On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

January 11, 2018

When the president of the United States is guided solely by self-interest, politicians of all stripes will just have to figure out how to enhance his material gains. Is that so hard to figure out?

Apparently, it is. Consider the bipartisan outrage we’re hearing from elected officials in coastal states over the decision of Donald Trump’s Interior Department to allow coastal drilling, quickly followed by an exemption from the rule change for the state of Florida.

Both Democrats and Republicans have suggested that the Florida exemption may have something to do with a piece of property Donald Trump owns. “Are they putting Florida off-limits because President Trump has a vacation property—Mar-a-Lago—on the Atlantic coast of Florida?” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, wondered.

Likewise South Carolina Representative (and former Governor) Mark Sanford, a Republican. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago’ as you look out from the waters of Palm Beach,” said Sanford, “but it’s okay to look at an oil rig out from Hilton Head or Charleston, South Carolina.”

What we have here is a bipartisan failure of imagination. If the public officials of the 20 states still affected by the rule change want to prohibit oil rigs off their shores, the solution is simple: Build a palatial mansion on the beach, deed it in perpetuity to the president (maybe even offer to cover the property taxes), and voila! You, too, can win a Florida-esque exemption.

Was that so hard?

January 10, 2018

As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Does Donald Trump agree? Is Trump really about to make a deal with Democrats to preserve the right of undocumented Dreamer adults who were brought to this country as children to remain here under DACA? It sure seemed so at Tuesday’s White House bipartisan love fest.

But other officials were quick to walk it back, giving Trump room to change his mind or demand a wall that hardly anyone in either party wants. On NPR’s Morning Edition, White House legislative director Marc Short redefined a “clean DACA bill” as including the administration’s other three top priorities. These are an end to “chain migration,” otherwise known as reunification of families and an end to the visa lottery—and, inevitably, “border security,” defined as a “physical barrier.” Short conceded Trump’s wall could be a “fence” in some places, because it’s actually useful to see what’s on the other side.

So what’s Trump really up to? Nobody really knows, not even Trump, whose moods change faster than the weather. On Tuesday it looked as if he wanted to posture bipartisan and humanitarian. Viewers were treated to the kind of live negotiating session that usually goes on behind closed doors.

But the end game is anyone’s guess. Conceivably, Democrats could trade permanent normalization under DACA for an end to the visa lottery and even for a toughening of rules on reunification of families. But the wall continues to be a nonstarter, and if Trump’s idea of a deal is DACA for the wall, it’s no deal.

One other detail: The adviser who was absolutely obsessive on the subject of the wall as a symbol of Trump’s tough anti-immigrant posture was … you guessed it: Steve Bannon. Maybe, with Bannon gone, Trump can give up the wall. With his embrace of the Dreamers and his declaration that he’s willing to take the heat from the far right, he’s already given up his pose as pure immigrant-basher.

Of course, that could change tomorrow depending on what Trump sees on cable TV and in Twitter world, and on Trump’s mood. Even Frost ended that celebrated and ambiguous poem with the words, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

January 9, 2018

California’s thin red line—so thin that in much of the state, it’s barely discernable—crumbled a little more yesterday with the announcement from Orange County Republican Representative Ed Royce that he wouldn’t seek re-election. Royce, who has served in Congress since 1992 without anyone really noticing, holds one of the four Orange County seats that Hillary Clinton carried last year, and had already drawn a passel of Democratic challengers.

Of the four Orange County Republicans in the Democrats’ crosshairs (the other three are Darrell Issa, Mimi Walters, and Dana Rohrabacher), Royce represents by far the most racially diverse district, home to a notably large Vietnamese community. His ability to win re-election for so long despite the district’s diminishing white slice of the electorate is partly due to the fact that Vietnamese refugees from communism—like virtually all refugees from communism—largely aligned themselves with Republican cold warriors (see: Miami, Cubans) at election time. As with Miami’s Cubans, however, that alignment weakened a bit among the children of the refugees, and weakened a great deal among their grandchildren, most of whom are now of voting age.

The Orange County Four were already electorally endangered before any particulars of the recently enacted GOP tax bill were released. The new law’s elimination of the ability to deduct from federal income taxes any sum greater than $10,000 on one’s state taxes endangered those Republicans even more, as it promised to sock it to more than one-third of their voters, and in Rohrabacher’s and Issa’s districts, almost one-half. Issa and Rohrabacher had sufficient survival instinct to vote against the bill. Not so Walters and Royce.

Smelling victory, Democrats are restless. And now, Republicans are Royce-less.

