Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model

Hillary Clinton got less than 40% of the vote and Trump won by nearly 15%, but once-solid-red Alaska now has a moderate-independent governor, and one house of its legislature is controlled by a Democrat/Independent alliance. Both the Bernie and Hillary factions in the Democratic Party have something to learn here.

Now that Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and a sizeable majority of governorships and state legislatures, one of the most contentious arguments in politics concerns how Democrats should try to turn things around. That argument is particularly bitter, because to a large extent it carries over from the Bernie/Hillary contest in the 2016 primaries. Each faction has its own vision of how to win back the country, and sees the other’s vision as a recipe for disaster.

Berners think the problem is voter apathy and the solution is a national progressive agenda for radical change: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college, and a massive jobs/infrastructure program. The Democratic Party needs to stand for something, and the something it needs to stand for is the very specific legislative agenda Bernie Sanders ran on. In addition, Democrats need a new, younger image. (Bernie himself may not be young, but his fans are.) We can’t just trot the old war-horses out with a new focus-group-tested message and expect cynical millennials to buy it.

Clintonites look at the independents and moderate Republicans who have been alienated by Trump and see a chance for a broad non-ideological coalition, if Democrats don’t alienate centrist voters by pushing radical progressive policies in districts that historically haven’t supported them. Professional-class white women, for example, have traditionally trended Republican, but they’ve seen the GOP rally around a serial abuser who makes common cause with white supremacists, they believe what the scientists say about climate change, they worry about how their children are going to replicate their success, and they might be ready to say “Enough is enough.” However, that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become converts to Denmark-style socialism. Candidates who are too far left might turn them off and leave us stuck with Trump-like conservatives.

Both sides can argue that recent results support them: Berners say that the Clintonite approach has been tried and failed; shifting rightward to occupy an ever-receding center is how we got into this sad position in the first place. Clintonites can ask where the Berner approach has ever worked. Sure, it hasn’t been tried often, but where has it succeeded, other than in places (like Vermont) where Democrats would win anyway? Berner idealism sounds airy to the nuts-and-bolts politicos of the Clintonite establishment: State-by-state, district-by-district, look at the demographics and show me which voters we’re going to turn around.

Recent results. The post-2016 special elections provide fodder for both sides. In general, the elections were held in strongly Republican areas and Democrats did significantly better than in previous cycles. But how and why?

For example, the biggest headline has been Doug Jones’ upset of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race: Alabama, one of the reddest states in the nation, now has one senator from each party. Granted, all sorts of special circumstances (i.e., a Republican opponent who started out controversial, and then got credibly accused of sexually pursuing underage girls) had to work in Jones’ favor, but you can spin the final results either way. Jones’ margin came from overcoming voter apathy and rallying the Democratic base in the black neighborhoods of cities like Selma. But the defection of moderate Republicans from Moore was also an important factor, and Jones himself did not run a progressive campaign. On health care, for example, he defended ObamaCare and said abstractly that “healthcare is a right, not a privilege limited to the wealthy“, but he never endorsed Medicare for All. His gun control position was fairly tepid. Economically, he talked about an unspecified “living wage”, but also about “streamlining regulations” for businesses. Some progressives even argued against voting for him.

Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s 6th congressional district was similarly spun both ways: Ossoff wasn’t progressive enough, so he lost because “he didn’t stand for anything“. But Georgia-6 is a classic suburban-Republican stronghold that Tom Price had won by 23 points just months before. Narrowing that loss to five points was a huge accomplishment that a Bernie-style progressive, centrists argued, couldn’t have equaled.

Virginia’s state elections were similarly ambiguous. New Governor Ralph Northam ran a centrist nice-guy campaign and won handily (after beating Bernie-endorsed Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary). But downballot elections demonstrated a liberal appeal that was surprising for Virginia, like trangender woman Danica Roem beating a religious conservative who authored a “bathroom bill” targeted at transgender people. Democrats didn’t just pick off competitive swing districts, they won in places where they hadn’t even run candidates in previous elections.

Northern exposure. Now let’s talk about Alaska. If you think about Alaskan politics at all, you probably think it’s dominated by conservative Republicans. Republican Don Young has held the state’s lone House seat since 1973. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are both Republicans. (However, Murkowski won as a write-in candidate in 2010 after losing the Republican primary to a more conservative candidate. She won as a Republican again in 2016.) In presidential politics, Alaska is a reliable red state. Democratic candidates rarely even go there, and none has won its 3 electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton 51%-37%. Nationally, Alaska’s most famous politician is Sarah Palin.

But then there’s this: In 2014, Republican Governor Sean Parnell lost his re-election bid when two other candidates joined forces: Republican-turned-independent Bill Walker ran on a bipartisan ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott as his lieutenant governor. Something similar has happened in the 40-seat Alaska House: 17 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 3 moderate Republicans have formed a majority coalition that made Democrat Bryce Edgmon the Speaker.

More is changing than just party labels. Politico reports:

In the past four years, Alaska has raised its minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana and passed the strongest universal voter registration bill in the country. Governor Bill Walker—an ex-Republican who has the support of organized labor and most liberals—and the House majority coalition are publicly advocating the introduction of a statewide income tax, a move long thought impossible in Alaska’s notoriously libertarian political climate. [links added]

The gerrymandered Alaska Senate is still solidly Republican, so those changes in the law had to come by referendum. But those referendum victories say something about where the voters are. Trump may have beaten Clinton handily, but at lower levels of politics the state is looking more purple all the time.

How did that happen? Politico credits three young men with engineering the turnaround over the last six years: Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (also profiled by Ozy), Forrest Dunbar, and John-Henry Heckendorn. Their strategy doesn’t follow either the Berner or the Clintonite model, though it contains pieces of both. Here are the key elements, as I glean them from several articles.

  • Run everywhere. The typical approach of the Democratic establishment has been to identify key swing districts and focus resources on them, rather than shotgun their efforts all over the map. The exception was Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, which arguably played a role in the big Democratic wins of 2006 and 2008. (In 2004, Kreiss-Tomkins was a teen-age Deaniac.) Focusing on key districts overestimates the predictability of politics. (No sensible Democrat would have wasted his effort by running for the Senate in Alabama, but Doug Jones did and now he’s a senator.) What’s more, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for long-term failure: Every time you fail to run a serious campaign, it becomes harder to argue that the district is winnable in the next election.
  • Think locally. The other half of running everywhere is that you can’t manufacture cookie-cutter candidates in your state (or national) headquarters and expect them to win everywhere. Local candidates need to be able to shape their own messages around the party’s deeper values rather than sell a cast-in-stone national agenda to a district that doesn’t want it. A gun-control candidate, for example, is not going to win in rural Alaska, where almost everybody hunts. (That doesn’t mean you give up on gun control as a party. But you can’t make gun control a litmus test for that district.) Other Democratic values, though, might be viable to those same voters: Alaskan outdoorsmen are in the perfect position to see the impact of climate change and the cost of letting oil companies do whatever they want. A district with few blacks may not care about Black Lives Matter, but the rights of native peoples might be a major issue.
  • Don’t settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run. The biggest mistake of the Democratic establishment is to favor candidates with political experience. They’ve paid their dues and they know how the game is played, but they may not be who the voters are looking for. Kreiss-Tomkins, Dunbar, and Heckendorn put a huge amount of effort into examining individual districts, finding people who are locally admired, and convincing them to run.
  • Where Democrats can’t win, support independents. In some districts, the Democratic brand is so toxic that putting a (D) next to a candidate’s name makes him or her unelectable. In those districts, you want to get the Democrat out of the race and rally around a candidate who can credibly run as an independent. (In Alaska, the AFL-CIO signed on to this strategy, and the Democratic Party ultimately came around.) If the person who would best represent this district used to be a moderate Republican, so be it. Better a candidate who will vote with you on half the issues than far-right candidate who will be against you on everything.
  • Make the nuts-and-bolts of politics as easy as you can for neophyte candidates. There’s a lot to know about running for office that has nothing to do with governing: raising money, getting media attention, organizing events, dealing with election-law paperwork. You can’t recruit new-face candidates unless you can help them leap those hurdles. Ideally, this is what the state and national party organizations would do, but it rarely works out that way. In Alaska, Heckendorn set up a political consulting firm whose mission was to “franchise” a statewide model of how a person without political experience could run for office.

One more thing. I didn’t find any example of Kreiss-Tompkins, Dunbar, or Heckendorn saying exactly this, but to me it fits right in with what they’re doing: Focus on goals, not techniques.

To explain what I mean by that, let’s talk about health care. I happen to support a Medicare-for-All model, but that’s not my primary position. What I care about primarily is the goal, not the technique: When Americans get sick, they should get the medical care they need, and they shouldn’t go bankrupt paying for it.

I support Medicare-for-All because to me it looks like the most effective technique for achieving that goal. But in truth, I don’t really care how it happens, and I don’t think voters do either. The RomneyCare/ObamaCare approach was to build on the existing crazy-quilt of coverage — employer-based insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, government-subsidized exchanges, CHIP, the VA, and so on — and keep expanding it until everybody is covered. If that gets us to the goal, I’m happy. The British approach is essentially the-VA-for-All, with the government running hospitals and hiring doctors. That could work too. When conservatives talk about market-based approaches, I’m skeptical, and I wonder if they’re entering the discussion in good faith. But if they are, I’m listening. If there really is some way the free market can play a role in getting everybody the care they need without forcing people into bankruptcy, I’m open to it.

