Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Weekend Roundup

When I went to bed around 5AM after Tuesday's elections, the Democrats had won the House and beat Kris Kobach here in Kansas, but it seemed like a lot of close elections had broke bad. I heard Wednesday that a couple elections had flipped: Ned Lamont picked up the CT governorship, and more importantly, Scott Walker lost in Wisconsin. Tester pulled out his Senate seat in Montana. Nevada had looked promising on Tuesday, and firmed up, while Arizona got close, and even started to lean toward Democrat Krysten Sinema. Florida tightened up.

Still, could (should) have been better. Compared to 2014 and 2018, the Democrats did much better on several counts: they ran better candidates and contested more seats; and they did a better job of getting out their vote. Trump didn't get a popular opinion honeymoon after he took office. He was deeply offensive to most Democrats from the start, and everything he did prodded them to resist more fervently. That's what motivated people to run, to campaign, to organize, and ultimately to vote, and often to win -- although even some of the losses, like Beto O'Rourke in Texas, or Stacey Abrams in Georgia, were close enough they seemed like progress.

On the other hand, Trump and the Republicans haven't lost much ground. They've done a lot of things that in themselves are very unpopular -- the big corporate tax cut, for instance, and they dodged blame for ACA repeal only by failing to pass it -- but their base has held firm, they still have a lot of money, a strong captive media, and a very effective ground game. Of course, it helped that the economy hasn't capsized yet, that their reckless foreign policy hasn't led to major wars, that their corporate deregulation hasn't produced major disasters yet, and that only a few of their corrupt minions have been convicted or indicted. On the other hand, their global warming denialism is beginning to wear thin with major hurricanes and an unprecedentedly horrific fire season. Branch Rickey used to say that luck is the residue of design. Trump's political designs are so faulty that it's unlikely his luck will hold.

On the other hand, he did something in 2018 that Obama had failed to do in 2014 and 2010, which is that he campaigned relentlessly for his party in the months and weeks leading up to the election -- indeed, he never really stopped campaigning after 2016. He hasn't been all that effective, mostly because he isn't really very popular, but he did keep his base enthused, and (unlike in 2006, when everyone was sick and tired of Bush and Cheney) he got his base out to vote. It's going to take a lot of hard work to get enough people to realize how harmful Republicans are to most people's interests. And expect a lot of noise and distraction from Fox and friends along the way: the "caravan" story was as good an example of truly fake news as you can imagine. Hard to say whether how much it helped Republicans, but it sucked a lot of air from broadcast news during the last few weeks.

Democracy took a step forward last Tuesday. A small one. Hopefully the first of many.


Quick election results recap:

  • US Senate: Republicans gained two seats, for a 51-46 edge, with 3 undecided: Mississippi (runoff, R favored), Florida (R +13k), Arizona (D +33k [since I wrote this called for the Democrat]), so it will probably wind up 53-47 (counting Sanders and King with the Democrats). Only one-third of the Senate's seats are up for election each two years, and this year the Democrats were much more vulnerable (after exceptionally strong showings in 2006 and 2012). To put the net losses of 2-4 seats in perspective, Democrats won (counting AZ but not FL/MS) 24 seats to the Republicans' 10. Democrats won 57.4% of the Senate vote, vs. 41.0% for Republicans. This split was inflated because both of California's "top two" primary winners are Democrats. All four (counting FL) Republican pickups were in states Trump won -- 3 by 10+ points, 2 against Democrats who won in 2012 after Republicans nominated especially controversial "Tea Party" candidates. On the other hand, Democrats won 7 Senate seats (counting AZ) in states carried by Trump, plus defeated a Republican incumbent in a state Trump lost (NV).

  • US House of Representatives: Democrats gained 32 seats, with 10 still undecided, for a current 227-198 advantage. Democrats received 51.4% of the popular vote, vs. 46.7% for Republicans, for a margin of 4.7%.

