It’s Not The Economy. Maybe It’s The Stupid.

Republican lawmakers are currently defying one of the most widely accepted laws of political thermodynamics: for every economic motion there is a parallel and sympathetic political reaction. Or, as the Cajun Clinton whisperer James Carville put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly a law. But what’s good for the economy is good for whatever crew is running the government–especially the White House division–has proven a pretty good rule of thumb. As has its reciprocal. If the Dow Jones skitters down a gopher hole it’s a good bet the president’s approval rating is also going subterranean. Just ask Bush 43. Or Bush 41.

Which is why the GOP currently seems to be defying political gravity. By just about any measure the economy is rocking. The stock market sizzles, unemployment is 4 percent, GDP growth is a robust 3.2 percent, and a tight labor market has wages on the rise, which is good news for the lunch pail sectors that repeatedly got the shaft while the one percenters expanded their goldmines. When the git-yer-jollies-on money machine cranks up pols instinctively know there’s credit to be claimed in them thar dividends. So given all the economic positives, the piggy backers, windbags and horn blowers in charge should be huffing through a victory lap, throwing humblebrags to the voters, and sailing toward comfortable reelections.

Yet our GOP overlords seem to be reaping little of the political reward that normally accrues to lawmakers lucky enough to rule at the hilly end of the business cycle. Indeed, as measured by popular approval ratings, they are getting slammed. Forget rodent holes. Republican poll ratings are so low they have to look up to see gopher butt. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the 30s, which is historically terrible, but still nearly double that of Republicans and their leaders in Congress (Mitch McConnell’s public approval is roughly the same as the tatometer rating for Showgirls which is, well, not good). Dozens of Republican members of Congress aren’t even waiting for the voters to render a verdict on their record of governance. So many have announced retirement there’s been a run on gold watches. What in the name of Milton Friedman is going on?

It’s a multi-variate world and there’s more than one reason why the economy is going up while the GOP’s popularity sinks lower than gum stuck to a submariner’s shoe. Certainly the, um, character issues of the president have something to do with it. There are many ways to ding your party’s reputation, and certainly doing stuff like referring to vast swaths of the planet as “shitholes” and paying hush money to porn stars is right up there. Especially if you already have a permanent case of the tweet trots and spent the past a year cementing a reputation as a chaos artist. True believers please feel free to insert here the obligatory all-purpose, all-caps snappy comebacks here. FAKE NEWS!!! WHAT ABOUT HER EMAILS!! Persuasive stuff, as always.

Now that’s out of the way, let me say I don’t think it’s just Trump’s coarse and immature shenanigans that has the Republicans in trouble (though it sure hasn’t helped). A big part of the problem is that Republicans continue to govern as if they swept into office on the back of a clear mandate, and they weren’t. According to the Federal Election Commission,  there were roughly 180 million votes cast for Democratic candidates in 2016 (this is the combined total for president, Senate and House), and about 168 million cast for Republican candidates.* In other words, as a whole the American electorate had a slight, but clear, preference for the Democratic Party. And it got a wholly Republican government.

There’s nothing wrong or suspicious or nefarious about this. The whole federal electoral system is based on state and sub-state constituencies, there is no nationally elected office (the president is elected by the states through the Electoral College, not the people), and parts of it are wildly malapportioned (the United States Senate). So the way the math works out, it’s not exactly a shocker that one party can be elected to control government even though, overall, it has less support among voters than the party consigned to the minority. The GOP won fair-sies square-sies and those still whining to the contrary just don’t understand the system.

Yet winning isn’t enough to make a go of governing. I’ve made this basic point before, but it bears repeating: the weird situation of a party controlling a democratic government when it was opposed by most voters at the polls means governing style really matters. Writing laws in secret (and employing industry hacks as ghostwriters), bending norms and rules to avoid bipartisan engagement (or even debate) might work if a sizeable majority is cheering you on. The problem for the GOP is they have no such constituency. And they’re unlikely to get one if they keep doing what they’re doing. Indeed, a plurality of the electorate (perhaps even a majority) already seems to view them less as agents for the American people, but as a group that sold its soul–not to mention its dignity–for power. That creates a big legitimacy problem.

Specifically, it translates into a lack of public approval, economy be damned. An ill-advised approach to process, treating indefensible proclamations from the party chief with situational amnesia, vacuous appeals to alt-facts, etc., etc., all this starts to catch up. Smart conservatives–and there’s still plenty around–have been shouting about this for a while (David Brooks, Jeff Flake, Charlie Sykes, even Ben Shapiro). It’s just that their own side isn’t listening.  And they should, because at some point it’s not the economy, stupid, that’s the issue. Sometimes it’s just the stupid.

