Tag Archives: Republicans

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

You Have to Laugh


Whatever else you may have thought about last week’s Republican Convention, it was a gold mine for comedians.


If you watched the Republican Convention live, it didn’t seem like a laughing matter: chants of “Lock her up!”, endless talk about the Muslims and Mexicans who are coming to kill us, and assertions that “our very way of life” is threatened. Even Donald Trump’s attempt to assure us that “I alone” can fix the rigged system was a bit creepy, along with his claim that “I am your voice.” (I’d been wondering why I’ve sounded so raspy lately.)

Away from the podium, the situation was even worse, with calls for Hillary Clinton to be “shot for treason” or left “hanging from a tree“. Perhaps even more disturbing was the Trump campaign’s half-hearted distancing from such rhetoric: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments [about shooting Clinton].”

Admittedly, there were a few moments of unintentional humor, like when Trump’s third wife did a Rickroll testifying to his loyalty, or his daughter introduced him by talking admiringly about policies — equal pay for women and affordable childcare — that are part of Hillary Clinton’s platform, not her father’s. Those thigh-slapping moments, though, were few and far between.

But events and people that are nothing to laugh about are often precisely the ones that we need to laugh at, so for comedians Donald Trump has been maybe the best opportunity since Charlie Chaplin had that German guy to spoof. And last week our political humorists did not let us down. Jon Stewart may have walked into the sunset last year, but the Daily Show alums — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — brought their A-game. The other late-night hosts pitched in admirably. And never say Donald Trump never did anything good for us: Jon even came back to cover him.

Trevor Noah got the week off to a good start, with his coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s opening-night fear-mongering.

In my opinion, he also had the best response to the Melania Trump plagiarism flap:

We should be encouraging her. Because if she feels comfortable stealing Michelle’s speeches and we make it normal, maybe Donald Trump will feel OK stealing Obama’s policies, and then the country won’t be in such a dangerous place. And I know people might say, ‘Wait, Trevor, we can’t just just plagiarize President Obama, can we?’ And I say: Yes. Yes we can.

Here’s the whole segment:

Runners-up for Melania coverage were Bill Maher, who reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat crueler path:

She stole a speech about her parents teaching her values, confirming what Donald has always said: Immigrants steal. I hate to generalize, but Slovenia is not sending us its best people. They’re plagiarists, they’re models — some of them I assume are good people.

… And of course in the media this is the only story anybody cares about. Have they been watching this convention? These assholes cheered letting off the cops who killed Freddie Gray. They’re against health insurance and for coal mining. I want them to steal more ideas from Michelle Obama.

and Late Night‘s Seth Meyers, who had the best one-liner:

Melanie did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire.

Throughout the week, Meyers had a series of on-point characterizations. Trump’s fog-and-silhouette entrance Monday was “like ET returning to Earth“. Chris Christie’s Tuesday-night speech — with it’s repeated calls to the audience to pronounce Clinton “guilty” — was “a Stalinesque show trial“. Ben Carson’s linking of Clinton to Saul Alinsky to the Rules for Radicals dedication and from there to Lucifer was “the old six-degrees-of-Satan technique“. In his acceptance speech Thursday, “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the SyFy network.” And Marco Rubio appeared by video

probably in hopes that once he was projected on a giant screen, Trump would stop calling him Little Marco. “Did you see me Donald? I was 50 feet tall!”

After Ted Cruz’ boo-provoking refusal to endorse Trump, Meyers asked: “Is there anybody more comfortable being hated than Ted Cruz?” Which was followed by my favorite: After playing a clip of Cruz telling the Texas delegation:

That pledge [to support the nominee] was not a blanket commitment that if you go slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say “Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

he imagined Chris Christie’s response: “Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff.”

About Christie’s speech: Trevor Noah demonstrated how easy it is to evoke the verdict you want from a friendly audience by getting the Daily Show audience to pronounce Christie guilty of Bridgegate and a variety of other things, some completely absurd. And he protested the RNC’s favoring a chant of “Lock her up” over any serious discussion of the issues facing ordinary Americans, by leading his audience in a chant of “Cut the shit.”

Daily Show reporters also had some good moments. Here, they ask conventioneers: “When was America last great?

Samantha Bee’s Monday-night time slot was mistimed for convention coverage, so instead she emphasized her journey to Cleveland, during which she stopped in on a moderate Republican politician from Pennsylvania.

SAMANTHA: So we’re stuck with this shit sandwich, let’s eat it.

REP. JIM CRISTIANA: I think that’s a fair way to characterize what I just said.

She also filed short updates from Cleveland.

Trump named Omarosa as his African-American outreach person. She is uniquely qualified, since she is actually the only African-American the campaign has ever reached out to.

Stephen Colbert brought back the Bill-O’Reillyish character from his old show, and did a “The Word” segment on “Trumpiness“.

