Political Animal

The Senate Republicans’ Uncertain Majority

Republicans had hoped that 79-year-old Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi would return to work today, but he had a urinary tract infection recurrence over the weekend. It’s unclear when he will return to the Senate, or how reliably he will be available to vote over the next several months. Given the seriousness of John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis, it’s also unclear how long he can be counted upon to be in Washington, D.C. Based on these two senators’ ailing health alone, the GOP will be unable to know if, and for how long, they’ll have a working majority in a political chamber they control by a 52-48 margin.

The Democrats have their own problem in Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who just suffered a setback in his legal struggles.

The bribery case against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez survived a key test on Monday, as the federal judge overseeing his trial rejected a defense motion to throw out the most serious charges.

U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark, New Jersey, allowed the trial to proceed on all charges, five days after suggesting he was inclined to dismiss the heart of the case based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that narrowed the legal definition of public corruption.

Prosecutors have accused Menendez, a 63-year-old Democrat, of taking bribes from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for using his office to help the doctor in a variety of ways.

The New Jersey senator has been mostly absent from Congress during his trial, and it’s possible that he’ll resign if convicted, especially of the more serious charges against him. As of now, his replacement would be appointed by Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, but the Democrats are heavily favored to win the race to succeed Christie this November. If that election goes according to plan, Menendez only needs to survive until January to assure that his resignation won’t cost the Democratic Party a seat in the Senate.

So there’s considerable uncertainty at the moment about how the Senate will be divided for the rest of this term, and it’s generally bad news for the Republicans. If they want to pass a budget, if they want to enact anything partisan under the reconciliation rules (i.e. tax cuts) or other rules than allow them to get around a filibuster (i.e. appointments and nominations), some degree of chance, timing and luck will be involved.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the potential for individual Republican senators to simply vote against the majority in their own party.

Under these circumstances, it seems like a bad bet to build a legislative strategy based on ramming home 50-50 votes in the Senate with the vice president as the tie-breaker. Apparently, though, failure of this type is preferable to admitting to voters and donors and the president that bipartisan solutions are a better bet.

Republicans Are Betting on Tax Cuts to Save Them

Take a look at some of the quotes Sean Sullivan collected at a two-day midtown Manhattan summit of the Koch brothers’ donor network, GOP patrons, senators and strategists.

“Hugely nervous,” said Chris Wright, an oil and gas executive from Colorado, describing the tone of the conversations he and other donors were having about tax reform. Wright, like most attendees, argued that passing a tax bill would give the party a much-needed boost.

And if they fail?

“I think the Republicans will pay a heavy price in the midterm elections,” he said.

Art Pope, a major conservative donor from North Carolina, put it this way: “When you have lack of success, that may depress voter turnout for Republicans, that may depress donations for Republicans and conservatives.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) warned that Republicans could face a “Watergate-level blowout” in the midterm elections if they don’t make major legislative strides on taxes and health care, invoking the political scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency and set back the GOP considerably in subsequent elections.

“If tax reform crashes and burns, if [on] Obamacare, nothing happens, we could face a bloodbath,” said Cruz, who spoke in a moderated discussion…

In a panel discussion focused on tax reform, Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) warned of dire political consequences if the endeavor is not successful.

“Failure is a starting process, in my opinion, to losing the House, which will manifest in 2018 if we don’t get this done,” Scott said. “And frankly, I think it destabilizes the Senate, we lose the Senate as well.”

It’s not surprising that the Koch brothers and GOP patrons would forecast doom and gloom if the Republicans fail to reduce their taxes. But they’re also assuming that failure to pass this legislation will depress voter turnout for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Based on polling about the tax framework that has been released, that assumption would be hard to prove.

There is one level on which these folks might be right. Yet another failure by Trump and congressional Republicans to get something (anything) done would be depressing for their base. But it is interesting to watch them hang their hat so completely on an issue that the majority of Americans correctly assess will primarily benefit the so-called “elite.”

That is why we are about to get deluged with a whole series of lies about how tax cuts affect the economy. Paul Krugman recently dissected ten of them. But as we’ve seen so often over the last year, the Trump administration is taking traditional Republican lies and ratcheting them up several notches. They now claim that giving corporations a huge tax cut will put $4,000 in the pockets of working Americans. I’ll let Ali Velshi take that one on in his own inimitable way.

What you have is the former president of Goldman Sachs (Gary Cohn) speaking on behalf of a president who is a billionaire real estate mogul attempting to tell the American people that giving corporations a huge tax cut will put money in their pockets. The mind boggles.

As Greg Sargent points out, it gets even more absurd.

Here is the story line we are being asked to believe. Former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon is promoting primary challengers against Senate GOP incumbents, arguing that the GOP establishment has diverted from the “populist economic nationalist” agenda that powered Trump’s victory. Republicans lament that this constitutes a serious threat to both the GOP and Trump — and now they’re saying that passing the tax cuts is the only way to ward off that threat.

But is Steve Bannon denouncing this huge tax cut giveaway to corporate elites as part of his so-called “populist economic nationalist” agenda? Not for a minute. Over the weekend he was touting it at the Values Voter Summit as a sign that the president was moving in the right direction.

We are about to witness the biggest scam that has ever been attempted in modern U.S. politics. It’s bigger than Reagan’s voodoo economics because we all got to see what a sham it was in the 80s, only to watch it be repeated in the early aughts as a precursor to the Great Recession. Now, all those tea partiers who were livid over the bailouts are the ones Republicans are attempting to sell on the idea that corporations will be their benefactors by trickling those tax cuts down into the pockets of their workers. At least that’s their game plan. As of right now, Republicans are broadcasting it as their only hope for the 2018 midterms.

