Democrats in Congress are proving pathetic

The Thinker by Rodin

The only thing sadder than Donald Trump and the current state of the Republican Party and our democracy may be the current state of the Democratic Party.

I’m reading Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened. It’s not particularly interesting or insightful, but I felt a duty to read it since it was a Christmas present from my daughter. I read it where I read most stuff I don’t want to read: when sitting on the john and in snippets.

I’m reading the chapter where she talks about “those damned emails” (as Bernie Sanders put it). It was such a nothing-burger. There was no rule requiring the Secretary of State to use a @state.gov email address. In fact, her successor John Kerry was the first SoS to use one. Nonetheless, Republicans in Congress and Donald Trump turned this nothing-burger into the major topic of the 2016 election. They used it to create unwarranted mistrust against her.

Arguably, James Comey (former FBI Director) threw the election to Donald Trump by reopening the issue just before the election. So if you can inflate a story that is basically nothing and go at it relentlessly, you can apparently win elections. Donald Trump has obviously used this tactic profitably and is busy repeating it relentlessly. Notice that when anything comes up that makes him look bad he makes up some other phony smear against someone else or some group and promotes it relentlessly. And stupidly, the media usually goes along. The latest one is to complain about homeless people in California. You don’t see the press looking a conditions at our border detention facilities anymore. They’ve moved onto something newer and fresher, and Trump has an infinite supply of bait.

Contrast this with what the Democratic Party is doing with regards to Donald Trump’s many misdeeds. The most recent one is the most egregious of all: an allegation by a whistleblower that is likely that Donald Trump asked the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son for potential misdeeds in his work for Ukraine. Donald Trump has relentlessly been using his office for private gain since becoming president. It should not surprise us that he is also using it to undercut a potential opponent in the 2020 campaign.

If this was a quid-pro-quo arrangement with Ukraine, as in “I won’t release our aid to your country until you do this for me” (and Ukraine’s funds have been suspiciously held up), it would be a clearly illegal act, a national security issue and about the highest crime possible relevant to removing a president from office. No wonder this whistleblower felt compelled to blow the whistle. Compared to Hillary’s “crime”, it’s at least a thousand times worse.

So you would think Congress would be doing something to hold Trump accountable. House committees hold sporadic hearings where subpoenaed witnesses rarely show up. The Trump Administration simply stonewalls all Congressional subpoenas and witnesses. Trump claims powers that he doesn’t have. For example, Corey Lewandowsky never even worked for the White House, but Trump claimed executive privilege over his testimony. Lewandowsky did testify, sort of, but revealed little new and was rude and snide the whole time to the committee. The others didn’t bother to show up.

The obvious response by Democrats should have been to call the Sergeant at Arms and put Lewandowsky in the clink. The House has such a cell in the Capitol basement. They could let him out after he pays a fine TBD until he truthfully answered all their questions. The House has done this in the past for those showing contempt of Congress. Naturally, Democrats did nothing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is convinced that impeaching Trump is bad politics. She fears a backlash that will strip Democrats of their majority in the house. This is despite polls consistently showing Trump deeply disliked, even in red states like Arizona. Whereas Republicans proved in its endless Benghazi – Clinton email investigations that going after someone relentlessly is good politics, regardless of whether it turns up anything. It’s Congress doing its job: oversight. Unlike Hillary Clinton though, Democrats have a mountain of credible crimes and misdemeanors against Trump. Any one of them done by Barack Obama would have resulted in impeachment by Republican House of the time.

By doing nothing of consequence, Democrats in Congress are basically enabling a bully. Bullies though just keep getting stronger until they are stood up to. They have to be faced down. If they get away with it, they try even more outlandish stuff. The sky is the limit for Donald Trump. Most recently he had his lawyers make the outlandish claim that he can’t be prosecuted for any federal or state crimes while in office. This is clearly false, but Trump makes his own reality. He’ll keep making his own reality until he is stood up to.

Yes, if impeached by the House he likely will not be thrown out of office because at the moment there are not 67 senators with the spine to do so. Nonetheless, the House should impeach his ass. First, if Congress doesn’t take action in these situations, God help the next Congress that tries to hold a president accountable. Second, keeping aides from testifying alone is impeachable conduct. A Congress that can’t perform its oversight role cannot function. It’s like expecting Congress to write laws without having access to any information. Third, there has never been a case of a president who deserved impeachment more. The legal and political case against Trump is overwhelming.

Also, the optics are changing. The country is now evenly divided about whether Trump should be impeached or not. A majority of House Democrats also favor impeachment hearings. It’s changing because more people are paying attention. The more that do, the more they realize it is not only justified, but necessary.

Democrats can look at history for perspective. Polls showed that Richard Nixon maintained good favorability ratings until shortly before he resigned, and Trump’s are much worse already. Calling attention to his misconduct, as relentlessly as attention was paid on Hillary Clinton’s emails, makes it newsworthy and draws attention.

But at some point, Congress simply needs to draw some boundaries. Simply obstructing Congress’s duty to conduct oversight is impeachable because he is thwarting the intent of the constitution he swore to uphold. It’s quite possible that by taking steps to open impeachment hearings that Trump will cave and start providing witnesses. Bullies after all are more smoke than actual power. Their power diminishes quickly when they are called to account.

Congress should be using every tool in its toolbox if for no other reason than to keep it relevant. The only power it is exercising so far filing lawsuits, which Trump wait it out until they are moot. He’ll probably ignore rulings he doesn’t like anyhow. This minimal oversight seems to be what Nancy Pelosi wants as well. She wants an election to impeach Donald Trump. Hopefully that will work in keeping him from getting a second term, but it does nothing to restore the rule of law and the proper balance of power within government. It’s the latter than is the worse threat in the long term.