January 8, 2018

When the other memoirs come out—and they will—Michael Wolff’s book will feel tame. Just imagine how serious people around Donald Trump, like General H.R. McMaster, or General John Kelly, or former Goldman chief Gary Cohn, or even Jeff Sessions feel about the idiocy of Trump, and the stories they have to tell?

The great disgrace of the Republican Party is to deny the appalling reality (or unreality) that is Donald Trump, and to indulge his lunatic behavior because he can be used for their ends—the gutting of regulations, the cutting of taxes, the savaging of workers’ wages and social supports. Even worse, the trampling of democracy itself.

By now, Republicans should have concluded that the king is mad, a chronic liar, and an infantile personality; that catastrophic consequences could easily result. That they did not pursue impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment is to their eternal shame.

One would like to believe that some divine or human retribution is the inevitable result—the collapse of the Republican Party or a massive wave of voter revulsion against corporate elites and the governing coalition. But this is not how history works. Democracies fail. Dictators govern for a long time.

Absent a lot of hard work and a good dose of luck, it is just as likely that the U.S. will descend deeper into corruption and oligarchy. Alternatively, voters could rise up against both Trump and Republican corporate Trumpism. Or they could just remain mired in cynicism.

The results of the 2017 elections in Virginia, Alabama, and elsewhere, plus Trump’s continuing pratfalls, give some cause for guarded optimism. But the election of 2020, and the run-up in the congressional midterm election of 2018, will be the most momentous since the fateful election of 1860.

That election, won by Abraham Lincoln, came in the wake of the collapse of the Whig Party, and very nearly sundered the American Union. In 2018 and 2020, either we will begin the long and painful process of healing American democracy, or our liberties could be irrevocably lost.

January 5, 2018

If a liberal strategist or screenwriter had scripted the Bannon-Trump crack-up, it would be hard to improve on events now unfolding. Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, is only a more detailed version of what the world knows all too well. Donald Trump is an undisciplined mess, unfit to govern. His cabinet knows all too well what a total idiot he is, and says so.

As for Bannon’s comments, don’t forget that he made these remarks to Wolff several months ago, since it takes that long for a book to gestate. The comments are totally in character with Bannon’s own narcissism and recklessness. He made the same kind of casually devastating assessment of Trump in his August conversation with me, which turned out to be the last straw that led to his dismissal from the White House.

A few weeks after he was fired, Bannon took my phone call and met with me at the Breitbart townhouse. There, he told me that he and Trump continued to talk regularly. Apparently, even after Bannon was too radioactive to work at the White House, Trump still felt he needed Bannon.

This latest spate of published remarks, however, led to a final breach with Trump and a display of presidential impotent rage. Trump, preposterously, tried to get a court to block publication of the book. Presumably, Trump has never heard of the Pentagon Papers. Courts never back prior restraint of publications, and this issue becomes totally moot in the internet age, when the text could simply be posted and go viral.

Even more pathetic is Trump’s effort to go after Bannon on the premise that Bannon is bound by a non-disclosure agreement more characteristic of the entertainment industry than of politics. Trump has probably never read a political memoir either.

Bannon and his home base, Breitbart, have been uncharacteristically quiet since this latest blow-up. But it will help further fragment the Trump coalition.

Bannon, a hero to the right-wing populist base, is basically telling Trump voters that they have been played for suckers; that Trump is in bed with the billionaires, and not delivering for regular people. In this respect he helps progressives get that message out. The Tea Party diehards will be torn between their support for Trump and their affinity for Bannon.

Meanwhile, the GOP mainstream in Congress will be even more worried that Trump is not only a lunatic, but a flagrant, obvious lunatic. Financial backers of Bannon are already jumping ship.

In a petulant rage, Trump abruptly shut down the Pence-Kobach commission on voter fraud, a Bannon idea. Vice President Pence, despite his fawning loyalty to Trump, was collateral damage.

Support in Republican ranks is likely to grow for getting rid of Trump before the November elections. This will come to a head when Robert Mueller tenders his report. At that point, GOP leaders could well warn Trump that the time has come for him either to resign or to face the risk of a bipartisan impeachment inquiry.

Steve Bannon turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving. People ask what his game is. Based on my experience, his game is the greater glory of Steve Bannon, the ideology of racializing economic grievances, and total war on the establishment press and what’s left of the Republican establishment. If Donald Trump is a useful instrument to Bannon, then Bannon will use him, ridiculing him while professing loyalty. When even Trump sees through the game, Bannon jettisons Trump and moves on.

Both men are crackpots, whom history has thrust into positions of alarming influence. Let us hope they continue to do each other in.