*There were also about 18 million votes cast for non-major party candidates.

 

The Stars In Our Eyes

P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.

Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).

In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history.  He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”

While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.

Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).

Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.

If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general).  Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.

This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”

Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led.  To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.

 

Fact and Friction

The alt-truth, fake news, facts schmacts world we seem to be living in rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Living in verity’s version of the upside down might salve the addled ideological souls of some, but it gives the rest of us the fantods. Especially us empirical scholars. If society decides to call off the search for verifiable truth, after all, we’re out of business. Lacking the fib and fabrication skills readily monetized in the corporate, political and entertainment worlds, we’ll be reduced to shilling empirical verification for coppers on street corners and editing Wikipedia entries on spec.

Well, good news. Despite all the hand wringing, there’s reason to believe that the reach and impact of fake news is, um, fake news. Even more cheering for those of us in the learnin’ biz, there is some persuasive evidence that facts are not quite the ideological Play-Doh some people clearly want them to be.

This isn’t to say the past couple of years hasn’t seen a particularly nasty beat down of bona fide veracity, especially by certain presidents of the United States I could name. Everyone expects a degree of truthiness from politicians, but respectable fact checking sites suggest Donald Trump is less guilty of the occasional white lie than the madcap production of technicolor extravaganzas. Politifact lists ten pages of verified false claims made by the president. The New York Times has a running tally showing Trump telling more provable falsehoods in 10 months than Barack Obama told in his entire eight-year administration.

Aiding the White House as the new home of the whopper is the full-on weaponization of social media. Russian trolls seem to work Facebook’s algorithms with impunity while Twitter enables the wholesale spraying of perfidy and perjury. For the past couple of years a careful observer could be forgiven for concluding that our political system, with premeditation and purpose, was abandoning the truth wholesale. Just how many people were consuming fake news? Did it herald the decline of mainstream media and the professional norms of journalism? Were facts being kicked to the side by voters? Have we gone completely nuts? The people tasked with sorting signal from noise and answering these sorts of question systematically are my tribe–empirical social scientists–and they operate on slower timelines than the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of alternative realities happened so fast that the only honest answer we had to these sorts of questions was, “damned if we know, but it’s pretty worrying.”

That’s starting to change. A couple of studies have recently surfaced that suggest fake news is scary but not enough to frighten the Republic into fact-addled delirium, and, even more comforting, they find that facts themselves still trump fibs, or at least give fibs a good argumentative wedgie.

The first of these studies does contain some kind of scary numbers (you can find the full study here) . Roughly a quarter of American adults, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website* in the month leading up to the 2016 election, most of them making that connection through a Facebook link. Moreover, most of these fake news consumers almost never visited reliable fact-checking websites.

The good news is that heavy consumers of fake news make up a very small proportion of Americans. Roughly 60 percent of the visits to fake news sites came from a small group (about 10 percent of adults) who were older, conservative and (very) pro-Trump. So perhaps the fact-free fabulist babble bubble everyone is so worried about is not a dome covering the Republic, some sort of hermetically sealed covering threatening to asphyxiate the electorate with the gas of toxic make-believe. Maybe it’s just a pocket-sized greenhouse in the backyard where your crazy uncle is getting light headed from inhaling alt-media political poots and discussing conspiracy theories with the geraniums.

The second study  is deep empirical dive into what’s known as the “backfire effect” (you can the full study here) . The basic idea of the backfire effect is that if you present someone with a fact that counters or corrects a politically pleasing falsehood it makes people more not less likely to support that untruth. Evidence of the backfire effect has popped up in previous research and raised some interesting questions. Are people really so committed to their political alternative realities that pointing out contradictory facts will only make them more committed to insisting on the truth of falsehoods?

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years in the political arena that’s a pretty important question. This study sought an answer by giving people factually incorrect claims made by prominent figures on the left (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and the right (e.g. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin). They then randomly exposed some subjects to a factual correction of those statement, and asked everyone to evaluate the original claim. The difference in evaluations between those exposed and those not exposed provides a measure of the impact of factual information on political claims. Through five studies and more than 10,000 subjects, they did not find a single instance of backfire across more than 50 policy issues. Indeed, what they found is that people, regardless of ideological orientation, are pretty responsive to facts contradicting their political preferences, and will shift their evaluations towards the factual evidence when it is presented with them.

