Remembering what’s at stake in 2016

Lost in the arguments about who is sane, and who has the right temperament for the presidency, is the practical impact of the election. People have wondered aloud: how can men of conscience like Paul Ryan endorse and support someone like Donald Trump? They ascribe a level of moral consciousness that is not deserved according to Ryan’s actions and plans. And they furthermore ignore the entire premise and goal of most of the elected GOP members: to slash taxes on the rich and gut the safety net.

It has been apparent for a long time now that this is what Paul Ryan intends to do: it was clear in 2012 when he was picked as Romney’s vice president. The GOP will in all likelihood control the house regardless of the presidential outcome due to the extreme gerrymandering done at the state level since the 2010 census and district redrawing, and there is a desperate fight for control of the Senate right now, where the tie-breaking vote could be the vice president’s (a role which Cheney played several times). If Trump wins the presidency, it’s likely that Republicans will also control the Senate, and at least have the tie-breaking vote.

What is Paul Ryan’s plan in the event of a Trump presidency and Republican control of the Congress? Here is the lede of a Politico story:

If Donald Trump is elected president and Republicans hold onto Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan is bluntly promising to ram a partisan agenda through Capitol Hill next year, with Obamacare repeal and trillion-dollar tax cuts likely at the top of the list. And Democrats would be utterly defenseless to stop them.

He would do this through the use of budget reconciliation: this is what was used to pass the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000s, and it was used to finally get Obamacare passed (to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills, the latter which required a super-majority to pass). There would be no president to veto: in fact, Paul Ryan is counting on Donald Trump’s support to pass the plan, which explains Ryan’s quiet endorsement despite personal objections to Trump’s style, instability and blatant racism.

Apparently, Americans want Congress to “get things done” as opposed to gridlock, while awarding the party causing the gridlock with a massive and radical legislative victory. They will award this to Republicans through a series of protest votes for third-party candidates and a core failure to understand the actual stakes of the election. They are content with either saying “single-payer or nothing” while ignoring the 20 million + who have receive health insurance under Obamacare, and ready to punish a center-left agenda they see as corrupt by giving massive tax cuts for the wealthy (ignoring that the center-left Obama successfully drove up taxes for the wealthy).

Here is a line in the article that summarizes what is at stake:

By the end of the decade, the richest 1 percent would have accumulated 99.6 percent of the benefits of the House GOP plan, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore also covered Ryan’s agenda, in an article titled “Paul Ryan Is Planning a Revolution, and It Starts in January”

[T]he illusion that the filibuster would give Senate Democrats a veto over anything egregious, the Republicans-in-disarray meme has lulled a lot of Democrats, and the media, into a drowsy inability to understand how close we are to a right-wing legislative revolution if Donald Trump becomes president and Republicans hang on to Congress.

This was the plan in 2012 as well if Romney were to win. People claimed nothing much would change back then, or that it wouldn’t be much of a disaster. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. They ascribe a fundamentally undeserved level of moderateness in policy substance to politicians based on speaking style and handsome looks alone.

I am unsure of the Clinton strategy: they want to win over independents and moderate Republicans by appealing to their sense of patriotism and the fact that Trump is clearly unstable and bigoted. But the campaign has done precious little to demonstrate the radical nature of the GOP plan that would go into effect with high likelihood in the event of a Trump presidency.

And I am unsure of the voters “unhappy” with the two candidates and what they will ultimately due in roughly a month’s time. There are real stakes to the results of the election; voting for someone you don’t personally respect or like seems to be a small price to pay for saving the hard fought gains of the last 8 years and salvaging any hope of withstanding a radical set back to the progressive agenda for years to come.

Ed Kilgore concludes:

[I]t should be a warning to Democrats as well, and something that with imagination and persistence they can convey to those critical progressives who are meh about voting for Hillary Clinton and don’t think the identity of the president much matters. Even if you think Clinton is a centrist sellout or a Wall Street puppet, she’s not going to sign legislation throwing tens of millions of people out of their health coverage, abolishing inheritance taxes and giving top earners still more tax benefits, shredding the safety net, killing Planned Parenthood funding, and so on through Ryan’s whole abominable list of reactionary delights. If Democrats think a scenario so complicated that it’s lulled the press to sleep cannot be explained to regular voters, maybe they should break out the hand puppets. There is no more urgent and galvanizing message available to them.”