No bottom for the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like I have been giving Republicans too much credit. I assumed there was some core group of Republicans who could agree, “This time Trump has gone too far” and bring him down. Apparently, there is no bottom for the Republican Party.

That’s because I assumed that there were some sane Republicans out there. But it looks like when push comes to shove, sanity takes a back seat to subservience and fealty. Republicans apparently love to take orders. They love authoritarians. I’m guessing it gives them some feeling of comfort that somewhere a Big Daddy is taking care of things. Having decided to get on the Trump train, they can’t seem to find a reason to get off, no matter how surreal and ridiculous it gets.

Signs are pointing to a huge train wreck for Republicans in the 2020 election. Some years back I pointed out that Trump would kill the Republican Party. To severely maim the party, Republicans have to lose both the presidency and the Senate. Barring some massive election fraud, Trump is destined to be defeated in 2020. He’s never polled over 50% and most of the time his approval ratings have been mired in the low 40s or lower. Winning with these sorts of negatives is possible only with massive voter fraud or a third-party candidate that siphons off a lot of Democratic votes. Both the 2000 and the 2016 elections likely would have elected Democratic presidents had it not been for the third-party spoiler effect. It’s not Trump’s base that will win him reelection, but Democratic fragmentation.

Winning the Senate requires flipping three Republican seats, which is a bit of a long shot but not impossible in a wave election. Aside from his base, Trump has managed to piss pretty much everyone off. But even among his base, he is bleeding supporters. White men support him, but according to polling he’s recently lost white women without a college education. Trump is losing farmers from his trade wars, and truckers are seeing major layoffs plus the latest tax law raised their taxes by doing away with a lot of their deductions. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is deeply loathed in his home state, with only 33% approval. He can’t even be bothered to pump up a pension fund for coal miners. Yes, in deep red Kentucky, McConnell may lose reelection next year.

Rather than face criticism, Trump does the only thing he knows how to do: reshuffle the deck. This means changing the subject, generally by saying things or posting comments on his Twitter feed that are increasingly outrageous. This is effective but it doesn’t actually fix the issues that got him in trouble in the first place.

Moreover, his pattern never varies. When he decided not to put those 25% tariffs on Chinese goods so people could enjoy nice presents under their Christmas tree mostly made in China, then of course when China added new tariffs on U.S. products as they promised it all went out the window. New tariffs were back on and markets plunged about three percent yesterday. They were doing fine until his announcement.

But just when you thought Trump couldn’t possibly get any wackier, he doubles down on the stupid. Just this week Trump:

  • Said he was the Chosen One, implying he was the King of the Jews
  • Said any Jew voting for Democrats was disloyal and un-American because they should put Israel first … uh, what? And how is putting Israel before the United States showing you are an American patriot? Oh wait, because Trump says so. Gotcha.
  • Ordered U.S. companies to leave China, even though he can’t
  • Decided he could issue an executive order to end birth right citizenship, as if he could unilaterally override the 14th Amendment
  • Blamed the chairman of the Federal Reserve for his economic woes because he wouldn’t cut interest rates fast enough, while apparently absolving himself of the blame of nominating Jerome Powell in the first place
  • Said he wanted to buy Greenland and canceled a summit with Denmark, which manages the island, in a huff because they wouldn’t consider it. Actually, Denmark couldn’t even if it wanted to. Residents of Greenland would have to decide. Oh, and he called their female prime minister “nasty”, his word of choice when acting like the obvious misogynist that he is.

We have a president that is, quite frankly, totally nuts and bonkers. Just one of these by a Democratic candidate like Joe Biden would sink their candidacy. But Republicans so far show nothing but increased fealty to a president who by any objective standard is mentally ill and could not be trusted to even competently manage a child’s savings account.

Moreover, a recession is clearly on the way and every action Trump takes seems to be designed to make it worse. It was tariffs that brought us the Great Depression. Doubling down on tariffs simply increases the odds that a recession will turn into a depression. And if there is a recession, there’s not a single adviser to the president who has either the smarts or the wherewithal to help lead the US out of a recession. The closest we have is Jerome Powell, and only because the Fed is independent of the executive and he can’t be fired. When you surround yourself by incompetent sycophants, well, you get incompetent sycophants. Hell of a way to run a “government” … don’t bother to actually govern!

I was thinking yesterday that the tanking stock market might finally be the straw that broke the Republicans’ back. Moneyed capitalists ultimately hold up Republican power. Yesterday, three percent of their wealth vanished because Trump’s ego was hurt. Likely a lot more of it will vanish soon.

The obvious remedy is the 25th Amendment and twisting Vice President Pence’s arms to get a majority of the cabinet to declare our president is too mentally ill to serve. I’ve been waiting more than two years for this intervention, assuming cooler heads in the Republican Party could prevail. While I still hope for it, increasingly it looks like I misjudged the nerve and sobriety of the Republican leadership. They are wholly captured by their captain, and appear ready to go down with his ship.

Liz Warren for president

The Thinker by Rodin

I recently wrote a post saying Democrats should concentrate on bigger issues like fixing gerrymandering rather than get swept up in the personalities over the many, many candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination. That’s not to say that the field so far is not full of interesting and exciting candidates. Yes, any of them would be more than acceptable as a nominee.

In 2016, I was a Bernie supporter. I correctly assessed Hillary Clinton’s major problem: she wasn’t likeable and was a poor campaigner. I incurred the wrath of many including my wife who despite liking his policies can’t stand Bernie. I’m not sure why this is. It could be that he’s a man, or is white, or since he comes from Vermont can’t seem to relate well to people of color. She’s still anti-Bernie although she concedes she would vote for him in a heartbeat over Trump or any third party ticket. At this early stage, Sanders appears to be something of a favorite in a very divided field.