Neither of these studies should be considered definitive, and both come with the usual cautions and caveats of empirical social science research (my tribe’s motto is plus research opus, i.e. more research is needed). Still, given the hand wringing over fake news and the embrace of alternative realities and their potentially corrosive impact on politics, I think it is okay to view these findings with a small measure of relief. There’s a reasonable case here that most citizens are not voraciously consuming fake news inside their own political echo chambers, though Facebook and Twitter can make it look that way. And, even if they are, facts still seem capable of putting the brakes on fake. Let’s hope we get more of that sort of friction in 2018.

*What exactly constitutes a fake news website is a matter of some controversy. The authors of this study relied on previous research identifying “news” websites that repeatedly published demonstrably false stores.

Okay, So Now What?

The Republican Party has notched its first big legislative win of this Congress, and has cranked the hyperbole machine to redline in celebration of their achievement. For President Trump it’s a down payment on making America great again. To Mitch McConnell it’s sweet, sweet relief. It appears to have given Paul Ryan a policy-gasm, an Atlas-mugged-while-having-an-Ayn-Randian- eye-roller sort of scenario.

The cause of all the giddy bluster and gloat is, of course, passage of the tax bill, a hugely complicated piece of legislation that, even now, few people have actually read and whose consequences are fully grasped by no one. Certainly not the legislators who voted for it, up to and including the self-satisfied magnificoes currently taking a victory lap and getting their boast on. It’s a dead certainty it rewards corporations with fattened profit margins, and there’s no doubt that it will give swells like our president more of the gravy. Those of us whose position in the proportional distribution is not within hailing distance of the one percent will get a few crumbs for a few years, but then it all goes away and our taxes start going up again.

While we know, at least in rough outline, that much about the tax bill, it’s just a smidge of what the furious midnight scribblings of a thousand lobbyists have actually wrought upon our economy, the government’s fiduciary position, and our personal finances. The bill is shot through with pecuniary pork for the favored water haulers of the GOP. Senator Bob Corker, for example, was shocked—shocked I tell you—that people thought he flipped his vote just because of a last minute addition to the bill that would personally enrich him. Riiiight. The entire bill is a stew of Corker kickbacks seasoned with ideological wishful thinking and held together with ambiguity and Oxford commas. Once touted as a simplification drive that would shrink tax returns to a post card, in reality this legislative stinker could have been more accurately called the Tax Accountant Full Employment Act. It’s all exception and deception, loop and hole, and TurboTax’s coders are going to be putting in overtime to get their algorithms around it all.

While we really don’t know what the tax bill does, we do know what the governing party has done in order to pass it. They have written a law in secret, shoved it through a legislature by running roughshod over procedural norms and bipartisan collegiality, and are engaging in a festival of self-congratulatory whoop-dee-doo behind a smoke screen of sophistry.

What’s truly odd about all this is that nobody outside of GOP patricians seems to care. True, public opinion is clearly against the legislation, with a majority of Americans viewing it as something primarily designed to benefit the rich. There’s no real groundswell of anger and opposition, though, certainly nothing on the order of the backlash that put the kibosh on Obamacare repeal. The best summary of public reaction to the tax bill, even among Trump supporters, is “meh.” The GOP is using the government as a scoop to shovel more coin into the pockets of the gilded and the glamorous? Shoving stuff down our throats even though a clear majority of us clearly don’t want it? Shrugs-ville. The public no longer seems to be shocked or upset at the GOP doing that sort of thing, it’s what they expect the Republican Party to do. In other words, act as an agent for affluent, willing to cut whatever corners needed to bring tribute to its corporate sponsors.

That’s a pretty dangerous position for a political party—especially a governing political party—to be in. If public opinion polls are to be believed (admittedly, a debatable proposition), the GOP’s first big legislative “win” is being viewed as an act of fealty to a privileged minority, something done in defiance of the will of the people and with contempt for the norms of lawmaking. Flushed with success, the Republican leadership is now promising to go on to bigger and better things. But what might they be? What can the GOP get done when with its only big legislative score has left the public cold, made a mockery of the legislative process, shredded bipartisanship, and produced a law that nobody really understands? Well, you got me.

Messrs. Trump, McConnell and Ryan, have taken a bow, crowed some crow and patted each other’s backs raw. Okay, so now what?

The GOP’s Sunset Judges

John Adams, second president of the United States and noted puritanical sourpuss, had a tough start to 1801. The election of 1800 had been brutal to Adams and his Federalist Party, an epic fanny kicking from that insufferable know-it-all Thomas Jefferson and his smug gang of waffle whisperers, the (to us) oxymoronically named Democratic-Republican Party.