  • Governors: Democrats gained 7, giving them 23; Republicans lost 6 (assuming FL and GA go Republican; the difference is that Republicans picked up previously independent Alaska). Popular vote favored Democrats 49.4-48.2%, as state races were less polarized than Congressional ones (e.g., Republicans won easily in MA, MD, and VT). Democrats gained: ME, MI, WI, IL, KS, NM, and NV. Republicans gained AK.

  • 538: What Went Down in the 2018 Midterms: Live blog until they got tired and signed off.

  • 538: The 2018 Midterms, in 4 Charts.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: Trump voters stood by Trump in the midterms -- but there just aren't enough of them: Trump was elected president in 2016 with just 46% of the vote. Republicans got about the same 46% of the vote in the 2018 congressional elections, so a cursory analysis suggests that they held their own, while everyone else (including independent voters for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson) joined the Democrats. Probably not that simple: Republicans did better than 46% in 2016 congressional races, so they lost that edge this year. In particular, they lost ground in the Rust Belt and in the Latino Belt from Texas through Arizona and Nevada to California, while they hung on more effectively in a swath from Florida up to Idaho. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • The 2018 electorate was older, whiter, and better educated than in 2016: "Democrats hit some of their GOTV targets but missed others." OK, but isn't the relevant comparison 2014 to 2018? Turnout was up for a midterm (2018 and 2014), but down from the presidential election (2016). From 2016 to 2018, 18-39 turnout was -7,but from 2014 to 2018, it was +4. White was +2 vs. 2016, but -3 vs. 2014.

    • Matthew Whitaker's appointment is the latest Trump Tax the GOP is paying: "A nominee whose only qualification is his unfitness."

      Matthew Whitaker is, by any standard, a wildly unsuitable choice to serve as Attorney General of the United States.

      He's a small time crook who finished fourth in the Iowa GOP Senate primary back in 2014. He apparently got his job as Chief of Staff in the Justice Department because Trump liked his TV hits, experience that would at best qualify him to one the DOJ's chief spokesperson not to be chief of staff and certainly not to run the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway's husband, a prominent Washington attorney, says Whitaker's appointment is illegal.

      The point, however, is that in a normal administration the question of legality would simply never arise here. The Justice Department is full of competent, professional, Senate-confirmed officials who would be more suitable than Whitaker on both substance and procedural grounds. It's commonplace in liberal circles to see Whitaker as an inappropriate selection in light of his previous comments about Robert Mueller's investigation, but the truth is the Mueller issue is his only conceivable qualification for the job. Trump's problem with the senior staff at the Justice Department is he has no way of knowing whether or not they share with Jeff Sessions and Ron Rosenstein a reluctance to fatally compromise the rule of law in pursuit of Trump's personal self-interest.

    • House Democrats must resist Trump's infrastructure trap.

    • House Democrats must resist Trump's infrastructure trap.

    • The tragedy of Amazon's HQ2 selections, explained: After announcing they'd like to auction off the location of a second headquarters site, they've evidently settled on two winners: one in Virginia's DC suburbs, the other in Long Island City, Queens, New York. Lots of problems.

    • Matt Whitaker suggested the attorney general might keep Robert Mueller's conclusions secret forever.

    • Debbie Stabenow reelected to the Senate.

    • Ned Lamont elected governor of Connecticut.

    • Trump's bizarre post-election press conference, explained.

      But shocking as it was in its way, it confirmed what we know about Trump. He is shameless, relentlessly dishonest, poorly informed about policy, disrespectful of the norms and principles of constitutional government, and fundamentally dangerous. He also continues to benefit from a benign economic situation and from a lack of crises abroad that make a serious impact on the typical American. For all of our sakes, we'd better hope that holds up because he does not appear to have the capacity to respond in a remotely appropriate way to any kind of adversity. . . .

      The price of this sort of conduct has already been high. An island destroyed, a wave of Trump-inspired bombings, a needless destabilization of relations with key allies, and a growing diminution of the standards of conduct that we accept for public officials. But for most Americans, day-to-day life has proceeded apace and that's put a floor under Trump's approval ratings that's been good enough to keep the whole Republican Party afloat given gerrymandering and a skewed Senate map. Losing the House would be a wake-up call for a normal president, but there is no waking up Trump -- only the hope that nothing goes too badly wrong while he lasts in office.