Yes, I like pretty much all of them with a few exceptions. I’m not sold on Cory Booker because he’s voted like a corporatist for much of his senate career. Ditto for Tulsi Gabbard who is even more so. There are bunches that are technically running that seem to be on nobody’s radar: John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam and Tim Ryan. I bet most of you can’t even say who these people are and what offices they currently hold. Maybe they will distinguish themselves between now and the first votes but there is no particular buzz around any of these candidates. The bigger ones currently running of course are Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg (a true come from nowhere candidate), Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

While any of them would be acceptable to me, as I ponder them in my mind I keep coming back to one candidate who is my heads on favorite in this crowded field: Elizabeth Warren. All candidates have strengths and minuses. Warren’s minuses are pretty well known, but are trivial. But as a potential president, she’s whom I would most like to next see in the Oval Office.

She also happens to be my senator, but I’ve admired her long before we moved to Massachusetts in 2015. Unlike all the other candidates with the exception of Bernie Sanders, Liz has the fire of commitment in her belly. But unlike Bernie Sanders, she understands the importance of policy, and her sets of policies are well thought out and address the root causes of the many issues facing our country. What you really notice though that truly sets her apart from other candidates is that she is egoless. You don’t hear from her that “only I can do this”, like you would from Donald Trump or many politicians. What you hear is an exposition on what the fundamental problems for our nation are and how she would fix things.

Fixing things is her passion. It’s what gets her up in the morning. And that’s what we need: a fixer, someone with determination, passion and persistence to move all levers of government to fix the fundamental problems with our governance. And what she correctly identifies as the most fundamental problem of all: getting corruption out of government. That is the one thing she would work on with the most energy because she realizes that all other things, including having a livable planet, depend on getting corruption out of government. Government must work for the people again, not the rich.

Listening to her, you so plainly hear this passion. It feels 100% real instead of faked. Moreover, we residents of Massachusetts see it from her every day. She lives it. She has never accepted a dime from corporate PACs. Her whole presidential effort is being run on a shoestring, depending on supporters to sustain her campaign. So if you want someone to change things, why not support someone who has given their all to do exactly this?

Why am I less enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders? It’s not that he and Elizabeth Warren vary that much on their positions and solutions. Bernie too knows what must be done and has the fire in his belly. What Bernie doesn’t have is Warren’s deep policy expertise. Warren knows not just how things connect and what levers to move to exact change, but comprehensively understands the steps to get there and how to do the work. This is because for much of her life she has been a policy wonk, which Bernie has not been. Having a vision for what America should be is of little use if you cannot connect the dots and move the levers of government to accomplish this.

If you have some time, listen to Crooked Media’s recent interview with Elizabeth Warren below to get a sense of what I mean. No other candidate brings this level of passion, depth and seeing all sides of an issue. So here’s hoping Warren’s candidacy takes off, and Democrats focus more on her than the many fly-by-night candidates good at theatrics but not so good at putting it altogether.

Righting our Upside Down government

The Thinker by Rodin

Down is the new up. This was honed in last Saturday when the U.S. Senate voted in Brett Kavanaugh as our newest justice, despite multiple credible allegations of sexual assault against him.

The vote was perhaps not surprising as Republicans always put party before country. Had Kavanaugh been defeated or withdrawn, someone of similar far right inclinations would have been voted in instead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now realized his dream of a reliably conservative court, which would have happened anyhow.

We are living in the Upside Down. If you are not familiar with the term, you haven’t seen the Netflix series Stranger Things (terrific series you really should watch anyhow). We have probably been in the Upside Down for a while, but Saturday’s vote literally confirmed it. Republicans have seized the Supreme Court. It is now an officially political wing of the Republican Party.

If there was any doubt, now-Justice Kavanaugh’s most recent testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee proves it. In short, our democracy has been formally hijacked. Our government is no longer credibly run for the benefit of the people. It is now run for the sponsors of the Republican Party, principally corporatists, which amounts to groups of well-moneyed white men, but also a lot of white people feeding on their anxiety about losing privilege. You can see it in the tax cuts they passed which directly passes wealth to their class. The Republican Party is rife with racism and misogyny; indeed these things control it.

Which raises the question: how to we right our Upside Down government? Is it even possible? We’ll have an inkling a month from now after the midterms because right now Republicans control all three branches of government. They have as close to a vice grip on all of them as possible. It will take a mighty wave of Democratic votes to begin to make our government representative of the people again. It’s unclear given the many obstacles put in the way (gerrymandering, voter purges, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and special interest money) whether it is possible.

Even if Democrats regain Congress, it’s but the first of many very hard steps that must occur to return to something like normal. It’s increasingly clear to me that for it to happen at all, Democrats must fight dirty like Republicans. And by fighting dirty it’s unclear if they won’t become as corrupt as Republicans in the process.

Unfortunately, there are no fast solutions to this problem. It took nearly forty years of persistence plus huge amounts of money for Republicans to wholly own government. Some biases are inherently baked into our system and are virtually impossible to change. The biggest problem is the U.S. Senate, which is not weighted according to population. Rural states have a disproportionate advantage in the Senate. As long as these states promote conservative values, at best the Senate will always swing between Republican and Democratic control.

So a combination of long-term and short-term strategies is needed. The bottom line is that we must fight like hell for democracy. It is not something we can fix in one, five or even ten years. It’s likely a generational problem. Much of the problem can go away with time as conservative voters literally die out. This is premised though on having a voting system that is fair, and Republicans have done everything possible to tilt it to their advantage.