Summing up. In order to turn things around, the Alaska model says that Democratic Party needs to focus on providing services to people who can win, not on electing its own insiders. It needs to recruit new faces who have their own accomplishments and stories to tell, not run the same people who have lost before. It needs to run everywhere, even in districts that look hopeless, and give local candidates the freedom to shape a message that best represents their districts — even if that message leaves out the word “Democrat”. It needs to project national values and goals, but not tie every candidate to specific pieces of legislation that local voters might hate.

Both Berners and Clintonites will find things to like and things not to like about that strategy. In some races, it will lead to progressive candidates winning by raising millennial fervor. In others, centrist candidates will win by converting former Republicans, like suburban Christian Moms and gun-toting environmentalists. What both factions ought to like about this strategy, though, is that there’s a glimmering example of how it can work.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Another week, another quarter’s worth of news. This week we had the Parkland high school shooting, yet another story of one of the President’s allies paying off a woman he had an extra-marital affair with, and some major developments in the Mueller investigation: an indictment of some of the Russians who interfered in the the 2016 election (with a lot of the details of how they did it), and Paul Manafort’s right-hand man (Rick Gates) made a plea deal. In addition, the White House’s story about how Rob Porter kept his job fell apart, and Israeli police announced that they had sufficient evidence to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption, though no actual indictment has been issued yet.

So of course this week’s featured post is about none of that. For several weeks now I’ve been looking at the political change going on in Alaska, which is no longer the dead-red state you probably think it is. A few years ago, Democrats were in danger of falling below the major-party threshold in the House, which could have left them without seats on major committees. But now, both the governorship and the House are controlled by a Democrat/Independent/moderate-Republican coalition, and voters have passed a number of liberal referenda. So how did any of that happen? And what can the rest of the country learn from it? I’ll cover that in “Alaska As a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model”. That should post around 9 EST.

The weekly summary will talk about the stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph, plus a few other interesting things I’ve run across this week. I still have a lot of work to do on that, so it might not show up until noon or so.

Preserve, Protect, and Defend

The bottom line of this is that they protected an abuser. And guess what is a job qualification to work in this White House? To protect someone who talked favorably about sexual assault on the Access Hollywood tapes. That is a job qualification in this White House. There’s a pattern of behavior. … They protect abusers. There’s no way of getting around it, and I guess people will say, “Well, it doesn’t matter. You can still be a good president. You can still do your job.” No. If you are willing to defend someone who hurt somebody in this fashion, you have no boundaries. You have no restraint. You have no respect for the law.

Amanda Carpenter, former staffer for Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz


This week’s featured post is “Does the Exploding Federal Deficit Matter?

This week everybody was talking about the White House defending spousal abuse

Porter’s first wife

CNN summarizes the background:

Rob Porter, a top White House aide with regular access to President Donald Trump abruptly resigned on Wednesday amid abuse allegations from two ex-wives, who each detailed to CNN what they said were years of consistent abuse from Porter, including incidents of physical violence.

As so often happens with this White House, the move arises not because higher-ups found out — White House Counsel Don McGahn apparently knew already — but because the story was becoming public. CNN reports:

By early fall, it was widely known among Trump’s top aides — including chief of staff John Kelly — both that Porter was facing troubles in obtaining the clearance and that his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. No action was taken to remove him from the staff. Instead, Kelly and others oversaw an elevation in Porter’s standing. He was one of a handful of aides who helped draft last week’s State of the Union address.

Porter was serving in the White House on an interim security clearance. (Until this week, I didn’t know such a thing existed. I used to have a job that required a clearance, and you couldn’t wander around the building unescorted until your clearance came through. Your boss would have to go outside the security perimeter to visit you in your temporary office. Apparently this White House has a more lax attitude. Jared Kushner also has an interim clearance.) He hadn’t gotten a permanent clearance precisely because his ex-wives had told their stories to the FBI, who consequently worried that Porter could be blackmailed by America’s enemies.

So far, we don’t know exactly what Kelly knew when. (A Congress that was doing its job would ask him.) But he definitely had known for weeks that Porter wasn’t getting a clearance, and that the issue involved a court order against him by one of his wives. When the initial reports surfaced in the press Tuesday, Kelly’s first reaction Wednesday was to stand by Porter:

Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.

Sarah Sanders echoed his sentiment:

I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character. Those of us who have the privilege of knowing him are better people because of it.

Only later in the day, when pictures like the one above started circulating, did Kelly change his tune — sort of.

I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.

The difference wasn’t that Kelly learned new facts, but that the pictures in the press made Porter indefensible.

A second White House staffer resigned Friday after abuse allegations by his ex-wife. Trump played defense Saturday morning:

Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?

Porter’s second wife took that tweet personally. After all, Trump said “lives”, which indicates he’s talking about more than one case. In an op-ed in Time, Jennie Willloughby wrote:

The words “mere allegation” and “falsely accused” meant to imply that I am a liar. That Colbie Holderness is a liar. That the work Rob was doing in the White House was of higher value than our mental, emotional or physical wellbeing. That his professional contributions are worth more than the truth. That abuse is something to be questioned and doubted.

The really stunning part of this story is that Porter has been dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. Vanity Fair describes Hicks as: “one of the most powerful people in the White House, protected by Trump almost like a member of the Trump family.” We’re left with two possibilities: (1) Hicks knew that Porter had abused his two wives, and decided to date him anyway. (2) Hicks didn’t know, and Kelly was content to let her date Porter without knowing.

You might hope for some tearful apology from Porter, maybe coupled with a statement about how he had found Jesus and turned his life around. But no, he denies everything. So it’s a he-said/she-said-and-she-said-and-has-pictures story. The second staffer (David Sorenson) says he was actually the victim of his wife’s violence.

As for the rumors that Kelly might be on his way out … I’ll believe that when he’s gone.

Kelly has long been able to hide behind his reputation as a Marine general. But it has been obvious for some while that he himself is not “a man of true integrity and honor” either. Back in October, when Trump was feuding with the wife of a soldier killed in action in Niger, Kelly supported Trump’s false account of their phone conversation, and then slandered Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the widow’s side of the call. When video proved that Kelly had lied about Wilson, he refused to apologize.

That’s the kind of man John Kelly is, and it’s totally consistent with what we’re seeing now.

and the budget deal

The government was actually shut down for a few hours after midnight on Friday, but hardly anybody noticed. Friday morning Congress passed and Trump signed a deal that did a few things:

  • kept the government funded until March 23
  • agreed on spending levels for the rest of FY 2018, which lasts through September
  • raised the debt ceiling for another year

The agreement blew away spending caps that have been around since the budget sequestration agreement that ended the 2013 debt-ceiling crisis. That deal had linked caps on defense spending with caps on non-defense spending. Republicans have long wanted to do away with the defense cap, which Democrats weren’t willing to do with the non-defense cap still in place. So they circumvented both: Each of the next two years, the Defense cap goes up by $160 billion to around $700 billion, and the non-defense cap goes up $128 billion to $591 billion.

Coupled with the recent tax cut, Congress is now looking at a deficit of around $1.2 trillion for FY 2019, not counting the infrastructure proposal Trump is making today. The featured post discusses just how worried we should be about that.

Raising the budget caps, though, doesn’t actually appropriate money. That has to happen in a separate bill that has to get worked out by March 23. The appropriation bill, called an “omnibus”, has to describe where the money goes in more detail.

Beyond just “making America great again”, I haven’t seen a detailed analysis of what the Pentagon needs more money for. The non-defense part includes money for disaster relief, community health centers, the opioid problem, and infrastructure.

and the Dreamers

One thing the budget deal didn’t include was a resolution to the problem of the Dreamers, who could start being deported next month (though probably not, because of certain court decisions). Certainly there is deportation risk later in the year.

Democrats sent mixed messages. Nancy Pelosi cited the lack of a DACA fix when she voted against the budget deal herself and gave a record-setting 8-hour speech on the floor of the House. But Democratic leadership did not try to hold House Democrats together to vote down the deal, which Democrats could have done if they had stuck together (given that some Republicans were also voting no for other reasons). I’m uncertain whether the caucus would have held together if Pelosi had tried.

In the deal that resolved the last shutdown, Democrats got a commitment from Mitch McConnell to let a DACA bill come to the floor, but the bipartisan group of senators who are supposed to write such a bill haven’t been able to agree on a text yet, so McConnell’s promise hasn’t been tested.

If you think the Dreamers won’t get deported even after DACA runs out, you need to understand the kind of things ICE is doing now: About a month ago, Dr. Lukasz Niec, “a physician specializing in internal medicine at Bronson Healthcare Group in Kalamazoo”, a legal permanent resident with a green card, and the father of a 12-year-old girl (who is an American citizen), got arrested in his home. The problem: the 43-year-old physician was convicted of two misdemeanors when he was a teen-ager, so he is “subject to removal” back to Poland, where he hasn’t lived since he was five years old, when his family escaped the Communist regime then in power.

He spent about three weeks in county jail and went back to work Thursday. His deportation case is still pending while a parole board considers whether to pardon him for his crimes.