January 4, 2018

Does Donald Trump want his voters to move someplace else? This past summer, when asked about the dearth of jobs in regions like upstate New York, he opined that “Americans are going to have to start moving” to places where the jobs are. That, of course, would decimate his political base, but, as Washington Post reporter Heather Long noted in Wednesday’s paper, a number of policies Trump’s administration and the congressional Republicans are expected to roll out could have that effect nonetheless.

“In many of these struggling towns,” Long writes, “where few, if any, major corporations remain, the tax cut is unlikely to do much to transform them. But the next steps Republicans take could have a deeper reach. Scaling back welfare, especially Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and housing subsidies might force people to finally move.”

It’s important to note that this is Long speculating: She’s not quoting an administration source here (indeed, she’s not quoting anyone). Nor is it clear that the evisceration of our semi-demi-welfare state would be any easier for the recipients of its meager benefits in big cities than it is in devastated towns. But it is certainly possible that whatever further immiseration such cuts would bring to the economically abandoned heartland would drive more of its residents to cities—as has been the pattern of American life ever since industrialization began in the decades following the Civil War.

Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of Stalin’s war on the peasantry—forcing them off the land, sometimes through starvation, in the 1930s to produce the workforce for the Soviet Union’s forced-march transformation into an industrial powerhouse. It would be inadvertent Stalinization, of course—where Stalin clearly intended to drive the peasants off the land, that wouldn’t be the Republicans’ intention at all: They need our beleaguered hinterlands to have enough voters to sustain their congressional majority. The refugees from non-metropolitan America would just be the unintended innocent victims of the GOP’s war on social decency—just as its Republican authors would also be its unintended victims, only far from innocent. Indeed, guilty as hell.

January 3, 2018

It sure looks as if an impeachment proceeding is inevitable, and that the issue of impeachment will dominate the 2018 elections, especially in the House. There is already enough on the public record, beginning with Trump’s obstruction of justice in his firing of FBI Director James Comey, to justify impeachment, and you can be sure that Robert Mueller’s report will provide a lot more details.

And the ever-helpful Steve Bannon is quoted in a just-published book calling a meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians “treasonous,” and adding, “They’re going to crack Junior like an egg on national TV.” Treasonous of course describes Trump Senior, too.

On December 6, a third of the Democratic Caucus, 58 House Democrats, voted for Representative Al Green’s resolution to open an impeachment proceeding. And on December 20, the Democratic Caucus voted to make Representative Jerry Nadler of New York the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, setting him up to become chairman.

Nadler, a strong progressive, defeated the more moderate Zoe Lofgren. Nadler did not vote for Green’s impeachment resolution, but only because he was keeping his powder dry. He will be a strong leader of an impeachment investigation that seems increasingly inevitable.

But is a fast track to impeachment a good idea? Skeptics led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argue that it might deflect focus from the monumental unpopularity of congressional Republicans, just as the Republican effort to impeach Clinton backfired in 1998. Worse, it could mobilize the Trump base, and increase Republican turnout.

On the other hand, given what’s likely to come out on Mueller’s report—not to mention the possibility of Trump’s firing of Mueller (which would be impeachable all by itself)—impeachment one way or another will be a dominant issue in the 2018 elections. If the Democrats do take back the House, which seems increasingly likely, it’s hard to imagine that impeachment will not proceed.

That’s a good thing—it’s the necessary way to get Trump out of office. But in the fall campaign, impeachment should not crowd out all other issues; the Republicans have plenty of other sins to answer for.

January 2, 2018

On the first day of 2018, The New York Times reported on a technological breakthrough. Google Street View’s images of America’s neighborhoods, a Stanford University study concludes, can now be interpreted by artificial intelligence to predict a neighborhood’s—or a street’s or a block’s—politics.

“Image recognition technology, much of it developed by major technology companies, has improved greatly in recent years,” the Times reported, noting that the primary data on which AI drew its conclusions were the cars parked on the street. “The Stanford project gives a glimpse at the potential. By pulling the vehicles’ makes, models, and years from the images, and then linking that information with other data sources, the project was able to predict factors like pollution and voting patterns at the neighborhood level.”

The story didn’t say if a name has been given to this project, but I know what its name was in 1980: Michael Berman. In that year, the most prominent California Democrat in the House of Representatives, and the most brilliant legislative strategist of House liberals, San Francisco’s Phil Burton, was the Democrats’ choice to head up the state’s decennial redistricting. California was growing by leaps and bounds, and Burton used the opportunity not only to give Democrats the edge in most of the state’s newly added districts, but to redistrict several right-wing Republicans—most notably, former John Birch Society Western Regional Director John Rousselot—into districts they could not win. Rousselot and several other Republicans lost their re-election bids in 1982.