If you read this blog regularly, some of these suggestions will seem familiar. But it’s quite clear that what we’ve done before simply doesn’t work. We need new tactics:

  • Pack the court. When Democrats control Congress and the presidency again, pack the Supreme Court. There is no constitutional requirement to have only nine justices. It just takes a law. It’s been done before. Given that Republicans would not even consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, at a minimum if Democrats control the Senate they should not allow any subsequent Supreme Court vacancy to be filled until Merrick Garland’s nomination is first considered. I’d add two more justices to the court, conveniently to be nominated by a Democratic president.
  • Call a constitutional convention to reverse Citizens United v. Republicans probably won the trifecta because of this 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling. It allowed corporations and rich people to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and to hide their advocacy under shadowy political action committees. We can count on Congress not to pass such an amendment, since it would not get past a Senate filibuster. A state-driven constitutional convention is scary to many Democrats. It should not be. In this case, 80% of Americans favor overturning this ruling, and that includes a majority of Republicans. A constitutional convention by the states does not enact such an amendment. Rather, if passed at a convention it requires state legislatures to consider it, same as an amendment passed by Congress. It would pass the ¾ threshold easily. This would effectively take corporate money out of the election system (at least at the federal level), promoting a government by the people, instead of corporations. Don’t expect a 5-4 conservative majority Supreme Court to overturn their previous decision. We need a permanent fix and a constitutional amendment is the only remedy.
  • Candidates should run on not accepting corporate and PAC money. Candidates that have done this have enjoyed great success. You would think it would put them at a financial disadvantage, but for most candidates it spurs small dollar donations instead. I live in Massachusetts. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) has never accepted these donations. Neither has Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both vote in the people’s interest because they cannot be bribed. If you want to support this cause, an easy way to do it is to join Wolf-PAC, ironically a PAC that exists specifically to help elect candidates who don’t accept corporate and special interest money.
  • Build from the bottom up, as Republican did. Democrats seem to be getting this message. Gerrymandering is done at the state level. So the more Democrats that control state houses and governorships, the more Democrats can either end gerrymandering in their state, or if they must gerrymander, do it for Democratic advantage. Redistricting will occur after the 2020 census. Assuming that census is not biased (which of course Republicans are trying to bias), if Democratic governors and legislators are in place by 2020, those states can affect composition of the U.S. house in the 2020s and beyond.
  • Rebuild the Democratic Party. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as special interests and their money still largely control the party. A party that authentically represents the will of the people should be successful. Progressives must take over the party, hopefully as benignly as possible. Doing so though may be so divisive that it fractures the party, which Republicans would obviously favor. For example, the Democratic Party could have a position that its candidates and the party should not accept PAC and corporate money. Do this and voters will have a clear understanding that the Democratic Party works for them, not the elite.

Republicans reestablish the patriarchy

The Thinker by Rodin

For Republicans, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as the justice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court is like winning the Triple Crown. It’s the greatest news possible for them. This is because with Kennedy’s departure and Kavanaugh’s likely lifetime appointment, Republicans will finally formally control all three branches of government.

The Supreme Court though has always been the one that has mattered the most. It’s just that for decades it has teetered between liberal and conservative justices, with Justice Kennedy usually the one making the final say on controversial issues like gay marriage. Arguably Kennedy was our only truly impartial jurist. That should disappear if Kavanaugh dons those black robes, which means it will be rare at best to get rulings without a Republican take on the law.

Notice I did not say a conservative take on the law, because the so-called conservatives on the court have been anything but that lately, frequently breaking precedence with previous courts. Traditionally, conservatives have respected jurisprudence. Kavanaugh’s record as a judge shows little respect for precedence. He has argued that the president has no checks on his power other than impeachment and removal. This would be news to previous courts such as the one that required President Nixon to turn over tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. A real conservative should deride any judge that thinks anyone is beyond the law, but that’s what Kavanaugh has argued about the president.

I hesitate to tell our Democratic senators to give up on opposing his nomination. He has at best a 1:10 chance of being rejected. I’d like Democrats to fight dirty because that’s how Republicans won this trifecta. They fought dirty for decades to push their power far beyond the consent of those they govern. This nomination though is vindication for them in a strategy that clearly worked. They out-hustled Democrats by using tactics that were minimally suspect and maximally appalling.

Political gerrymandering is not illegal since the Constitution delegates voting rules to the states, at least those laws not dictated by federal law. The Voting Rights Act was one tool that for decades made it harder but clearly not impossible to disenfranchise voters. All that changed in Shelby v. Holder (2013), which overturned the rule that certain states needed preclearance by the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. Five grumpy “conservative” justices (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) thus cemented voter disenfranchisement as an acceptable political tactic. Within 24 hours of the decision, Alabama announced that it would require photo identification at the polls, a direct result of this decision. Alabama simply could not wait to disenfranchise minority voters.

So not only are we likely to have a true “conservative” court soon, but the patriarchy is fully in charge, which is what really makes them giddy. The five “conservative” justices are all men. These five men will likely rule within the next few years that women no longer have control over their own bodies, when they allow states to outlaw abortions. Twenty-two states have laws in place that will immediately outlaw abortions when it is legal to do so. This strangely includes Massachusetts where I live, which never got around to overturning its law.

You would hope that conservative justices would be pro-freedom, but if you look at their actual rulings, it’s pro-freedom mostly for people a lot like them: white, rich and male. It’s not for women; at least not after Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s clearly not for blacks and Hispanics, who must jump through increasingly onerous hoops to vote if they can vote at all. It may not be for gays and transgender Americans, whose recent expanded rights to marry and use bathrooms of their gender are at jeopardy again. Their gay marriage ruling may get overturned since Kennedy is no longer the swing vote.

It’s all pretty bleak unless you are one of these “conservatives” that adhere to two levels of justice: one for people like them and a harsher one for everyone else. For them, this is good and with five “conservatives” on the Supreme Court they lock down the power that matter most to them – the power to make people do what they want – for decades to come.

There are some things that Democrats can try. They can hope to stay united and peel off Republican senators Murkowski and Collins. This probably won’t work, which is why I gave it 1:10 odds. They could refuse to vote on the nomination although it’s unclear if this would change the outcome. They could try to shut down all Senate business until after the midterms when Democrats might control the chamber again. Or they could insist that President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, first get the vote he was denied in simple fairness.

