Sunday, June 24, 2018


Weekend Roundup

Sometime last week I got the feeling that the Trump administration has entered a new phase or level. From the start, they said and often did bad things, but they came off as confused, stupid, and/or evil, and they weren't very good at following through, so most people didn't feel any real change. The administration seemed to be collapsing into chaos, while a highly motivated resistance was scoring political points even when they fell short of disrupting Trump's agenda. It's still possible to look at last week that way, especially as public outrage forced Trump to make a tactical retreat from his policy of breaking up and jailing refugee families at the border.

Nonetheless, as I've watched clips of Trump and read stories of his cronies this week, I've started to see a potentially compelling story coming together. And as I've watched the late-night anti-Trump comics fumble and flail in their attempts to skewer the news, I'm reminded of that line about how the Democrats managed to misunderestimate Bush on his way to a second term. For me, the clearest example was how the big three (Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers) all jumped on a Trump line where he bragged about eliminating more regulations within 500 days than any previous president -- regardless of how many years they served ("4, or 8, or in one case 16 years"). All three pounced on "16 years" as the big lie, pointing out that while Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four four-year terms, he died a couple months into his fourth, so actually only served 12 years. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect Trump tossed that in just to throw them off the scent.

The real problem -- the things that critics need to focus on -- is the claim of eliminating a record number of regulations in whatever time frame you want to use: Trump's "500 days," a whole term, full tenure, etc. I have no way of checking -- it's not like anyone's been keeping records on this -- but Trump's claim is at least plausible. I suppose you might nominate Harry Truman, who ended rationing, wage and price controls, and many other regulations after WWII ended, but none of those were ever intended to last beyond wartime. But much of "deregulation" during Truman's first term was done by Congress, most extensively after Republicans won Congress in 1946, in some cases passing laws (like Taft-Hartley) over Truman's veto. Carter and Reagan did some deregulating, but mostly through Congress. Congress has helped Trump out a little, but nearly all of his "deregulation" has been done by executive order and/or through the discretionary acts of his political appointees.

Trump's boast assumes that cutting regulations is always a good thing, but that isn't necessarily the case. Each regulation needs to be reviewed on its own merits. Often they need to be revised, curtailed, or expanded, based on how effective (including cost-effective) they are at achieving stated goals. But it must be understood that some degree of regulation is necessary to protect the public from unscrupulous and/or simply sloppy operators -- especially businesses, which always feel pressure to cut corners. Trump's own motivations are twofold: first, he seems hell bent on obliterating everything Obama signed his name to; second, he's eager to shower favors on any business/lobbyist he or his cronies deem to be in their corner. In short, Trump's deregulation boast is a perfect storm of vanity, ego, ideological extremism, and graft. There's no shortage of things to criticize there. Nitpicking over when FDR died misses it all.

The thing is, unless you start tearing apart the vanity and corruption of Trump's "deregulation" record -- I'm tempted to put it into quotes because it's not just eliminating regulations, it also involves changing them to favor private over public interests, or to signal what will and will not be enforced -- will congeal into a positive story that lots of people will find attractive. (After all, few things are less favorably viewed than government red tape -- salmonella, for instance, or airplane crashes and oil spills.) Trump's trade moves and tariffs are another case. Democrats haven't figured out a workable counter to Trump's emerging story here, and if no one really seems to understand the issues, Trump's likely to score a political coup hurling a simple "fuck you" at China and Canada. Lots of Americans will eat that up.

Meanwhile, the economy is not significantly worse for most people, and is downright peachy for the very rich. It looks like Trump has scored some sort of win against ISIS, and maybe a diplomatic break with North Korea, and none of the other wars he's left on autopilot have blown up in his face yet (although the Saudis seem to be making a real mess of Yemen). And Congress has passed a few truly odious bills recently, including serious damage to Dodd-Frank and a farm bill with major cuts to SNAP. Six months ago one could point out how little Trump has actually accomplished, but it's beginning to look like quite a lot -- nearly all bad, but who exactly notices?