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Trump, the GOP and liberal complacency

There is a storyline right now about how slim Donald Trump’s chances are in the general election, and how the GOP may soon have to perform another famed “autopsy.” Much of it is based on sound analyses of the political environment by writers I respect. In some circles you hear that Hillary Clinton must be absolutely overjoyed at having Donald Trump as her competition. And the Republican Party is having a panic attack as it faces the possibility of fracturing from within, as an epic Clinton victory would have significant down-ballot implications on the Senate, House, and state governments. Or so, that’s the way the story goes.

But I am not so sure.

PredictWise shows a 70% chance of a Clinton victory: this is not large by any means. General election polls show an average 6-7 percentage point lead for Clinton: but this can and will dissipate to some degree as Trump turns his attention to the general election battle.

Recall that prior to the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney in 2012, 538 estimated Obama’s chances of winning on October 3 were 86.1%. Following the debate, it fell to 61.1% on October 12, in the span of less than 10 days, a dramatic turn of events. Yes, things reverted after better subsequent debate performances, and Obama managed to resurrect most of his 2008 coalition amidst an expanding economy, but for a period of time, you remembered that there was no guarantee of an expected outcome. Likelihood of events is not the same as certainty of events. Crucially, in a year where conventional wisdom has been upended time and time again, a humbled observer would think twice about confusing the two.

A lot can change in the world between now and November, and we have seen these things in the past. Jimmy Carter had at one point a commanding lead over Ronald Reagan, but the world refused to stay static. The Iran Hostage Crisis shook confidence in Carter as an energy crisis and recession were unfolding. Right or wrong, the blame often goes to the incumbent party, and suddenly voters who had thought Ronald Reagan too conservative were willing to give those ideas a shot after all.

A strange assumption has then taken hold: that the world will continue to look the same in 6 months. In some ways, this is the best single prediction one could give and most likely outcome, given everything we know about the political landscape and the current economic environment. I am not arguing otherwise. But predictions are validated in large samples: based on data today, if we could run the Clinton-Trump race 100 times, we would expect Clinton to win about 70% of the time. Instead, we observe and care about a finite sample of exactly one in November. We have our best guess today, but this is because we cannot predict what strange events will happen in the intermediate period, or the timing of the next recession, or the next ISIS attack. But something will happen, and the calculus of the election could be significantly changed (or not).

In many liberals, there is a smugness about the demographic changes in the country, and how these changes will automatically guide them to victory for the foreseeable future, as it did in 2008 and 2012. In this complacency is quite a lot of missing data points: despite winning the White House since 2008, progressive causes have been stymied since 2010. Republicans have commanded the House of Representatives since then and they are now firmly in control of the Senate. Republicans have taken state legislatures and governorships (31 to Democrats’ 18), and they enacted “severely” conservative policies in the process. In particular, when the federal government is divided, all of the meaningful change essentially occurs at the state and local level. And the GOP, for all the talk of its death, has cleaned up and enacted their preferred policies.

David Frum, following the passage of Obamacare in March 2010, said:

Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections. But [. . .] So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.

It seems Democrats have forgotten that policy happens at all levels of government. Yet their imagination, by and large, is captured entirely by the White House in election years. It involves the big picture ideas along with great television and significant coverage in all forms of media. No need to get involved with the murky and mundane details of governance at the local or state level. And I am as guilty of this as anyone: how many times have I tried to go to city council meetings (zero)? How many times have I paid close attention to state legislatures when there wasn’t a bathroom bill making national headlines (close to zero)?

Of course, this is broad-brushing of others on my part, and there are many passionate people working at all levels to fight for a progressive agenda. But their numbers pale in comparison on election day to the opposing side.

So the same people who seem unaware of the devastating losses at the state level are now declaring that Republicans will be destroyed after this election due to demography and a loudmouth reality TV star who can’t be taken seriously. Complacency and certainty are terrible traits to have when so much is at stake.


The billionaire’s dangerous ego

Below, I’ll list 4 political positions. Maybe you can give me the person behind the positions:

  • Pro-choice
  • Believes in man-made climate change
  • Supports gun control
  • Supports path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal immigrants

“Hey,” you’re thinking. “That sounds a lot like Obama. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Bernie Sanders.” You’d be right. It also sounds a lot like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But this is admittedly an incomplete list.

Suppose you’re a voter who agrees with those 4 positions. But somehow, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton just aren’t cutting it as candidates on all the issues. In particular, you wish that they’d take it easier on Wall Street banks and that they’d try to cut Social Security benefits.

Oh? Such a voter doesn’t exist? Are you sure? Because I just read that Michael Bloomberg is considering a White House run.