Of course, it’s fighting dirty that Republicans do best. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to bring Garland’s nomination up for a vote was very dirty and unprecedented. It would be fitting if Democrats refused to move this nomination until this error is corrected. Republicans though have no conscience. This tactic never bothered them at all. With them, it’s always party before country.

Still, demographics do matter. Our country is coloring up and becoming more liberal and secular every year, in spite of Republican actions to stem this tide. Democrats and independents must crash the gate somehow and regain control despite the wholesale gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement unleashed by Republicans.

The far right Infowars talk show wacko Alex Jones famously predicted that Democrats would start a new civil war this July 4. Republicans would be wise to remember that the people have a right to revolution to overthrow unjust governments; it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. Through dirty and undemocratic tactics, Republicans have created a fundamentally unjust government that have disenfranchised large blocks of citizens. These forces cannot be forever bottled up against the consent of the governed.

In the midst of chaos, plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the midterms

The Thinker by Rodin

In my last post, I intimated that Trump Disorientation Disorder was striking close to home, affecting my wife’s mental health. I’d like to say she’s doing better but at least she’s getting treatment. I doubt she is alone. Every week in this presidency feels like being on a roller coaster in free fall, but some weeks are freakier than others.

This week certainly was one of them. Trump’s cruel policy of separating children from families at the border grew slightly less evil when he decided to rescind this policy, a policy he said could not be rescinded because somehow it was all the Democrats fault. To kind of cap off a freaky week with a bit of humor was this nugget from a Washington Post story. Apparently our “stable genius” president doesn’t know that only Congress can change immigration law. He thought he could do it by decree.

A cascade of awful news is not great politics. Trump apparently thinks that being awful pays political dividends. The dividend he is looking for is to turn out his base in the midterms. He may or may not succeed in doing so. But he can’t win by just turning out his base. He won the presidency by turning out coalitions, including a lot of Obama voters who didn’t like Hillary. Also, a presidential election is much different than a midterm election. In a presidential election, you can win while losing the popular vote, which was his case. In a midterm the playing field is more even. Senators are elected or reelected based on the popular vote. Gerrymandered districts make it harder for incumbents to lose reelection. A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests at least for the moment the court sees no reason to declare these crazily drawn districts illegal. In any event, happy people rarely have motivation to go to the polls, while unhappy people have plenty of incentive.

So the more Trump piles on the unhappiness, the more motivated its victims have to go to the polls. Moreover, Republicans are doubling down on deeply their unpopular policies. Just this week the House narrowly passed a bill that would cut food stamp benefits. It’s unclear if this bill will become law, but we do know that Trump has initiated a wholly unnecessary trade war that’s already affecting blue-collar Trump voters and is likely to affect many more of them as the midterm approaches. Indeed, countries experiencing American sanctions have created targeted sanctions narrowly focused to rile Trump’s prime constituencies.

Republicans in Congress sure have noticed. This is a party of free traders but their complaints to Trump on these tariffs are falling on deaf ears. It’s one thing to target policies affecting people that Republicans don’t like, such as immigrants. It’s another thing entirely for them to affect their own voters.

But it won’t be just them of course. It will be lots of us. Tariffs raise prices while reducing competition. To some extent it’s affected my purchasing decisions too. We are considering adding some solar panels to our system, but panels are now subject to steep tariffs. With no chronic need to buy them, it’s easier to wait until tariffs disappear. The price of panels should drop anyhow but there’s no reason for us to pay a premium now. It’s not good for solar companies however, which are already suffering and shedding jobs. Most of these jobs are steady blue-collar jobs too, likely worked by a lot of people who voted largely for Trump.

If Trump truly wanted to help his base, he would not have put up this tariff in the first place. Solar jobs have been climbing steadily and are almost the ideal blue-collar jobs of the future. As prices decrease, demand for solar will only increase, plus will be replacing a dying coal industry with clean solar power. It’s a no-lose proposition.

This of course is only one of many ways Trump is pissing off his own voters. He and the Republican congress still seem intent on destroying the Affordable Care Act, despite its popularity. He said he was going to replace it with something better that costs less, but hasn’t. So premiums will be on the rise right before the election instead. People are already losing health insurance and rising premiums will price many out of the market too. The lack of a penalty to have health insurance also pushes up premiums. Health care availability and affordability is the top issue right now on voters’ minds. In short, their policy is deeply counterproductive to staying in office.

Trump of course ran on a platform that in many ways sounded quite progressive. He complained about big business and the elites. Once in office though he populated his administration with these very people. Trump’s core voters won’t give up on him, but he will peel away plenty of marginal voters. From special elections over the last two years, it’s clear that voters are voting their pocketbooks, which explains why Democrats have been winning so many of them.

If nothing else, tariffs will have an inflationary effect. We’re likely to see the unemployment rate tick up between now and the election too, most likely due to Trump’s tariffs. Those who are victims may find themselves with less of a safety net to fall back on: less in the way of food stamp benefits and unless their state has expanded Medicaid no health insurance too. These factors will lead to economic uncertainty. It’s hard to say if it will cause a financial crisis before the election, but it certainly might. In any event, despite the tight labor market, most employed Americans have actually lost income during this administration. And since fewer than half of employed Americans have a 401K or own any stocks, they are not profiting from upturns in the stock market.

To me this suggests 2018 will be a wave election that will swing the country decidedly in a blue direction. There are few signs that Republicans can point to that are to their advantage. It’s sure not their immigration policy, which is deeply loathed by all sides. But of course it will be pocketbook issues that will be motivating voters the most, and voters will have plenty of motivation to vote in their best interests.

