Trump folds

The Thinker by Rodin

Yea! We get to have an open federal government again! Donald Trump threw in the towel this afternoon and agreed to reopen government, at least for three weeks and without getting his stupid border wall. Just a couple of days ago I lamented that I couldn’t see how this would end. I was not alone. But very suddenly, it all changed.

We’ll probably not know for a long time what changed Trump’s mind. If I had to guess, it was the wheels spinning off the federal government. Air traffic controllers were calling in sick in enough numbers that it caused the FAA to suspend air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. When stuff like this happens, the pain extends beyond federal employees, their families and federal contractors. It hits the general public. And that makes them mad.

So it may be the unpaid but essential federal employees who brought the shutdown to an end by refusing to take the crap they were dished out anymore and calling in sick. It’s one thing for Trump to piss off his base; he’s basically been holding the government hostage to show Ann Coulter that he’s a real man. It’s quite another thing to be held responsible, not for the shutdown (all the polls show he’s being held to blame) but for something truly serious like an E. Coli outbreak or two airliners crashing into each other because there were insufficient controllers on duty.

This whole shutdown has been counterproductive to Trump’s and the Republican Party’s ends. It was stupid to do. It was an impulsive and rash decision by Trump in the first place. He is consistent in not thinking through the consequences of his actions. But it has had some surprising results. For the first time in my memory, the general public sympathizes with federal employees. They are no longer an evil, overpaid, lazy bunch of bureaucrats. They are real people who are seen as necessary and underpaid to boot.

The Republican Party has promulgated a lot of myths about federal employees over the years. As a four-year federal retiree, these always chafed on me. These myths have now been laid bare. Federal employees have endured decades of little or no cost of living raises. In the name of deficit reduction, it’s always in fashion to make federal employees pay.

In fact, the benefits of being a federal employee have been dramatically reduced over the decades. Federal employees still have pensions, but they are being asked to contribute more toward them. Inadequate cost of living raises have eroded their ability to buy things. Most federal employees live or work in the cities, which are high cost areas. They have been financially stretched for years.

So was no surprise to me to read stories of furloughed federal employees going to food pantries and losing their leases. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck because their pockets have been picked for decades. To add insult to injury, now they get regularly furloughed. While federal unions are allowed, they are effectively toothless. They can’t bargain on wages. The sorts of benefits they bargain for amount to the discount at their department’s in-house health club. In August, Trump canceled a federal employee cost of living raise, for no reason anyone can figure out other than spite. The proposed raise was meager anyhow and would not have even kept up with the cost of living.

But it turns out that we need federal employees after all. And to fulfill a Republican’s worst nightmare, the general public now sees the value of federal employees. They make things work. They also see them as human beings, not faceless bureaucrats. It will take many years before they can be effectively stereotyped again.

From our trashed national parks, to our Coast Guard operating without pay, to the TSA agents who keep us safe traveling to the customs agents I encountered a week ago flying home from Ecuador, federal employees do important stuff. Some of the most important work you don’t see but take for granted, like ensuring that your food and medicine you use are safe. But it’s also stuff that is harder to see. During the shutdown, weather instrumentation that could not be maintained. This reduced the reliability of local forecasts.

Strangely, some federal employees do vote for Republicans. Not so much anymore. Even the most hardcore Republican in the federal bureaucracy won’t vote for Trump again, and probably not their Republican legislator or senator either, at least if they had a hand in keeping this shutdown going.

So who were the winners and losers?

