Political Animal

Quick Takes: Trump Noise Drowns Out the News

One of the things we should all know by now about Donald Trump is that he thrives on creating controversy and chaos. He’s been very successfully at doing that. This is one of those days when the chaos he created overwhelmed some important news stories. If all you heard about today is that Trump made some asinine comments about Obama not calling Gold Star families, here’s what you missed:

* From the BBC: “IS ‘capital’ falls to US-backed Syrian forces.”

A US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters says it has taken full control of Raqqa, ending three years of rule in the city by so-called Islamic State.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Talal Sello said the fighting was over after a four-month assault.

Clearing operations were now under way to uncover any jihadist sleeper cells and remove landmines, he added.

* Kevin Drum reports: “The War Against ISIS Is All But Over. Thanks, Obama.”

[Obama] did the right thing: he kept the US footprint light; he avoided rules of engagement that would inflame the very people we were trying to liberate; and he understood that the only route to victory lay in a slow but steady campaign. It wasn’t sexy, but it worked.

In a few weeks or months, Donald Trump will announce that we’ve won the war against ISIS. Will he give Obama any recognition for this? Of course not. So that means the rest of us will have to do it for him.

* What Trump tried to destroy last week, Senators Murray and Alexander have come up with a plan to fix.

On Tuesday, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) announced a deal that would fund the cost-sharing reduction payments for two years, make it easier for states to waive some health care regulations, and restore the budget for open enrollment outreach Trump gutted earlier this fall.

* The Trump administration’s attempt to re-negotiate NAFTA isn’t going well.

In the clearest public indication that talks over the North American Free Trade Agreement are going poorly, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland blasted the U.S. for the first time on Tuesday while U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer blasted Canada and Mexico…

Freeland denounced the U.S. for “an approach that seeks to undermine NAFTA rather than modernize it,” warning that the “unconventional” proposals from President Donald Trump’s administration would “turn back the clock” and put tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

Lighthizer, meanwhile, criticized both Canada and Mexico for what he called a “resistance to change,” saying he was “surprised and disappointed” they were obviously acting to defend the “unfair advantage” possessed by Canadian and Mexican companies.

The three parties announced that they would take the trade equivalent of a timeout, starting the fifth round of negotiations a month from now rather than their usual two weeks.

* Here is how a source described the problem to CBC:

The source says it appears some members of the U.S. delegation are uncomfortable with the demands they are presenting, which appear to have been dictated to them by the Trump administration.

“They don’t like what they are doing,” says the source, who was not authorized to speak about the talks on the record.

There also appears to be a sense of confusion about the overall U.S. vision for NAFTA and who is really running the show.

* Another Trump travel ban…another defeat in the courts.

A federal judge in Hawaii blocked the Trump administration Tuesday from enforcing its latest travel ban, just hours before it was set to take effect.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson granted Hawaii’s request to temporarily block the policy that was to be implemented starting early Wednesday. He found Trump’s executive order “suffers from precisely the same maladies as its predecessor.”

* Finally, on that story that is consuming so much oxygen today, I’m going to go with the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words. God bless the Obamas for always being the comforters we needed.



Movement Conservatism Protects Itself With Racism

Ed Gillespie and the Republican Party in Virginia are so bent on using racism as a political weapon that they’re campaigning against sanctuary cities even though Virginia doesn’t have any sanctuary cities. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when you consider the other things they’re doing, including the mailers they’re sending out and the advertisements they’re producing even in downticket races.

I want to go back to July 2nd, 2013. That’s the day I wrote a piece called The GOP is Moving in the Wrong Direction. It was in response to an article Benjy Sarlin had written for MSNBC in which he detailed the transformation that occurred in Republican circles as they moved from following the RNC post-2012 autopsy report’s analysis (that insisted on the political necessity of passing immigration reform) to following the analysis of Real Clear Politics’s Sean Trende (who argued that the GOP could win by opposing immigration reform and getting better turnout and a greater share of the white vote).

What Mr. Sarlin doesn’t broach is the subject of how conservatives might be able to grab a higher percentage of whites and how they might go about driving up white turnout. The most obvious way is to pursue an us vs. them approach that alternatively praises whites as the true, patriotic Americans, and that demonizes non-whites as a drain on the nation’s resources. This is basically the exact strategy pursued by McCain and especially Romney. It’s what Palin was all about, and it’s what that 47% speech was all about.