So, Dr. Niec is one of the “bad hombres” Trump was talking about.

Another bad hombre is Syed Jamal, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas and teaches chemistry at Park University in Missouri. Jamal came to the U.S. legally in 1987 as a student from Bangladesh. He stayed after his student visa ran out, married, and is raising several children (U.S. citizens) between ages 7 and 14.

Jamal was arrested while walking his children to school, and was whisked away to a jail in El Paso, from which he could have been flown back to Bangladesh at any moment. (Sometimes ICE grabs people off the street and deports them the same day.) A judge has granted him a temporary stay until Thursday, at which point no one knows what will happen.

If the Iraq War taught us anything, it should have taught us that dragging fathers away while their sons watch is a good way to nurture future terrorism.

Roberto Beristain, who lived in the U.S. for 20 years, and owned and operated Eddie’s Steak Shed in Granger, Indiana, was deported to Mexico in April. His wife, a citizen, now regrets voting for Trump; she had believed his promise that he was only interested in deporting criminals. They were raising three children together, including one from her previous marriage.

CNN talked to Beristain’s attorney, who told this story:

Beristain bounced between detention facilities — Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas — making it more difficult for his attorneys to file legal motions in one jurisdiction. Then on Wednesday, as his legal team was expecting a ruling, they got the news: ICE had deported him to Juarez in the middle of the night.

From an immigrant shelter in Mexico, Beristain describes how it went down:

“They suddenly told me it was time to go,” Roberto Beristain was quoted as saying. “They told me to get my stuff, they put me in the back of a van and sped toward the border. They took me to another facility while in transport to sign paperwork. I asked to speak with my attorney, but was told there wasn’t time for that. At around 10 p.m., I was dropped off at the Mexico-US border and walked into Mexico.”

and the stock market

The stock market drop of the last couple weeks has been unnerving, but so far the problem seems to be more about the market economy than the real economy. In other words: Investors are worried that stock prices got too high, not that there is something wrong with the economy.

I don’t make market predictions, and you shouldn’t trust me if I did. But if you are invested in the market, you shouldn’t panic, you should just ask yourself why you own what you own. If the reasons you bought a stock are still valid — you believe in the product, the earnings and dividend numbers look good, and so on — then stand pat. But if you bought stocks because stocks were going up, well, lately they’ve been they’re going down. I don’t know what to tell you.

and (still) the Nunes memo

Last week I dissected the Republican memo that tried (and failed) to de-legitimize the Mueller investigation. This week Trump refused to allow the release of the Democrats’ memo critiquing the Republican memo. That’s where we are: The administration is openly cherry-picking classified information, releasing stuff that supports Trump and keeping secret anything it can that makes him look bad. National security is a secondary concern; propaganda comes first.

When Trump said he was “looking forward” to talking to Robert Mueller, and would do so under oath, I didn’t buy it.

If anybody expects to see Trump under oath without (or even with) an order from the Supreme Court, let me remind you of all the times he has said he would release his tax returns.

This week, we found out that Trump’s lawyers are laying the groundwork to resist a Mueller/Trump interview. Ultimately, it will probably come down to whether or not he invokes the Fifth Amendment. Lawyer Seth Abramson explains the legal issues involved.

Vox listed all the stories that slipped under the radar last week while everybody was arguing about the memo: A Labor Department analysis shows that a new rule will result in restaurants stealing billions from their workers, but it isn’t releasing that information. The CDC is facing a huge cut to programs that address foreign epidemics; I guess Trump’s Wall will stop all those germs from getting here. People in public housing will face higher rents and more red tape. Ben Carson’s son is benefiting from his Dad’s job as HUD secretary. The payday lending industry is rewarding Trump for favorable treatment by holding a big conference at one of Trump’s clubs.

and you also might be interested in …

Amazing article this week in the NYT Magazine: “What Teens Are Learning From Online Porn“. Some Boston teens from a variety of high schools attended a Porn Literacy class; their conversations have a lot to teach adults. Pretty much everybody understands that the plotlines of porn videos are ridiculous. (Delivering pizzas to lonely housewives is not a good strategy for losing your virginity.) But inexperienced teens are taking porn seriously as a lesson in what kinds of things their future partners will expect them to do, and what kinds of things s/he will enjoy. And since adults refuse to recognize that kids are seeing this stuff, the lessons don’t get critiqued.

Some people, as they get older, stop caring about other people’s approval and just say what’s on their minds. Check out this interview with 84-year-old musician Quincy Jones.

Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes argue that the Republican Party has passed a point of no return:

This, then, is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to do as Toren Beasley did: vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes

Jennifer Rubin, who used to work at The Weekly Standard and was a strong Mitt Romney supporter in 2012, comes pretty close to saying the same thing. She connects defending spouse-abusers in the White House with the abuse of classified documents, the abuse of Senate procedure, and the whole raft of norm-violations that have been going on for a while now. “The core mission of the GOP is now to defend abusers,” she writes.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt was interviewed by KSNV in Las Vegas. Here’s some of what he said:

We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends. So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.

The stupidity here is subtle, so it probably gets past people who don’t want to think about the climate, or who have vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry.

  • The problem isn’t just that we’re in a warming trend, it’s that the speed of the warming is unprecedented. If global average temperature went up 4 degrees over 10,000 years or 100,000 years, various natural and human systems might adjust smoothly. But the same warming in 100 years is catastrophic.
  • The warming trend isn’t just happening to us, we’re causing it. So he’s got the arrogance exactly backwards: It’s arrogant to think that we can cause drastic climate change and not think about the consequences.

Closing the hole in the ozone layer is usually considered one of the victories of environmental regulation. But now there might be a new problem.

John Quiggen argues that Bitcoin disproves the idea that markets are efficient. The objects of previous bubbles — dot-com stocks, market derivatives — had plausible (if ultimately false) claims to value.

The contrast with Bitcoin is stark. The Bitcoin bubble rests on no plausible premise…. Hardly anyone now suggests that Bitcoin has value as a currency. Rather, the new claim is that Bitcoin is a “store of value” and that its price reflects its inherent scarcity. … If Bitcoin is a “store of value,” then asset prices are entirely arbitrary. As the proliferation of cryptocurrencies has shown, nothing is easier than creating a scarce asset.

Here’s the kind of clever entrepreneurship our country needs: A Girl Scout sold 300 boxes of cookies in six hours by setting up outside a legal marijuana shop in San Diego.

and let’s close with something unexpected

In New Zealand, elderly people (and others who think they might die sooner rather than later) have started forming “coffin clubs“. With help from the other members, they build their own coffins and decorate them creatively, preparing for funerals that will be celebrations of their lives rather than somber and depressing affairs. And they publicized the idea with a jazzy music video.

Does the Exploding Federal Deficit Matter?

Republicans claimed that Obama’s deficits were apocalyptic, but trillion-dollar deficits are fine now that Trump is president. What’s the right level of concern?

In his 2008 stump speech, John McCain used to say that accusing Congress of spending money like a drunken sailor was an insult to drunken sailors. McCain is an old Navy man, the son and grandson of admirals, so he was particularly well positioned to take offense. The line usually got a good laugh.

Out-of-control debt and spending was a standard Republican complaint all through the Obama years. The Tea Party’s original claim to being non-partisan was that they also accused the Bush administration of being wild spenders, abetted by K-Street establishment Republicans as well as Democrats. For almost a decade now, Republicans of all stripes have railed against the deficit. Some dark curse would steal away our economic growth, their economists’ spreadsheet errors told us, if the total national debt ever got close to the annual GDP. As a result, Obama’s budgets turned into an annual game of chicken, the second round of stimulus spending never happened, infrastructure continued to decay, and we were stuck with a sluggish economy that didn’t get unemployment back under 5% until 2016.

But then the Electoral College appointed Trump president, and now the Bush days are back again: Deficits don’t matter. We can cut taxes and raise spending and everything should be fine (until the next Democratic president takes office, at which time the party will be over and the national debt will once again be an existential threat to the Republic). So Obama cut his inherited deficit in half, while Trump is in the process of pushing it back up again. The latest estimate of the FY 2019 deficit is $1.2 trillion, possibly rising to over $2 trillion by 2027. [1] And that doesn’t count the infrastructure plan that Trump plans to release today.

That’s been the pattern since Ronald Reagan: Republicans blow up the deficit, and then pressure Democrats to deal with it — which they’ve done. Presidents are inaugurated in January, inheriting a budget that started in October. Together, Clinton and Obama shaved more than a trillion dollars off the deficits of their entering year. But that was no match for the $1.7 trillion that Reagan and the two Bushes added to their entering deficits.

President entering deficit exiting deficit change
Trump -666 ??? ???
Obama -1413 -666 +747
Bush II +128 -1413 -1541
Clinton -255 +128 +383
Bush I -153 -255 -102
Reagan -79 -153 -74

(Numbers from Negative numbers are deficits, the lone positive number a surplus.)

The GOP has never owned up to that pattern in its rhetoric, though. As Reagan was entering office, he scolded Congress about runaway debt.

Can we, who man the ship of state, deny it is somewhat out of control? Our national debt is approaching $1 trillion. A few weeks ago I called such a figure, a trillion dollars, incomprehensible, and I’ve been trying ever since to think of a way to illustrate how big a trillion really is. And the best I could come up with is that if you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high. The interest on the public debt this year we know will be over $90 billion, and unless we change the proposed spending for the fiscal year beginning October 1st, we’ll add another almost $80 billion to the debt.