  • Loser: Donald Trump. He literally could not have done a worse job with this shutdown. He proved once again that governing is way out of his league. He has no idea how to govern, how to garner support or even the basics of our constitutional government. He literally pleased no one, including his base. He only squealed because he was frightened things could get irreparably worse and that he would indelibly bear the blame. As for winning in 2020, he’s toast with 57% of Americans saying they will never vote for him in 2020.
  • Winner: Nancy Pelosi. It’s clear that she can kick ass and Trump is actually afraid of her. It may be because she is smart and pretty, and he finds that intimidating.
  • Winner (of sorts): Mitch McConnell. By refusing to do anything that Trump wouldn’t approve of, he likely did not reduce his 2020 reelection chances by much because he did not piss off his base too much. That’s all he cared about anyhow. He judged that no one would hold him accountable in the end. He’s probably right on that. As for his reputation as a spineless person unwilling to do his constitutional duty, that’s intact and impossible to erase.
  • Losers: Republicans in general. The Senate will probably flip to Democrats in 2020, and this shutdown will be a major factor. It is now seared as a painful national memory. Expect Republicans to lose more House seats too.
  • Winners (of sorts): Federal employees. They have found new sympathy and respect from the public. Actually, they have garnered empathy. A lot of them will throw in the towel anyhow, at least those who can afford to cut their losses and get out. I wouldn’t blame them. They’ve been treated abominably.
  • Losers: The American public in general. If nothing else, the 20% of the government that was shutdown for a month bought you nothing of value and made things worse. This was money wasted. This shutdown is likely to result in a negative GDP quarter and quite possibly trigger a recession.

We’ll see if Trump has learned his lesson in three weeks. He’s obviously not playing with a full set of marbles, so he might shut down the government yet again. Here’s hoping he’s retained enough of them not to make the same mistake twice.

Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

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.

The Justice Kennedy resignation and dialing it up to 11

The Thinker by Rodin

The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, while not surprising, nonetheless has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Our only swing justice, it means that anyone Trump nominates is very likely to vote reliably conservative. Obviously this has huge implications, the most obvious of which is that Roe v. Wade is now under serious jeopardy. A 5-4 conservative court won’t wait long before accepting a case that will give antiabortionists the win they’ve been craving since 1973. Women are going to become chattel again, at least in some states that have decided that even before three months of pregnancy they don’t have the right to control their own pregnancies.

Such a court though is unlikely to declare that abortion is unconstitutional nationwide. Rather, it will give states permission to outlaw abortion within their boundaries. States like Texas have already made it impractical for most women to get abortions, so in some cases this won’t change too much. Abortion should still be available to those with the means to cross state lines. Of course, the women conservatives most want to disempower are those who are poorest, which should be odd because at the same time they will expect these women to support these children they will be forced to bear with little in the way of government help.

There will be plenty of other ways that a conservative court will make the vast majority of us unhappy. And the conservative majority could easily grow, as its liberal members tend to skew toward the older side. As bad as Kennedy’s retirement is for progressives, it could have been worse. Instead of Kennedy, it could have been Justices Ginsburg (85) or Steven Breyer (79) that opted to retire instead, or simply died in office. In his last year, Justice Kennedy has been no friend of progressives.

The script has been memorized; the die has been cast. We know how the next few months are likely to unfold. Trump will pick some nominee off his ultra conservative list and is likely to do it sooner rather than later. Senate Majority Leader McConnell will bend over backward to move the nomination for a vote ASAP, bypassing the Judiciary Committee if possible. There is a little hope that the Senate will ultimately vote against the nomination. Senator John McCain presumably won’t make it back to Washington to vote one way or the other, and may pass away during the interim. So in theory just one Republican senator breaking ranks could undo the nomination. Senators like Maine’s Susan Collins or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski are possible swing voters. At best, the Democrats’ odds are 50:50. Trump could dramatically improve his odds by nominating someone just a tad mainstream. In a way, it’s better for Democrats if he doesn’t, providing the nominee ultimately fails to be confirmed.

So everyone is hoping a nomination will fail and that somehow Democrats can hang on through the election and retake the Senate. At best the odds for Democrats is turning the Senate are 50:50 too, so this is quite a long shot as well. If they control the Senate though they definitely control the nomination process as well. That’s their best shot at replacing Kennedy with someone similar to him.

Since McConnell created a new rule that deferred action on President Obama’s nominee, should Democrats regain the Senate then they will be under pressure to get even. One idea going around is that Trump’s nominee should be denied consideration because Trump is under active criminal investigation. If you believe in the Law of Karma, it would be appropriate for a Democratic Senate to refuse to vote on a Supreme Court nomination until the 2020 election. Democrats though aren’t very good at being evil. Republicans though have perfected it.

