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.

The perfect storm

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you hadn’t noticed, Donald Trump suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, a side effect of his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’d say give the man some Ritalin but in many ways his ADD simply helps speed up his unraveling. The more I watch the man, the more convinced I am that he subconsciously wants to fail. He’s in way over his head. He can’t acknowledge it to himself so he spends a lot of time doing stupid stuff.

Stupid stuff like spending Easter tweeting that there will be no DACA deal and he’s going to blow up NAFTA if he doesn’t get his border wall. This is likely to blow over rather than blow up because when you have ADD by definition you have a short attention span. So it’s likely a week from now he’ll have totally forgotten he tweeted this stuff. In any event, if you are hearing a chorus of “ho hums” coming from Capitol Hill, it’s because they’ve seen stuff like this so many times that it’s becoming rote. Even the press is starting to move these presidential tweets below the fold. Hopefully they’ll move to page A10 pretty soon.

It’s obvious Trump is not a politician, which is presumably what his supporters like about him. When he tries to schmooze it comes across as wholly inauthentic. In any case, politicians quickly learn if you want to get stuff done you have to do a lot of schmoozing. That’s because power in the government is decentralized and not even Trump can change that, although he is trying. For now at least if he wants to get something major done, it has to be done through Congress, not executive actions.

It’s likely when you were growing up if your parents scolded you it did not enamor you toward them. It works the same way in Congress, which is why so little of Trump’s agenda has gotten passed despite having a Republican congress. In some ways Congress is digging in their heels. They’ve pretty much blocked Trump’s outreach to Russia and passed veto-proof legislation to tighten Russian sanctions. Congress has trumped Trump, and even Trump has seen the writing on the wall by expelling sixty Russian diplomats who were likely spies.

Trump obviously didn’t read the FY18 spending bill even though congressional leaders met with him to get his agreement on it before moving it through Congress. When it was sent for his signature he rebelled then reluctantly gave in. The legislation funds election system reforms, targets Russian hacking of our elections and hits many of the items on the Democratic Party’s wish list, such as major increases in funds for domestic programs. The CDC is allowed to research the effects of guns on public health again. Who would have thought with Republicans supposedly controlling government?

In any event, if Trump actually makes a stand on his border wall, the proper thing to do is to stand up to him. That’s what you do with bullies and arguably Congress is doing a pretty good job of it already. Granted, there are some exceptions. The Republican congress finds it in their interest to give the White House a pass on its general corruption. Mostly the Congressional leadership is well aware of his ADD and uses strategies like the spending bill to work around him.

Trump can renegotiate NAFTA and take many actions, but he can’t cancel it. His leverage on DACA is mainly of his own choosing. It won’t take for too many DACA recipients to actually be deported before he learns how counterproductive it will be. And these measures certainly won’t spur Congress to build a border wall, or convince Mexico to pay for it, mainly because he can’t really block these imports from Mexico by himself. He has to convince Congress to change the law. As long as he is yelling at Congress, it ain’t happening.

All this is leading toward the midterms on November 6, which is likely to return Democrats to the majority in Congress. It will still be a tough hurdle for Democrats, given the extreme gerrymandering nationwide and further voter suppression efforts. But Trump is doing pretty much everything possible to empower Democrats back into the majority. Just today I read that China is imposing its own tariffs against selective U.S. imports in response to recent U.S. tariffs that Trump authorized. This dropped the DJIA some 450 more points, putting all stock indexes in the negatives for the year. We are a hare’s breath away from correction territory. The downturn is almost exclusively due to the tariffs Trump has put in place, which will have the obvious result of restraining trade and thus reducing economic growth. These Chinese tariffs are specifically chosen to hurt his base of support. European and other countries are starting to do likewise. Not much can convince Republicans to vote for Democrats, but policies that hit them in their own pocketbook can bleed off a number of wavering supporters.

Underlying all this chaos is the epic turnover among White House staff. Trump can’t even find a new lawyer, as his brand has become toxic. Administration is missing from the so-called Trump administration. What his bullying has caused is an epic reaction, causing people to appreciate democracy and sound governance. It is spurring people (mostly women) to run for office. By some estimates, the recent March for our Lives was the biggest march ever in Washington. Trump has engaged young people in particular against him. This hastens not just his disempowerment, but also the end of Republican governance.

Leading perhaps to the perfect storm on November 6. With no sign that Trump will change tactics and every indication that he will double-double down, it’s not too hard a prediction to make.

The Democratic Party at the crossroads

The Thinker by Rodin

By all indications, Trump is on a roll, if being on a roll means heading speedily downhill, like his ratings. His dismal 38% approval rating is unprecedented. Presidents have gotten lower ratings (most famously George W. Bush near the end of his administration) but not this soon after taking office. Trump can compare himself to Jimmy Carter, who also started his term with more disapproving him than approving him, but in Trump’s case it’s by larger margins.