So what did he do? He cut taxes, raised defense spending, and never ran an annual deficit less than $100 billion, peaking at $221 billion in FY 1986. In total, he added another $1.4 trillion to the national debt.

Trump is following the same script. In the short run, it’s good politics. Everybody likes a tax cut. If the increased spending means that the defense industry in your area starts hiring again, your local highways get resurfaced, or you don’t have to deal with cuts in Medicare, Social Security, CHIP, or whatever other government program your family relies on, then you’re happy. Compared to something immediate and personal, like whether you have a job or your kids can get the medical treatment they need, the federal deficit seems like an abstract, remote problem.

And yet, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that we can’t get something for nothing. If the government keeps spending and stops collecting taxes, it seems like something bad ought to happen eventually. But what?

Bad analogies. One problem we have in thinking about this question is that our national conversation about debt has been polluted by a really bad metaphor: The government’s budget is like your household budget.

The deficits-are-good-politics part of that analogy works. If you’re the budgeter in your household, and you suddenly decide that running up a big debt is no big deal, you can make everybody pretty happy for a while. The kids can get the Christmas presents they want. When nobody feels like cooking, the family can eat at a nice restaurant. That big vacation you’ve dreamed about can happen this summer rather than sometime in the indefinite future. If the job is getting to be too big a hassle, your spouse can just quit. It’s all good.

Until it’s not. Eventually, the household metaphor tells us, the bills will have to be paid, and then bankruptcy looms. And that’s where the analogy breaks down. Your household spending spree can’t go on forever, but it wouldn’t have to end if your bank simply cashed all your checks and never bothered you about the fact that your account is deep in the red. That’s the situation the U.S. government is in: The bank is the Federal Reserve, and it can (and will) simply honor all the checks the government writes.

Pushing the household analogy further, you might ask: But what happens when the bank runs out of money? In the case of the Fed, that can’t happen, because dollars are whatever the Fed says they are. For example, one of the ways the Fed dealt with the financial crisis that began in 2007 is called quantitative easing, which is defined like this:

Quantitative easing is a massive expansion of the open market operations of a central bank. It’s used to stimulate the economy by making it easier for businesses to borrow money. The bank buys securities from its member banks to add liquidity to capital markets. This has the same effect as increasing the money supply. In return, the central bank issues credit to the banks’ reserves to buy the securities. Where do central banks get the credit to purchase these assets? They simply create it out of thin air. Only central banks have this unique power.

Several countries’ central banks did this, but none more aggressively than the Fed, which created $2 trillion just by typing some numbers into its central computers. Since there’s no limit to the number of dollars the Fed can create this way, it can buy as many bonds as Congress wants to authorize. So there’s no limit to what the U.S. government can spend.

Consequently, anybody who talks about the U.S. government going bankrupt is just being hyperbolic. The government can refuse to cover its debts (that possibility is what the debt-ceiling crises of 2011 and 2013 were about), but it can’t be forced into bankruptcy. [2]

So what really goes wrong? You know something has to, because otherwise the government could just make us all rich.

The government’s debt gets financed in two different ways, and they correspond to the two things that can go wrong: high interest rates and inflation.

One way the debt gets financed is that investors buy government bonds. You may own some yourself, and if you have a 401k, probably some of that money is invested in mutual funds that own some government bonds. Banks or corporations with extra cash may hold it in the form of government bonds.

Investors like U.S. treasury bonds because they pay interest. But like every other market, the market for treasury bonds works by supply and demand. If the supply of bonds zooms up (because the government is borrowing more money), they won’t all get bought unless something attracts more investors. In this case, the “something” is higher interest rates. The more the government needs to borrow from investors, the higher the interest rate it will have to pay.

Since the U.S. government can’t go bankrupt, investors would rather loan to it than to just about anybody else. So the only way you or Bill Gates or General Motors can get a loan is to pay more interest rate than the going rate on treasury bonds. So the government borrowing more money can result in everybody paying higher interest rates: Your mortgage rate goes up, your credit-card rate goes up, businesses that want to borrow money to expand have to pay higher interest rates, and so on. If interest rates get high enough, people and businesses will stop borrowing, the ones who can’t cover the higher interest payments will go bankrupt, and the economy will fall into a recession.

The 50-billion-mark note of 1923.

The other way the government deficit gets financed is that the Fed can buy the bonds itself, creating dollars out of thin air to do so. This is the modern-day analog of governments paying their bills by printing money, and it can have the same result as when the German government printed money in the 1920s: inflation. It makes sense: dollars are part of a supply-and-demand system too, so increasing the number of dollars should decrease how much each of them can buy. [3]

Except … Notice that I keep using words like can and should. What makes economics such a hard subject is that simple reasoning like this doesn’t always pan out. Sometimes when the Fed creates more money, the economy just soaks it up. If the economy has unused capacity — if, say, there are idle mines and factories, and unemployed workers who want jobs — the extra money might just bring all that back to life. If more people start working and spending, producing and consuming more goods and services, then the normal function of the economy requires more money. So the money the Fed creates might not cause inflation. And if investors are having trouble finding attractive alternative investments — as they do when economic prospects are iffy for everybody — they might be happy to loan the government more money without a higher interest rate.

In other words, sometimes there really is a free lunch. The government can borrow more money, make a bunch of people happy, and nothing bad happens.

That’s how things played out during the Obama years (and also during Reagan’s administration). The national debt went up substantially, the Fed created trillions of dollars, and yet both interest rates and inflation stayed low. (In Reagan’s case, interest rates were at record highs when he came into office, and went down from there.) Conservative deficit hawks kept predicting that the sky was about to fall on us, but it didn’t. [4]

What about now? The reason we got away with running such big deficits during the Obama years was that the economy was in really bad shape when he took office in 2009. Left to its own devices, the economy looked likely to go into a deflationary cycle, where money stops circulating and suddenly no one can pay their debts: Businesses go bankrupt, so workers lose their jobs and creditors don’t get paid. That causes them to go bankrupt, and the whole vicious cycle builds on itself.

Classic Keynesian economic theory says that the government should run deficits during busts and surpluses during booms. [5] That way the overall debt stays under control and the economy grows without violent swings up and down. That’s what the record $1.4 trillion deficit in FY 2009 (the Bush/Obama transition year) was for: It provided some inflationary pressure to balance the deflationary pressure of the Great Recession. The government played its Keynesian role as the spender of last resort, and so money kept flowing. Without that stimulus, things could have been much worse.

But the situation right now is very different. For the last several months, the unemployment rate has been 4.1%, the lowest it has been since the Goldilocks years of the Clinton administration. We’ve never run a trillion-dollar deficit during a time of economic growth and low unemployment, but we’re about to.

In this situation, we’re unlikely to get the free lunch. The free lunch happens because productive capacity is just sitting there, waiting for new money to bring it to life. If you need more workers, you don’t have to hire them away from somebody else, you can hire them off the unemployment line. When a business increases its orders, its suppliers don’t have to build new plants or pay overtime, they just start running their factories on their regular schedules rather than at a reduced rate.

When the economy is already humming, though, all the increased inputs come at a higher cost. Somewhere there are going to be bottlenecks, places where supply can’t be increased easily, and so that limited supply will go to the highest bidder at an increased cost. Those price increases ripple through the system, and you have inflation.

Inflation hasn’t shown up yet, though interest rates have already started to rise. Back in September, when passing a tax cut still seemed unlikely, rates on the 10-year treasury bond were barely over 2%. Now they’re a little under 3%. The stock market doesn’t submit to interviews, so no one can say exactly why the Dow Jones Index dropped 2800 points in 9 business days. But traders are often citing worries about inflation and interest rates.

Only hindsight will be able to tell us whether the markets are over-reacting. But there is a limit to how much debt the government can pile up without bringing on inflation and high interest rates. We just don’t know what it is.

[1] The last $400 billion on that estimate (the white box in the chart) comes from two temporary changes that Republicans assure us they intend to be permanent: the part of the recent tax bill that benefits individuals and some taxes that were part of the Affordable Care Act that have since be delayed. So Republicans can claim the deficit will only (!) be $1.7 trillion in 2027 if they admit that the long-term tax cut was really just intended for corporations.

[2] Somebody out there is asking: “What about Greece?” During the last decade, the Greek government has had a series of major financial crises that revolved around not being able to finance its national debt. Why won’t that happen to us?

The difference is that Greece doesn’t have a true central bank that controls its own currency. Greece is part of the euro-zone, so when it runs a deficit, it needs to borrow euros. Euros are controlled by the European Central Bank, a pan-European institution that feels no obligation to buy the Greek government’s bonds.

[3] That’s what goes wrong with the government making us all millionaires. The first thing you’d probably do if you became a millionaire is hire somebody to do some cleaning. But the people you’d be trying to hire are now millionaires too, so they’re not going to work for the same rate you’d have paid them before.

In addition to what I’ve described, inflation and interest rates can also interact: If investors expect the dollars they’ll be repaid in the future to be worth less than the dollars they’re loaning out now, they’ll want a higher interest rate to make up the difference. The value of the dollar in other currencies also comes into play: Inflation pushes the value of the dollar down, while higher interest rates prop it up. Things get complicated.