I'm not even sure Trump's losing on immigration. Sure, he's had a bad week with the family separation/incarceration fiasco, but even after his retreat, he's still got the incarceration part working: so the net result is that refugee-immigrants will be detained in places that look less like jails and more like concentration camps? He had a similar bad week when he ended DACA, and while he seemed to wobble for a while, he's emerged more hardcore than ever. If Democrats get stuck with the impression that they're more concerned with immigrants than with native-born American citizens, that's bound to hurt.

Nor do I have any hope that Mueller's going to come up with anything that changes the game. Sure, he's got Russian hackers, but he hasn't come up with any interaction between Trump's hackers and Russians, which is where collusion might amount to something. The higher-level meetings are mostly between idiot-functionaries -- lying for them is habitual, so catching them hardly matters. Then there is the corruption around the fringes -- Flynn, Manafort, Cohen -- which will give Mueller some scalps, but change nothing. As long as Mueller stays within the parameters of Russia and the 2016 election, there's not enough there, and Trump can keep his followers in tow with his "witch hunt" whines. The Democrats have to move beyond those parameters, which for starters means they have to realize that Russia's favoring Trump reflects the same interests and analysis as other corrupt and authoritarian regimes (notably Saudi Arabia and Israel), and that Trump's courting of crooks abroad is just a subset of his service to America's own moguls (not least himself).

One effect of this unique confluence of paranoia, fanaticism, and buckraking is that the hopes some had that sensible Republicans would turn on Trump have been shattered. The first clue, I suppose, was when Senators Flake and Cocker decided not to risk facing Trump candidates in their primaries. Then there was Ryan's decision to quit the House. Since then the tide in Trump's direction, at least within increasingly embattled Republican ranks, has only strengthened. As long as Trump seems to be getting away with his act, there's little they can do but protect and cling to him.

The highlight of Trump's week was his rally in Duluth, where he said a bunch of stupid things but seemed to be glowing, basking in the adulation of his crowd. A big part of his speech was a pitch to get more Republicans elected in 2018, so unlike Obama in 2010, he's going to try to turn the election into a referendum on himself -- instead of passively letting the other party run roughshod. I'm not sure it will work -- an awful lot of Americans still can't stand anything about the guy -- but he's showing a lot more confidence than just a few months ago.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important stories of the week, explained: Outrage boiled over at family separations; Trump got ready for a legal battle (again, over family separations under Trump's "zero tolerance" anti-immigrant policy); House Republicans spun their wheels on immigration (losing the vote on a "hard-line" bill, and offering a "compromise" bill that has zero Democratic support); There were more Cabinet scandals (Wilbur Ross, yet another Scott Pruitt). Other Yglesias pieces:

  • Umair Irfan: Deepwater Horizon led to new protections for US waters. Trump just repealed them.

    The Interior Department is also presiding over the largest rollback of federal land protections in US history, opening up public lands to fossil fuel extraction and mineral mining. Plus, Secretary Zinke opened up nearly all coastal waters to drilling last year and started the process for the largest offshore lease sale ever.

  • Rebecca Jennings: Melania Trump wears "I really don't care, do u?" jacket on trip to migrant children: Some truly trivial trivia, in lieu of a story that probably doesn't make any sense anyway.

  • German Lopez: Canada just legalized marijuana. That has big implications for US drug policy.

  • Libby Nelson: Donald Trump's plan to (sort of) eliminate the Department of Education, briefly explained:

    The Trump administration wants to combine the standalone Education and Labor Departments into a new Cabinet-level agency: the Department of Education and the Workforce.

    The proposal is part of the administration's broader plan to reorganize the federal government, released Thursday. Overall, the plan would eliminate and combine government programs and give private industry a bigger role, including in the US Postal Service. It would also rename the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Public Welfare (and give it jurisdiction over food stamps), among nearly 30 other changes to how the federal government operates.