An added element was introduced by Barack Obama, whose controversial pastor and Kenyan ancestry opened up avenues for both veiled and nakedly racist appeals to the white voter. A white Democratic nominee would be less of an easy target for talk about secret Islamic sympathies and fraudulent birth certificates, but that would only make other racially polarizing arguments more necessary.

The problem is that these attacks have already been made, and they failed in even near-optimal circumstances. Accusing the Democrats of socialism, which is a race-neutral way of accusing the party of being beholden to the racial underclasses, has been proven insufficient. The only hope for a racial-polarization strategy is to get the races to segregate their votes much more thoroughly, and that requires that more and more whites come to conclude that the Democratic Party is the party for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.

That is, indeed, how the party is perceived in the Deep South, but it would be criminal to expand those racial attitudes to the country at large.

The Republicans are coalescing around a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.

The way I look at this is that it wasn’t inevitable. The main reason to take a racist approach was to protect movement conservatism’s rank in the Republican coalition. The party could have moved away from movement conservatism and gone looking for votes from immigrant communities, but it would have had to adapt on more than just racial issues to have success.

Once they determined that they would oppose comprehensive immigration reform, the way was pretty much blocked for them to do anything other than pursue Sean Trende’s formula.

Was it an accident that Donald Trump emerged with a plan to do precisely that?

I have no idea how much foresight and planning went into Trump’s idea for his campaign before he launched it. Most of the time, I’m not inclined to attribute planning to him at all. Maybe he just had a feel for the zeitgeist of the Republican Party and the nation.

Back in 2013, I thought this kind of campaign would be “criminal” but I didn’t discount it working. It has worked. It continues to work, and the Democrats’ advantage in the Virginia gubernatorial race is narrowing to a dead heat.

The Republicans are doing this because they’re driven by movement conservatives who believe it’s the only way they can win in a country that is growing more diverse. The Democrats are grappling with how to adjust as a party to their collapse of support in small towns and rural America, so I know parties can struggle to change to meet new challenges. But the GOP is using racism to protect conservative ideology. They know that immigrant communities don’t share their values on a host of issues related to how the government should function, and they want to avoid having to ask for their votes for as long as possible.

Racial animosity has always been a big part of movement conservatism and of the Christian Coalition, but the need to keep polarizing whites against everyone else is making it more central and more transparent than ever before. It’s actually making people more racist, both by design and by osmosis.

For the Republican Party to break this transformation into a fascist party, they need a rump to emerge with a lot of financial backing that is opposed to movement conservatism and that refuses to cede the party to them. We’ve seen push-back when the business community intervened to stop anti-gay measures pushed in North Carolina and Mike Pence’s Indiana. I know it is possible for traditional Republicans to organize, finance and push back against the extremists in their midst. But when a guy like Ed Gillespie is using racism like this in the Virginia governor’s race, it’s obvious that this process has not yet begun.

Republicans Are Already in Deep Trouble on Tax Cuts

I have always assumed that Republicans will pass some form of tax cuts. I still wouldn’t bet against that probability. But to understand just how much trouble they’re in right now when it comes to getting that done, take a look at the quotes Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey rounded up.

“We look at the Senate and go: ‘What the hell is going on?’” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said in an interview Friday.

“The House passed health care, the House has already passed its budget, which is the first step of tax reform. The Senate hasn’t done any of that. Hell, the Senate can’t pass any of our confirmations,” Mulvaney fumed in an interview, slapping a table for emphasis. “You ask me if the Republican-controlled Senate is an impediment to the administration’s agenda: All I can tell you is so far, the answer’s yes.”…

Trump complained in front of TV cameras that the Senate is “not getting the job done” and said he sees where Steve Bannon — his former chief strategist now planning to run primary challengers against incumbent Republican senators — “is coming from.”

And House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), when asked Monday to name the biggest impediment to tax reform, replied: “You ever heard of the United States Senate before?”

The finger-pointing has already begun, and they haven’t even produced a piece of legislation yet. Everett and Dawsey go on to point out that things are looking so bad that Sen. Ron Johnson is already pitching his own tax cut plan as the alternative when this one fails.

“I don’t want to be a problem child here, but what I’m offering is a plan B,” Johnson added. “If they can’t get the votes … I’ve got an alternative.”

