Political Animal

Trump’s Offer Is a Joke

One of the most important things to understand about Donald Trump is that he only does things for one of two reasons: money or optics. He has no sense of responsibility to society at large, and his only political instincts are in the service of ill-formed racist and sexist resentments.

So it was with Trump’s half-baked special announcement today, offering a temporary 3-year protection for Americans covered under DACA in exchange for a $5 billion of border wall funding.

This is a joke. The president knows it’s a joke. And Democrats are appropriately treating it as a joke. It’s entirely for optics. But the problem for the the president and his party is that most Americans already decided that the wall is stupid, Trump is responsible for the shutdown, and DACA recipients need to be protected regardless.

The supposed offer is also insulting. The previous round of negotiations around the wall reportedly saw Chuck Schumer offer a full $25 billion of wall funding in exchange for permanent DACA protections. Trump seemed to agree to the deal at first–after all, he campaigned on taking care of Dreamers–but then the immigration hardliners realized that Schumer’s generous offer was a bad deal for white supremacy, so they reneged. Further, numerous lower courts ruled against Trump’s attempts to eliminate DACA protections, and the Supreme Court’s apparent refusal to hear the case is a clear signal that DACA is safer now than it was when Schumer made his prior offer.

So to recap: Trump’s new offer is far stingier now than it was during prior negotiations, even though Trump’s negotiating position is far worse. DACA is better protected by the courts, Democrats now have the House and the weight of a public mandate after the 2018 election, and the politics of the shutdown are far more damaging to Trump than to the Democrats

So why make a joke offer? In all likelihood Trump and what is left of his team don’t have a plan. They’re desperately trying to change the narrative by throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Taking the women’s march out of the news was surely a selling point. Trying to make Democrats seem intransigent in negotiations was certainly worth a try.

But no amount of optics management can change the reality that Trump has painted himself and his party into a corner. The conservative infotainment complex that actually runs the party has no interest even in this latest paltry offering, most of the country has essentially tuned out the president, and Democrats have no incentive to take any deal in negotiations while the government remains closed.

If Trump won’t act to end the self-inflicted crisis, eventually a veto-proof majority of Senators will be forced to do it for him.

Both Sides Are Not To Blame For the Shutdown

Watch almost any news show or listen to any radio program and you’ll hear the same refrain: why can’t both sides put away their petty differences and reopen the government? Pundits and journalists express frustration that no deal seems to be in the works, and both Republicans and Democrats are painted as equally petulant children. At best, the situation is presented as a matter of unreasonable polarization, in which both President Trump and Democratic leaders see more advantage in looking strong to their own base than in giving the ground necessary to end the collective pain of a shutdown.

All of this is hogwash.

The current standoff over the shutdown–now moving into a record-breaking fifth week–is less of a negotation than it is a hostage crisis. Donald Trump is less a politician bargaining for a deal, and more a stick-up man out of time and trapped by the cops, determined to hurt innocents rather than give himself up. And Mitch McConnell is his willing accomplice.

President Trump feels that he must have his precious wall to hold onto his base, which he understands is less under his own sway than under that of conservative infotainment personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But Trump has had many opportunities over the last two years, with better leverage and a more favorable Republican congress, to fund his wall. He refused to make the deals necessary. That’s mostly because more intelligent immigration-obsessed conservatives understood that if the goal is for white supremacists to Make America White Again, trading DACA protections for a wall is a bad deal: the wall doesn’t actually do anything useful, but DACA protections do allow a significant number of mostly non-white immigrants to remain in the country. Also, the wall itself is fairly unpopular, a fact that led to skittishness from some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Now, with Democrats in control of the House, and enjoying the high ground in public opinion, Trump feels this is his last chance to actually get any part of his wall funded. He may–or may not–be right. But now the president would have to give up even more than he refused to do before in exchange. Not only would this make him look weak, but the conservative infotainment complex would not be fooled: they would certainly claim that Trump was conned into granting “amnesty” without getting much of value in exchange, just as their revisionist history says that’s what happened to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

In any case, there is almost certainly a deal Democrats would be willing to make in exchange for wall funding outside the context of a shutdown. No one on the left wants to see Democrats cave on the issue, but I think most would grudgingly accept a trade of perceived equal value if Trump is truly insistent on it. That’s how negotiations work.

But Trump wants his wall without giving much of anything in exchange. So he’s taking the government hostage to get it. That’s a heist, not a negotiation.

If Democrats give him the loot bag and the helicopter this time, he won’t hesitate to do it again. So there’s no compelling reason to simply being “the bigger adult” and giving the petulant child whatever he wants until the Mueller report drops. The stakes are too high. At some point, Republicans in the Senate will need to realize that the damage being done to their brand and the country is too great to allow Trump to keep dragging them through the mud.

Until that day, it would be nice if the press would describe this hostage crisis as it really is, rather than pretending that both sides are simply too unreasonable to come to terms.

Mitch McConnell Demonstrates His Contempt for Democracy

It hasn’t even been a month and already it is clear that the new Democratic majority in the House came out swinging. That includes the fact that their first piece of legislation (H.R. 1) contains democratic reforms to campaign finance, ethics and voting rights.

While the country asks #WheresMitch when it comes to ending the government shutdown, apparently the Senate Majority Leader has been spending his time writing an op-ed for the Washington Post that is aimed at attacking that bill, calling it a “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

As the one politician who is most responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, throughout his piece, McConnell replaces the word “money” with the word “speech.”