    "This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp," said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in a statement touting the plan.

    My first reaction to the name changes is that they're designed to make the departments more vulnerable to right-wing attacks, specifically as a step in the Grover Norquist process of "shrinking the federal government to where you can drown it in a bathtub." I'm not opposed to Public Welfare. In fact, I think the government should be doing much more to increase it and to distribute its blessings more equitably, but you can pretty much predict what the right-wing propaganda mills will be spewing out. Even more pernicious is the semantic shift from Labor to Workforce. The former are people -- specifically, the people who do all the actual work producing goods and services in the economy -- but the latter is little more than a view of a cost factor from business management.

    Mulvaney's "drain the swamp" comment also took me aback. My guess is that when the American people heard Trump vow to "drain the swamp in Washington," 99% of them figured that he was talking about the pervasive and pernicious effect of money in Washington, especially as routed through lobbyists, into campaign coffers, and for greasing the revolving door between government agencies and private interests. I know that's what I thought, and I'm usually pretty good at deciphering Trumpian bullshit. That 99% has, of course, been frustrated since Trump took office, and turned his administration into a vast bazaar of corporate favoritism. But now Mulvaney is saying that the den of corruption that has flourished in Washington for decades (and to a lesser extent ever since Washington was founded in the late 1790s) isn't "the swamp" at all. It turns out that his definition of "the swamp" is simply that part of the federal government that does things to help people who aren't already filthy rich. Who could have known that?

  • Ella Nilsen: Michael Bloomberg is going all in on Democratic House candidates in 2018: The billionaire former and former Republican mayor of New York City is pledging to spend $80 million on the 2018 elections, mostly for Democrats (although I doubt you'll find many Bernie Sanders supporters on his shopping list). I've often wondered in the past whether there aren't wealthy swing voters who actually favored divided government -- one party controlling Congress and the other the Presidency -- because that keeps either party from upsetting the cart while still allowing compromises in favor of the one group both parties esteem: the rich (well, also the military). Bloomberg's a concrete example of this hypothetical niche. Indeed, it seems likely that Democrats will raise a lot of money this cycle (although note that Sheldon Adelson has already given $30 million to the Republicans, and the Kochs talk about much more).

  • David Roberts: Energy lobbyists have a new PAC to push for a carbon tax. Wait, what? Excellent piece, covering both the proposal and the political calculations behind it. For 20-30 years now, there have been two basic markets-oriented approaches to reducing carbon dioxide and therefore global warming: "cap and trade" (which by creating a market for pollution credits incentivizes companies -- mostly power plants -- to transition to non-carbon sources), and a "carbon tax" (which adds to the cost of coal, oil, and gas, making renewables and non-carbon sources like nuclear relatively more affordable). The Democrats tried pushing "cap and trade" through Congress in 2009-10, hoping that as a sop to "free market" ideology -- the idea originated in right-wing "thank tanks" -- they'd pick up some Republican support, but they didn't. At the time, companies like Exxon-Mobil decided that they'd rather have a carbon tax than cap-and-trade, but they could just as well have gone the other way had that helped defeat the proposal in play. Indeed, while Trent Lott and John Breaux are petro-lobbyists, there's little reason to think Exxon et al. are any more serious about this flier than they were a decade ago. (As I recall, Clinton proposed a carbon tax back in the 1990s, but Exxon sure didn't support it then.)

    This policy is not bipartisan in any meaningful sense, it is not likely to be political popular, it's not all that great as policy to being with, and it is naive to see it as a gambit that arises primarily, or even tangentially, from environmental concerns. It is first and foremost a bid by oil and gas and nuclear to secure the gentlest and most predictable possible energy transition.