[4] The showdown that led to the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis was foreshadowed by Paul Ryan’s report “The Path to Prosperity“, which called for drastic reductions in government spending.

Government at all levels is mired in debt. Mismanagement and overspending have left the nation on the brink of bankruptcy.
The cause for Ryan’s alarm was the $1.2 trillion deficit in Obama’s proposed FY 2012 budget. That’s virtually identical to the FY 2019 deficit Ryan has voted for.

[5] In 1937, John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” In actual practice, we’ve usually run big deficits during busts and smaller deficits during booms. But the overall principle is the same.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There’s an outrage-of-the-week, and there’s stuff happening of long-term significance. Which to focus on?

The outrage of this week is genuinely outrageous: A guy held one of the most sensitive jobs in the White House with only an interim security clearance, because the FBI wouldn’t clear him after learning that he was violent with his two previous wives and a subsequent girl friend. It looks like Don McGahn and John Kelly knew for months, did nothing, and watched Hope Hicks start going out with him. After the news broke, they defended him until the press got hold of a photo of his first wife with a black eye. Jennifer Rubin connects this with a long series of abuses and says, “The core mission of the GOP is now to defend abusers.”

The longer-term issue is the spending deal that ended another government shutdown. (It happened for a few hours in the middle of the night, so you might have missed it.) The deal is that Republicans get the defense-spending increases they want, Democrats get the domestic-spending increases they want, and the Dreamers are still left hanging. So we’ve cut taxes, raised spending, and now for the first time in history we face trillion-dollar deficits at a time when the economy is supposed to be humming nicely.

The deficit is one of those issues that the country (especially the Republican half) is bipolar about. Sometimes it’s a threat to the survival of our nation, and then other times it’s not worth serious concern. As a Democrat, it’s tempting to just flip the Republican script: be apocalyptic when they’re sanguine and sanguine when they’re apocalyptic. I’m trying to resist that temptation, so I won’t repeat the ridiculous stuff about the country going bankrupt that we heard so often when Obama was president. Still, though, there must be some reason not to run up a big national debt; otherwise the government could just make us all millionaires. What is it?

I’ll address that question — and provide ample evidence of Republican hypocrisy — in the featured post “Does the Exploding Federal Deficit Matter?” That should be out around 9 EST.

The weekly summary will take on the wife-beating outrage, and wonder what on Earth the Democrats are thinking about immigration and the Dreamers. I’ll also tell a few deportation stories that you should bookmark and share whenever some Trumpist starts talking about protecting the country from the “bad hombres”. I’ll also point to a fascinating study of how porn influences teen attitudes towards sex, mention a Scott Pruitt interview that would have been the outrage-of-the-week in saner times, say some calming words about the stock market plunge, and link to a few other things, before closing with an upbeat music video from New Zealand about people who build their own coffins. That should be up around 11.

Doing Putin’s Job

The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why special counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.

Senator John McCain

This week’s featured post is “The Nunes Memo: It’s ridiculous and it damages the country, but it might work.” On my religious blog Free and Responsible Search, I posted the text of the sermon “Owning My Racism“, which I preached on Martin Luther King Sunday.

This week everybody was talking about the Nunes memo

The featured post goes into detail about the memo itself. But there are a number of articles about the larger effects, like “Why I Am Leaving the FBI” by counterterrorism expert Josh Campbell. The comments contain a lot of you-should-stand-and-fight messages, but they miss the point: FBI rules prevent agents from speaking out in public. If the problem is in the political arena, Campbell has to leave the FBI to work on it.

Another interesting perspective comes from former Illinois congressman and right-wing talk-radio host Joe Walsh: “Based on my experience working with him, nothing about the way he’s behaving now as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — overseeing part of the so-called Russia-Trump investigation — is particularly shocking. The Nunes I knew was a purely partisan animal. … With Nunes, I found it was all about politics, almost never about policy.”

As TPM’s Allegra Kirkland points out “the FBI isn’t a hotbed of Democratic partisans“. It makes sense that, say, career EPA officials would be Democrats, because protecting the environment is much more of Democratic value than a Republican one. But it defies logic that career FBI agents as a group would have a liberal bias, or that the FBI chain-of-command would be dominated by partisan Democrats.

Think about it: If you run into a college student who’s majoring in environmental studies and hoping to work at the EPA, she’s almost certainly a liberal. But if she’s majoring in law enforcement and hoping to work at the FBI, I don’t think you can say much about her politics. If anything, she’s probably more conservative than most Americans her age.

In the meantime, Putin’s investment in Trump continues to pay dividends. In particular, the Trump administration is not going to enforce some of the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress.

Also, the head of a major Russian intelligence service came to the U.S., in spite of sanctions that are supposed to keep him out. Last I heard, no one was taking credit for letting him in.

and the State of the Union

Tuesday seems like a long time ago, but Trump’s first State of the Union address was this week. By now we all realize that Teleprompter Trump and Campaign Rally Trump are two very different speakers. This was Teleprompter Trump. The numbers are pretty much all nonsense, like the claim that cutting the corporate tax will “increase average family income by more than $4,000”, but at least he didn’t call Mexicans rapists or invite the gallery to punch his opponents in the face.

As I predicted before he took office, he’s taking credit for a lot of Obama’s accomplishments. (“We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”) He continued to paint immigrants as criminals, making the MS-13 gang the face of immigration, and a reason to turn away refugee children. He made a lot of probably empty promises about infrastructure and new trade deals. He talked about “clean coal” as if those words actually meant something. I would examine the text more closely, but I’ve become skeptical of anything Trump says. Let’s see what actual proposals get made.

One passage does deserve attention, because it’s a very dangerous idea I suspect we’ll hear again:

I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.

That’s how the federal government worked in the 19th century, when it was a giant patronage machine similar to some of the big-city political machines. That’s why the Civil Service Act got passed in 1883.

I thought Joe Kennedy did a good job with his response to Trump’s speech. The Trump administration, he said, is turning America into a zero-sum game, where “in order for one to win, another must lose”.

As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals, rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top. As if the parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son will be beaten and bullied at school is any more or less legitimate than the parent whose heart is shattered by a daughter in the grips of opioid addiction. So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: we choose both. We fight for both.

That sounds like a theme Democrats can run on. It ties right in to the budget battles, where there’s never enough money for what ordinary Americans need, because we’ve already given it away in tax cuts for the rich.

CBS News shines a light on the administration’s all-talk-no-action opioid policy.

The answers, according to the president’s speech: tightened immigration laws that will slow drug trafficking and getting “much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.” But the rhetoric omitted any mention of the actual solutions proposed by experts on the front lines of the crisis.

What’s left out?

  • Addiction to prescription drugs, which are made right here and trafficked through doctors and drug stores.
  • Funding for treatment programs.

Trump declared opioid addiction a “public health emergency” in October, but that in itself opened up only $57K in federal funding. Since then, he has not proposed any opioid program to Congress.

Another piece of the real state of the union is that we’re losing environmental protections.

By coincidence, the day after Trump’s speech I was reading David Wong’s latest novel What the Hell Did I Just Read?, where I ran into this passage:

Marconi’s pipe was leaning against an ancient figurine that looked like some kind of Egyptian god, only it had an enormous, erect penis almost as big as its torso, the figure’s left hand wrapped around the shaft. … “It’s the Egyptian god Min, popular in the fourth century B.C., the god of fertility. It is believed that during the coronation of a new Pharaoh, he would be required to masturbate in front of the crowd, to demonstrate that he himself possessed the fertility powers of Min. If you have watched a State of the Union address, you will find that the ritual has not changed much.”

The description of Min turns out to be accurate, but Wong writes intentionally absurd novels, so I wouldn’t trust the claim about Pharaoh.

but we need to be telling stories about the cruelty of Trump’s immigration policies

Max Boot tells about Helen Huynh. She and her husband came here from Vietnam after the war, in which her husband fought on our side. They became citizens and had two daughters, who of course are citizens. She developed leukemia and needed a stem-cell transplant; her sister in Vietnam turned out to be a perfect match. But the sister’s visa application to come here for the procedure was rejected three times, and Huynh died a few days before Trump’s State of the Union.

Also take a look at the Dreamer Stories web site. The more we can get voters to look at the Dreamers as individuals, the harder it will be to deport them.

and you also might be interested in …

The Super Bowl: Philadelphia 41, New England 33.

The federal government is expected to borrow nearly $1 trillion this year, a sharp increase over last year. Neither party in Congress seems to be worried about this or have any plan to do anything about it. I’ve explained in the past why I don’t believe the federal debt is a big problem, but it certainly looks like a big problem, so you can be sure that eventually we’ll be told that we have to accept major cuts in the social safety net because the country can’t afford it. (Reversing the recent trillion-dollar giveaway to corporations and the rich won’t come up.)

Judges keep knocking down voter suppression laws. This time it’s the disenfranchisement of felons in Florida. Under the current rules, anyone convicted of a felony (and many felonies are not such heinous crimes) has to serve the sentence and probation, wait five years (or seven for some offenses), and then begin an appeal process that ends up in front of “a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority.” According to Judge Mark Walker: “No standards guide the panel.”