Burton was an acknowledged genius at redistricting; he later called his 1980 line-drawing “my contribution to modern art.” (In fairness, I should note that he also steered to passage expansions of welfare, protections for mine workers, and the creation of Redwoods National Park; led the anti-Vietnam War Democrats in the House, engineered the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and ended the practice of assigning committee chairs strictly by seniority, which had the effect of dethroning the party’s remaining old guard Dixiecrats.)

What was Burton’s secret? How did he redistrict so masterfully, in a time when computers couldn’t yet spit out the data routinely used today to draw the lines? The answer is Michael Berman.

A onetime Burton aide who later became one of California’s most successful political consultants, in 1980, Berman got in his car and drove all over the state, assessing a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status by noting which cars were parked on which streets. His methods were essentially those of Google Street Views as interpreted not by artificial intelligence but his own. (As early as Henry Waxman’s first campaign for the California State Assembly, in 1968, Berman was experimenting with an embryonic version of micro-targeting voters, decades before it became common practice.) In 1990 and 2000, Berman was to play a similar role working with his brother Howard, a San Fernando Valley congressman who succeeded Burton (who died in 1983) as California Democrats’ capo de redistricting. But with each succeeding decade, the capacity to redistrict using computerized data grew substantially stronger. And today, in our age of digital marvels and artificial intelligence, tech has finally caught up with Michael Berman c. 1980, tooling down the street, noting all the cars.

December 22, 2017

The latest CNN poll has Democrats up 18 points in the voter choice for members of the House. There is an increasing chance that in a Democratic wave election, gerrymandering could backfire on the Republicans, and lead to a massive Democratic sweep, with a pickup of 75 seats or even more. (It takes only 24 for Dems to take back the House.)

Here’s how that works. Let’s say you are the Republican architects of extreme gerrymandering in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. You redraw the districts, as Republicans did in 2012, so that a popular statewide vote of 52-48 Republican translates into an allocation of two-to-one Republican House seats.

In order to accomplish that trick, however, you need to spread out likely Republican voters. You assume a normal election, with a modest but not an overwhelming Republican margin in each district.

But in the case of a Democratic wave election, the tactic backfires and the wave turns into a tsunami, because there aren’t enough Republican votes to go around. An 18-point average advantage for Democrats, depending on how the votes are distributed, could turn dozens of gerrymandered Republican seats into Democratic ones. That, plus normal Democratic gains in non-gerrymandered districts, could make 2018 one of the tidal swing years.

It’s true that Republicans will try to steal elections by voter suppression tactics, but that only operates in some states, and can only take you so far. The ordinarily risk-averse Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now considers fully 91 Republican-held seats worth contesting. The wave that began on Election Day in Virginia, and deepened with the Alabama election of Doug Jones, compounded by voter backlash against the tax bill, will only intensify.

December 21, 2017

One distinctive feature of Republicanism in the Age of Trump is the destruction of government agencies by appointment. Time and again, the president has appointed and the Senate confirmed directors committed to the destruction of the agency they’re directing and the inversion of its values. Think Scott Pruitt at the EPA, or Betsy DeVos at Education, or Ben Carson at HUD—the list, as you know, goes on and on.

Modern Republicanism being arrayed against the government’s protection and advancement of the public interest, GOP senators have happily confirmed each such nominee who’s come before them. Until this week.

On Tuesday, two Republican senators—South Dakota’s Mike Rounds and South Carolina’s Tim Scott—joined all their Democratic colleagues on the Senate Banking Committee to reject, by a 13-to-10 vote, Trump’s pick of Scott Garrett, a former GOP House member from New Jersey, to head the Export-Import Bank. While in the House, Garrett had repeatedly and vociferously called for abolishing the bank, a position that would align him with such agency mission-reversers as DeVos and Pruitt. But this time, some Republicans demurred.

It was a revelatory demurral. The Export-Import Bank is one of those rare institutions whose work draws both intense support and intense opposition from American business. The Bank helps multinational corporations like Boeing (which has a plant in Scott’s South Carolina) and General Electric find customers in distant lands by guaranteeing loans from foreign buyers. Not surprisingly, Boeing and GE lobbied furiously against Garrett’s appointment. (Garrett insisted he’d had a conversion and now favored the Bank’s continued existence, but Bank proponents clearly doubted his assurances.) The non-exporting sectors of American business have never warmed to the Bank, and pure laissez-faire conservatives have viewed it as an affront to the gods of market economics.

Placed alongside the Republicans’ simultaneous enactment of the tax monstrosity, Garrett’s rejection underscores a reliable guide to GOP behavior: When big business is united, Republicans give it what it wants (tax cuts, deregulation). When it’s divided, so’s the GOP.