How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump has us just where he wants us: by the scrotum. Trump’s faults are many, but he does have some assets. He knows how to get attention and keep it on himself. He’s leading a three-ring circus and like it or not we are all dancing to his tune. Trump pervades our thoughts from morning until night, and often haunts our dreams too.

Which to my mind raises the larger question: how do we get out of this dance? The presidency is a unique office in that its occupant cannot help but make news every day. For an egomaniac like Trump, it’s the perfect position. Even so the default attention that comes with being president is obviously not quite enough for him. Which is why our carnival barker-in-chief always keeps a half dozen issues in reserve certain to inflame his enemies and cheer his supporters.

It’s abundantly clear that he is a compulsive liar but to somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of Americans that approve of him at the moment it’s apparently not an issue. Or perhaps it’s not enough of an issue to stop supporting him. If you are looking for entertainment, Trump certainly delivers a nonstop show. To his supporters it is mesmerizing; to the rest of us it leaves us queasy, feeling unmoored and sick. The USA we thought we knew that at least aimed toward fairness and justice seems to be gone. What’s left is the ugliest seam of America: forces long largely kept bottled up, with a president who loves to flout all rules and conventions.

If the entertainment is good enough, it’s hard to be aware that your pocket is being picked while it’s happening. With the exception of Trump’s richest supporters, the rest of us are getting shafted. He is pretty much doing exactly the opposite of the things he said he would do during the campaign. One small example: he was going to deliver us the best and most affordable health care ever. Instead, he constantly works to undermine the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid leading to millions more uninsured and higher premiums for those of us still ensured. He does this while whipping up a “Celebration of America” event because the Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, apparently didn’t want to visit him in the White House. It’s so much easier to watch these theatrics than to notice our financial mooring slip from under our feet.

While there have been populist presidents before, Trump is clearly is a category we have never seen before: contemptuous of the rule of law, openly racist with every action designed to feed his insatiable ego. How do we break his spell?

Usually elections are pretty effective. We’ll see what happens in November, but Trump’s slowly rising poll numbers suggests he has plenty more tricks in his bag as the election nears. He’s operating intuitively, convinced that by ever more inflaming his base he’ll also bring them to the polls to counteract an expected Democratic wave. So it’s not hard to predict he’ll get wilder, crazier and wilier as November approaches.

I have two thoughts on how to break the Trump spell that are sort of opposite of each other for your consideration.

Stand up to the bully

The one thing you can count on with Trump is his insatiable ego. It’s quite possible that Democrats can use his ego can be used to walk him right off a cliff. There is plenty of evidence so far that ultimately this approach won’t work because Trump is intuitively one step ahead of everyone else. I’ve written about standing up to bullies before, and Trump is the perfect example. Bullies draw energy from a crowd of bullies surrounding them, and Trump seems to have a limitless supply of these. Democrats need just the right person to engage Trump. It’s hard to know exactly who this person would be, but the key is for Trump to be challenged and ultimately to lose face in the eyes of his supporters.

Ideally it would be a woman, which is why my senator Elizabeth Warren comes to mind. She’s already been quite eloquent speaking against Trump but for the most part Trump has ignored her. But she could challenge him to a town hall debate. CNN is doing more of these. Some months ago it held one between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz and it sure was interesting to watch. Warren takes no prisoners and is exceptionally eloquent. There is one way almost guaranteed to get him to show up: repeatedly say he’s too chicken to show up. I’m quite confident that in front of a national audience she could cut him down to size.

An even better confrontation would be a physical one. A prominent Democrat could challenge him to a wrestling or boxing match. According to Trump’s physician, he’s exceptionally healthy and has the body of a man half his age (cough cough). If he has to go up against a peer, perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden would do.

Ignore him and concentrate on pocketbook issues

This is probably what most smart Democrats will do instead. Trump is a self-activating egomaniac. If he cannot be controlled, then the next best thing is simply to ignore him. Egomaniacs feed on attention, so why give him any more? Most likely the only way he can get gotten rid of is through the ballot box, that is if we can keep our elections free enough to elect more Democrats.

By ignoring him and concentrating on pocketbook issues instead, Democrats can gain the political power needed to control the policy agenda again. This is done through winning back not just Congress but statehouses and governorships. National elections happen only every four years anyhow. Democrats need to point out how our standard of living is being systematically lowered except for the wealthiest. They need to promise to take pragmatic steps to address these concerns if given the power of holding office again. It’s unlikely that Trump’s approval rating will ever above the low 40s anyhow. If Trump must be addressed, simply run on “ending Republican corruption” and putting the American people first.

Anyhow those are my ideas. I’m open to better ones if you have any.

The coming blue wave

The Thinker by Rodin

To my surprise, Roy Moore lost his bid to be Alabama’s next senator last Tuesday to Democrat Doug Jones. Jones won, but not decisively, by a 1.5% margin over Moore. One of the more curious aspects of the election was that 1.7% of the votes were cast as write-ins. It’s reasonable to assume that virtually all of these were from people who would normally vote Republican, but couldn’t stomach Moore but could not vote for a Democrat.

This is the first example I’ve seen of a “reverse Green Party effect”. It’s usually Democrats that shoot themselves in the foot. We do this by being so principled that we get the exact opposite result instead. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states that swung for Trump last year, had Jill Stein’s (Green Party) votes gone for Hillary Clinton instead then Hillary Clinton would now be president of the United States.

What’s appalling in Alabama is that apparently almost all Republicans voted for the pedophile Moore anyhow. Those who voted for a write-in plus those who stayed home apparently gave Jones the edge. Huge kudos goes to blacks and women in Alabama that showed up to vote, which was the edge Jones needed. I can see why both would have incentive to vote. After all, Moore said he’d like to get rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th amendment. This would make slavery legal again and take away women’s right to vote.