Even worse than losing control of the executive and legislative branches of government was the dawning realization that as a political force, the Federalists were spent. While the party would stagger on as a regional player in New England for another decade or so, the Federalists were done as a national-level electoral threat. The rump of their Congressional caucus retreated into opposition and soon receded into nothingness.

So, you can understand Adams’ agony in the first months of 1801. Under the rules of the day, Jefferson–who Adams saw as little more than as a cheese-eating Gauloises puffer–didn’t take office until March. Adams, therefore, had plenty of time to contemplate the electorate’s rejection of his political party and marinate in the vinegary knowledge that the Democratic-Republicans would be ruling the roost for the foreseeable future. How could the Federalists retain even a smidge of influence if the voters viewed them as toxic?

Well, there is one other branch of government that, luckily for Adams, was largely insulated from the electorate. Members of the federal judiciary never have to chance the ballot box to keep their jobs and once appointed, unless they engage in felony-level naughtiness, they are in for life. And thus the Adams administration hit upon a formula for insuring long-term influence for a political party just categorically rejected by the voters. The Federalist congress jammed through a bill creating a bunch of new federal courts. Adams stuffed these with the so-called “Midnight Judges,” last-minute appointees specifically selected to insure the Federalists would continue to rule on the big issues of the day for years to come.

I kind of wonder if we’re seeing something similar going on with Donald Trump and the Republican Party right now. The comparison might be a little strained because, electorally speaking, they are not lame ducks, but young fowl still dipping their beaks into the sweet, sweet spoils of victory. Yet if public opinion is any guide, the president and his party are already less popular than the Federalists. Indeed, their polling numbers are so low they have to look up to see whale butt (Nate and crew over at FiveThirtyEight can give you all the gory details). So, while there may be no official lame ducks, recent election results and survey trends suggest the Republican Party definitely is developing a bit of a gimp.

Even if it is headed for an electoral smash-up, though, the party’s long-term influence is being secured through a pell-mell drive to appoint judges. And, thanks to the GOP’s bang up job of sidelining Barrack Obama’s appointments, there’s a lot of judgeships to fill. So, if you’re pro-life, pro-business, pro-corporation, anti-environment, anti-public schools, no probs. Even a complete tanking at the ballot box by Republicans means the black robe set will be there to help insure that your bank or hedge fund is safe from predatory customers wanting to know where their money went. These aren’t midnight judges so much as sunset judges. Right now, there’s still plenty of light falling on Republicans, but these appointments are like early stars that will continue to provide ideological illumination for the GOP should its electoral fortunes go dark.

While it all smacks of unseemly partisan fiddling with the scales of justice, Adams’ appointments showed this sort of sneaky-beaky could have an upside. One of his midnight judges was none other than Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, one of the most important and influential jurists of his and any other era. Trump’s appointments, though, don’t seem quite in that league. Take Matthew Petersen. At his confirmation hearing, under gentle questioning from a Republican Senator about his qualifications for the bench, Petersen all but said, “I don’t know jack about the law, but think I could swing a mean gavel” (you can watch a cringe-inducing video of this exchange here). But there’s also Brett Talley who, among other things, posted online smoochies to the KKK and forgot his wife worked in the White House office. How did a guy like that end up getting nominated? Well, Talley’s job—I’m not making this up—was deciding who would make a good judicial nominee for the Trump administration. Not hard to connect dots there. There’s also Jeff Mateer, who was so impartial and committed to due process for all that he declared transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” and disgusting.

These three guys’ nominations failed because even Republicans dedicated to the lickety-split process of stuffing as many conservatives onto the court as possible blanched. Yet they’re completely fine with giving the likes of Leonard Steven Grasz a lifetime appointment, even though Grasz was rated unqualified to serve by the American Bar Association. The basic consideration for being rated qualified by the ABA is pretty minimal. Having a law degree and the power of speech is usually does the trick (less than one-tenth of one-percent of nominees get rated unqualified). The ABA interviewed a couple of hundred people about Grasz and heard a consistent story that, among other things, Grasz was an unrelenting ideologue and was “gratuitously rude.” To the GOP, that was just sort of guy who should be a federal judge.

Grasz, along with the rest of Trump’s huge swath of nominees, will spend decades on the bench, their appointments encasing in political amber the ideals of the party currently holding power. Whatever the electoral future of the GOP, its sunset judges ensure its influence will continue. Adams would be proud.