What Speaker Ryan doesn’t want to acknowledge is that the current tax cut framework isn’t just facing trouble in the Senate.

The House is sure to labor to pass tax reform, too. Members from high-tax states are already rebelling against plans to gut the deduction for state and local taxes.

It might be that all of this finger-pointing isn’t merely a way to set others up to take the blame when/if Republicans fail to pass any tax cuts. As Mulvaney suggested to Everett and Dawsey, it is actually a way to apply pressure.

But maybe, he suggested, the pressure on McConnell and “the Senate’s failure to pass health care might actually help us to get tax reform passed. Because I think they know they need to get something done.”

But if Mulvaney and others think that McConnell requires this kind of pressure to pass tax cuts, they demonstrate their own ignorance of the Senate Majority Leader, while further undermining his position. The very fact that Mulvaney is suggesting that McConnell and the Senate require pressure to pass tax cuts tells you that he thinks the whole endeavor is in trouble.

These dynamics are presenting us with the fascinating spectacle of Donald Trump attempting to play the role of peacemaker between McConnell and Bannon. That’s what the whole Rose Garden appearance was about yesterday.

Trump sought to unite Republicans with a public embrace of McConnell, who stood next to the president in the White House Rose Garden on Monday during an impromptu 40-minute news conference. Trump declared his party “very unified,” described himself as “closer than ever before” with McConnell and said he’d ask Bannon to back off a promised “season of war” against Republican incumbents.

There are deep fears in the White House and among Republicans that the tax overhaul, considered vital for next year’s midterms by the party’s strategists, will follow Obamacare repeal to the legislative ash heap. That would likely leave Trump without a substantive legislative accomplishment after a year in office.

Bannon is obviously having none of it.

Steve Bannon won’t abandon his war against congressional Republican incumbents, not even after President Donald Trump publicly pleaded for a truce that could salvage the tax overhaul at the heart of his legislative agenda.

Trump’s ousted chief strategist will continue to back insurgent candidates who pledge to usurp Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a person familiar with Bannon’s plans said. His message was made plain on Monday on the Breitbart News website he once again runs: “Bitter Mitch! Triggered by Bannon,” one headline crowed.

Both Trump and McConnell want to pass tax cuts in an attempt to save their own skin. But if Bannon is prepared to forgo a Republican majority in order to play the long game of taking control of the GOP, I suspect he isn’t all that concerned about whether or not tax cuts are passed. As a matter of fact, his declared war with the Republican establishment will get quite a boost if tax cuts fail.

Frankly, I don’t have a dog in this fight. And this is certainly not a case where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with three people who have done more damage to our country than Trump, McConnell and Bannon. So all I’ll say is “Please proceed, fellas.”

For Their Own Good, the Senate Republicans Shouldn’t Pass Their Budget

The Senate Republicans have a big decision to make this week. Are they going to approve a budget?

Despite the slimmest of margins, made narrower by the absence of an ailing Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Senate Republicans will try this week to adopt a budget that allows the party to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion. Their success isn’t assured, since Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have yet to commit to the plan. Securing the votes — assuming House Republicans then follow suit and accept the Senate version — makes it more likely that Republicans won’t be heading home empty-handed from the tax project. The budget will give them enough leash at least to slash individual rates temporarily, as they did in with the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.

Senator Corker of Tennessee is a clear skeptic of the framework that has been discussed for tax reform, but he’s indicated that he considers the vote on the budget a procedural move rather than an otherwise important document that sets out the spending priorities for his governing party. It sounds like he will not stand in the way of passing a budget, even though he’s definitely not yet on board with voting for any final tax product.

I’ve discussed this over and over again: the budget is needed to begin a process known as “budget reconciliation.” Using this process, the Senate Republicans can pass a tax bill with only fifty votes and the vice-president breaking the tie. If they can’t pass a budget, they can’t use this process to avoid a filibuster and they will have to actually negotiate a tax bill with the Democrats. This isn’t the only procedural hurdle standing in the way of a successful tax effort, but it’s the first and most important one.

With Sen. Cochran unavailable, the GOP can only afford to lose one additional vote. Yet they still stand a good chance of prevailing on the budget because it’s seen not so much as a substantive bill over which you might haggle than as a permission slip to begin the process.

I don’t usually have any interest in offering the Republicans advice, but I am going to make an exception in this case. It would be a major mistake to vote for the budget.

