era. In this regard, we are moving into a new phase in the Read More

Joe Scarborough Leaves the Island

It was a big deal inside the Beltway when Joe Scarborough told Stephen Colbert last week that he was quitting the Republican Party. An oracle of Washington conventional wisdom, the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe had been a lifelong Republican, representing a crimson Florida congressional district during the Newt Gingrich era. In an interview following his announcement, Scarborough said the “last straw” for him was the Senate healthcare bill, which he described as the “heartless” product of a “shameful” and secretive process. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I just couldn’t defend them anymore, after 20, 25 years.”

With that, Morning Joe swam away from Republican Island.

Scarborough did not leave because he had become a liberal. He left because his party is no longer conservative. As many movement conservatives feared and as we predicted last year, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party completed a transformation decades in the making and turned the party over to a reactionary core of voters invested in staving off the advance of Barack Obama’s America. Politics on the Island reflects this reaction. There is no appetite for advancing a constructive agenda. Negotiation with those who disagree with you is regarded as surrender.

Case in point: days before Morning Joe’s departure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to turn the senate right-side up and enter into negotiations with Democrats to fix the Affordable Care Act if the party was unable on its second try to approve the legislation repealing Obamacare that forced Scarborough out of the party. Any such discussions would have to take place on the mainland. This would be viewed as a betrayal on the Island, making McConnell’s stated openness to negotiation a tactic to pressure recalcitrant Republicans to swallow the poison that would permit the party to fulfill its most visible and toxic promise to its voters. Unlike Morning Joe, Republican officials Read More

Against the World

In discussing the breakdown of political consensus in my last post, I referenced a piece from the Washington Post that documented how public opinion divides between Republicans and everyone else. It’s worth taking a closer look at the structure of this divide. Here is an updated version of the data used in the Post article, courtesy of Gallup, showing Donald Trump’s job approval among Republicans, Independents and Democrats through July 2:

As you might expect during a polarized era, Republicans (in red) strongly approve of Trump’s performance and Democrats (in blue) strongly disapprove. But look at that green line in the middle of the chart. Those are independents, and while they are not as hostile to the president as Democrats, their opinions are deeply negative. Not once has Gallup registered anything close to majority support for the president among independents, who have bounced between 30 and 40 percent approval. Between Democrats and independents, a substantial majority of the electorate gives this administration a big thumbs down. But the voters at the top of the chart are living in a different world. These Read More

Republican Island

People keep telling me it’s madness, this Republican effort to replace Obamacare with a toxic policy they know will cause human and political carnage. Why would a party want to pass legislation that promises to cost millions of people their health insurance while raising rates and denying benefits to tens of millions more? The answer lies in the structure of public opinion, something I discussed at some length last year as a reason for the rise of Donald Trump. It hasn’t changed appreciably since then, and it’s worth revisiting as a way of making sense of our seemingly inexplicable politics.

A key reason why the United States is historically so moderate is because public opinion is generally centrist. There have always been meaningful differences between liberals and conservatives and through the years the center of gravity has fluctuated between left and right, but our differences have traditionally covered a narrow and continuous slice of the ideological spectrum. This gave the parties incentive to go fishing in the middle of the pond where the voters were.

For many years, the center leaned toward the right side of this narrow band, but that began to change when the coalition of young, coastal and multicultural voters that elected Barack Obama in 2008 brought to fruition a trend that had been building for years, posing an existential threat to the Republican Party as constituted if this coalition were allowed to grow large enough. Rather than chase Obama voters with conservative alternatives that would likely make them an opposition party in a new political alignment, Republican leaders responded by delegitimizing Obama and his supporters in a ploy to maintain the status quo political alignment where they were dominant. Over time, this had the effect of radicalizing the Republican base and uniting it in tribal opposition to the left, creating a distinct and Read More

Impeachment Will Not Fix This

I left Washington last week while it was in a state of suspended animation over former FBI Director James Comey’s upcoming testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now that Comey has sworn under oath that the president is an untrustworthy liar who operates like the head of a crime syndicate, it’s not surprising that the I-word has begun to enter the conversation as perhaps the only corrective to a growing cascade of crime and coverup. After all, it was obstruction of justice that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment, and while the politics of Republican survival precludes the possibility of removing Donald Trump from office right now, the cost of defending him will continue to mount as more details become public and his public support erodes. The situation is unstable and unsustainable, and pressure for a resolution will grow if the resistance to Trump remains focused and organized.