When a Democrat can win a statewide office in Alabama again, that’s pretty much all you need to know about which way the political winds in this country are blowing. Granted that Jones’s victory pretty much is a fluke. There was literally no one worse in the whole state of Alabama that Republicans could have nominated. As one Republican wag put it, Republicans could have picked any other name out of the phone book and have won the election by at least 10%.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Steve Bannon seems serious about fielding a Trump Republican in every Republican primary next year. Moreover, Trump plans to aggressively campaign for Republican candidates. Given Trump’s track record recently promoting Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Luther Strange in Alabama and then Roy Moore, all who lost, it’s clear his endorsement is toxic. These tactics enflame Democrats, which is likely to have them coming out to vote in droves. A Trump endorsement also keeps establishment Republicans lukewarm about voting for any Trump Republican that survives the primaries and caucuses.

In short the 2018 elections are likely to be a blowout, ending eight years of Republican control of Congress. The House should flip. One scenario suggests that when the dust settles Democrats could take the chamber 255 seats to 177 Republican seats. Retaking the Senate no longer seems improbable, particularly if Trump Republicans run against Democrats. Democrats should not take this for granted. It depends on maintaining their enthusiasm, a skill at which Trump will predictably excel.

Moreover there are so many issues beyond Trump that will encourage not just Democrats to come out, but to lean independents toward Democratic candidates and even pull away many Republicans. Last week’s vote to end net neutrality is one example. Support for net neutrality is overwhelmingly bipartisan but changing it clearly won’t happen with Republicans in charge. Republicans’ tax bill that looks likely to pass is another animus as it clearly shifts yet more income toward the rich. Rank and file Republicans don’t like it either. On so many issues voting Republicans tend to side with Democrats but even where they don’t, independents do. Some of these include addressing climate change, shrinking our national monuments and the rank incompetence in the people that Trump is nominating. This included a recent judicial nominee who had never tried a case. Even Congressional Republicans seem to be blanching at this.

It’s unknown where the Mueller investigation will be come November. Rumors abound that Trump is about to fire Mueller, although he cannot without firing a whole lot of other people and putting in place sycophants to do the deed. In any event, when Richard Nixon tried this approach it was hugely counterproductive and led to his eventual resignation. It certainly would inflame voters even more and make Washington even more chaotic than it currently is.

So it’s not hard at all to predict that the political heat will continue to rise in our nation’s pressure cooker. Next November the pent up frustration should be overwhelming. So I for one hope that Trump keeps endorsing Republican candidates, as he is now toxic. Please proceed.

Election 2017 postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

A year ago I remember the feeling of being punched in the gut by Trump’s election. What the hell had happened? The country that voted for Donald Trump did not resemble the country I knew, but I didn’t spend much time hanging out in red states. One takeaway was that blue-collar people gave America their middle finger by voting for Trump. It was a way of saying, “Pay attention to us!” Trump rode that anger into the White House, despite losing the popular vote.

It’s been a year of shock, upset stomachs and queasiness for the rest of us. It so affected my wife that she flew to Aruba to avoid all the hoopla around Trump’s inauguration. It’s also been a year of resistance and spine stiffening as Democrats and progressives resisted the Trump and Republican agenda against incredible headwinds. Yesterday’s off-year election, small as it was in scope, provided the relief we needed a year ago. Many of us are suddenly feeling like there may be a way to regain our mental health again. At least my wife has no plans to fly to Aruba next January.

The bellwether was Virginia, which elected a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general along with the entire House of Delegates. The results were stunning by any measure. Democrats swept all three spots with Democrat Northam swamping Republican Gillespie by over 8 points. In a legislature gerrymandered to ensure pretty much any Republican can win, a 66R-34D legislature currently stands at 48D-47R with five races too close to call. If the preliminary results stand, the Virginia House will split 50R-50D with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Elect Justin Fairfax (an African American) presumably casting the tie vote.

A couple of races though were emblematic of the change; but none more so than VA-13 near Manassas, which happens to be where my daughter lives. Danica Roem, Virginia’s first openly transgender candidate, trounced longtime delegate Bob Marshall 54.4% to 45.6%. To put it bluntly, Marshall was the biggest asshole in the Virginia House. His views were wacky in the extreme, including most recently a bill (which fortunately died in committee) that would have required women like Roem to use public bathrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificate. (Roem would have had to use the men’s room.) This race was emblematic of the change in the state. Democrats simply crushed Republicans. First time women candidates did exceptionally well.

Ironically, Democrats have mostly Trump to thank. Democrats swept most competitive offices that were on the ballot last night and many that were thought to be noncompetitive. I can’t think of a single prominent Democrat who believed Democrats might win back the Virginia House. This morning, Democrats are on the cusp of this achievement. This would be their biggest pickup in an election since 1899. Trump turned out to be a huge motivator for Democrats, causing them to turn out at a rate of 10% higher than Republicans. In short, Democrats showed up for a change. They did more than show up. They showed up in droves. This too is a rare event for Democratic voters, notoriously fickle as a party, inclined toward apathy and more comfortable at home watching Netflix than in the voting booth. Disgust with Trump and his agenda though brought them out.

Democrats did well practically everywhere. They took back the governorship and lieutenant governorship in New Jersey, doubtlessly propelled by Chris Christie’s miserable 14% approval rate. However New Jersey was largely returning to form. Virginia has been a swing state. With this election it’s quite clear that it will swing less and should move toward being a solid blue state.

Virginia could be an outlier but it’s probably not. With Trump’s approval hanging in the mid 30s, he is toxic. Trying to emulate his strategy, as Ed Gillespie tried to do, proved toxic to Gillespie and other Republicans. While it might have appealed to Trump’s base and helped Gillespie’s turnout, it inflamed the Democratic base more.