And that’s what this nomination is all about, really: the culmination of decades of work by Republicans to gain ultimate power while consistently ranking up a minority of votes nationwide. At best their approach has been morally dubious. Republicans have been ruthless, taking a mile when they should have taken an inch. They had no qualms about gerrymandering districts to the extreme and openly suppressing the voting rights of those who are likely to vote against them. Justice Kennedy helped cement these oversized privileges with recent votes on gerrymandering cases that came before the court. Ultimate power though rests not in the presidency or in Congress, but in the courts because of federal judges receive lifetime appointments.

Democrats’ hope of course is for a blue wave this November. Democrats were already fully engaged but this retirement will only add to their animus. It may also bring Republicans out to vote disproportionately too. The case for Democratic control of Congress though only grows as a result of this retirement. The already high stakes have grown even higher.

Our cacophonic political scene already deafening is going to grow even louder as the amp now gets cranked up to 11.

Fiddling while the USA burns

The Thinker by Rodin

Reputedly Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Republicans pretty much reenacted this event this week when the Senate passed its version of a “tax reform” bill in the wee hours yesterday. As if Americans were not sufficiently appalled by the House’s version of the bill, the Senate’s version turned out to be even more of a looting spree. It got totally crazy in the generally gentlemanly Senate.

It turned out that cutting taxes was kind of incidental in this “tax reform” bill. Lots of taxes will get cut if you are wealthy. There is the illusion that middle and lower classes will have their taxes cut but at best it’s a temporary tax cut to make the budget math work. As for budgeting, apparently there is none because at least $1.5T in new debt will get authorized and most of that will go into the pockets of the rich who already can’t find enough ways to spend their existing windfalls. The permanent tax cuts the rich will get apparently aren’t good enough for the rest of us, but then again our current Congress is proof that not all the animals on the farm are equal. Even Republicans seemed less than enthusiastic about tax reform, but their donors were pretty explicit: cut our taxes or we stop funding your reelection campaigns.

Apparently regular order in Congress is now so 20th century. When asked when senators were supposed to find the time to read the tax bill, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said there would be plenty of time after the bill was passed. Amendments to amendments that were hand scrawled in the margins were submitted to the bill at the last hours of debate. No one had time to actually read the 400+ page bill chock full of new amendments. Lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers actually dictated the wording of many of these last minute amendments. There was one committee meeting that turned out to be a farce. Protestors were dragged out of the committee room as the discussion was going on.

A so-called budget reconciliation bill morphed into a social engineering bill. It tries to do lots of things that Republicans want to do. To kill the Affordable Care Act, it essentially lets people opt out of the requirement to get health insurance by removing any penalties for doing so. Last I checked, the bill sort of defined a person as not just a fetus in utero, but as potential human beings you might have at some future date, because it allows you to set up college trust funds for children not yet conceived. If all this were not crazy enough, the bill will require automatic Medicare cuts to kick in to save money because of the $1.5T in additional borrowing. We know this will effectively take away cancer treatment for many senior citizens because that’s what happened in the past when these cuts kicked in. Since senior citizens form the base of the Republican Party, senators effectively are giving the middle finger to their own base. Seniors had best hope they not get cancer. If they do, they better hope they can fund their treatment out of pocket. If not, well the Party of Life apparently wishes you a happy and premature entrance into eternal life because it’s far more important to give tax cuts to the rich than to keep you alive.

So the Senate bill now goes to conference with the House bill. It will be interesting to see what happens now, but something will likely get signed into law pretty soon. Trump will apparently sign anything Republicans put on his desk. He’s obviously not someone who pays attention to details. Whatever form of bill is signed into law it will take aim not just at Democrats, minorities and the poor, but Trump’s base and the Republican Party’s base too. Republicans think their base is the oligarchy. While they provide the money to keep them in office, these legislators actually stay in charge to the extent they can hoodwink the rest of their voters.