Once they approve a budget, it will start a process much like the one they went through in the effort to repeal Obamacare. Only in this case, the likelihood of success depends much more on how you want to define success. If the idea is to enact a major tax reform reminiscent of the 1986 overhaul, the odds against that are 100 percent. If the idea is to pass a permanent tax cut that won’t sunset, the rules of budget reconciliation make this almost completely impossible because they won’t be able to create something that is budget neutral past a ten-year window. If, on the other hand, they’re willing to do something that expires after ten years and that isn’t all that ambitious, they have a decent chance of accomplishing their goal.

The first consideration for the Republican senators who will be voting on the budget this week is whether they want to roll the dice on some watered down tax cuts based on nothing better than a decent chance of success. Perhaps the consequences of failure are too great to contemplate and not making the effort at all would be too catastrophic to countenance. Maybe a decent chance looks better than no chance.

But even assuming that they want to give it a shot, they should look at the kind of mess they’re headed into. Take the following as an example:

Tax-writers originally envisioned a full repeal generating some $1.5 trillion in revenue to help fund lower rates and immediate expensing of capital investments. But the proposed rollback of the tax code’s preference for debt financing has already sprung a number of leaks — with lawmakers talking up the possibility of carve-outs for farmers and ranchers, electric utilities, land purchases and others.

Likewise, the push by Republican leaders to scrap the deduction for state and local taxes is taking on water. Republicans in high-tax states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have called the proposal a nonstarter. So, the GOP brass is hoping to limit the break for top earners, although how to define that group isn’t obvious.

They’re going to find themselves in a situation where they’re creating an unholy mess of a tax code with all kinds of carve outs, introduced solely to try to get every last vote that they’ll need and not because the carve outs make any sense or have any merit.

The resulting bill will be predictably awful. Consider for a moment the distorting incentives that would be created by something like this:

National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn channeled the sentiment on Monday, telling the annual meeting of American Bankers Association in Chicago that tax-writers are considering limiting a repeal of the interest deduction to corporations. That would mean businesses organized on the individual side of the code, including real estate partnerships such as the Trump Organization, could still claim the break.

The more you look at how the tax code will be slapped together in a haphazard manner to secure votes, the easier it is to see both how difficult it will be to succeed and the high probability that the legislation is a disgrace that will burden anyone who supported it.

All of this can be avoided by simply slamming on the brakes now and refusing to authorize the budget that is needed to get this process started.

The person most likely to take this position is Senator John McCain, who has already said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to continue to try to push Trump’s agenda through using the budget reconciliation process. He wants “regular order,” which means a typical process with committee hearings and markups and an extensive amendment process. But it also means that the process will require the ultimate support of sixty senators.

Mitch McConnell can’t tell the party’s donors that he cannot pass a worthwhile tax cut. Donald Trump isn’t going to tell them that. The only way to avoid this mess is for a couple of Republican senators to kill the effort in the crib by refusing to vote for the budget.

It might seem like a giant betrayal, but if it saves the party from wasting months of effort on a process that can never achieve their main goals and has no better than a decent chance of resulting in (what will be) a terrible tax bill, then preventing the budget from passing will be an act of principled sacrifice that is in the medium-term interests of the party.

Of course, if McCain goes this route and Cochran can’t vote, there still needs to be one more Republican senator who is willing to stand up and introduce some sanity into the conversation. I wouldn’t place any bets on this happening, but it’s within the realm of possibility. For example, Sen. Rand Paul just announced that he will oppose the budget unless the leadership agrees “to cut billions in spending from the plan.” On the other hand, he also just voted for a motion to proceed to the bill.

If the budget fails, the Senate will regroup and the Finance Committee will begin looking at ideas that the Democrats could support. The donors will be furious, obviously, but also interested in seeing what they could get out of a bipartisan process.

Before long, it will be clear that both Trump and McConnell have been saved from a repeat performance of the Affordable Care Act fiasco. They’ll probably both see an uptick in their approval numbers once the Republican base gets over their initial disappointment.

And a bill that would have some support from the Democrats actually could be produced in time for the midterms, taking steam out of the narrative that the Republicans are too ideological to govern.

If the budget passes, it will ensure a disaster for the Republicans. It’s hard to convince them of this. They believe the exact opposite to be the case. But they’re wrong, and it won’t do them any good to find this out the hard way.