In other words, the governor gets to choose which Floridians will be allowed to vote for his re-election. That conflict of interest is not just theoretical. The judge writes:

Plaintiffs identify several instances of former felons who professed political views amenable to the Board’s members who then received voting rights, while those who expressed contrary political views to the Board were denied those same rights. Applicants—as well as their character witnesses—have routinely invoked their conservative beliefs and values to their benefit.

The judge focused on the arbitrariness of the system of restoring voting rights to felons, and allowed the 5-7 year waiting period. He put off ordering a remedy until later this month.

But even without the political bias, such a system is wrong. It’s wrong on an individual basis, because after you’ve served your time, you should be allowed to re-enter society fully. But when you combine felon disenfranchisement with a justice system that is looking for black crime and far more likely to convict black law-breakers than white ones, you wind up with a significant disenfranchisement of the black community. (Walker notes that 1-in-5 of Florida’s black adults is disenfranchised.) Similarly, upper-class and middle-class voters accused of a felony are more likely to have good lawyers who can either get them off or plea-bargain to a misdemeanor. So a substantial class bias gets baked into the electorate as well.

Someone might argue that the system is fair, and blacks and poor people just commit more felonies. But I think that the burden of proof in that argument should be borne by the state.

In November, Floridians — at least the ones still allowed to — will vote on a ballot initiative to restore felon voting rights.

No human languages or institutions have lasted for 10,000 years, so how do you make a warning symbol for something that will be dangerous that long? (Consider the skull-and-crossbones. You might intend it to say “poison”, but some future person might think “pirate treasure”.) What kind of warning will get people’s attention, but not make them curious? Vox and 99% Invisible explore those questions in this fascinating video.

and let’s close with something cute

If you can’t wait for the Olympics to start, I offer this video of a girl doing an obstacle course that her Dad built in the back yard.

The Nunes Memo: It’s ridiculous and it damages the country, but it might work

It’s hard to parody the right-wing media’s hype of the memo written by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, which was released Friday. Sean Hannity says it constitutes

irrefutable proof of a coordinated conspiracy to abuse power by weaponizing and politicizing the powerful tools of intelligence by top-ranking Obama officials against the Trump campaign, against the Constitution, and against your Fourth Amendment rights. … It proves that the entire basis for the Russia investigation was based on lies that were bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and her campaign. The Mueller investigation does need to be shut down and the people responsible, who we will name tonight, many need to go to jail.

If that’s what Trump and his defenders need this memo to be, they should never have released it, because as soon as people read it (at 1300 words, it’s about half the length of this article) they’ll see that it doesn’t do any of that. The idea of a shocking memo the Deep State won’t let you see is far more effective than the weak document they actually have.

Why the memo’s argument is weak. In brief, here are the problems with it:

  • The memo insinuates more than it actually says.
  • It is based on classified documents that can’t be checked by the press or the public.
  • A parallel memo written by Democrats who have seen the documents has not been released, and may never be.
  • The facts in the document have been cherry-picked from a larger collection of facts that may not support the memo’s claims.
  • Even if everything claimed in the memo is true, it’s not clear what difference it makes to the Mueller investigation. Nothing in the memo indicates that the Mueller investigation is fundamentally flawed or that its conclusions will not be valid, and certainly nothing justifies Hannity’s claim that “many need to go to jail”.

The fundamental argument of the memo — every point of which is suspect — is that in October, 2016, a FISA warrant to wiretap Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had already left the Trump campaign — was obtained under false pretenses. Here are the main points:

  • The Steele dossier, which was partially paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, “formed an essential part” of the FBI’s application to a FISA court. You’d have to see the (still classified) application to know whether this is true. Democrats who have seen the application say it isn’t. People with experience in the FISA system say it’s unlikely: FISA-warrant applications are seldom based on a single source, and standard procedure would be for the FBI to try to verify Steele’s claims themselves rather than simply accept his report. (A piece of the memo that appears to be damning actually is not: “Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.” If that information was independently verified by the FBI rather than simply trusted, the source is irrelevant. For example, police may not trust an anonymous tip, but if the details check out it may lead to action.) Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez raises an interesting point: Precisely the falseness of Nunes’ claim might make it hard to refute in public. The application itself might have to stay classified because the other sources might be spies or wiretaps that the Russians don’t know about yet.
  • Neither the original judge, nor any of the three judges who approved 90-day renewals of the warrant, was told who paid Steele. However, they (or s/he; we don’t know whether the renewals went back to the same judge) were told that somebody paid Steele. Given what’s in the dossier, I doubt the judge was shocked to discover later that the somebody was one of Trump’s political opponents. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “the FISA application disclosed that Steele was paid by a law firm working for a major political party.” According to Glenn Simpson’s testimony to two congressional committees, Steele himself might not have known who commissioned his work. He could probably guess, but if so, so could the judge.)  Also, FISA judges can ask questions; they don’t have to accept what is handed to them. So if a judge thought the identity of Steele’s ultimate client mattered, s/he could have asked.
  • Steele was a “less than reliable source”. Until he retired to form a private research firm, he headed the Russia desk at MI-6, the British equivalent of the CIA. Again, Steele’s reliability is only relevant if the FBI, and then the FISA court, simply took Steele’s word at face value, with no other probable cause to be suspicious of Page. We have no reason to believe that they did.
  • Steele was biased against Trump. The memo quotes (in bold type) a Justice Department official who talked to Steele weeks before the election, saying that Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” The Republican narrative claims that this bias caused him to fabricate evidence that Trump had been compromised by the Russians. However, as a UK citizen, it’s not clear why Steele would start his investigation with a passionate partisan bias against any American politician. The story makes much more sense if the cause-and-effect runs the other way: Steele (whose MI-6 career had centered on battling Russian intelligence) was desperate that Trump not become president because he had seen evidence that Trump was compromised by the Russians.
  • The existence of a parallel investigation of another Trump campaign person, George Papadopoulos, was used to justify the warrant, even though the FBI had no evidence that Page and Papadopoulos were working together. They don’t have to have been working together to make Papadopoulos relevant, because the connection could be on the Russian side. (Josh Marshall: “This strikes me as really obvious.”) The fact that Russian operatives were in touch with one Trump campaign adviser makes it more credible that they’d be in touch with another.

Unsupported assumptions. Now let’s look at the gap between these claims and Hannity’s. The memo doesn’t even claim to prove anything,  it just “raises concerns”. (That’s a wiggle-phrase that will allow Nunes to back away later when this all amounts to nothing.) And to get from these “concerns” to an invalidation of the whole investigation, you have to make a further set of assumptions that the memo doesn’t support at all:

  • The Carter Page FISA warrant is at the root of the whole Mueller investigation. The Nunes memo itself says this isn’t true: “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016”. In other words, the FBI had already been investigating possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign for five months when it applied for the Page FISA warrant.
  • The information in the Steele dossier is false. The Nunes memo does not contain any evidence that undermines Steele’s claims. Much of what’s in the dossier remains unverified, but much of it has turned out to be true, and very little has been proven false.
  • If there is bias at the FBI then the Mueller investigation’s findings will be false. Ultimately, the output of the investigation will be a collection of evidence, expressed in indictments and/or a report to Congress. Whether the investigators were happy or sad as they found facts that were good or bad for Trump won’t matter. Referring to the Trump-criticizing texts that the FBI’s  Peter Strzok and Lisa Page sent back and forth during the course of their office affair (cited by Nunes as demonstrating “a clear bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton”), former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter commented: “I guess I’d ask how the existence or content of emails between two people at the FBI could possibly change any of the facts. What [former national security adviser Michael Flynn] said matters; the circumstances of his resignation matter; [attorney general Jeff] Sessions’ actions, the facts surrounding Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment; all those facts matter. What two people at the FBI not directly involved in any of these events said to each other does not matter.”

On that final point, flash back to the Starr investigation into President Clinton. Kenneth Starr was clearly a political enemy of Clinton; there was not even an appearance of impartiality. And yet, in the end the facts were the facts: The evidence showed that Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, and it didn’t show any wrongdoing regarding the original subject, the Whitewater deal.

The price of the memo. The Nunes memo gave Trump’s supporters a few days’ worth of talking points, but it damaged the long-term relationship between the intelligence services and Congress. To understand how, you need to appreciate a little history.

After Watergate, Congress began searching for ways to reassert its own power and limit the executive branch, which was seen to have been running out of control even before Nixon. One result was a report issued by the Church Committee into decades of CIA covert actions, which included coups and assassinations. The public outrage that followed led to an increased oversight process involving the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which get far more information from the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies than Congress previously had access to.

To make that system work, Congress had to overcome the deep skepticism that the intelligence services have about politicians, especially the belief that it is dangerous to share secrets with them, because they will leak those secrets for political advantage. So there are elaborate processes for protecting the secret information the intelligence committees receive.

As always in democratic governance, rules only work if they are surrounded by a penumbra of unwritten norms embodying the spirit behind the rules. In other words, there are things that “just aren’t done”, even if the rules would technically allow them.

The writing and release of the Nunes memo violated these norms. The technical rules were followed: The House Intelligence Committee voted (on party lines) to release the memo.

Under an obscure committee rule to make the classified memo public, which has never been invoked in the panel’s 40-plus-year history, the President now has five days following the vote to decide whether to allow the public release to move forward or object to it.