PT Barnum famously said that no one went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. So I can’t predict that come 2018 Republican voters will not stupidly continue to vote against their own interests. One clue may be next Tuesday’s special election in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions’ senate seat. If Alabama voters are stupid enough to vote for Roy Moore, twice thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court and a documented pedophile, it might well predict modest Democratic gains at best in 2018. At best Democrats have a 50/50 chance of flipping the Senate.

I like to think though that Republicans will get their comeuppance next year. It sure looks that way with Trump’s approval rating at 34% and Congress’s less than half of that. Elections last month in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere showed Democrats very energized. The House should flip; the Senate looks more problematic. While the energy level from frustrated voters is very high, there are many unknowns. These include how gerrymandered districts will affect the outcome and continued voter disenfranchisement. An expected Supreme Court ruling next year may clarify the former issue.

Meanwhile, the circus continues. Trump is a terrible president but he continues to excel in one area: distracting us from stuff that matters. When Trump makes some crazy or inane tweet, it gets Washington all a Twitter, literally, while conveniently distracting us from the real issues at hand. Even for Trump though Trump is looking wholly unhinged. There seems to be a direct correlation between the Mueller investigation’s closing in him and the level of weirdness coming out of his Twitter feed. If it were a fire, it would be four-alarm.

Reality is slowly catching up with Donald Trump though. I expect he’s about to go Richard Nixon in a Saturday Night Massacre kind of way. When he senses Robert Mueller is too close, he’ll find a way to fire him, which will probably involve firing the Deputy Attorney General supervising Mueller and installing an acting sycophant who will fire him. That’s when the crazy gets even crazier. Like the fictional band Spinal Tap, the amplifier will then be set at 11.

Let’s hope voters can stay focused amongst the painful noise and vote rationally next November 6.

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.

At the turning of the Trump tide

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s one thing to hope that Trump will be booted from office. I’ve hoped for it of course and have written a number of posts why I think it’s going to happen. However, it’s another thing to feel that it will happen. Yesterday for the first time I felt it in my gut. Trump’s a goner. It’s just a matter of time now.

Stormy seas have been hitting the Trump presidency, mostly caused by his own relentless and largely inchoate fury and mismanagement. For nearly seven months they have been persistently eroding his own presidency, leading to almost daily incidents that were often scary, troubling, befuddling, confusing and amusing, sometimes all at the same time.

Trump has proven to be his own worst enemy. This suggests at least on some unconscious level that Trump doesn’t want to be president so he is taking actions to bring it about. There have been countless things Trump has done or said that should have brought its swift end. But Trump’s “news conference” on Tuesday at Trump Tower wherein he laid bare exactly what he thinks about the protests and counter-protests last weekend in Charlottesville sure feels like his jump-the-shark moment.

Americans have been exercising extreme patience with this president, but his overt racism and his complete inability to distinguish between the racist and violent actions of the Nazi and white supremacists versus the scattered violent though overwhelmingly peaceful reactions by counter-protesters seems to finally be that bridge too far for Americans. It’s that and the horrific videos of the car James Fields drove mowing down protestors, then backing up and at high speed and mowing down more. Trump can’t distinguish a meaningful difference between these sides. Nor does he understand that there is no such thing as a good racist, and all of the protestors were racists. If you believe that you should have special privileges because of your white skin, you are evil.

Even many of the protestors are appalled by what happened a week ago today. Many are suffering the consequences. There is a reason KKK members usually cover their faces: they are secretly ashamed of their actions but also they didn’t want to be identified. In the Internet age when hundreds of cameras are recording the faces and actions of people at this event it’s not too hard to identify these protestors by name.

The reactions have been swift. After these events, organizer Christopher Cantwell delivered a tearful “I’m being so unfairly treated” video on YouTube and is now facing multiple felony charges, including possible federal charges. Protestors have had their social media, Internet services and PayPal accounts closed. The white supremacist website The Daily Stormer lost its GoDaddy hosting. Many protesters have lost their jobs. While they have the right to protest, most live in Right to Work states. This empowers employers to fire them for any reason at all, at least for any reason not protected by federal or state law and being a racist is not one of them.