As I said in my last post, I’d hand Trump an anvil but he doesn’t need it. He’s got one already, thank you and against all reasonable political instincts (which he is largely bereft of) he thinks it’s a hot air balloon instead. Trump is famously doubling down and playing to his base, but his base is pretty much his approval rating. This does not bode well for Republicans in 2018 and his reelection prospects in 2020. More savvy Republicans are already looking for ways to hang on and cut their losses. When not avoiding town halls they are subtly distancing themselves from him, at least in less red districts. Some are suggesting that repealing Obamacare maybe isn’t such a great idea after all.

Midterms are typically an assessment of the president and favor the party out of power. By that standard Democrats should do well in 2018 and the more Trump doubles down the better they will do. Taking back the Senate is still unlikely because Democrats have more seats to defend, and in redder states. Taking back the House is likely even with the existing extreme gerrymandering.

If you are a Democrat, things should be looking up even though things seem pretty bleak at the moment. Only 23% of Americans self identify as Republicans, a record low. This means the Republican Party’s lock on government is largely due to gerrymandering, which means it is artificial. It’s no surprise then that Republican states are working hard to further disenfranchise voters they don’t want voting. Their efforts were largely successful in 2016 so we should be no means count them out.

Unsurprisingly Democrats are craving a return to power. They would be wise not to expect it to be handed to them through Republican ineptness. That Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, clearly the worst major candidate for president in modern times, suggests they should be introspective right now. Many of us Democrats are mystified by our loss last year. I certainly was. I was right on the general dynamics (Hillary won by nearly 3 million votes) but she lost anyhow because of our biased Electoral College system. She lost principally because she could not persuade enough moderates in swing states to vote for her. Her approval rates during the campaign were always underwater, as were Trump’s.

Exactly why weren’t more of the right kinds of voters persuaded to vote for her, in spite of Trump’s numerous faults? Hillary had baggage and his name was Bill. This more than anything likely had to do with her lack of success when it mattered. For it was Bill Clinton that fundamentally changed the Democratic Party. The party lost its soul with his election and it’s still trying to recover it.

Bill Clinton was in many ways our first “Republican” Democratic president. He got through legislation that no Democrat would have dreamed of introducing, let alone passing. Bill thought he was being smart and the truth is Bill was and is devilishly smart. He invented the “triangulate your way to success” strategy that worked great for keeping him in office. Using it, he got legislation through Congress that likely would not have happened at all had George H. W. Bush been reelected. Consider:

  • Bill got the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) written into law. Independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992 predicted it would result in the loss of much of our manufacturing base and it did, and much more. In the process Democrats lost a lot of its voters who previously saw Democrats as working in their interest. NAFTA created a “you’re on your own” message to American workers. Previously Democrats were zealously protecting the working class.
  • Bill worked with Republicans to reform welfare. Benefits were time limited but in general turned out to be less generous than the old AFDC program. In doing so he lost much of the party’s poor base as well, or at least made them less eager to vote for Democrats.
  • Bill worked to deregulate the banks and Wall Street and brought in a whole new “corporate” wing of the party. It kept him in power but it didn’t really broaden the tent. By bringing in Wall Street, others found they had nothing in common with the party anymore but could find common cause with Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. It was hard to tell the fat cat Democratic Party from the similar Republican one.

Each of these was a major accomplishment that Republicans could probably not have done on their own. But Republicans working with a Republican-friendly Democratic president made these things to happen. In doing so Clinton fundamentally changed the Democratic Party.

It is certainly true that Clinton did many things that progressives liked. While these were not insignificant (Family Medical Leave Act, record expansion of jobs, high homeownership rate in history, increasing Pell grants) they really paled compared to these other actions as for its effect on the party. Clinton also gets credit for events that were outside of his control. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was due to the tech revolution underway and the end of the Cold War. He did little to facilitate or shepherd the tech revolution. In any event, lots of jobs went overseas and many traditional Democrats did not feel the party represented them anymore.

Once in Congress, Hillary Clinton proved to be more like Bill than Bernie Sanders. She voted for two wars and took large amounts of money from wealthy Wall Street types. And she felt fine cashing in after leaving her Secretary of State position by giving speeches at inflated prices, often on Wall Street. No wonder then that so many thought she was not genuine. In any event there was little in her record that suggested she would really be a champion for the working class if elected. There was nothing in Trump’s record either, but his lack of a record was an asset. Clinton was a proven insider who had tuned out the working class. With Trump, at least you couldn’t say for sure he wasn’t.

With Trump’s foolishness comes opportunity for Democrats. Will Democrats figure it out this time? We’ll know soon, as the party will soon elect its next national chairman. We must win back these voters. If the next party chairman is another friend of Wall Street then gains will be fleeting at best for Democrats. In the eyes of many Americans, there is little difference between the two parties, as they will screw the working class either way.

However, if the Democratic Party returns to its roots and becomes a populist party again, it may recover its impressive historic strength. It looks like Rep. Keith Ellison will be the next DNC chair. This is a hopeful sign, because Keith seems to get this. If so the Democratic Party may be pulling away at last from the arguably disastrous Clinton years and back to representing the people that matter: the poor and working classes. We are the bulk of the country. Truly working in our interest and the party’s hold on power will be more predictable instead of ephemeral in the years ahead.