Political Animal Blog

No, The Resistance Isn’t Working Quite Well

On most days, if you asked me what I would do if I was given a time machine that allowed me to travel back in time to the 1960’s, I’d tell you that I’d go see Jimi Hendrix light his guitar on fire at the Monterrey Pop Festival or watch Sandy Koufax pitch or Mickey Mantle hit. There are a lot of things I wish I could have seen in person.

Only with more reflection might I get it in my head to try to change history somehow, like the protagonist in Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 who tries to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.

What I wouldn’t do is go to a town hall meeting to confront my congressman about the Vietnam War or join in some vigil in front of the Pentagon. It’s not that those things are unworthy. I joined a protest outside my congressman’s local office just three weeks ago. But they are still small ball.

If that all The Resistance amounts to, it doesn’t amount to much.

That’s why I think Jonathan Chait overstates the case:

It is worth noting that, so far, normal political countermobilization seems to be working quite well. “The Resistance,” as anti-Trump activists have come to be known, has already rattled the once-complacent Republican majorities in Congress, which Trump needs to quash investigations of his corruption and opaque ties to Russia. Whatever pressure Trump has tried to apply to the news media has backfired spectacularly. His sneering contempt has inspired a wave of subscriptions that have driven new revenue to national media, which have blanketed the administration with independent coverage. Popular culture outlets, rather than responding to Trump’s election by tempering their mockery, have instead stepped it up, enraging the president.

As I have tried to make clear in two recent posts, I don’t think it’s really possible to rattle the Republican majorities because they are too ensconced in power to have a need to worry about accountability. Maybe some congresspeople are avoiding town halls that are guaranteed to do them more harm than good, but that doesn’t mean that more than a handful of them are actually more worried about getting beaten by Democrats than by primary challengers from their right.

And the press may not be going docile on Trump, but that doesn’t mean that their reporting is more effective now than it was during the campaign.

As for popular culture, we saw what that was worth on November 8th.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from their efforts to resist, but I also don’t want people to think that what’s being done so far is “working quite well.” It’s not.

What’s working more than anything is what Trump and his team are doing and not doing. Their incompetence and overreach are limiting their effectiveness and creating divisions on the right. Aside from modestly effective obstruction by Senate Democrats, the only thing slowing down Trump and the congressional Republicans is their radicalism combined with their amateurish grasp of how to use the tools they now own.

They will start to figure these things out. They’ll get their people in place. And they’ll begin to really hammer and disempower their political enemies.

Keeping them divided and fighting among themselves is the best strategy for now, but the political resistance needs to be geographic in scope and focus. Local Democratic organizations that have been dormant for years need to lead this charge from below, but the messaging at the top needs to change, too.

Maybe a half century from now it will be easy to fantasize about what we should have done while we still had a chance to change history, but we should try to apply that kind of thinking now while our choices remain real.

Republicans Could Have Blown Up Obamacare Yesterday, But Didn’t

If Republicans really wanted to send Obamacare into a death spiral, they had the perfect chance to do so yesterday. In order to understand the opportunity they let pass them by, we need to dive into the weeds a bit to understand a court case on a little known funding mechanism for making health insurance affordable on the Obamacare exchanges.

It was understood by the framers of health care reform that the exchanges might not initially draw enough business from mostly healthy young people to offset the costs of insuring those with more chronic medical conditions. In order to keep premiums down and make plans more affordable, the law included subsidies to health insurance providers for covering low income participants. The problem was that there was no funding mechanism for this provision included in Obamacare. So the administration applied other funds from the Treasury.

In 2014, House Republicans sued the Obama administration over this and a federal district judge ruled in their favor, but stayed the decision to allow the administration time to appeal the ruling. That appeal was still in the works when Trump was elected. Immediately following the election, Republicans asked the court to pause its proceedings until February 21st (yesterday), presumably to give the new administration the opportunity to weigh how to handle the lawsuit.

Once Trump was inaugurated, with Jeff Sessions confirmed as Attorney General, all the administration would have had to do is drop the appeal and the federal district judge’s ruling would stand, ending the subsidies. The result would have been chaos in the insurance market – leading to the very real possibility that companies would either significantly increase their premiums or pull out of the exchanges altogether.

Instead, yesterday a joint motion was filed by House Republicans and the Justice Department to extend the current stay indefinitely in order to “allow time for a resolution that would obviate the need for judicial determination of this appeal, including potential legislative action.”

What this signals is that both the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress are very well aware of the fact that they would face significant blowback if they were to trigger problems with the coverage provided to millions of people via Obamacare. While that has become increasingly obvious since they actually had the power to repeal the law, it is interesting to note that when they didn’t have that power, they constantly made great shows of being willing to blow the whole thing up. They had the opportunity to actually do that yesterday, but chose not to.

The GOP’s Dangerous Advantages

Ed Kilgore looks at the polling data and the landscape for the 2018 congressional elections and makes the point that Trump isn’t as unpopular as you might like to believe and that, even if he were, the Republicans are not yet vulnerable to a 2010-like shellacking in the next midterms.

Ed’s right.

I wrote about this in a very pessimistic piece we published on February 10th. My conclusion was that we’ve arrived at a point where the Democrats can win the popular vote and lose the presidency, win the popular vote and lose seats in the Senate, and win the popular vote and not gain control of the House. The first of those just happened for the second time in the last five presidential elections, and the latter two are more likely than not to happen in 2018.

As a result, the Republicans don’t fear accountability as much as they should, and certainly are less subject to external pressure than the Democrats.

The concern I expressed is that “the Republicans’ advantages are currently so great that we cannot get any accountability…and, soon, there’s a real risk of a breakdown in public order when people finally realize that our country is no longer even passingly representative.”

For now, disgruntled Americans are marching peacefully and gently trolling town hall meetings, but this strikes me as energy that needs to see results. They haven’t yet realized what they’re up against, and if they ever do realize it there will be less peace and gentleness to their approach.

A lot of people woke up from a slumber on election day, and more people are getting mobilized against Trump every day, but the system is rigged so heavily against them that they can win the elections by millions of votes and wind up with less power than when they began, or, at least, not enough additional power to make any meaningful difference.

I don’t see how we can maintain faith in a political system like this.

As for the Democrats, they need to break out of their urban comfort zones because they’ll never win back the House or State legislatures with the geographic base that they have now. The situation was barely tolerable when it seemed like they had a lock on the White House, but it’s plainly not acceptable now.

I don’t blame the Republicans for liking this system, since it so greatly favors them, but they shouldn’t be complacent about the country’s willingness to accept their right to lead. For now, people are frustrated and fearful but they still have hope. When they realize that that hope is unfounded, there is going to be trouble.

An Alternative Strategy for Democratic Success: Growing a New Electorate

We often hear that the problem Democrats are facing is that they not only lost the presidency in 2016, but are getting trounced at the state and local level. Much has been written about that challenge, but we rarely dive into the weeds about solutions or shine a spotlight on successes.

What if I was to tell you about a county in a red state where Democrats won almost every slot on the ballot in 2016 (some for the first time in decades) and Clinton won by over 160,000 votes, after Obama’s margin was less than a thousand in 2012? That is exactly the story Andrew Cockburn tells us about Harris County Texas (Houston and the surrounding suburbs).

Cockburn credits the work of three women for those results: Michelle Tremolo, Ginny Goldman and Crystal Zermeno—two of whom met while working for the now-defunct organization ACORN. They created an organization called the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). Given that Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, the first order of business for TOP was to find out who was not voting.

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

The next step was one that is too often skipped. TOP wanted to learn why 4 million registered voters of color (likely Democrats) in Texas don’t show up at the polls. They conducted a series of focus groups and, armed with the results, began organizing them to have an impact on local concerns, predominantly criminal justice issues. Starting with the 2012 election, they began mobilizing both volunteers and paid staff to work in their own neighborhoods with relentless efforts to get out the vote. As a result, in that year Latino turnout in Harris County increased by 5%. In 2016, the success wasn’t limited to Harris County.

East Dallas County, a band of suburbs to the east and south of Dallas, comprises House District 107 in the state legislature. Despite a Latino and African-American majority, Republicans have been carrying the district for years, albeit with narrow margins. This time, however, thanks to an intense registration and organizing drive by TOP and other groups, including labor unions, Victoria Neave, the Democratic candidate, ousted her Republican opponent by 836 votes.

Much of the effort to understand what happened in the 2016 election has rightfully focused on how Democrats can win back white voters in the so-called “Rust-Belt” states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Those are important questions to answer going forward. But what might be effective in those states isn’t necessarily a formula for the rest of the country.

It is worth noting that Trump’s margin of victory in Ohio was about the same size as his margin in Texas (both around 8%). That is on the heels of Romney winning Texas by almost 16 points in 2012. As TOP learned, they need about 1.1 million of the 4 million registered non-voters of color in that state to produce a majority and turn Texas blue. The same dynamics are true in states like Arizona and Georgia. If those three states were to vote Democratic, they would provide about the same number of electoral votes (65) as would be captured by Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

As TOP organizers are quick to point out, demographics isn’t destiny. But in some states like Texas, there is a “shadow electorate” to be mobilized. Here is the formula that drove their efforts:

By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

In summary, the formula for Democratic victories in some states is to win back voters the party has lost. In other states, it’s all about growing a new electorate.