Winning is a Loser for the GOP

Roy Moore (R-19th Century) lost to Doug Jones (D-Surprised) in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions (R-I Don’t Recall). But it’s not really clear who actually won. Dems–and certainly Jones–might take issue with that. Well, fair enough, it would be churlish not recognize this as a big fat blue W, a triumph achieved in the reddest of red states. As those sort of wins are rare as principled legislators on the Senate floor, it’s hard to begrudge them a whoop and a victory lap.

Funnily enough, though, this was also a win for Republicans or, to be more accurate, the least painful form of defeat. In this election, no positive outcome was possible for the GOP. Moore gets elected and Republicans either seat someone credibly charged with sexual abuse of minors, or expel one of their own. Political hot potato doesn’t do that scenario justice. That’s a tuber of incandescent sizzle, a pickup-sized root vegetable packing more capsaicin than a jalapeno. A Moore win would have forced the Senate GOP to choke down that sucker whole while the entire nation watched their faces turn red and tears squirt from their eyes. No sane Republican wanted that for their party; it would’ve been preface to civil war or moral disarmament, and maybe both.

Some Republicans–Donald Trump and the RNC–were clearly willing to take those risks and threw in their lot with Moore. Plenty of other Republicans–Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Richard Shelby, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.–approached the special election with clearer eyes and colder calculations about the costs of a Moore victory. The GOP grownups actively opposed Moore and/or supported Jones for a simple reason. The only way forward they could see for their party was to have their own candidate lose. Tuesday’s result gave this pretty large group of Republicans what they wanted. They won. By losing.

Unfortunately for Republicans, their through-the-looking-glass political calculus of gaining political victories with defeats is not limited to this one special election. The no-Moore gambit isn’t a one-off tactical hit, a losing a battle to win a war sort of thing. The Republican Party seems to have adopted a full blown strategy of winning by losing. They won the presidency, but lost the dignity of that office. They won a Congressional majority, but lost the ability to govern themselves. They won control of government, but lost the faith of the people. They won power, but seem to have lost their soul. When you’re reduced to calculating whether to support a suspected pedophile or attack a candidate fair-and-square selected by your own voters, you really are at the point where losses count as wins.

Voters on Tuesday, no doubt, saved the Republican Party an enormous amount of humiliation and discomfort. Yet while Alabama prevented the GOP from publicly airing its crimson hide in a painful expulsion debate, this was balm for a symptom rather than a cure for the underlying problem. The problem is the Republican Party is imploding under its own success. They have somehow got themselves into a corner where their “victories” exact enormous–potentially existential–political costs. Yet they can’t afford too many losses, because losing runs the risk of exposing the GOP as a party more than willing to lose its principles as long as it wins power.

Thinking Republicans–and, despite recent evidence to the contrary, there’s still plenty of these folks around–not only recognize this, they’re agonizing over it. This list includes people like Charlie Sykes, David Brooks, George Will, Jeff Flake, and many more, a long list of those reluctant to accept a majority stake in government for their party if it means choking down the populist-flavored Kool-Aid Donald Trump is serving up.

So where does this leave the Republican Party? Other than cleaved in two, it’s hard to say. The populist and establishment wings are openly warring with each other and it’s not clear what, if anything, holds them together as a coherent political force. There’s no discernible consistent philosophical or intellectual principle driving its policy agenda. The primary motivation behind the party increasingly seems to be the pursuit of power because it makes it easier to stick it to a varied group of people and institutions–immigrants, the poor, environmentalists, scientists, the media, public schools, higher education, and especially Democrats–they see as causing them grief.  The closest thing to a guiding set of principle seems to be an infomercial pitch that the new and improved tax-cuts-for-the-rich will cure everything–Unemployment! Manufacturing malaise! Healthcare! Whooping cough! Zits! This doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone any more, including large swaths of the party faithful. It’s getting harder and harder even for GOP stalwarts to buy into the populist piffle and accusatory tweet storms that increasingly characterize Republican governance.

Maybe the party could win by suffering a massive loss in the 2018 midterms. A period in the wilderness might give it a shot at reflection and rejuvenation, or at least a chance for its dueling wings to get into the full-throated death match members of both camps are clearly lusting for. Whoever emerged from that throw-down would at least give us a clear idea of whether the GOP really wants to be the center-right party of Reagan or the champion of alt-right populism. Regardless, if they retain control of government in their current state there’s a very real possibility they cease to be a viable political party in any form, at least over the long term.  Unfortunately for the GOP, its midterm opponent is the Democratic Party, which rarely misses an opportunity to snatch defeat from the mandibles of victory. So, Republicans might have one more victory left in them. And that means they will lose. By winning.

Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.

Bureaucracy Isn’t Funny

 

For most Americans government bureaucracy is a joke. Literally. Here’s an example: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, one to screw it up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Bureaucrats are good at fixing blame, bad at fixing problems. Bureaucrats never stop a buck here. Pass a buck, sure. Spend a buck, definitely. Stop the buck, not so much.

I know, I know, the japery isn’t exactly hitting Dave Chappelle or Jim Carey levels of hilarity in the old chortle department. But consider the material I’m working with here. And if jokes about the bureaucracy don’t make you laugh, I don’t mind. Because what’s happening at and to the executive branch agencies of the federal government these days just isn’t funny. Through a mixture of neglect, incompetence and premeditated demolition, the operational capabilities of a range of federal bureaucracies are being systematically degraded.

Plenty of the president’s supporters–and, I’m guessing even some of his detractors–are cheering on this dismantling. Everyone knows a government bureaucracy is a system designed to allow twelve men to do the work of one (bada-bing). Everyone knows bureaucracy is just cease on the wheels of progress (bada-boom). Maybe so. But everyone is dead wrong.

Let’s just take one example of a bureaucracy that’s suffering under the Trump administration, the Department of State, the executive branch agency dedicated to foreign policy. Managing foreign affairs has always been considered an important and central responsibility of the federal government. The Department of Foreign Affairs–which later became the State Department–was created by an act of Congress in 1789, the first federal bureaucracy ever brought to life under the Constitution. There’s a reason for this primacy–since the founding of the Republic foreign relations have been considered a central responsibility of the federal government, and wise management of that portfolio requires diplomatic expertise.

Most people see the sense in that. Foreign affairs are important to any nation state, or at least any nation state that wants to sell goods in foreign markets, buy stuff from foreign markets, protect its citizens when they travel abroad, and prefers to make jaw-jaw before war-war. For an economic, military and cultural juggernaut like the United States such functions are critical. Having an agency stuffed with experts on foreign governments and how they operate comes in mighty handy if you want to stop them from lobbing a nuke your way, or prevent them from otherwise being an irritant or nuisance to the national interest. Shoot, it’s pretty important if all you want to do is sell furriners more corn than the contents of a Hee Haw episode.

If that agency isn’t up to par personnel-wise, it’s hard to do that stuff, or at least do it competently. And the State Department these days is the opposite of stuffed. There are 72 appointed positions in State that the Trump administration has yet to bother submitting a nominee for.  And we’re not talking coffee boy and copy gopher sort of jobs. The president has yet to nominate anyone for four of the six undersecretary positions (you can find a running tally of Trump administration nominations here ). State Department careerists have been heading for the exits for six months, essentially with Trumpanistas smirking, “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum have responded with alarm to the hollowing out of the agency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it’s all just so much pointy-headed fuss and feathers. There’s no need to worry about State being undermanned because, and I’m not making this up, the United States doesn’t need so many diplomats because world crises and conflicts are getting resolved. Uh-huh. I guess we don’t need an ambassador to South Korea (no one nominated) or a special envoy to North Korea (ditto) because, well, nothing going on in that neighborhood. We haven’t got a representative to the European Union either, but what the heck, everything looks tickety-boo over there and it’s not like they’re important to US interests.

President Trump has given assurances that there’s no cause for disquiet or concern. Sure, the government of the United States is increasingly managing its foreign relations without experts who know the language, culture, politics and modus operandi of allies and opponents. But who needs ‘em. As Trump puts it, “I am the only one that matters.” That news was received by two pops. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping popping a cork. Everyone else popping Prozac.

The erosion of expertise, professionalism and technical competence would be bad enough if it were limited to the State Department. But it’s not. It is a general, systematic trend across the federal bureaucracy. Education, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture–whole swaths of the federal government are in various stages of being hollowed out and actively undermined by the people appointed to lead them. These efforts may very well turn the United States government into a joke. But it’s really not that funny.

 

Talking Turkey on Tax Plans

Henry Clay Warmoth was a famously corrupt governor of Reconstruction-era Louisiana who never claimed to be anything other than the carpet bagging chiseler he was. “I don’t pretend to be honest,” he said. “I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”* And, as everyone knows, candor is harder to find in politics than molars in a hen house.