The Koch Brothers Don’t Understand How Congress Works

To become a member of the Koch brothers’ elite, you must make a commitment to give at least “$100,000 per year to Koch-linked groups.” Among the resulting perks, you can attend strategy sessions like the one that was held at the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan last Thursday and Friday. Elected Republicans will give you inside information and, for the most part, accept any kind of direction you want to provide for them.

At the Friday session, Vice President Mike Pence had a priority list that would look quite odd in any other setting.

“I truly believe the future of this Congress depends on them working with our president to pass the tax cut this year,” he said. “And honestly, our entire agenda depends on this Congress stepping forward and delivering on their promise to the American people.”

Pence, who has close ties to the [elite Koch Brothers’] network, said that “cutting taxes is the single-most important policy for the future of America.” “But we need all your help to get it passed,” the vice president added. “I want to thank this network for everything you’ve already done to support this plan. … We’re grateful for all of your support. … But I’m here today, on behalf of our president, to encourage you to do even more. To get this tax cut across the line … we need every ounce of your energy and enthusiasm.”

…“Use your voice,” Pence said. “Use the stature that you enjoy in your communities and your state and all across this country to share the opportunity that we have with this tax relief legislation. You talk to your employees, talk to your suppliers, your fellow business leaders to get them on board. And of course, we need you to talk to your elected officials about just how important this moment is in the life of this nation.”

It’s not clear if Mike Pence believes that cutting taxes is genuinely the single-most important policy for the nation’s future, or if President Trump is correct in thinking he’s more interested in overturning Roe v. Wade and “hanging” all the homosexuals in the country. What does seem clear is that Pence is happy to blame Republicans in Congress if they fail to deliver the tax cut that members of the Koch Brothers’ elite network are seeking.

A lot of recent polling has shown that the American people, and Republican voters in particular, are blaming congressional Republicans much more than the president for gridlock and inaction in Washington, D.C. The reporting on this has a certain flavor that tends to indict the voters for being misinformed about where the real responsibility lies. In truth, though, I don’t think the electorate’s intuition is too far off. Congressional leaders have failed the president through a combination of over-promising and lacking the courage to explain what they could realistically accomplish. They wasted Trump’s first year in office in a doomed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and that set them back in their effort to pass tax reform.

I have a hard time laying all the blame at McConnell and Ryan’s feet, however, because the president should have assembled a team that could tell him when he’s been bullshitted. He didn’t. And the donors just don’t want to hear the truth. Their behavior at the St. Regis meetings indicated that they still think they can bully through a tax reform and that the main resistance is “moderate” Republicans in Congress.

The network didn’t support Trump during the 2016 campaign but has supported his agenda this year. It was striking how little criticism there was of Trump, but the anger directed toward moderate Republicans in the Senate was palpable.

So they have a plan.

Koch officials briefed their benefactors on plans for a massive pressure campaign that will include television ads and events in the states of targeted members. “It’s the most significant federal effort we’ve ever undertaken,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which is part of the network.

Their problem isn’t really “moderate” Republicans, though. Their problem on health care was that a lot of states expanded Medicaid and didn’t want to give it up. Their problem on tax reform is that they can’t craft a plan that won’t hurt some states disproportionately, so it’s almost impossible to get unanimity from their caucuses in Congress.

But the Koch brothers’ elite is going to invest a lot of money to try to create unanimity. And they won’t blame themselves if it doesn’t work. If anyone tries to tell them ahead of time that it won’t work, they’ll take it as evidence of insufficient commitment. In that sense, they’re no smarter or better-informed than the president.

Engaging in Politics These Days Is Both Toxic and Exhausting

A few weeks ago I was at the end of my rope. The outrages of the Trump administration were coming at me faster than I could cope and I couldn’t collect my thoughts. It was paralyzing and I just wanted to retreat.

Luckily I was able to talk to a friend about it. In taking the thoughts that were rambling around in my head and putting them into words, I realized that immersing myself in politics these days is both toxic and exhausting. My friend joined me in those feelings and said that a lot of us probably feel that way. She suggested that I write about it.

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts to do so, but now I don’t think I have to because Michael Cohen has already done it in a piece titled, “Trump is everywhere and Americans are getting buried.”

It’s impossible to keep up. It’s all-consuming.

For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life…

I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic.

That reminded me that it isn’t just the daily outrages that have me exhausted lately. It is that what I believed about the direction of the country has been challenged. In other words, I’m losing hope.

Because of all that, Cohen’s piece sent me to something I’ve quoted fairly often from community organizer Marshall Ganz.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

In our current situation, there is a destructive feedback loop at work. Feeling hopeless, the daily assaults of this administration hit despair and the reaction is to withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps us deal with the problem, feeding the sense of hopelessness.

I don’t have any easy answers to this situation. I can tell you that talking to a friend helped because we didn’t simply enumerate the outrages, building them up. Instead, we talked about how we are/aren’t coping. I suspect that the relief I felt was because the first step is always to notice and name the place where you find yourself.

From there, I am reminded of a short poem by David Whyte. I trust that he won’t mind if I change it up a bit to focus on hope instead of faith.

I want to write about hope,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no hope myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to hope.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that this is what the moon looked like last night.

I notice that Whyte refers to simply being open to hope. It is not something that can be manufactured. Any attempt to do so leads to sentimentalism—which is just another form of escape. That’s why I don’t have any easy answers. I’ll simply say that if any of this describes how you’re feeling, I’m right there with you, and perhaps we can figure this out together. I’m determined to hang in there and get through this because the one thing I know for sure is that I won’t let Donald Trump rob me of my hope.