The billionaire former mayor believes that he is the answer to the country’s problems, “sensing an opening.” Despite largely having liberal positions and thus making himself unpalatable to any conservative voter, he believes that he, through his “pragmatic” and “results-oriented” approach (terms to be investigated later), is the right man for the job. The few areas of disagreement with liberals, like the regulation of Wall Street and the future of Social Security, show him as out of touch and beholden to bad ideas endorsed by Washington insiders.

Speaking at a financial industry trade group conference in 2014, Bloomberg claimed that the harsh regulations on Wall Street were detrimental to Main Street. He noted, however, that: “But they keep creating new products and you know the earnings of these big banks…they’re still making a lot of money.” Typical of Bloomberg, he did not actually debate the necessity of Dodd-Frank, but he argued that that it should have been drafted by “experts” rather than allow Congress to write it. He applied the same logic to Obamacare. It seems he is free to live in a world where a president introduces a piece of legislation and gets it passed without any substantial changes, when virtually every Republican was opposed to both Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank did incorporate ideas of experts. For any healthcare legislation to expand insurance without changing the system to single-payer, it requires exactly what Obamacare put into law: a requirement that people purchase insurance, a subsidy so that they may purchase the insurance, and denying insurance companies the right to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It was based on another model, which again was designed by experts in healthcare: see Jonathan Gruber and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

It’s also not clear what Bloomberg would change with Dodd-Frank. There is no doubt that it is an imperfect bill, but like Obamacare, it is a product of realistic constraints: no Republican (save for Scott Brown for Dodd-Frank, helping the bill pass 60-39 after watering it down) would support it, and even many moderate Democrats were intent on watering down the bill.

Bloomberg’s criticisms are short on substance, but implicit in them is the dangerous idea he has fully bought into: I could do it better, because I’m me. There’s ignorance of constraints and a willingness to believe that if he just was able to talk to Congress unlike that dastardly Obama, he would get things done.

This is similar to the “Obama should play golf with Boehner more in order to pass legislation despite serious ideological differences” theory espoused by many “centrists”: in Bloomberg’s mind, there’s no serious disagreement on the big issues of the day, but instead the polarization is just a result of leaders not being “pragmatic” and “results-oriented”. This could not be further from the truth.

Michael Bloomberg’s entire third term is a testament to his belief in himself and no one else. Amidst the financial crisis and the economic downturn, he did not feel the city could be governed by anyone else, and he used the extraordinary circumstances to push the New York City Council to change its term limits without a public referendum.

For whatever reason, some people buy into the “centrist” line of thinking. Krugman writes in his recent blog post, How To Make Donald Trump President:

Step 2: Michael Bloomberg decides to save the country by entering the race as a supposed alternative to the two extremes [. . .] Step 3: Some Democrats defect to Bloomberg, because they actually listen to those centrist pundits. Hardly any Republicans do

In other words, a presidential run would not be enough to get anywhere close to winning, but it would be enough to deprive the Democratic candidate of a victory, thus giving Trump or Cruz (or whoever) the presidency.

The party system may have its flaws, but it does give voters the chance to debate for over a year the merits of individual candidates before nominating them and then voting for them in the general election. The problem with a rich independent candidate is he has none of those constraints: he runs much later than everyone else, because he can afford to. Credit to Trump: he went through the process, whereas Bloomberg seems intent on skipping it.

There are many reasons to dislike Bloomberg and oppose his idea of a White House run based purely on his mayoral record: his response to Occupy Wall Street, his catering to big banks, and his catering to rich foreigners buying up empty properties in NYC as essentially money-laundering schemes (quote: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”). There’s his company, Bloomberg  L.P., which pulled negative stories on China’s government in order to continue selling profitable terminal subscriptions there (recently, there were rumors that the Financial Times would not be sold to Bloomberg for fear of losing editorial independence).

There’s also the fact that the same guy thinking about running for president in the United States was also thinking about running for mayor of London just last year. And, in floating the idea of a presidential bid, he doesn’t even have the courage to do it himself. He’s letting his aides and insiders test the waters instead. He probably thought the response would be positive.

But more than anything, the reason to dislike Bloomberg and oppose his potential bid is his ego, which is fundamentally similar to Trump’s. Trump is a self-proclaimed dealmaker (synonyms: “results-oriented”, “pragmatic”). Details aren’t so important, but he’ll get it done, whatever “it” is. The issues are almost of a secondary order. Bloomberg doesn’t even realize his run would hand the White House to another billionaire with opposing views on many of the issues he claims to care about, like gun control.

The lack of self-awareness amongst billionaires like Bloomberg is scary. I imagine one begins to think he has a magic touch, and there are few in the inner circle willing to contradict this belief. Hopefully the negative response to Bloomberg’s possible run pierces his bubble.


