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
Trump voters wanted to blow up Washington. Regardless of what else they may disrupt, they have succeeded in disturbing the entrenched partisan divisions which for years have cemented our politics in a tedious and angry stalemate. The election has handed Republicans the imperative to govern and Democrats the need to regroup. These realities will place pressure on both parties and create a four-way political dynamic. Democrats will still oppose Republicans and Republicans will still oppose Democrats, but these disputes will be complicated by the heightened presence of intra-party wrangling. The stress of governing promises to exacerbate Republican divisions between conservatives and reactionaries. The stress of losing power will advance the cause of progressives in the Democratic Party and empower them to confront entrenched monied interests with greater determination.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the election, the Reagan coalition was in twilight but still resistant enough to prevent Barack Obama from repudiating it, and the lingering pull of a business-centered neoliberal politics prevented the Democratic president from bringing about the kind of progressive economic changes which might have broadened his coalition. Both these things may change in the months ahead.
Now that they have more power, Republicans paradoxically are more vulnerable to succumbing to internal strife between conservatives and reactionaries. Governing is hard. It puts pressure on coalition partners in the best of times, which these most certainly are not. Trump ran as the leader of a reactionary faction, which remains a minority even in the Republican Party. His governing options are tricky. Reactionary candidacies like Trump’s are oppositional rather than forward-looking. He is not positioned to implement a new agenda based on the campaign because he never asked for a mandate to do anything other than build a border wall, deport undocumented immigrants and keep Muslims from Read More
One of the key analytical frameworks of my book Next Generation Netroots is derived from the work of Yale political scientist Steven Skowronek, who views presidential administrations in terms of their relationship to prevailing political coalitions rather than as isolated entities. Skowronek contends that the options available to presidents and the results they achieve are determined to a large degree by their position in what he calls political time—whether they come to office in support of or in opposition to an era’s dominant political regime, and whether that regime is strong or vulnerable during the president’s administration. Political regimes are the electoral coalitions that dominate politics for long stretches of time before they succumb to infighting among coalition partners and lose the ability to govern. So the New Deal coalition, which dominated politics from 1932 through the 1960s, began to weaken as southern whites abandoned it in the wake of the civil rights reforms of the Johnson era. The Reagan coalition that followed is now running on fumes, its once strong alliance of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives burdened by divisions so great that a large number of party regulars wouldn’t endorse or utter the name of their standard bearer.
Presidents who serve at the start of a regime are the ones you remember. Skowronek calls them “reconstructive” presidents because they initiate a new regime on the strength of an electoral mandate they interpret as a rejection of the old. These presidents have the political space to get things done. Think Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson. Bill Clinton, who served at a less propitious regime stage, once said that if he could switch places in history with Franklin Roosevelt he would be remembered as a great president. No kidding.
“Disjunctive” presidents fall at the other end of the spectrum. These are the unhappy souls who serve at the end of a regime cycle. Try as they might, they are unable to hold together a spent coalition and find themselves reviled by their contemporaries and consigned to the worst-ever list with Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. Jimmy Carter was the Read More