Monthly Archives: December 2017

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.