Trump then OK’d the release, ignoring the pleas of his own appointees, like FBI Director Christopher Wray and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd.

So the rules were followed. But the larger truth is that secrets shared with the House Intelligence Committee were revealed to the public in order for one party to gain a political advantage over the other. The FBI was made to look bad, and can’t defend itself without breaking the law and releasing even more classified information.

Not just the FBI but all the intelligence services saw this happen, and are drawing the appropriate lesson: The House Intelligence Committee is no longer trustworthy. If there’s some secret that really shouldn’t get out, it needs to be hidden from them.

The country will pay a price for this, maybe not this week or next, but down the road.

Will it work? The point of the memo wasn’t to convince reasonable people, because it clearly won’t do that. The memo is not intended to be read, it’s intended to exist, so that claims (like Hannity’s) can be made about it. Trump immediately asserted that the memo “vindicated” him and his often repeated contention that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt”. “The FBI,” he tweeted, “became a tool of anti-Trump political actors.” Don Jr. called it “sweet revenge”.

But that’s such obvious BS that even Rep. Trey Gowdy, who led the eighth investigation into Benghazi and so should know a witch hunt when he sees one, isn’t buying it.

There is a Russia investigation without a dossier. So to the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.

Another Republican, Senator John McCain issued this statement:

The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.

The point of the memo is that Trump supporters can say, “The Nunes memo proved …” If you’re not the kind of American who is willing or able to read the memo and assess its claims, that assertion is as convincing as anybody else’s assertion.

In the parallel political universe Dave Neiwert calls “alt America”, Trump is trying to take the government back for the American people, and so is being persecuted by the Deep State. The FBI, the Department of Justice, and even the people Trump himself has appointed to run those institutions, can’t be trusted. The Nunes memo fits right into that world, and will become one of the building blocks of its case.

Rosenstein. The Trump appointee the memo seems to be pointed at is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters having to do with Russia and the Trump campaign. Rosenstein is overseeing the Mueller investigation, and has whole-heartedly supported the integrity of the investigation in testimony to Congress. If Trump wants to fire Mueller, the order has to pass through Rosenstein.

The Nunes memo doesn’t really accuse Rosenstein of anything, but his name comes up twice: He signed off on one of the FISA warrant applications against Carter Page, and he is mentioned as having worked closely with Bruce Ohr, who was Steele’s contact in the Justice Department. That, apparently, is enough to make him part of the Deep State cabal that needs to be purged. Right-wing media is full of demands that Rosenstein be fired.

Firing Rosenstein, of course, would put Trump one step closer to firing Mueller, or possibly just reining in his investigation or hamstringing it. Three authors at Politico described this plan as “a Saturday Night Massacre in slow motion“. Firing Mueller at this point would invite a response: Republicans in Congress have said it would “be the end of the Trump presidency“, and legions of demonstrators are poised to take to the streets within hours of an announcement of Mueller’s firing.

But what about Rod Rosenstein? What if Rosenstein is replaced by someone who gradually turns the screws until a legitimate investigation is impossible? Where is the tripwire on that path?

If the Trump base is convinced that Rosenstein (in spite of being chosen by Trump) is part of the anti-Trump Deep State cabal, and if Trump can be seen to be giving into their demands by firing Rosenstein, maybe Republicans in Congress make tut-tutting noises, but do nothing. Maybe demonstrators will be harder to galvanize behind a Trump appointee like Rosenstein.

It is a situation that anyone who has studied fascist takeovers in other countries will recognize. Again and again, opponents of the regime are faced with the question: Is this the hill we have to defend? Is the Point of No Return here, or somewhere else?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Sometimes you have to reach for the bright shiny object, even though you know you’re being manipulated into doing it. Good job, manipulators; you win this round.

So this week I’m writing about the Nunes memo, the attempt by Trump’s supporters in Congress to muddy the waters of the Mueller investigation and cast doubt on the integrity of the FBI. There is very little new information in the memo, it doesn’t prove its own claims, and the larger claims being made about it by Trump and his court pundits are completely unsupported. Worse, it damages the long-term relationship between Congress and the intelligence services, which has worked pretty well since it was set up in the post-Watergate era.

In a better world, everyone would ignore this memo. It’s an obvious political stunt that does nothing to help us get to the bottom of the Trump/Russia mystery. Nothing in it deserves your attention.

Still you need to know about it, the way you need to know that the Brooklyn Bridge is actually not for sale and Nigerian princes actually don’t need your help. Claims are going to be made, quite possibly in your presence by people you know, and it would be good if you understood what they’re about.

With that in mind, the featured post this week is “The Nunes Memo: It’s ridiculous and it damages the country, but it might work.” That should be out around 10 EST. It will be followed around noon by the weekly summary, which discusses the State of the Union address (yes, that was this week), immigration, voter suppression, the Super Bowl and its commercials, and a few other things, before closing with a video of a backyard obstacle course.

Saving Jesus

To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of those who use him as a façade from which to hide their phobias — their fear of blacks, their fear of the undocumented, their fear of Muslims, their fear of everything queer.

– Miguel De La Torre “The Death of Christianity in the U. S.

This week’s featured posts are “Trump’s Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand” and “The Shutdown, DACA, and Immigration: Where We Are“.

This week everybody was talking about the end of the shutdown

One of the featured posts discusses this in more detail. One additional thing about the related immigration debate: Something you often hear European-Americans say is: “I’m not against immigrants. I just think they should come in the right way, like my ancestors did.”

Three points on that: First, when my German ancestors came to America in the 1840s and 1850s, there was no wrong way, because there were no rules. America didn’t start limiting immigration until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From the beginning, it’s always been about race.

Second, immigrating to this country legally, i.e., becoming a legal permanent resident, isn’t the simple thing that “why don’t they just …” statements imply. People come here without a green card because they see no chance of getting one, not because they want to flaunt our laws. MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey explains:

Finally, Trump’s latest proposal (which further tightens legal immigration) will just make this worse. So the statement boils down to “Why don’t they do something we’re not going to let them do?”

and the Mueller investigation

Thursday, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered the Justice Department to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June, after it became clear Mueller was investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Reportedly, White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than deliver the message to Justice, and Trump backed down.

For what it’s worth, Trump called the report “fake news” and “a typical New York Times fake story”. Joe Scarborough’s response to Sean Hannity’s attempt to first deny and then distract from this story is hilarious.

Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was “looking forward” to talking with Mueller, and said he would do so under oath, repeating a claim he made last June. It was only a few hours before his lawyers were walking that back.

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer leading the response to the investigation, said Mr. Trump was speaking hurriedly and intended only to say that he was willing to meet.

If anybody expects to see Trump under oath without (or even with) an order from the Supreme Court, let me remind you of all the times he has said he would release his tax returns. All this just underlines the Jay Rosen quote I mentioned last week, about the pointlessness of interviewing Trump:

In an interview situation, [Trump is] just saying what — at the moment — makes him feel like the best, the biggest, the greatest, the brightest, the richest, the most potent. He’s just saying whatever comes to his mind as the most spectacular boast he can think of. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his policies.

Speaking of interviewing Trump, Matt Yglesias comes to a similar conclusion about an interview Trump did with CNBC’s Joe Kernen:

Listening to him talk is interesting from an entertainment perspective (he did once host a popular television show), but it conveys no information about the world, the American government, or the Trump administration’s policies. If Kernen wanted to help his viewers understand what’s going on, he’d have been better off interviewing someone else.

Trump is also trying to get the Justice Department to release a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes. It seems to be a summary of the conspiracy-theory view of the Mueller investigation. It’s based on classified information, and career DoJ people think its release would be “extremely reckless”.

He has also recently said things that make it look like he doesn’t understand what obstruction of justice means.

On Wednesday, speaking briefly to reporters, Trump defended his actions in the probe as “fighting back” against unfair allegations. “Oh, well, ‘Did he fight back?’ ” Trump said. “You fight back, ‘Oh, it’s obstruction.’ ”

If you’re the president of the United States and the Justice Department is investigating you, using your official powers to “fight back” is exactly what obstruction of justice means. It’s illegal for good reason.

but I to push back on Trump’s claims about his first year

I can’t bring myself to watch the State of the Union address tomorrow night, but I’ll probably read the transcript. No doubt it will be full of claims about how the economy is growing and creating jobs.

The truth is that Obama left Trump an economy trending in the right direction, and it has continued to do so. The GDP growth graph looks like this:

And the job-growth graph like this:

This is about what I would expect, because the Trump tax cut has yet to take effect, and there has been no Trump budget — everything is still running on continuing resolutions based on Obama’s last budget. If there’s a boom next year, that might belong to Trump.

and you also might be interested in …

If you’re having trouble understanding or explaining net neutrality, explain it in terms of Burger King’s Whoppers.

If congressional districts weren’t gerrymandered, what should they look like? 538 looks at the different things you might want to optimize, and the maps they lead to.

A video made by the War Department in 1947 is going around on social media. Its message — that we shouldn’t let rabble-rousers turn us against Americans who look different than we do — still resonates. “Remember when you hear this kind of talk: Somebody is going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.”

The extended play version is about 23 minutes.

