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
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
After seven years of making Obamacare repeal their number one objective, Republicans have fallen into a trap of their own creation and revealed to the country that they are not prepared to be a governing party. This afternoon, they abandoned their repeal measure when they couldn’t assemble a winning House coalition despite the unanimous desire in their caucus to uproot President Obama’s signature achievement. The bill produced by House leadership with the approval of the president was rejected by radicals angry that it didn’t extract Obamacare by the roots and by politically astute conservatives who understood they couldn’t explain to their constituents why 24 million people would lose coverage and countless more would lose benefits if the bill became law. Despite casting over 60 ceremonial votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act when Obama was in the White House, the pressures of having to live with the consequences of their actions proved too much for a caucus that had to confront political reality for the first time.
The “repeal and replace” mantra was good politics, serving as a rallying cry for the Republican base. No objective has animated the modern Republican Party more than repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better. Their narrative was simple and clear: Obamacare is a disaster, a threat to personal liberty, an example of government overreach, and the source of skyrocketing healthcare costs. During the presidential campaign and the first months of his presidency, Donald Trump said he would replace it with a “beautiful” plan that would cover everyone at a lower cost with better benefits, and that he could make it happen quickly because of his legendary negotiating skills.
But slogans are not policies, and Republicans had little more than disingenuous claims to support their rhetoric. Obamacare maintains the private insurance market and does not include a public insurance option, but that hasn’t kept Republicans from characterizing it as a big government program that threatens freedom of choice, as if people were clamoring to choose among insufficient or overly expensive healthcare options in order to preserve their Read More
Donald Trump recently discovered that reforming health care is complicated. And, wouldn’t you know, governing is complicated too, as Trump’s party began to recognize this week during its flailing first attempt to put legislative language to its longstanding promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Under ideal circumstances, making dramatic changes to a policy that deeply affects every American requires exceptional political skill, and Republicans most certainly are not operating under ideal circumstances.
Victory can paper over a lot of disagreements, but the fault lines that divide a party inevitably reemerge when irrevocable decisions have to be made. And, let’s be clear—the Republican Party was on the verge of imploding before Trump’s improbable win gave it control of the entire federal government. Those fissures cracked wide open this week as congressional leaders unveiled a plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act that pleased precisely no one and met with resistance from all corners of the Republican Party and unified opposition from Democrats. To push back against this pushback, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell decided their best option was to ram the bill through congress before opposition could coalesce, staging marathon all night hearings on Thursday while Sean Spicer, the voice of truth in the Trump administration, reassuringly offered that “we’re not jamming this down people’s throats.”
But it may already be too late to save the legislation from the storms roiling the party, which is confronting several intractable problems of its own creation: Read More
Donald Trump’s ticket to staying in power requires dividing the country into cultural, ethnic, racial, gender and religious groups and inciting conflict among them. The fate of the resistance movement requires bringing these groups together in common cause against someone whose values are antithetical to fundamental elements of American political culture. To succeed, the resistance needs to do more than position itself against Trump. It needs to advocate for the values it embodies in order to create the foundation for a more just society that will need to be built on the ashes of Trumpism.
This requires reaching across the divide. It requires listening to others, especially those who voted for Donald Trump out of a sense of desperation. It requires putting aside differences and speaking to each other like the neighbors we are.
Fortunately, the emerging resistance movement is claiming to represent American values rather than simply progressive values (or, if you prefer, claiming that progressive values are American values). This makes it more than a movement of the left and opens the possibility that it can attract those who would never vote for Hillary Clinton but recognize the existential threat Donald Trump poses to the country. Indivisible—the name of one of the grassroots umbrella groups helping to organize resistance tactics—deliberately evokes the Pledge of Allegiance, takes aim at Read More
Donald Trump held a press conference on Thursday in which his familiar brand of narcissism clashed dramatically with the familiar setting of the East Room. In a rambling diatribe against reporters that lasted well over an hour, Trump displayed the same talent for channeling grievance that propelled him to the Republican nomination. He claimed credit for unspecified accomplishments, denied his White House is in chaos, and continued to obsess over the terms of his election victory.
The reaction from opinion leaders was brutal. Legacy media outlets were quick to call his performance dishonest, self-indulgent and unhinged. CNN characterized it as a stunning display of anger. The New Yorker referred to it as “alternative reality” where a manifestly unsuitable president bragged about the mythical progress he has made. Criticism crossed ideological lines. Fox News’ Shepard Smith called it absolutely crazy. Joe Scarborough said it was chaotic and rambling, and noted how Republican members of congress he had spoken to were scared to death by a president seemingly out of touch with reality. Retired Admiral Robert Harward reportedly walked away from the chance to head the National Security Council after watching it.
