Category Archives: Political parties

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 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.

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.

 

A Very Uncivil War

William Tecumseh Sherman famously argued that war is an unpleasant, bloody slog, and to pretend otherwise is fudge and folly. The optimal policy is not to fight a war in the first place, especially a civil war. If war it is to be, however, the best option is to ruthlessly rain harm on the other side as much as possible as fast as possible. If the gloves come off, get in there and mercilessly punch your opponent’s mug to a pulp, even if that means taking a few nasty licks yourself. “War is cruelty,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

It’s a brutal philosophy, but as any Southerner stuck between Savannah and Atlanta in late 1864 can attest, an effective one. It works in politics, too. Intramural fights within political parties can be just as vicious and nasty as the most ferocious throw-downs between them. The most malevolent of these internal shootouts can devolve into Cain and Abel sorts of situations, ideological death-matches where the goal is not to lead your partisan brother to the light, but to stick a shiv in his back and put him and his movement down for good. If the ideological or policy split within a party is big enough–historical examples in the United States include slavery, trust busting and civil rights–you get the political equivalent of a full-blown civil war. As Sherman said, it is best not to get into that position in the first place. If there’s no avoiding it, though, hit first, hit hard, and don’t stop hitting until you see white flags from the other side.

Of course, all this metaphorical pugilism is presumed to serve a larger strategic goal. In other words, you commit savagery on behalf of a principle, a creed or a value so sacred it justifies do-or-die, or at least a good social media bitch slapping of people on your own side. But what if the whole point of carrying out that civil war is the sheer sport of carrying out spiteful and rancorous assaults? How do you bring that to a rapid and reasonably amicable end?

If you have a good answer to that question, the Republican Party will be (or at least, should be) glad to hear from you. The GOP is currently engaging in a particularly nasty and vicious civil war. It’s gone way past the usual jockeying for power and position of competing factions of a political party. That typically involves a lot of back-stabbing and double-crossing, but it’s mostly done behind closed doors and almost never gets to the point where the combatants are in the streets howling for each other’s heads. But that’s exactly where the GOP seems to be finding itself.

There seems to be no overarching ideological or policy goal motivating this fight. The media mostly portrays it as a conflict between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the populist wing of the Republican Party. And, I guess, it is. The people involved certainly seem to think so. Stephen Bannon, relishing the part of Republican Party Dr. Evil, has publicaly declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.”  The Bannon banner-men lose no opportunity to call the establishment fuddy-duddies “RINOs”, “cucks”, “booger heads,” and “snot lickers.” Okay, I made the last couple up, but some of it does smack of a 10-year-old’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me foot stamping.

The establishment isn’t standing for it. Bob Corker and Susan Collins have wagged serious fingers (heavy on the middle digit) at Donald Trump. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his temper and called his boss–the president of the United States–a moron. Dubya and John McCain are doing their best stern dad impressions, giving lectures along the lines of, “You dern kids need to stop foolin’ with all this newfangled Trumpism and listening to those hippity-hop nationalists.” Meanwhile the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress can barely get along with each other, can barely stand the president, and seem helpless to prevent their party–the party that won everything in 2016–going into the next election bare-assed.

The end result is that Republicans keep doing inadvisable things with their own feet–shooting them, masticating them, and planting them in each other’s butts. At the center of this meltdown is President Trump, who is, hands down, the party’s champion mug-puncher. The list of sore-jawed include Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, pretty much his entire cabinet (notably Tillerson and Jeff Sessions), and most GOP members of the United States Senate (McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lyndsey Graham, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and on and on and on). Of course Trump has not limited his slugging to Republicans. Or even Democrats. He gets licks in on, of all people, hurricane victims and Gold Star families.

The bottom line is there is a lot of extremely nasty infighting going on within the political party that controls all the major power centers of the national government. The collateral damage could get ugly. Some of the major combatants (one in particular) do not seem to be fighting for principle. They just seem to like meanness for its own sake. The goal doesn’t seem to be to end the fight quickly but to prolong it as much as possible. Then start a new one.

Given that, I can’t hazard a guess at which side of the GOP civil war is going to win. I am pretty sure, though, which of those sides is going to lose: Both of them. War, as Sherman so eloquently put it, is hell.