Businesses, whose profitability depends on attracting customers of all races, religions and ethnicities, quickly realized that further association with Trump could be toxic for them. Enough ditched two councils Trump had created that within days Trump had disbanded them. At his Tuesday news conference he discussed creating another council to advise him on his supposed theme of the week: fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure. By Thursday this council too was aborted in the womb. Trump’s Infrastructure Week turned out to be a joke.

Instead on Thursday Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon gave two unauthorized interviews wherein he deliberately contradicted Trump on some points. I think he did this to get fired, as he was already estranged and operating from an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Yesterday Trump formally fired Bannon, who was largely responsible for his election in the first place. Bannon’s real crime: contradicting Trump.

New chief of staff John Kelly’s actions to try to bring order to the White House seem to be flailing even while the worst of Trump’s advisers are slowly being thrown out. And that’s because Kelly learned Tuesday a painful but predictable lesson: Trump won’t let anyone control him. He’ll go rogue whenever he wants. Police will have more success getting guns away from NRA members than Kelly will have getting Trump’s hands off his smartphone and controlling his Twitter feed, something essential if his presidency is to survive.

So Trump has finally jumped the shark and thus it’s all downhill for him from now on. What’s new and telling in the last week is that his supposed advocates are estranging him. Moreover, this estrangement is having a snowball-rolling-downhill effect, picking up momentum everyday. Business interests have abandoned him. Republicans are becoming comfortable criticizing him, making it easier for other spineless Republicans to develop some spine. One minister finally left his prominent evangelical council. Let’s hope others soon follow. Trump deals with his shunning by canceling these councils and events. This morning we learn he won’t attend the Kennedy Center honors. It’s unclear how many would show up if they were held anyhow.

And Trump being Trump he’s accelerating his own decline. He’s pissing off the very people he needs to move his agenda, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This makes it easier for them to not want to move his agenda too. Worse, should it come to impeachment and removal from office, it gives them animus to get rid of him. The math to rid him is not that hard to achieve. Aside from dealing with the wrath of Trump voters in many districts (voters who are becoming increasingly less supportive of Trump) there is little downside to removing Trump. For if Pence is put in, Republicans have some hope of accomplishing pieces of their agenda and making Republicans look sane again. With Trump it’s clear that it only gets worse and that Trump is facilitating his own end.

For me I have finally reached the point where I am more filled with a feeling of glorious schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misery of someone else) than I am appalled and scared by our president. Granted, Trump still has the power to wreak nuclear havoc. His downfall to me now seems certain, not just intellectually but emotionally. I sense it. I think at some point rather than face the increasing scorn and legal tsunami heading his way he will just resign. He’ll find a fig leaf reason that he thinks will save his honor by finding something/someone to blame (“Who could have known that Washington was so corrupt?”) then hopefully go.

Real justice would be for him to be prosecuted for any crimes he committed, but also to be ignored and scorned. It seems that Steve Bannon has reached a post-Trump age, as has Fox News. I am hoping for the worst possible outcome for Trump after he is gone: he is imprisoned for crimes, reviled as our worst president ever, his businesses crumble from being toxic assets, and hardly anyone bothers to read his Twitter feed anymore. It would be poetic and real justice.

The Republican unraveling

The Thinker by Rodin

The Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act last night was a bit of a surprise, but certainly symptomatic of a Republican Party in free fall. It was really a roll of the dice and could have easily gone either way but either way would have been bad for Republicans.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) certainly found a great time to go “mavericky”. Perhaps his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an opportunity to vote his conscience for a change and cement something of a legacy. McCain got most of the attention but Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also bucked considerable party pressure in voting against this bill. In any event it was clear that many Republican senators weren’t actually in favor of the “skinny repeal” bill. Many voted for it only on the condition that the House moves it to a conference committee and create something else. The bill’s failure appears to be a harbinger that the leadership’s ability to ram legislation through by bypassing its committees is nearing an end.