But among the still significant legions of core Trump supporters, reactions were quite different. For those less concerned with substance and fact than with visible displays of strength, Trump’s press conference was a tour de force, an over-the-top reminder to his voters that he’s in charge and doing things differently. NBC News solicited reaction from blue collar voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin (because, why not) and had little difficulty finding people who thought it was great, or who at least felt Trump should be given a chance to prove himself. Noted Scarborough, a former Read More
Pretend for a moment you’re a Republican member of congress representing a district drawn to maximize the influence of base Republican voters. You don’t worry much about losing to a Democrat in the next general election, because your district was carefully gerrymandered to protect you from a general election challenge. But that same gerrymander boosted the influence of Republican primary voters on your re-nomination, so ever since the district lines were drawn after the 2010 census you have been looking over your right shoulder at potential primary challengers who could attack you for being too moderate.
You’re a reasonable sort. Privately, you think the new president is a few blue moons shy of a full box of Lucky Charms. You cringe at his tweets and recoil in horror whenever he has a conversation with a head of state. But despite your personal feelings, you can’t avoid this: almost nine in ten Republicans approve Trump’s performance, even though he’s deeply under water with the rest of the country. Your base loves the way he’s taking on Washington. So what if he’s breaking the furniture—he’s doing what he said he would do (or at least it appears that way). To cross Trump would invariably unleash his wrath, and the wrath of the voters next year. So you keep quiet during the opening act of the most problematic administration in American history.
Sound familiar? It should, because we have been talking about this exact problem for over a year. It’s the reason why #NeverTrump efforts never amounted to anything, why Republicans were unable to deny Trump their nomination or mount a credible general election challenge to him, and why it’s fanciful to imagine an impeachment trial or a 25th Amendment solution to the chaos at the top as long as the political cost of opposing Trump exceeds the cost of defending him. Base voters were the biggest prize in Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Divorce him and you divorce them too.
During the campaign, the mantra of the opposition was: you can always stop him later—on Super Tuesday or before the convention or at the convention or through an independent conservative general election challenge. It never Read More
So I’ve heard some things have happened since the last time I posted . . .
The process of revising two books—the longer being a 450,000 word government textbook—has taken more time than I anticipated, but both projects are coming to a close and I will be back shortly with some thoughts on the chaos around us and where we may be going as the Trump era makes its inauspicious debut. Specifically, in the coming weeks I plan to write about:
- The core political problem that’s helping to prop up the Trump administration despite evidence of massive incompetence and disregard for the rule of law
- The key cultural dilemma that underpins the political problem
- How we can address the key cultural dilemma that underpins the core political problem
- Legitimacy—and why it matters
- Why it’s important to begin envisioning the future
And much more. To those self-described “sheeples” who have been asking me to post again, thank you for your patience. I’ll be back very soon.
As the unexpected turns of 2016 give way to the unpredictability of 2017, I’d like to take a moment and send my wishes for a healthy and fulfilling year ahead. I haven’t posted much in the last month and most likely won’t write much in the next few weeks as I face January deadlines for two manuscripts. The sixth edition of my American Government textbook is due next week, followed later in the month by the second edition of a book on American political parties co-authored by my friend and colleague John White. Much about American politics and political parties remains as it was when those earlier editions were written, but the events of 2016 have raised fundamental challenges to the political process that need to be addressed. We will all be living through those challenges together, and I will be writing about them here as they unfold in the year ahead.
More people have asked me to explain the Electoral College over the past two weeks than at any time since I last taught the subject in my American Government course. And at no time in memory has the Electoral College been more relevant to a presidential election. For as long as anyone can remember, electors have done little more than ratify the popular vote through an obscure procedure of interest only to C-SPAN junkies. But in a year when stopping Donald Trump has been an ongoing subplot in the reality television show we call American politics, the Electoral College has emerged as a constitutional choke-point where the results of November 8 could be set aside, at least in theory.
If we lived in a democracy, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect by virtue of having won 2.8 million more votes than her opponent. But we live in a republic, where the Constitution’s framers set up a system of elite presidential selection designed to keep the decision out of the hands of the masses and avoid the selection of an unqualified charlatan skilled at manipulating popular passions. In creating an Electoral College they envisioned an elite group with no collective self-interest whose singular purpose would be to elect the president, then disband. This sidestepped the problem of having congress select the president (a violation of the doctrine of separation of powers) and, like so much in American history, appeased slave states by apportioning electoral votes according to representation in the House and Senate, where the odious three-fifths compromise boosted their political strength. But they didn’t envision the emergence of political parties and the way party competition would turn the Electoral College into a rubber stamp for partisan decisions, where we assign states to the red pile or the blue pile and add up their electoral values until either red or blue achieves a majority. It’s usually so automatic that we skip over the part where actual electors cast actual votes. But they do.
Despite what you have been reading and hearing, Donald Trump has not yet been elected president. That won’t happen until next Monday, when electors in each state, equal in number to the electoral votes of that state, meet in Read More