    More broadly, it is the US Climate Action Partnership all over again. That was the effort, starting around 2006, to develop a climate bill that big, polluting industries would support. The idea was that support from such companies, combined with support from establishment green groups, would lend the effort credibility and political momentum. Instead, it yielded a compromised bill that no one loved, which died a lonely death in the Senate in 2010.

    Roberts' subheds give you an idea of the piece's points:

    • This is oil, gas, and nuclear making their opening bid on climate policy
    • The oil and gas industry is trying to get ahead of the climate policy curve
    • This proposal is aimed at Democrats, not Republicans
    • This proposal is "bipartisan" in that it lacks support from both parties
    • There's no reason to think tax-and-dividend is the most popular climate policy
    • It's time to quit pre-capitulating to garbage policy

    One interesting twist here is that the carbon tax receipts never hit the federal budget. They go straight back to the people in the form of "per-capita carbon dividends." This is presumably meant as a concession to Republicans with their "no tax increase" pledges -- but, as Roberts notes, every Republican in Congress has also signed a "no carbon tax" pledge. Still, this does offer the prospect of a small but non-trivial universal basic income ("the group estimates will start around $2,000 a year for a family of four'), which makes it one form of income redistribution (one relatively palatable to Republicans, not that they would support it). On the other hand, after 30-40 years of increasing austerity, the things Democrats desire most demand increasing tax revenues, not neutral.

  • Sam Rosenfeld: The Democratic Party is moving steadily leftward. So why does the left still distrust it? Not really a hard one to answer: the party bureaus are still dominated by people installed by the Clintons and Obama, their main focus is to raise money, and the people who bankroll them are rich, probably liberal on social issues, mostly moderate on the maintaining a viable safety net, but still concerned to protect and advance their business interests. What distinguished Clinton and Obama above other Democrats was their ability to raise money. And while both ran campaigns that promised to benefit their voters, as soon as they got elected, they started to back pedal and prioritize the interests of their donors. Even worse, on winning they put their personal interests way above those of the party. Both lost Democratic control of Congress after two years, further undermining their credibility with their voters. Moreover, Deamocratic leaders and pundits repeatedly made concessions to seek common ground with Republicans, undermining their own voter interests and legitimizing an increasingly extreme reactionary agenda. Their collusion, both with their donors and with their sworn enemies, has resulted in (among many other maladies): a vast series of perpetual wars that only serve to make the world more violent and resentful; an extreme increase in inequality to levels never before seen in US history; a drastic loss of rights and power for workers; an austerity program which has made education and health care almost prohibitively expensive while public infrastructure has decayed to a dangerous extent; general degradation of environmental protections, along with widespread denial of increasingly obvious climate change; and a systemic effort to undermine democracy at all levels. Sure, much of this can fairly be blamed on Republicans and their propaganda organs, but when, say, Hillary Clinton spends much more time schmoozing with donors than trying to rally voters, how surprised should we be when marginal voters decide that she's more problem than solution?

    Of course, this isn't something Rosenfeld wants to dwell on. He wants to commit "left-liberal activism" to working within the Democratic Party, stressing that activists can move the party to the left, even offering a few historical examples (actually, pretty uninspiring ones, even without trotting out the biggies, when establishment Democrats actively sabotaged the nominations of William Jennings Bryan and George McGovern). Still, I agree with his conclusion: the Democratic Party is the only viable forum within which to organize reversal of forty years of loss to conservatives and to get back on a progressive track, one that is sorely needed given the numerous ailments we currently face. But I would stress that that's not because recent Democratic leaders are trustworthy but because most of the people we want and need to convince have already aligned with the Democrats -- many, of course, in reaction to being maligned and hounded by the increasingly racist, reactionary, and aristocratic Republicans. Given this alternative, I think there should be some sort of compact between Democratic factions to support whoever gets nominated. In this, I'm reminded that even as dogmatic a conservative as Ronald Reagan used to talk about an "11th commandment: never speak ill of a fellow Republican." Of course, that was at a time when Republicans were a minority, when the option of running liberals like Jacob Javits and Mark Hatfield gave them a chance to pick up seats real Reaganites didn't have a chance at. Of course, those days are long gone now, with hardcore conservatives chasing even devout Reaganites like Jeff Flake out of primaries.