The White House hasn’t gotten the lesson. As usual seems to be doubling down on the stupid. This has the effect of making the White House even more chaotic and paralyzed. It’s like Trump wants to do everything wrong and in the worst possible way. In my last post I advised Americans to buckle their seat belts because the turbulence would only get worse. It has, and dramatically so. I often feel like we are living in a parallel universe because our politics is so chaotic and disordered that it is hard to believe it’s real. The only question is what parts of the aircraft fail first and whether the nation can make something of a safe landing. Consider:

  • On Wednesday Trump tweeted that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. He said this decision was made after consulting with his generals, which appears to be a lie. He certainly didn’t consult with his Defense secretary, who was blindsided. It’s unclear if this tweet will become policy. But it has caused a hell of a ruckus, with prominent Republicans coming out against it. It’s not hard to figure out why Trump did this. He’s creating distractions and trying to excite his base, which is only excited when he does hateful things to groups they dislike. Trump says this decision will save money and improve our military. But if carried out it would remove tens of thousands of transgender people from the military who are serving honorably and who the nation has already invested considerable time and money. So aside from the blatant discrimination it makes our military less ready and less ready.
  • New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is busy trying to act nastier than Donald Trump, if that’s possible. In his amazing, profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker, Scaramucci called the man who is supposedly his boss, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and suggested Priebus was a leaker. He said of White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He says he plans to fire everyone on the White House communications staff. Oh, and he wants to kill all White House leakers.
  • Trump continues trying to figure out a relatively benign way to fire his earliest and biggest supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he hopes can be done indirectly through his voluntary resignation. So far he hasn’t found the courage to fire him outright. Trump is very upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, figuring it was Sessions’ duty to make it go away because of loyalty. He either doesn’t know that the Attorney General is supposed to be independent so the law can be enforced impartially or simply doesn’t care. In any event his true target is Sessions’ deputy, the only person who can fire Special Counsel Mueller. Trump needs a new sycophant Attorney General who will fire Sessions’ deputy, which Sessions can’t do because he’s recused himself. If he can then he has to hope to have the acting deputy fire Mueller. All this is greatly alarming Republicans in Congress because Sessions is seen by them as an excellent conservative hitting all the issues they care about. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has already said that he won’t hold any hearings for a replacement if Sessions is fired. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) also announced that if Sessions is fired he would pursue legislation to prohibit Trump from firing Mueller.
  • John McCain’s call for the return of regular order in the Senate received applause from senators on both sides, who have had enough of their leadership disempowering them. A revolt against their leadership is likely brewing.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have squandered their political capital. Trump feels the need to shake things up and bring in an ever purer, nastier and more loyal staff. He can’t compromise because he sees that as losing face. He’s certain that the way he has always done things will work in a republican system of government that requires compromise.

Feeling the pressure to get things done, both House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are using insular and high-risk strategies to push through legislation that apparently is only supported by the slimmest of partisan majorities. Their system is breaking down, particularly in the Senate. Senators are immune from gerrymandering because the citizens of each state directly elect them. So the Senate is going to be more moderate than the House, and it’s this way be design, at least since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In short, the institutional pressures and the simple desire for legislators to retain their seats are slowly overriding blind partisanship. We saw it yesterday in the votes of senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski.

Moreover, the executive branch is dissembling. The good news is that we have a competent Secretary of Defense, but it’s unclear if he can trump over a maniacal Donald Trump in a national security crisis. We also have a pissed off Secretary of State reputedly thinking of resigning and whose department is so understaffed that it is pretty much ineffective. We have branches of the executive at war with each other. And we have a president without the political skills to bring order to the mess he created and actually govern. In fact, we have a president that thinks not governing is governing. Thus it’s no surprise that there is massive dysfunction.

Look behind the scenes and it’s clear that institutional forces are marshaling, more significantly on the Republican side. Republicans are beginning to realize that they are better off without Trump. Fortunately, Trump gives them plenty of ammunition. Trump’s narcissism and cognitive dissonance will require him to become crazier and more erratic, which will feed the process. Ultimately, Republicans are going to war with each other, which should eventually render clear boundaries between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters. (Hint: the patriotic ones will eventually be seen as the traditional Republicans.) It’s all unnecessary if Trump would more toward political accommodation and begin governing rationally. It’s clear that he is incapable of doing so.