Republicans have a big problem and his name is Donald J. Trump. They can no longer assume that political gerrymandering will render sufficient numbers of safe seats so they can keep their majorities in Congress. If Democrats can make the Virginia model national, they will easily sweep the House in 2018 and might pickup the Senate as well.

In any event, Democrats period of long frustration and inertia is over. The tide has turned. Trump being Trump, he won’t learn anything from this election and will double down on a failed strategy. So there is no reason for Democrats not to turn out again en masse in November 2018.

Democrats and riding Hurricane Donald

The Thinker by Rodin

Thursday’s White House meeting between Trump and congressional leaders was surprising, but perhaps should not have been. During a meeting in which a Republican president should be counted on to follow a plan by his Republican congressional leaders (Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), Trump went off the rails again. He let his grievances with Ryan and McConnell get the better of him. He surprised everyone by agreeing with a proposal by House Minority Leader Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer instead.

So instead of an eighteen-month extension of the debt ceiling wanted by Republicans (which conveniently kicks this can down the road past the 2018 midterms), he agreed to a three-month extension proposed by Democrats instead. Emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey was also agreed to. Oh, and that must have border wall funding? Seems to be off the table again at the moment. It was just more Trump bluster.

Republicans were flummoxed and furious. Democrats were smiling but wisely sitting on their hands. Trump had gone off the rails again. He let his petty grievances against Ryan and McConnell get the better of him, and spoke of Pelosi and Schumer like they were friends, calling them Nancy and Chuck. I doubt Nancy and Chuck expected this outcome, but perhaps it should not have come out of the blue. For when he feels grieved Trump will use whatever powers are at his disposal to wreak revenge. Typically he lashes out on Twitter, but this time he had something better: must-pass legislation. He could get vengeance against Ryan and McConnell by using a legislative approach that Democrats wanted.

Pelosi and Schumer won’t ever be Trump’s friends. Republicans in Congress though assumed that because Trump ran as a Republican that he would support their agenda. In reality Trump ran as a populist, used the Republican Party as a vehicle for getting elected and now that he is elected he feels free to wing it as he goes along. Trump will seek to support his own interests, whatever they happen to be at the moment. Since even he doesn’t know what they are and they can change on a dime, they will be whatever takes his fancy at the moment. And most likely whatever he supports will be in part aimed at punishing his foes, real or perceived because that’s what bullies and narcissists do.

However, despite Trump’s tendency to throw in his cards and demand a new hand, you can figure what breadcrumbs Trump is likely to follow. He will follow any that appear to give him greater glory and recognition and that will punish people who have fallen out of his favor. In this sense he’s predictable. So it is quite possible, in fact even probable, that if you bait him with the right breadcrumbs he will follow your trail and can thus be used to some extent.

So with a narcissist Trump as president, being in the minority is turning out to be something of an advantage. The majority (Republicans) cannot govern. They are too factionalized but they are also too at odds ideologically with much of Trump’s agenda. Moreover, they can’t possibly satisfy Trump’s desire for instant wins because they must follow a legislative process that requires actual debate and votes and that takes time.

However, at least through the 2018 elections Democrats are in the minority. They can’t be blamed for anything because they don’t set the agenda. (Yes, they can filibuster certain legislation, something Trump obviously doesn’t like, which is why many bills taken up in the Senate are written to adhere to reconciliation rules that require simple majorities.) Trump can make them temporary allies but they bear none of the responsibility for failures. In the past Trump has railed at both Pelosi and Schumer and called them nasty names. Most likely he will again the moment they obstruct his agenda of the moment. But right now he sees them as friends because it is politically convenient. Moreover, he has an incentive to keep them as friends because he literally has no political friends left in the Republican congressional leadership.

Pissing off Republicans in Congress is deeply counterproductive, not that Trump can see this. Consider whether Speaker Ryan agrees to take a resolution of impeachment against Trump to a vote. If you are in good relations with Trump, you probably won’t. If you are in bad relations, then why not take a vote? If Trump is impeached, convicted and removed then Pence is going to be better to work with. Similarly, despite his taciturn face, Senate Majority Leader McConnell probably harbors resentment against Trump now too. He’ll be required to try Trump if the House impeaches Trump, but he and many Republicans in the Senate would have plenty of reasons to vote him out of office too.

And all of this is not just possible but even likely because we have an inconsistent and severe narcissist as our president. A politically astute president of course would be building bridges with Congress because that’s how you move your agenda forward: through persuasion. Bullies perhaps can persuade, but their only real power is the power of intimidation. In Congress, intimidation works only at reelection. If in the primaries next year Trump can influence Republican voters to vote out those Republicans he disdains, these incumbents may pay a price. Given the wreck Trump is making of his presidency, it’s pretty good odds that most of these incumbents will survive their primaries.

So if you are a Democrat looking to regain power though, this horror is all good. If a Republican incumbent can be voted out in the primary for a Trump sycophant, then in a general election you’ve just increased the odds that a Democratic candidate can flip that seat by appealing to moderates. Candidates toting the line of a president with a 37% popularity rating aren’t likely to win. If a Republican incumbent survives their primary, they are still facing odds of losing in the midterms if the election framed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, which is the obvious and powerful frame Democrats doubtless will use in 2018.

Trump’s actions Thursday are thus is very good news for Democrats. Trump will find it hard to back away from his new friends Nancy and Chuck because by doing so he would lose face with people he officially dislikes, including Ryan and McConnell. Nancy and Chuck are smart to stifle their grins, but rest assured they are ebullient in private. Trump has fallen into his own trap made possible by his fixed personality and his narcissism.

Like Hurricane Irma about to hit Florida, while you can’t stop this natural disaster you can ride it for all its worth. Trump is the wrecking machine of his own agenda. Democrats need to hang on, ride it and hope that voters have had enough in 2018 to flip the House and maybe even the Senate.