    Reagan's "11th commandment" didn't stop conservatives from advancing their ideas and initiatives, but it gave Reagan an air of moderation and sanity (unmerited, I should add), which made him acceptable to many people who recoiled against Barry Goldwater. Actually, hardcore conservatism has never won nationally: it snuck in shrouded in Reagan's sunny optimism; the Bushes ran moderate campaigns only to turn the reins over to Dick Cheney; and while Trump traded in rage vs. optimism, the far-right has only seized power on his coattails.

    While I believe as a matter of principle that the left should have more popular appeal than the right, I doubt that the left will ever dominate and control the Democratic Party, and while I wouldn't say that's for the best, I will say that doesn't bother me. The Party, as Rosenfeld is aware, always has had to balance competing interests, dividing between idealists and pragmatists (often just opportunists). It matters that they take care of business -- just not at the expense of everyone else and democracy itself. But the party sorely needs its left nowadays, mostly because it needs to regain its bearings as "the party of the people" (as Thomas Frank put it, using the past tense). The problem is that many establishment Democrats seem to hate the left more than they hate the right. The roots of this date back to the start of the Cold War, when liberals led the purge of the left ("communists and fellow travelers") from labor unions and the party. They made such a big show of their anti-communism that they blundered into wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, with many remaining cheerleaders for the Bush oil wars in the Middle East. Indeed, while most Democrats opposed the 1990 and 2003 wars against Iraq, the party's leaders have almost exclusively come from Bush supporters. (The popular exception, Barack Obama, went on to make his own contributions to the Bush war legacy.) Similarly, Democratic "leaders" have a long history of support for privatization schemes, deregulation, and globalization, which along with slack taxes on the rich have greatly exacerbated inequality and the many problems it entails. Even the Democrats one signature social welfare program of the last twenty years, the ACA with its partial and inadequate nod towards universal health care, was designed as a giant subsidy to the insurance industry. For decades now "new Democrats" have been lecturing us on how we can't afford to do anything better, and their failure to deliver anything better, while looking schetchy and corrupt in the bargain, has destroyed their credibility. The left in America consists of people who care, are sincere and honest, and most of whom are directly affected by real problems and have real stakes in their solution. So, yeah, the left needs the Democrats to get things done, but the Democrats need the left even more to get back into the fight.

  • Charles Silver/David A Hyman: Here's a plan to fight high drug prices that could unite libertarians and socialists: "First, attack monopolies. Second, replace patents with prizes." I don't mind the prize idea, but would put more stress on public funding of "open source" pharmaceutical research, and would pursue international treaties to ensure that other countries made comparable research grants, with the understanding that all research would be funded. I'd also consider public funding of development efforts in exchange for price guarantees, again attempting to leverage production worldwide (with reasonable regulatory standards to ensure quality). Same thing can be done with medical devices and supplies.

  • Tara Golshan/Dylan Scott: Why House Republicans' immigration debate is a shitshow, explained by a Republican lawmaker: But not explained very well. I doubt, for instance, that the real problem is that Trump doesn't know what he wants. I think he pretty clearly wants a lot of shit he can't even get his Republican House majority to give him, let alone clear the filibuster bar in the Senate. Moreover, any effort to compromise in the hope of gaining "moderate" votes automatically lops off "extremist" votes, as well as weakening Trump's own support. Nor is Trump willing to cut a deal with the Democrats that would undercut his own extreme anti-immigrant stance, even on very limited issues like DACA where public opinion is against him. But also, there's very little incentive for Trump to ever give in on any of this. He runs on rage and anger, and the more Washington frustrates him, the more rage he can cultivate from his base. That's what brought him to the White House in the first place.