    • Tammy Baldwin reelected to US Senate: a progressive champion wins in Wisconsin.

    • Sherrod Brown reelected to US Senate: old-time labor liberalism triumphs over Ohio's rightward drift.

    • Why Stacey Abrams isn't conceding yet.

    • 4 winners and 2 losers from the 2018 midterm elections: Winners: "the favored quarter backlash"; Donald Trump; "the blue wall"; gerrymandering. Losers: Taylor Swift; "the live models." The explanation on Trump:

      And while losing the House is the death knell for the Republican Party's legislative agenda, Trump himself has rarely seemed to care that much about the GOP legislative agenda. Indeed, the death of the GOP legislative agenda could even be good news for Trump politically since much of that agenda was toxically unpopular. An expanded majority in the Senate, meanwhile, will let Trump do things he actually cares about, like replace Cabinet members and other executive branch officials who've displeased him, while continuing to keep the judicial confirmation conveyor belt that's so important to his base moving.

    • The lesson of the midterms: resistance works.

  • Radley Balko: Jeff Sessions, the doughty bigot:

    Jeff Sessions's final act as attorney general was perfectly on-brand. On the way out of office, he signed an order making it more difficult for the Justice Department to investigate and implement reform at police departments with patterns of abuse, questionable shootings, racism, and other constitutional violations. Sessions once called such investigations -- like those that turned up jaw-dropping abuses in places such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago -- "one of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power." He has had only cursory criticism of the horrific abuses actually described in those reports (which he later conceded he sometimes didn't bother to read), which disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. For Sessions, it is the federal government's investigation of such abuses that amounts to not just an unjustified "exercise of raw power," but a "most dangerous" one.

  • Bob Bauer: An Open-and-Shut Violation of Campaign-Finance Law.

  • Jonathan Blitzer: Jeff Sessions Is Out, but His Dark Vision for Immigration Policy Lives On.

  • James Carroll: Entering the Second Nuclear Age?: With his withdrawal from the INF treaty with Russia, and with big plans to renovate and rebuild America's nuclear arsenal, "Donald Trump welcomes the age of "usable" nuclear weapons." Also at TomDispatch:

    • Michael Klare: On the Road to World War III?.

    • William Hartung: The pentagon's Plan to Dominate the Economy:

      Industrial policy should not be a dirty word. The problem is: the Pentagon shouldn't be in charge of it. The goal of an effective industrial policy should be to create well-paying jobs, especially in sectors that meet pressing national needs like rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure and developing alternative energy technologies that can help address the urgent dangers posed by climate change.

    • Tom Engelhardt: Autocrats, Incorporation: Thoughts on Election Day 2018.

    • Arnold Isaacs: Misremembering Vietnam: Alt title: "Making America's Wars Great Again: The Pentagon Whitewashes a Troubling Past."

      The cliché that our armed forces are the best and mightiest in the world -- even if the U.S. military hasn't won any of its significant wars in the last 50 years -- resonates in President Trump's promise to make America great again. Many Americans, clearly including him, associate that slogan with military power. And we don't just want to be greater again in the future; we also want to have been greater in the past than we really were. To that end, we regularly forget some facts and invent others that will make our history more comfortable to remember.

    • Rory Fanning: Will the War Stories Ever End? Author of a book of his own war stories, Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America (2014, Haymarket Books).

  • Maureen Dowd: Who's the Real American Psycho? A look back at Dick Cheney, occasioned by the screening of a new movie called Vice. As for the "psycho" question, such things take time and perspective. If you got sick eight years ago and got sick again now, you won't be able to make meaningful comparisons until (and if) you survive and recover. Between Trump ("a frothing maniac with a meat cleaver") and Cheney ("a professional assassin") the latter may still in theory be the more menacing, but the threat right now is so immediate and so open-ended that it's the one you have to deal with right now. Dowd, by the way, also recently wrote this clever piece on Saudi Arabia: Step Away From the Orb:

    Our Faustian deal was this: As long as the Saudis kept our oil prices low, bought our fighter jets, housed our fleets and drones and gave us cover in the region, they could keep their country proudly medieval.