Without diminishing the importance of building the coalitions that could one day make it possible to remove Trump from office, I want to address the limits of what impeachment can do to fix the underlying problems that led us here. Ousting Trump through legal means would be like removing a rusty nail from the gut of the constitutional system, yanking out the source of infection without cleaning or closing the wound. The more contentious the extraction, the more we risk aggravating the injury. And does anyone think the process won’t be ugly?

I see at least two issues—there may be more—that we will have to address before the wound can properly heal.

One issue involves legitimacy. When intelligence officials tell us with certainty that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, we should step back and consider what that means. We still do not know the scope of the interference, the extent of collusion by the Trump campaign, how much the president knew and what promises might have been made Read More

It’s Either the Republican Party or the Republic

My second week in Washington played out against the dizzying backdrop of revelations that moved the Trump/Russia probe directly into the White House inner circle with allegations of espionage emerging from the lips of the talkers who populate cable news programming. Mounting evidence that the president is obstructing and undermining investigations into his relationship with Russia complement his bizarre embrace of Vladimir Putin at the expense of America’s European allies, elevating the president’s actions to the level of national security risk. Google “Trump” along with “clear and present danger” to get a sense of what some experts are saying about the immediate security threats posed by this administration. After my first week here, I wrote that events are moving quickly but the political reaction to them is moving slowly. That dynamic is more pronounced—and surreal—after everything that has transpired since.

Official Washington has not reacted to Trump’s Russian connections with anything close to the breathlessness that characterized coverage of Hillary’s email server, a scandal built around a security threat as hypothetical as this one is real. The reasons are political and speak to how low Republicans had to sink in order to ride Trump to power. Trump moved successfully to solidify support among his base in completing his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and although there has been slippage in recent days, it remains strong enough to frighten congressional Republicans who depend on his voters for their jobs. One might think that a national security threat to the country would be enough to move some Republicans to provide the constitutional check on the executive required of congress, but one would be wrong. Thus far, the choice between country and party has been a no-brainer.

I’ve heard several Washingtonians express the opinion that Republican unease with Trump—which from what I have observed is real and widespread—is being kept in check so that Republicans can implement their legislative agenda Read More

They Don’t Know What To Do

Every spring for the past decade I have led a group of Villanova students through official Washington, and every year Washington feels a little different depending on the political circumstances of the moment. During my first trip in 2008, the Bush administration was winding down, twenty-somethings had replaced veterans in responsible jobs, and Republicans were on the market in anticipation of a Democratic victory in the fall. By the following year, hope-and-change fever had swept the Potomac and Democrats owned the city, prompting a tense exchange between a few of my more conservative students and a party official who flaunted his role in Obama’s victory. All hints of arrogance were erased in 2010, as Republicans anticipated and Democrats braced for the drubbing they would face the following fall.

These years and the six that would follow were marked by a kind of certainty produced by the familiar rhythms of the political cycle. Presidents come and go, party fortunes ebb and flow, and professional members of the political class adjust to predictable changes in the political climate, much as you adjust your clothing to suit the month on the calendar. But not this year. This spring in Washington feels like a season upended by global warming, when the date on the calendar doesn’t align with the weather. Four months into a new administration is supposed to be the heart of the presidential honeymoon phase, when legislative progress is made, press stories are friendly, and public approval is high. Instead, we are four months into what just about everyone realizes is a bad marriage. There are some divorce rumors but few are willing to say so out loud.