Mother Jones chronicles the rise and fall of ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an Ohio charter school that made its founder rich, cost taxpayers millions, produced poor results, and now has collapsed, leaving many of its students in the lurch.

Multiple warning signs got ignored, because ECOT fit the Republican privatization ideal so well that it got tangled up in the partisan politics of the Ohio legislature. Former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland explains:

“I don’t think all political contributions are efforts to do something nefarious,” Strickland told me. “But in this case, I think it was so obvious that these schools were so bad and were failing and had such lax oversight. I cannot give the Republican Legislature the benefit of the doubt and say that they did not know.

“When you have a situation where public moneys are used to enrich individuals,” he added, “who then in turn support the politicians that support the policies that enrich them—it may not be illegal, but I think that fits the definition of corruption.”

Statewide, ECOT got “more than $1 billion in public funding, much of it diverted from better performing Ohio schools … at least 15 percent of that money—about $150 million—was paid to [founder William] Lager’s private companies”.

Yesterday [January 18], after 17 years of operation, the school came to a spectacular end. … Despite years of critics raising similar concerns, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, last summer the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was unable to do.

David Roberts writes about the role of climate change in our national strategy: It’s been taken out of the new version of the National Security Strategy, but the Pentagon continues to take it seriously in a lot of ways.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral now serving as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, succinctly lays out the reasons the military can’t ignore climate change in this piece. Scarcity of water and other resources will drive dislocation and conflict, he writes. Coastal Naval bases are in danger of being inundated by rising seas; the Arctic is melting and opening new areas of geopolitical conflict; the rising cost of climate impacts will squeeze the military budget; and responding to severe weather events will reduce military readiness.

However, the military can’t make up for climate denial in the rest of the government, because the military’s focus (appropriately, Roberts says) is to respond to climate change, not prevent it. And that could lead to this dystopian future:

As things get worse, those who can afford to protect themselves — move their military bases, build sea walls and desalination plants, claim newly navigable land in the Arctic — will pull farther and farther away from those who can’t (the global poor, who did so little to cause the problem). The US might come out on top in a more violent, chaotic world, but in the end, we do not stand apart. We will sink with it.

Dr. Larry Nassar got sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for molesting young women and girls who came to him for treatment. He’s 54 and already has a 60-year sentence to serve, so he’s never getting out.

In addition to Nassar himself, two institutions are in trouble for enabling Nassar and ignoring his accusers: USA Gymnastics and my alma mater, Michigan State, where Nassar was on the faculty.

The whole USA Gymnastics board has resigned. The NCAA is investigating the extent to which the university was complicit, and both the university president and the athletic director have resigned. The Nassar publicity has also brought attention to reports of sexual assaults by MSU football and basketball players, which were either ignored or taken lightly. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a report, which ESPN cites:

The report states students told investigators that Michigan State athletes “have a reputation for engaging in sexual harassment and sexual assault and not being punished for it, because athletes are held in such high regard at the university.” It also states that athletes received more training on sexual harassment and sexual assault than other students but noted possible mixed messages. It cites a program called “Branded a Spartan” about upholding the Spartan name. Some male athletes told investigators that “making a report about sexual assault might tarnish the Spartan brand,” and at least one said he might not report an incident involving a fellow athlete to the Title IX office, according to the report.

For a little over a month, Taco Bell has been trolling conspiracy theorists with its “Belluminati” ad campaign, like this commercial:

And guess what? It’s working. The Vigilant Citizen blog says this is “the Illuminati flaunting in plain sight”. The Unseen Encyclopedia warns that “the jokes on you … it’s always hidden in plain sight”.

And now Taco Bell is upping ante with this “Web of Fries” movie trailer.

Leaving the subject of Taco Bell, let’s talk about dietary fiber. Everybody knows it’s good for you, but nobody is sure exactly what it does for you. Now there’s an interesting theory that seems to prove out in mice: It’s good for the bacteria in your intestines.

and let’s close with something amazing

Somehow, my scientific education never covered the Leidenfrost Effect, which causes drops of water to float on a vapor layer above a metal surface heated to 500 degrees or so, and sometimes to climb up and over tiny grooves that can be formed into a ladder of sorts. It’s fun to watch.


The Shutdown, DACA, and Immigration: Where We Are

A few hours after last week’s Sift posted, a compromise ending the 3-day government shutdown, at least temporarily, passed the Senate. By evening President Trump had signed it, and federal employees returned to work Tuesday morning.

Here’s what was agreed to:

  • A continuing resolution maintained previous spending levels for another three weeks, until February 8.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program was reauthorized for another six years.
  • Three taxes that were part of the Affordable Care Act got delayed for a year: on medical devices, on so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans, and a general tax on health insurance plans. The expected increase in the deficit is $31 billion.
  • A number of Republican senators agreed to work on a bill to protect the Dreamers from deportation, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to let such a bill come to a vote in the Senate.

On the left, many angrily charged that the Democrats had “caved”, and that the Dreamers had been betrayed or abandoned. I don’t see it that way. For the most part I agree with Ezra Klein’s view: that if no larger agreement can be reached in the meantime, Democrats will be in a somewhat better position on February 8 than they were last Monday:

if Democrats do need to shut down the government in three weeks, they’ll do so with the Children’s Health Insurance Program funded for six years, rather than seeing it weaponized against them. That’s a big deal, both substantively and politically.

McConnell’s promise may or may not amount to much in itself, but I think it matters in the public perception. If some kind of DACA compromise can pass the Senate, the House can still kill it, but that will have a price.

What matters in a shutdown. The American public doesn’t like government shutdowns. Government workers and contractors don’t like not getting paid. People who depend on government services don’t like doing without them. Families don’t like being turned away at national parks.

For the two major political parties, it’s not even a zero-sum game; it’s a negative-sum game. A common knee-jerk reaction to a shutdown is to blame both parties and lose a little more faith in American democracy. (In a parliamentary system, failure to fund the government would result in new elections.) The only political justification for causing a shutdown is if you believe that the blame will overwhelmingly be charged to the other party. If that’s true, then it tends to snowball: More and more of the public doesn’t understand why the party that is losing the shutdown doesn’t give in.

How this one was playing out. At the outset, there was good reason to blame the Republicans: They control all three power centers, after all.

What’s more, the main issue on the Democratic side is a popular one: Hardly anybody wants to see the Dreamers deported, which could start happening in March, thanks to Trump’s executive order reversing Obama’s DACA executive order.

The problem is that support for the Dreamers among the general public is shallow. Lots of people sympathize, but not that many are willing to make sacrifices. Worse, Republicans had cynically held CHIP back as a bargaining chip rather than reauthorizing it back in September. No one was really against CHIP, but Ryan and McConnell saw it as something they use in precisely a situation like the one we just had.

So if the shutdown continued, the messaging war looked like it might turn around to favor the Republicans: Democrats were blocking a deal that included CHIP because it didn’t include DACA, so they were hurting kids to help illegal immigrants.

Schumer could see that snowball starting to roll, particularly in red and purple states where Democratic senators have to run for re-election in November, so he got out quickly, before any of the vulnerable Democratic senators felt like they had to defect.

Standing up for something. Schumer’s critics say that the Democrats should have made a stand. The problem with making a stand on a shutdown is that a shutdown doesn’t end in some natural way. Democratic stands on ObamaCare and the Republican tax cut ended: one in victory and the other in defeat. They are issues to take to the voters in 2018.

But a shutdown doesn’t end until somebody gives in, and if the other side is happier with their position than you are with yours, they’re not going to be the ones. So the question becomes: How far are you willing to take this? What if it gets to be March and the Dreamers start getting deported anyway? What if it gets to be June and nobody can go to Yellowstone? What if it’s November and voters are going to the polls? How far?

The endgame, in that scenario, is that Democratic senators defect one-by-one until the Republicans can pass what they want. Schumer didn’t want that.

The next showdown. Instead, he maneuvered, hoping to reach February 8 with a position that would be easier to defend. I think he succeeded at that: CHIP will be off the table. McConnell either will or won’t have allowed a vote on a DACA compromise. If he doesn’t, that’s another simple argument the public can understand: We tried to bargain in good faith, and the other side wouldn’t.

The ideal scenario for Schumer is that a DACA compromise passes the Senate before February 8, hopefully by a wide margin. (In 2013, the Senate passed an immigration bill 68-32.) It’s not clear that McConnell would be against this.

The fate of all immigration compromises is in the House, where they would also pass if they could get to the floor, but the Republican leadership blocks them. That sets up a shutdown demand that I think Democrats can sell: Ryan doesn’t have to support the Senate’s DACA compromise, he just has to let the House vote on it. Let my people vote!

An additional point is that the longer the DACA negotiations stay on the front pages, the more the Republicans undermine their own most popular arguments. What Trump wants in exchange for DACA isn’t just border security, but a sharp reduction in legal immigration, and a shift towards more white immigrants. That supports the Democrats’ main point: The whole issue isn’t about legality, it’s about race. It’s about Making America White Again.

Even if a permanent solution isn’t reached — that’s the current conventional wisdom, which could change —  a deal that prevents deportation temporarily and leaves the ultimate verdict to the 2018 voters is not the worst outcome.

Conclusion. In short, I think Schumer abandoned a losing position in order to set up one with more possibilities. I’m withholding judgment until I see how this plays out.