    It was accepted wisdom that it was futile to press the Saudis on the feudal, the degradation of women and human rights atrocities, because it would just make them dig in their heels. Even Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, never made an impassioned Beijing-style speech about women in Saudi Arabia being obliterated under a black tarp.

  • Atul Gawande: Why Doctors Hate Their Computers: Fairly long piece on computerized medical records, which should be great to have but are a lot of work to maintain, and the slacker and sloppier you get about that, the less great they are. First point I take from this is that there is a lot of real work to be done to make the health care system work better beyond the obvious advantages of single-payer insurance -- something that tends to be forgotten in that argument. Gawande identifies several problems with the software, ranging from its impact on focus and communication to the increasing brittleness of sprawing code systems. One thing worth exploring is how open source might help, but you also have to look at how to finance development and support. Another dimension is the increasing use of AI. I believe that the only way to build trust in complex software is through open source, but what's needed can't be developed as a free hacker hobby.

  • Masha Gessen: After the White House Banned Jim Acosta, Should Other Journalists Boycott Its Press Briefings? Also: Margaret Sullivan: Words and walkouts aren't enough> CNN should sue Trump over revoking Acosta's press pass.

  • Adam Hochschild: A Hundred Years After the Armistice: Due to the world's fascination with round numbers, I'm reminded that our Nov. 11 Veterans Day originally started as Armistice Day, marking the end of what was then called the Great War but was soon eclipsed, now better known as World War I. A date that should remind all how precious peace is has since become a celebration of American militarism, as we thank the hapless soldiers and gloss over the politicians who put them in harm's way. One could write reams about that war, and indeed its centennary has brought dozens of new books out. Hochschild wrote one I read back in 2011: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, which focused on anti-war resisters in Britain (like Bertrand Russell -- as close to a hero as I ever had). The tag line on this piece is: "If you think the First World War began senselessly, consider how it ended." He recounts several stories of how allied generals (especially Americans, notably including white commanders of negro troops) continued to launch offensives after the armistice was agreed to up to the moment (11AM) it was to take effect, resulting in thousands of avoidable casualties. He also notes, in less depth, the insistence of French general Foch on making the armistice as punitive as possible, leaving a "toxic legacy" that lead to a second world war. Many more books have been written about the post-armistice Versailles Treaty, like Arno Mayer's massive Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking, but the best title to date is David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace. The excessively punitive Versailles Treaty is now widely acknowledge as a cause of WWII. (Arno Mayer has referred to the two World Wars as 30 Years War of the Twentieth Century.) More important in my mind is that Versailles failed to repudiate imperialism. In fact, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan extended their empires through war, especially whetting the appetites of the latter, while leaving Germany and others convinced that they needed to enlarge themselves to compete with the rich nations. By the way, Josh Marshall recommends The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Another interesting piece on the war: Patrick Chovanec: World War I Relived Day by Day.

  • Fred Kaplan: Could House Democrats Cancel the Pentagon's Blank Check? Perhaps, but it would take uncommon discipline, given that more than a few Democrats are deficit hawks and/or Pentagon Keynesians. Given narrow margins (and the absence of anything like the "Hastert Rule" for Democrats), Republicans could try to forge opportunistic alliances with either group. One thing for sure is that House Democrats won't be able to raise taxes, so there's very little they can do about deficits. On the other hand, spending bills originate in the House, so with a little discipline they can keep important programs funded and cut useless and even damaging ones. But, as I said, that's not something they've ever been much good at.