Warmoth would, no doubt, appreciate the truthy-falsey nature of the marketing campaign surrounding tax reform plans currently working their way through Congress. The recently passed plan by the House differs in pretty substantial ways from what’s currently being floated in the Senate, so who knows what specifics will emerge from the legislative difference splitting. Regardless, Republican proponents promise– crossed hearts, pinkie swear and everything—that once all is said and done, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it, “Every single American is going to keep more of what they earn.

Well, not every American. Obviously. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ non-partisan bean counter of tolls and tariffs, there’s winners and losers (you can see their report here). The short version is that some Americans–mostly big, important rich Americans–will get to keep a truckload more cash, more than $40 billion of it.  The middle class will get to keep a skosh more, at least until their tax breaks expire. Those earning under $40,000 are–surprise, surprise–being set up to get screwed.

It’s seems accurate enough that most people will get a modest bit of tax relief from the House bill (something on the order of a hundred bucks), but between 1-in-5 and 1-in-3 will actually see their taxes increase a bit. And a good chunk of the actual tax relief is set to turn into a pumpkin in a few years. The modest tax goodies for suckers, um, regular citizens, have an expiration date. This is needed in order to mathematically keep the deficit kraken submerged in a (fake) shallower sea of red ink. So, the number of people who will see their taxes rise as a result of Republican plans will grow over the long term. And who ends up paying more? Hint: If you’ve got more than six zeroes to the left of the decimal point in your checking account, don’t sweat it. The GOP has your back.

You can get a good sense of how the House Republican tax plan will effect Americans as a whole by just looking at what it will do for the roughly 45 people who at least nominally call me boss (they call me a lot of other stuff too, much of which I won’t repeat). I sit at the apex of the mighty knowledge producing machine known as the University of Nebraska’s Department of Political Science. Its employees include professors, administrative staff, adjuncts, teaching and research assistants. No one in this group is a 1 percenter (or even a 10 percenter), but at the top end there’s a group earning a decent upper middle-class income. That group includes me, so lover of lucre I am, I was eager to see how the Republican plan would line my pocket. To do this I used an online calculator designed to give you a rough idea of what your tax burden would look like if the House plan actually became law (there’s several to choose from, the one I used for all calculations in this post can be found here, and you can follow this link to figure out what your own tax payoff might look like).

For me, it turned out not a huge amount, a couple of hundred bucks give or take, with adjustments up or down based on which set of assumed numbers I plugged into the calculator. At the extreme end, punching in the most hopeful (and unrealistic) estimates I could get the calculator to spit out a tax savings for me of about eight hundred dollars. Let’s just round that out to a thousand because it makes the math easier. Using the Warmoth guide to veracity, then, I can honestly say the Republican plan would put an extra grand in my pocket.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the income spectrum in my department. On this thin end of the wage spectrum are teaching and research assistants. These are grad students who get paid a $16,000 annual stipend, plus a tuition waiver. Under current law, the tuition waiver is not counted as taxable income, but under the House Republican plan it is. So, tax relief for these guys means getting taxed on money they never had. The table below shows the difference in their tax bills under current law and the Republican plan.

Yep, their tax bill jumps by about 500 percent, increasing by about two thousand dollars. At least in my little world, then, what the Republican tax plan does is redistribute income from the have nots (grad students) to the haves (me). A thousand dollars translates into about twenty bucks a week. Putting that much extra in my weekly paycheck will have pretty much zero impact on my saving or consumption patterns. Taking two thousand dollars from a grad student is a serious hit—it represents a couple of months of take home pay.

Broadly speaking, this analogy seems to be generalizable. Current tax reform plans in Congress will be a huge boon to the Wall Street crowd, a huge boondoggle for the poor, and people in the middle like me are being offered twenty bucks a week to go along and pretend it’s all a good thing. Unlike Warmoth, though, some of us have met bribes we’re willing to refuse. This tax reform plan is a seriously bad idea. Honest.

Chernow, Ron, 2017. Grant.  New York: Penguin. p. 757

Moore or Less

Come December 12, the good citizens of Alabama will go to the polls and choose either an alleged pedophile or a Democrat to represent them in the United States Senate. It looks like it’ll be a close call. On the one hand, Republican candidate Roy Moore increasingly looks like a Harvey Weinstein-level perv. On the other hand, his opponent, Doug Jones, has a sordid personal story that makes him equally repellent to the good burghers of ‘Bama. Did I mention he’s a Democrat? Sure, Moore might have had an unhealthy interest in teenyboppers, but at least he doesn’t bear the mark of the beast — a “D” next to his name on the ballot.