People are exhausted. Talk to journalists, congressional aides—pretty much anyone who makes a living in the corridors of power—and they will tell you they want to put a stop to the cascade of outrageous statements and damaging stories Read More

Enablers

Remember when the grown-ups in congress were going to check the worst impulses of the president? That was the rationalization offered to reluctant Republicans by those trying to unify the party around a presidential candidate with authoritarian tendencies. Sure, he’s reckless and crazy, but Trump will be kept in line by the adults in the legislative branch.

In fact, there have been external checks on the president during these dizzying first four months of the Trump administration, but congress has not been among them. We have seen pushback from corners of the judiciary and the permanent bureaucracy, from some journalists and opinion leaders and most importantly from the energized crowds that took to the streets on day two of the administration and continue to disrupt congressional constituent meetings with vocal, pointed opposition. But from congressional Republicans there is mostly silence, punctuated occasionally by expressions of concern about the president’s anti-democratic behavior but, thus far, no substantive action.

There is a good reason for this, and you need look no further than today’s Gallup Poll to find it. Solid majorities have disapproved of Trump’s performance in office almost every day since the first week of his presidency. His overall job approval hovers around 40%, a record-shattering low for a new president. But Republicans inhabit a different Read More

Incompetence

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the 100-day standard used to evaluate presidential performance is ridiculous, an artifact of the landmark accomplishments of FDR’s first months when a national crisis and congressional supermajorities made possible a torrent of policy advances the likes of which we are unlikely to see again. But like it or not, those evaluations are coming and they will be harsh.

At Wolves and Sheep, we are not bound by convention or inside-the-Beltway wisdom. So rather than wait another week, I submit to you my 92-day assessment (because, why not?) of the Trump administration.

You can divide the last three months into three distinct phases. Phase I: aggressive use of executive orders. Phase II: comedic attempts at unified governance. Phase III: blowing things up.

The administration was born in a flurry of Bannon-esque aggressiveness designed to establish the new president’s dominance through a relentless series of executive orders aimed at reversing the priorities of his predecessor and bellicose pronouncements that raised the specter of war with Mexico and Australia. Although it felt like a decade, this phase lasted just a bit more than a week before Trump found himself tripped up by the Constitution and the emergence of a resistance movement unprecedented in recent American history. The massive pushback to Trump’s travel ban at airports across the country made it difficult for the administration to defy court orders curtailing the president’s ability to act. Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, this early test of Trump’s use and abuse of executive authority was a turning point in the administration’s direction. It was far from clear at the outset that Trump would back down and respect court directives in the face of public pressure. He spoke and acted as if he was prepared to disregard anyone who got in his way. But political and institutional checks on the presidency held up, perhaps imperfectly, but Read More

Accountability

Democracy dies without accountability. The democratic system is built on our ability to know what our representatives are doing and kick officials out of office as a corrective to poor performance.

This is how the mechanism is supposed to work: Candidates tell us what they want to do if they are elected. They give us honest information about their platforms which we use to decide how to vote. In office, officials attempt to enact their campaign agenda. Then they run for re-election on their record, defending it honestly and on a level playing field against challengers who criticize it fairly. We assess the record of incumbents and the promises of challengers, and if we’re unhappy with how we’re being represented, we make a change.

You probably see the problem here. At every juncture, the process has been undermined by those who do not want to be held accountable for their actions in office. We are inundated with false information, bankrolled by freely flowing supplies of dark money from unidentified contributors whose interests would never withstand public scrutiny. Most congressional incumbents can leverage the advantages of their office to make sure their re-election bids are non-competitive before would-be opponents have a chance to organize a campaign. The connection between public preferences and public officials is weakened or severed.

Of course, the democratic ideal has always been elusive. Officials since the beginning of the republic have misrepresented their opponents’ positions and re-written their own records to avoid being held responsible for unpopular actions, and incumbents of both parties are more than happy to perpetuate a system that makes this easy Read More

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