Apparently the Democrats define “democracy” as giving Washington a clearer view of whom to intimidate and leaving citizens more vulnerable to public harassment over private views. Under this bill, you’d keep your right to free association as long as your private associations were broadcast to everyone. You’d keep your right to speak freely so long as you notified a distant bureaucracy likely run by the same people you criticized. The bill goes so far as to suggest that the Constitution needs an amendment to override First Amendment protections.

That is the twisted McConnell version of what’s in the bill. Here is the truth:

H.R. 1 takes on [the Citizens United] era of big-donor dominance by cracking down on coordination between super PACs and campaigns, forcing super PACs and dark-money groups who run political ads to reveal donors who give more than $10,000, and calling for an end to the practice of laundering big donations between different non-profit groups to shield the true source of the funds.

In other words, the only association you’d have to worry about keeping private is the one where you gave over $10,000 to a super PAC. The people actually threatened by that are the eleven who have pumped more than $1 billion into super PACs since their creation in 2010. If you equate your First Amendment speech rights with the ability to give tens of thousands (or even millions) of dollars to a political super PAC anonymously, then yes, the Democrats want to overturn that protection.

What I found the most telling about McConnell’s piece was the way he talked about the provisions that would make election day a federal holiday and give federal workers paid time off for serving as election judges.

Democrats would also like you to pay for generous new benefits for federal bureaucrats. Their bill proposes making Election Day a new paid holiday for government workers and six additional days’ paid vacation for federal bureaucrats to work the polls during any election. This is the Democrats’ plan to “restore democracy”: extra taxpayer-funded vacation for bureaucrats to hover around while Americans cast their ballots.

To McConnell, all federal employees are “bureaucrats” and making election day a paid holiday is nothing more than a “generous new benefit” for them, not an attempt to appeal to the private sector to make it a national holiday. Those who volunteer their time to monitor election sites are simply “hovering around” while Americans cast their ballots. The Senate Majority Leader couldn’t be more clear about how he views what most of us consider the most sacred right in our democracy. His words drip with contempt.

It should come as no surprise that, with those kinds of views, McConnell is equally dismissive of this legislation’s provisions aimed at securing the right to vote. He spouts right-wing conspiracy theories that are designed to suggest voter fraud and promote the case for purging voter rolls.

It has always been clear to anyone who has written about this bill that it stood no chance of passing a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell. The bill’s main author, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) also acknowledged that fact and responded with this:

But even Sarbanes admits the quick vote is just a first step. Republicans, who control the Senate, are unlikely to pass the bill and President Trump is unlikely to sign it. “Give us the gavel in the Senate in 2020 and we’ll pass it in the Senate,” Sarbanes said. “Give us a pen in the Oval Office and we’ll sign those kinds of reforms into law.”

Much as he has handled calls for a Senate vote to re-open the government, McConnell could have simply ignored this bill with the assurance that it would never see the light of day on his watch. That’s why it is interesting to note that he felt the need to write this op-ed filled with lies and dripping with contempt for our democratic processes.

McConnell knows that nothing threatens his hold on power more than a fully functioning democracy. Beyond that, he knows that if voters are informed about what Democrats want to do to restore our democracy, they’ll be much more likely to hand them control of the Senate and the presidency. In other words, the Senate Majority Leader is very well aware of the power of the provisions included in H.R. 1. It is kryptonite to the strategies he and other Republicans have employed to hold onto power as they find themselves increasingly in the minority.

Revive the Federal Trade Commission

Given how the Federal Trade Commission has been coopted in recent years, progressives may be inclined to just blow it up. Instead of going after giant corporations that corner the market for their products and services, the FTC has been targeting church organists, ice skating coaches, music teachers, public defenders, home health aides, ride-sharing drivers and other groups that seek to organize. But, as the legal director at the Open Markets Institute Sandeep Vaheesan argues in our new issue, the FTC has statutory powers that are hard to replicate. Progressives would be better advised to revive the FTC than to attempt to replace it.

What I enjoy about this article is that is provides an excellent history lesson. You might be surprised how interesting it is to learn about how antitrust efforts emerged and unfolded in the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s a history that we at the Washington Monthly are continually trying to tell in new and relevant ways. This is primarily because we, as a country, built a healthy regulatory scheme that was backed by a bipartisan consensus and by the courts. This was then systematically undermined and largely dismantled beginning in the 1970’s and then with a new vengeance once Ronald Reagan came into office.

Much of it has survived, however, at least in theory. Vaheesan focuses a lot of attention on the Section 5 authority that the FTC still maintains in a dormant form.

…Congress in 1914 enacted two landmark statutes. First was the Clayton Antitrust Act, which updated the Sherman Act by explicitly outlawing a range of practices, including mergers that could reduce competition. Second was a law that created a powerful new agency called the Federal Trade Commission.

Governed by five commissioners who are appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation, the FTC was designed to make sure that judges would never again undermine anti-monopoly laws. Congress specifically gave the FTC the explicit authority not merely to prohibit “unfair methods of competition,” but also to define what counts as “unfair.” Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, the agency can use its broad investigatory capacity to build expertise on new business practices and industries and update its own powers over time…

…The agency’s expansive mandate, combined with well-established legal doctrine that instructs courts to defer to federal agencies that administer open-ended statutes, gives the agency effective legislative power to regulate and structure nearly every kind of market. Big business lobbyists and conservatives in Congress—and even Republican-appointed FTC commissioners—have long known this, which is why they have repeatedly demanded that the agency’s Section 5 authority be somehow curbed, if not by changes in law, then by the appointment of commissioners and staff who promise never to use it.

That’s enough of a spoiler because I want you to read the whole thing. If you do, you’ll learn how the House Democrats can begin the process of using the FTC to break up monopolies even in a divided Washington with a Republican president.