41: What does a former president owe?

A month or two ago, Jon Meacham released his biography of George HW Bush (41). Accompanying that book was a fascinating New York Times article, which detailed some of the most newsworthy aspects of the biography. The most prominent bit was 41’s criticism of George W. Bush’s (43) cabinet, targeting Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld in particular. Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Cheney had built “his own empire” and asserted too much “hard-line” influence within George W. Bush’s White House in pushing for the use of force around the world. Mr. Rumsfeld, the elder Mr. Bush said, was an “arrogant fellow” who could not see how others thought and “served the president badly.”

I got angry when I read the article. But not because I disagreed with the assessment. Anyone who was paying attention during the lead-up to the Iraq War and its aftermath was probably aware of these things. No, 41 is spot-on in his criticism, even as he shies away from directly criticizing his son. I got angry because of this:

The younger Mr. Bush was also shown a transcript of his father’s remarks. “He certainly never expressed that opinion to me, either during the presidency or after,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “I valued Dick’s advice, but he was one of a number of my advisers I consulted, depending on the issue.”

His father, he added, “would never say to me: ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that. And in any event, I disagree with his characterization of what was going on. I made the decisions. This was my philosophy.”

As for his “hot rhetoric,” the younger Mr. Bush said: “It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people — obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it.”

Quote: “He never mentioned it.

These criticisms are largely worthless now. They are largely part of a battle for history and how it judges the men who served in office. 41 has decided it’s time to let his true feelings be known about people who he felt served the country badly, knowing the level of damage done to the country in the aftermath of the Iraq War. And his true feelings might have actually meant something in 2002, or 2003, or even in the few years after while the targets of his criticism were still in positions of power. Perhaps it’s with an eye for history that 41 “has seen his reputation rise again with the passage of time” and has now decided to speak up more bluntly.

I can’t help but feel angry that these criticisms were not at least spoken directly to his son, who would conceivably be open to getting advice from his father, a former president with significant foreign policy expertise as president, vice president and CIA director. But he never tried. “He never mentioned it.” It was his son’s administration, in the end, and 41 was going to leave it at that. Still, the thought keeps coming back to me: there are issues of family, and I can understand publicly supporting your son in his presidency. But as a former president, and someone who had offered up his life to his country in World War II, it’s difficult to fathom that 41 would not have even broached the topic privately.

I worry about “Meacham’s largely admiring biography,” in this context and in others, as I fear it will appreciate public service in a cloud of nostalgia without holding it fully accountable. Another recent article details 41’s reactions to the current battle for the Republican presidential nomination:

No one, it seems, is more perplexed than the family patriarch by the race, and by what the Republican Party has become in its embrace of anti-establishment outsiders, especially the sometimes rude Mr. Trump.

Yet his son George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent he himself (both as presidential candidate and vice president to Ronald Reagan), benefited from tactics that are now being used openly by the current crop of anti-establishment candidates. Paul Krugman writes in a recent column that “this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified at the seemingly sudden turn of events [. . .] [I]n the U.S. it’s the cynicism of Republicans who summoned up prejudice to support their electoral prospects.”

Quoting the NYT article: 

the elder Mr. Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr. Trump had belittled Sen. John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.

“I can’t understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously,” said Mr. Bush

Was it not his own son who stood by silently as outside groups assaulted John Kerry’s record as a war hero in his 2004 re-election campaign? And it was George W. Bush and his advisor Karl Rove who had mastered the tactic of race-baiting (or letting others do the race-baiting for you) in the nomination battle against John McCain in 2000. There appears to be no direct proof of their involvement, but in South Carolina there was an orchestrated campaign to tell primary voters that John McCain had fathered a black baby out of wedlock. 

There are fewer differences between Trump and the other Republican candidates than one might expect based on the elder Bush’s outrage. His son Jeb, after all, is proposing massive tax cuts (which as a corollary would require massive cuts to the safety net), just like Trump’s tax plan. The party isn’t what it used to be, but that’s thanks to George W. Bush and the Republicans that came before him. George HW Bush is not so innocent in this regard either.
Sources:

PETER BAKER. New York Times, Nov. 4, 2015, “Elder Bush Says His Son Was Served Badly by Aides.”

JONATHAN MARTIN and MATT FLEGENHEIMER. New York Times, Oct. 24, 2015, “Bush at 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race.”

PAUL KRUGMAN. New York Times, Dec. 11, 2015, “Empowering the Ugliness.”