The question of whether Alabama will go for the Dem or the deviate has created exactly the sort of migraine Republicans at the national level did not want or need. There is no good endgame here for the GOP. If Moore is elected they either have to accept a tribune of astonishing political toxicity into their midst, or vote to expel one of their own. The former increasingly seems like a non-starter–the last thing Republicans need going into the 2018 midterms is to have GOP interpreted “Grand Old Pedobears” by large swaths of suburbia. Sounds snappy and fits on a bumper sticker, but it’s not exactly a vote winner. Recognizing the potential damage to the party brand, Senator Cory Gardner–the guy running the Republican senate’s fundraising arm–has flatly argued for expulsion if Moore wins. Huge chunks of the GOP caucus have already declared Moore hotter than a two-dollar pistol, so there’s little doubt about the outcome if it comes to an expulsion vote.

Actually going through that process, though, would be the political equivalent of a Tabasco enema for Republicans in the Senate, an unpleasant procedure that’ll leave their butts stinging for some time.  Voting to expel Moore effectively requires them to publicly declare a member of their own party just got elected who is spectacularly, breathtakingly, unqualified, a guy whose character flaws are so deep they render him unfit to wield the power of political office. No doubt, Democrats will be happy to run with that: “They said it, not us. And come to think of it, does that description apply to any other Republican currently high up in the government you can think of?” The only silver lining in this scenario is that the Alabama governor would get to appoint someone to replace Moore, and presumably that would be a Republican who was not ick on a stick. All that gets the GOP, though, is back to its current small Senate majority at the low, low price of doing more for Democratic midterm electoral fortunes than actual Democrats (admittedly, that’s not saying much).

That Republicans are openly considering an expulsion vote even before the outcome of the election is known says volumes about just how poisonous Moore is considered to be to the party’s national fortunes. Rogues and mountebanks by the dozen have served in the United States Senate, yet only a handful have ever been expelled. The vast majority of them were Southern senators supporting the Confederate rebellion that precipitated the Civil War. The most recent senators to face the ignominy of having their colleagues give them the elbow were John Ensign in 2011 and Bob Packwood in 1995. Ensign was a Christian values hypocrite, an adulterer condemning Bill Clinton for chasing interns around the Oval Office while handing out financial favors to keep his own extramarital shagging on the QT. Packwood was accused of sexual abuse and/or assault by nearly 20 women. Both resigned before an official expulsion vote was taken.

As Moore seems doggedly determined to see the election through to the end, there’s a decent possibility the Senate will take the first official expulsion vote since 1942. The question back then was whether William Langer’s long history of payola, perjury and corruption made him morally unfit to serve in the upper chamber (the answer was no, he was seated on a 52-30 vote). Nobody in the majority party is going to relish taking a similar vote on Moore, but right now there are only two real options to avoid it.

The first is for the GOP to conjure up some sort of white knight write-in campaign. In other words, get voters to use the fill-in-the-blank option on the ballot to elect some Republican who does not have a reputation for cruising malls looking for underage dates. Moore’s primary opponent Luther Strange has been mentioned, and so has Jeff Sessions, former holder of the seat and current attorney general. That’s an unlikely Hail Mary. For one thing, it probably means getting at least half-a-million voters to show up and spell your name right. For another, you actually need a name and, three weeks out, there isn’t one. Neither Strange nor Sessions nor anyone else has shown much enthusiasm for a campaign short on time and long on improbabilities.

The only other option available is a Jones victory. And at this point, that seems the least awful outcome for the GOP. Some Senate Republicans are openly pulling for the Democrat. The national party has pulled funding, pulled staff, and is pulling its hair out trying to figure out a way to stop Moore. That’s made harder by the fact that Alabama Republicans continue to back him. Bibb County Republican Chair Jerry Pow said he’d vote for Moore even if he was a kiddie canoodler because, well, at least he’s not a Democrat. State Auditor Jim Ziegler defended Moore by saying what he’s accused of is no big deal because Mary was a teen and Joseph an adult so clearly … well, I’m damned if I know. The gist seemed to be that thirty-something dudes hooking up with fourteen-year-olds outside the local mall is biblically kosher or something. I’m not sure about that, though as people of all partisan persuasions reacted to Ziegler’s comments with a slack-jawed “Jesus Christ!” maybe there is a theological argument in there somewhere.

The bottom line is that Roy Moore is hurting the Republican Party. Just how bad the damage is, and how long it lasts, is down to the choice Alabama makes on December 12. For many of the conservative faithful who go to the polls the choice is clearly going to come down to the lesser of two evils. But which one? The Republican Party is clearly hoping that less is not Moore.