    Kaplan also wrote: Trump Retreats From the West: "The president's performance in Paris was a stunning abdication of global leadership." That sounds like good news to me -- not to deny that Trump did it pretty ugly. Maybe Trump was peeved at this: Macron denounces nationalism as a 'betrayal of patriotism' in rebuke to Trump at WWI remembrance. Then, Trump skipped a US cemetery visit abroad. The French army trolled him for avoiding the rain. But the fact is, Trump's "America First" fetish doesn't leave him much to offer the rest of the world -- where, as in everyday life, generosity is appreciated and peevishness scorned. On the other hand, for many years now US administrations have done little that actually helps either people abroad or at home that we'd all be better off if the US (especially its military) would back away. For more on Trump's Paris trip, see Jen Kirby: The controversies of Trump's Paris trip, explained.

  • Paul Krugman: What the Hell Happened to Brazil? (Wonkish): "How did an up-and-coming economy suffer such a severe slump?"

  • Robert Kuttner: The Crash That Failed: Review of the latest big book on the 2008 financial collapse, the "great recession" that followed, and various government efforts to clean up the mess: Adam Tooze's Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Interesting sidelight of an illustration: William Powhida: Griftopia, based on Matt Taibbi's book.

  • Dara Lind: The asylum ban -- Trump's boldest immigration power grab yet -- explained.

  • Mark Mazzetti/Ronen Bergman/David D Kirkpatrick: Saudis Close to Crown Prince Discussed Killing Other Enemies a Year Before Khashoggi's Death.

  • Bill McKibben: A Very Grim Forecast: On Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report.

  • Yascha Mounk: Is More Democracy Always Better Democracy? Noted for future reference, no agreement implied. Author of a recent centrist manifesto: The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It. Reviews Frances McCall Rosenbluth: Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself (2018) -- arguing: "the most important ingredient of a functioning democracy . . . is strong political parties that can keep their rank-and-file members in check" -- and looks back to Marty Cohen/David Karol/Hans Noel/John Zaller: The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (2008). Mounk's prime example of "too much democracy" was the 1972 nomination and loss of George McGovern, although for a token example Republican he cites Mark Sanford's primary loss to a Trump zealot (who last week lost Sanford's SC district). The main problem with Mounk's thesis is that organizations which lack effective democratic oversight almost inevitably wind up putting their leaders' elite interests ahead of their voters. At least with McGovern's Democratic Party reforms, the party was able to nominate a presidential candidate who reflected the majority view among rank-and-file Democrats to quit the Vietnam War. That sounds more to me like an example of democracy working -- especially more than 2016, when the party elites prevailed in picking a candidate who was even more unpopular. (Sure, Hillary Clinton polled better than McGovern, but consider her opponent.) As for the Republicans, you can fault their rank-and-file for favoring someone as odious as Donald Trump, but at least the limited democracy Republicans practice saved them from the party elites nominating Jeb Bush.

  • Rachel Withers: Trump responds to worst fires in California's history by threatening to withhold federal aid. Also on the fires: Robinson Meyer: The Worst Is Yet to Come for California's Wildfires; also Umair Irfan: California's wildfires are hardly "natural" -- humans made them worse at every step.

  • Benjamin Wittes: It's Probably Too Late to Stop Mueller: The morning after the election, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed Matthew Whitaker as acting AG, making it easier for Trump to terminate Robert Mueller's prosecution of Trump-Russia issues. Wittes takes stock:

    Eighteen months ago, I said, President Donald Trump had an opportunity to disrupt the Russia investigation: He had fired the FBI director and had rocked the Justice Department back on its heels. But Trump had dithered. He had broadcast his intentions too many times. And in the meantime, Mueller had moved decisively, securing important indictments and convictions, and making whatever preparations were necessary for hostile fire. And now Democrats were poised to take the House of Representatives. The window of opportunity was gone.

    In the 48 hours since Trump fired Jeff Sessions and installed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, I have had occasion to wonder whether I was being overly optimistic a week ago. Whitaker is the kind of bad dream from which career Justice Department officials wake up at night in cold sweats. He's openly political. The president is confident in his loyalty and that he won't recuse himself from the investigation -- notwithstanding his public statements about it and his having chaired the campaign of one of the grand-jury witnesses. There are legal questions about his installation at the department's helm. And he's known as the White House's eyes and ears at Justice.

    By the way: Jerome Corsi says Mueller will soon indict him for perjury.

Finally, some more election-related links: