Political Animal

Finally, a Never Trumper Admits It’s Time to Blow Up the GOP

As Elizabeth Kolbert documented a few years ago, human beings don’t change their minds about much of anything very often. That goes a long way towards explaining the durability of some of Trump’s support. It is also why I have been pretty fascinated with many of the Never Trumpers. Some of them have managed the incredibly difficult task of examining their loyalty to the Republican Party and changing their minds.

No one has done that more courageously than Stuart Stevens, who spent most of his adult life not only supporting the Republican Party, but being one of their major political consultants. David Corn recently interviewed Stevens, who takes the whole idea of personal responsibility very seriously.

He once believed in GOP ideals and ideas. Now he saw it all as a huge con. His new book is a confession and cri de coeur. The first line is blunt: “I have no one to blame but myself.” In these pages, Stevens self-flagellates, calling himself a “fool” for his decades of believing—and lying to himself—that the Republican Party was based on “a core set of values.” Acknowledging his role, Stevens writes, “So yes, blame me. Blame me when you look around and see a dysfunctional political system and a Republican Party that has gone insane.”

That is what gives Stevens’ analysis of how the GOP went insane some credibility.

“The Republican Party has been a cartel,” Stevens said excitedly. “And no one asks a cartel, ‘What’s your ideological purpose?’ You don’t ask OPEC, ‘What’s your ideology?’ You don’t ask a drug gang, ‘What’s your program?’ The Republicans exist for the pursuit of power for no purpose.”

He huffed that the Republican Party had not merely drifted away from its core positions, as sometimes occurs with political parties: “Fair trade, balanced budgets, character, family values, standing up to foreign adversaries like Russia—we’re all against that now. You have to ask, ‘Does someone abandon deeply held beliefs in three or four years?’ No. It means you didn’t ever hold them.”…

He rejected the common view that Trump had hijacked the GOP. No, he explained, the triumph of know-nothing Trumpism marked the culmination of an internal conflict that had existed for decades between the party’s “dark side” and its professed ideals. Even William F. Buckley Jr., often hailed as a grand public intellectual and the founding father of the modern conservative movement, was “a stone-cold racist” in the 1950s, Stevens pointed out…

“And it’s all about race. The Republican Party is a white party and there still are more white people than non-white people.” So that is whom the party aims at—even if this will eventually be a losing proposition as the nation’s demographics continue to shift.

Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), said something similar when he was interviewed by Jennifer Rubin.

It’s important to note that the Republican Party has a decades-long history of deploying, in various degrees, what has been dubbed “the Southern Strategy,” a racist dog-whistle politics that fuels white grievances and exploits racial divisions to win elections. In 2005, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the NAACP for these tactics. But that was 2005…

The one enduring, animating issue that fueled white flight from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party has been civil rights for African Americans. This was the issue that originally pulled Jerry Falwell Sr. out from behind the pulpit and into organizing the Christian right political movement. This white-supremacist undercurrent, tied to White Christian identity, is the key to understanding our current political polarization and the transformation of our two political parties over the last few decades.

It is, however, important to recall why Republicans adopted the so-called “Southern Strategy.” It was in order to avoid the development of a coalition of working class whites and people of color that would threaten their hold on power. As Tim Wise eloquently explained, that tactic of divide and conquer has a long and sordid history in this country. So it should come as no surprise that during the 60s and 70s, when liberals were threatening the status quo, Nixon was able to win by dividing. When something works, why change course?

It is also important to understand that the Republican Party needed a cover for their actual agenda. David Roberts nailed that one when he dubbed them the “post-truth” party.

Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda.

Being the party of the uber-wealthy wasn’t going to win any elections for the Republicans. But Reagan was able to not only send out enough dog whistles to mobilize working Americans, he actually convinced millions of them that tax cuts for the wealthy and de-regulation of corporations was going to trickle money down to them. The more that didn’t work, the more blatant became the message about how government programs were the problem because they were designed to help “welfare queens.”

By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, all of that was beginning to fall apart. Being post-truth wasn’t enough to cover for the Great Recession, two unending wars in the Middle East, and the disastrous response to Katrina. That’s when Republicans became the “post-policy” party and simply decided to obstruct anything Democrats attempted to do. With the first African American president, the dog whistles became fog horns and racism was pretty much all the GOP had left.

Stevens also noted the post-policy positioning of the party by sharing “his fear that young political operatives working for the party have drawn the lesson that a candidate must emulate Trump to win—that what most matters is not policy ideas but the ability to attack and exploit fears, divisions, tribalism, and resentments.” Right on queue Jeremy Peters documents how Trump’s enablers in right wing media don’t defend the president, but simply strive to “own the libs.”

Ms. [Molly] Hemingway is part of a group of conservative commentators — who have large social media followings, successful podcasts and daily Fox News appearances — that has helped insulate the president and preserve his popularity with his base, even as many Americans say they are likely to vote against him in November.

What these writers and pundits don’t tend to do is make the doggedly pro-Trump defenses that appear on Breitbart and erupt from the mouth of Sean Hannity. Often, they don’t bother at all with the awkward business of trying to explain away Mr. Trump’s latest folly.

Instead, they offer an outlet for outrage against those the president has declared his enemies, often by reducing them to a culture war caricature of liberalism.

All of that is why, when Sean Hannity asked Trump to lay out his agenda for a second term, the president rambled about his inauguration and attacked John Bolton. It is also why the folks at MeidasTouch were able to catch Trump in a major lie during his interview with Chris Wallace two weeks ago.

As an aside, it’s not a coincidence that they used the song “I Wish I Was in Dixie” as the background music for that ad. They were sending a not-so-hidden message about Trump’s real agenda.

Having given up on both truth and policy, all the Republicans have left is their desire for power, with racism as their only tool. So what does Stevens recommend as a solution?  “Burn [the GOP] to the ground and start over.”

The One Thing We Know About Biden’s VP Choice

Apart from the daily outrages of Trump and his enablers, the hot political story these days is the countdown to Biden’s announcement of his running mate. As a reminder, here are the guidelines the candidate laid out for his selection process. His choice for vice president will be:

  1. a woman,
  2. able to step into the job of being president from day one,
  3. someone who agrees with him in principle and philosophically,
  4. someone who can make up for his weaknesses,
  5. someone he can trust, and
  6. someone who will tell him the truth, but will always have his back.

What is clear from that list is that, other than the gender of the candidate, the most important thing for Biden is to replicate—as close as possible—his relationship with Barack Obama.

As we view all of the commentary leading up to this announcement, it is important to keep in mind that most of the arguments being made in favor of one candidate or against another are meaningless. For example, as Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko documented, “running mates usually fail to deliver votes among targeted geographic or demographic groups.”

Other than being made in the midst of a pandemic, there is one factor in this process that sets it apart from historical precedents. The number one item on the list up above has limited the discussion to various women candidates. As such, we’re hearing some arguments that have never surfaced in the past when it was assumed that the nominee would be a man. For example, I don’t remember vice presidential candidates being criticized for being too ambitious or wanting to run for president someday. In most instances, those things were assumed, indicating that this is the kind of critique that is only leveled against women.

The truth is that, among the women who are rumored to be under consideration, any one of them would be an impressive choice. It seems that in politics these days, we actually have to point out that none of them is perfect, even though that has never been true of any human being on the planet. But it is hard to imagine any one of these women being the kind of colossal failure we all witnessed when John McCain chose Sarah Palin.

As the old saying goes, Biden actually has an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to choosing just one of these women to be his running mate—which is something Democrats should keep in mind when/if their preferred woman isn’t chosen. That’s because the biggest challenge a new administration will face is to clean up the horrendous mess left by the Trump administration. Biden’s cabinet will be at least as important as his vice president. So there will be a critical job for everyone on the list.

As we await Biden’s announcement, there is one thing we know about his choice. The initial reaction from Trump and his enablers will be to attack her with everything they’ve got. The idea that any one of them will be an easier target or a safe bet is, at best, incredibly naive. Over at Fox News, Liz Peek gave us a preview of how all of that will play out.

Here’s what we do know:  almost certainly Biden will pick a woman of color; he has no choice. He owes his nomination to black voters, and they have demanded a seat at the table.

The short list of potential running mates now includes Sen. Kamala Harris, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, California Rep. Karen Bass, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, Florida Rep. Val Demings and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

While all five of these women have impressive bios, all have serious shortcomings and none can possibly perform the heavy lifting that this role will require.

Peek goes through each one of these women’s “shortcomings” only to conclude that when Biden delayed his announcement until next week, it must be because he is dithering.

No wonder Biden is dithering. He is looking for a loyal and like-minded vice president and partner, the VP he was to Barack Obama and Mike Pence has been to President Trump. But he also needs someone to light up the ticket.

Another week will not solve this puzzle.

Trump and his enablers have thrown everything they can think of at Joe Biden, but nothing is sticking. So they’ll do the exact same thing to his vice presidential nominee—with the ultimate aim of suggesting that Biden is weak and an “empty vessel” controlled by those around him. That’s what is coming, regardless of his choice.

But all along, voters have made one thing perfectly clear: this election will not be primarily about Joe Biden or his running mate. Instead, it will be a referendum on the narcissistic, mendacious, incompetent bully who currently occupies the Oval Office. If you think that a choice of running mate by the opposition changes things, Morning Consult has a poll for that.

While some of the potential candidates with less name recognition don’t fare as well in national polling, a margin of error of +/- 2 points indicates that Biden’s choice won’t have much effect.

Presidential elections after one four-year term are often a referendum on the incumbent. That has never been more true than it will be in November. The dynamics of this race have already been set, leaving Biden free to pick the woman who can best help him govern.

Why a Big Biden Win Will Make America Less Polarized and More Governable

When I wrote How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values for the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, I was seeking a way for the Democrats to win back the White House, the House of Representatives, and control of state legislatures. The title of the piece carried more meaning than you might think, because it wasn’t solely about the moral quandary of courting the votes of so-called “deplorables.” It was part of my thesis that a party dependent primarily on affluent, well-educated suburbanites would do a poor job of being an advocate for working class men and women, irrespective of their race. For a host of reasons, I wanted the Democrats to pursue a broad front strategy, and I absolutely believed that Trump’s complete dominance of white working class voters was reversible.

I might have argued that Trump was certain to be such a colossal screw up that he’d lose a significant chunk of his support, but that would have hardly created a blueprint for action. I wasn’t content to act on faith, which is why I emphasized the importance of Democrats taking antitrust enforcement seriously, in an effort to revitalize small business ownership and opportunity throughout small town America. As it turns out, the Democrats didn’t have to do much of anything but sit back and let Trump alienate first the suburbs and now the remainder of the country.

That’s not entirely accurate, actually, because while suburban seats formed the basis for the new Democratic House majority after the 2018 midterms, the Republicans actually lost a higher percentage of their support in safely red districts. The “deplorable” defection was significant two years ago, it just didn’t have much of an effect. It’s a process that has sped up and now threatens to have a huge effect.

Harry Enten explains for CNN that white working class voters have turned on Trump to a significant degree.

Biden has clear leads in an average of the last three CNN approved polls in the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On average, Biden is up by 9 points in Michigan, 11 points in Pennsylvania and 10 points in Wisconsin.

Biden’s upward trajectory is because of vast improvements among White voters in a comparison of Biden’s standing in each poll to how Clinton did with them…

…Still, the size of Biden’s rise over Clinton in these states is clear enough that it’s well outside the range of any statistical anomaly.

  • Michigan: Trump leads by an average of 3 points among White voters. Four years ago, Trump won amongst these voters by 15 points.
  • Pennsylvania: Biden is ahead by 3 points with White voters. In 2016, Trump won them by 15 points.
  • Wisconsin: Biden’s up by 6 points with White voters. Last election, Trump took them by 7 points.

These are three important states, but the collapse of Trump’s advantage with white voters is having an impact on races in every state, including Republican strongholds like Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Kansas. It was never true that white working class voters were inseparably wed to Donald Trump. They still form his strongest group of support, but they were a bedrock part of the New Deal Democratic coalition for a reason. They knew the Republicans were the party for their factory bosses and distant plutocrats. They belonged to a working man’s party until the economy stopped delivering them a decent lifestyle, and then they became susceptible to highly targeted media-driven efforts to appeal to their basest instincts and cultural alienation.

They’re still susceptible to those messages, but they’re turning on Trump because he’s manifestly terrible at his job. It won’t take too much of a defection for “safe” red districts and states to begin to fall in the Democrats’ column. And that will have one big consequence. For the first time in a long time, the country will get less polarized. It will be less polarized geographically, and also less polarized by race and culture. As a result, the country will become more governable.

There will be Democrats who don’t want these voters in their coalition, just as there are Democrats who don’t welcome the #NeverTrumpers who brought us Dick and George’s Excellent Adventure in Iraq. They won’t be reliable allies or stalwart members of the base. But, on many economic issues, they can be crucial supporters. If you want a higher minimum wage, a more comprehensive health care system, and the breakup of super-monopolies that are stifling economic opportunity, these folks are going to be very helpful.

Large, durable political majorities have always included some “deplorables.” Lincoln’s Republican Party took in the Know-Nothings. FDR’s majority was anchored in the segregated South. Big majorities make it possible to do big things, and that’s what the country needs right now.

Forcing People Back to Work in a Pandemic is Both Stupid and Immoral

America’s economy is teetering on a precipice. The COVID pandemic, abetted by the Trump administration’s incompetent and immoral failure in responding to it, has pushed to the brink a nation already staggering from record generational and racial inequalities in housing, income and debt. The economy has contracted by almost a third. The unemployment rate has hit a Great Depression-level 15%, with little prospect of improvement. 32% of Americans missed their rent or mortgage payments in July, even as eviction protections just expired last week. A looming social crisis more severe than the Great Depression has only been staved off temporarily by unprecedented federal stimulus–help that is coming to an end while Senate Republicans and the Trump White House dither.

The continued exuberance of the stock market in these crisis conditions is no salve, either: it only makes the problem worse. Much populist anger on both sides of the aisle is driven by the realization that the federal government exists primarily in order to prop up the fortunes of the wealthy living off passive income. The Dow Jones is clearly not an indicator of any objective sense of economic health, but rather a Rich People’s Feelings Index disconnected from the lived experience of the vast majority of working Americans.

Americans not lucky enough to depend on passive wealth are in desperate need of money to pay for food, rent and necessities. Even those who have maintained salaries working from home are often at wit’s end trying to take care of children or older loved ones in social isolation while working full-time from home without the support of school, babysitting or elder care. People need help. Unfortunately, the same Trump White House that functionally committed genocide by letting poor people of color and likely Democratic voters die in blue states and counties for political reasons, is also trying to cut unemployment benefits for the desperate and force them into outside work.

First, if people getting $600 a week from government assistance are being “overpaid” compared to their jobs, that says much more about their wage than about the assistance.  $600 per week is not a living wage in any American city. Minimum wage workers are literally unable to pay rent anywhere. That itself is a crisis. If a job needs doing, then basic justice and social stability require the person doing it to be able afford at a minimum food, shelter and basic dignity.  If an economic system makes that impossible, then it’s time to rethink the grounding principles of that system. Economic systems exist to serve people, not the other way around. The outrage of it is even more acute given that billionaires saw their fortunes explode upwards to the tune of $434 billion more, even as so many of the workers we have deemed “essential” to the nation’s survival slip further into the abyss.

But second and perhaps more importantly, trying to incentivize people to work in a raging pandemic is both morally perverse and economically stupid. The problem isn’t a lack of jobs: it’s a lack of customers. No one in their right mind wants to go to malls or dining indoors in bars and restaurants right now. The few that are, are those who have bought into conservative infotainment propaganda declaring the virus a hoax or who believe that the pandemic is only a problem for those Other people who live where they don’t and don’t look like them. But even that crowd is beginning to understand the scope of the problem as the pandemic has shifted to Trump country. The leopards are eating everyone’s faces now. Not even most diehard conservatives want to die, do permanent damage to their heart and lungs, or get their parents killed for Trump. You can force a hairdresser back into the salon, but you can’t make people come in for haircuts.

The problem, in other words, isn’t supply or incentives: it’s a basic lack of demand. Acolytes of Milton Friedman economics don’t seem even capable of understanding this point. As Paul Krugman said yesterday in a series of tweets:

To make sense of the benefits disaster, you have to realize that Republicans don’t understand that lack of sufficient demand can cause mass unemployment. I don’t mean that they’ve rejected that view; they don’t even know where it comes from…In [conservative economist Larry Kudlow’s] view, higher output means lower inflation, because money is chasing more goods. Not a hint that he understood that output might be depressed because of insufficient spending, or even that he understood the concept. “I don’t get it,” he declared; that at least was true…

So the whole GOP lives in a mental universe in which the only reason people might be unemployed is because they don’t want to work, or maybe because employers pay too much taxes. The idea that cutting off income for millions will lead to more unemployment isn’t in their mind. And what they don’t know can very much hurt you, and almost everyone else.

As long as the virus is raging, you can’t open schools without exposing teachers, administrators, parents and functionally the entire community to infection, debilitating health risks and death. If schools cannot open, parents cannot effectively work. People won’t patronize restaurants or bars that are COVID death traps. Not even professional sports teams in non-contact sports with essentially unlimited resources can protect their teams from mass infection, even without stadium crowds.

There is no path to reopening the economy that does not begin with controlling the virus. As long as there is no consistent federal effort to lock down, test and contact trace, the virus will not be contained. Without containment, the government must use its money printing ability to pay people to stay home. If the inflation hawks insist there is no money to do so, perhaps they should acquire some for the federal coffers by conscripting some of the nearly $500 billion that billionaires have looted just in the last few months.

You cannot force an entire country’s citizens to sacrifice their lives on the altar of Steve Mnuchin’s investment returns. Any attempt to do so would inevitably trigger riots, even veering into violent revolt and low-scale civil conflict in a hyperpartisan powder keg. It would literally tear the country apart. And it wouldn’t work, anyway.

If Republican politicians want a sharp economic recovery to boost their election prospects, there is no alternative to doing what they should have done back in February and March: control the virus, develop a federal test and trace program, and pay people to stay home and take care of themselves, their kids and loved ones. We need to be reducing the pressure on and danger to all the essential workers in healthcare, food preparation, civil infrastructure and elsewhere, on whom our basic functioning as a society depends.

Forcing people back to work in a pandemic is economically stupid, civically destructive and morally outrageous.