Eleven years ago, I invented a word: truthiness. Truthiness is believing something that feels true,  even if it isn’t supported by fact. … I have to admit [Trump] has surpassed me now. Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises, and they don’t care.  … Truthiness was from the gut, but Trumpiness clearly comes from much further down the gastro-intestinal track.

Colbert rediscovered his alter ego when he tracked Jon Stewart to the wilderness cabin where he has been hiding, and called him back to service.

I found that segment surprising, because I was sure Jon was hiding in the ruins of the old Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To. But Colbert’s mission led to Jon taking over Colbert’s Late Show desk Thursday night.

And Jon closed by addressing Sean Hannity and other conservative voices directly:

I see you. You’ve got a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table. You’ve got a problem with them because you feel like the — what’s Rep. Steve King’s word for it? — subgroups of Americans are being divisive. Well if you have a problem with that, take it up with the Founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out, are.

Prior to the convention, Colbert took on a different character and invaded the podium to announce “The Hungry for Power Games“.

As for printed humor, Andy Borowitz is the champion.

Donald J. Trump was jubilant Thursday night after accomplishing his goal of delivering a speech that no one will ever want to plagiarize, Trump aides confirmed. …

“There was one sentence toward the beginning that had traces of humanity and rational thought,” Manafort said. “Fortunately, we caught it in time.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great Trump comedy pieces of previous weeks. Like Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Trump rant:

He’s a lot of fun. And there’s a little bit of me that thinks: “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s do it and see how fucking crazy shit can get.”

… But this is where it’s not fun. … You’re a 16-year-old boy or girl that’s a Muslim living in this country. You’ve lived your entire life in this country. You’ve always considered yourself American. And then all of a sudden, someone who could be your president says “You are not welcome here” and that you should be put on a register. Now that kid … how fucking quickly do you think that kid could be radicalized now?

And Jimmy Kimmel’s parody of The Producers.

Finally, John Oliver summed it all up last night:

It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts. … This is a graph of the violent crime rate in the United States. It’s not a fucking Rorschach Test. You can’t infer anything you like from it. … [Newt Gingrich] just brought a feeling to a fucking fact fight. … I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. And what Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts. Which is terrifying, because that means somebody like Donald Trump can essentially create his own reality.

OK, I have to admit: That part wasn’t funny. There was a lot to laugh at last week, but when you boil it all down, the scary essence is still there.

Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t sum up the reality of The Great Dictator in a funny way. The climax of his movie was both serious and a fantasy.

We didn’t get that speech Thursday night. So after we laugh — and hopefully regenerate our energies by laughing — we have to go back to the reality of a frightening political situation.

Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.

He hasn’t come up often, but the examples are illuminating.


Friday, a few days before the Republican Convention that begins today in Cleveland, Donald Trump announced his vice presidential choice: Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

This is a liberal blog and I make no secret about rooting for Democrats. After all, my commitment to my readers is to be honest, not unbiased. (I’m skeptical of people who believe they can be totally objective.) Being honest, I confess to this perceptual bias: Whenever the Republicans nominate someone, all his previous actions seem to take on a sinister aspect, and I find myself suddenly realizing that he is the worst human being since Hitler. (“How did I miss that until now?” I wonder.)

So to discipline my thinking, I thought I’d look back and see where Pence has come up in the The Weekly Sift in the past, before I knew he’d be a national candidate. Two kinds of Republicans make frequent appearances in the Sift: decision-making leaders like Paul Ryan and fringe voices like Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert, who are constantly saying things too crazy to ignore. (Ted Cruz is a bit of a hybrid: a leader of the crazy faction.) So where and when has Pence shown up?

I found two mentions of him by name and a third story I somehow left his name out of, even though he was right in the middle of it. That verified my initial impression that he has been around a while and done a few things, but so far has had little historical significance.

The first mention is just two sentences and falls into the crazy category: In March, 2009, when the economy was still plunging and even conservative economists were talking about a stimulus of some kind, Pence was urging Congress to push demand down further:

Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence knows just what to do in these times when nobody but the government is spending: “Freeze federal spending immediately!” I’m speechless.

The second is harder to pigeonhole: During the 2012 campaign, I was reviewing the bait-and-switch by which the Tea Party had focused on the deficit during the 2010 campaign, but then immediately pivoted to a right-wing social agenda once they took office. This 2011 Pence quote demonstrated that pivot:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

And my comment was:

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

In March, 2015 I didn’t name Governor Pence, but he was right in the middle of Indiana’s Christians-have-a-right-to-discriminate-against-gays law, summed up by this cartoon.

The law is basically identical to the one that Governor Jan Brewer — never known as a defender of gay rights — had just vetoed in Arizona, but Pence signed Indiana’s version. That left me facing the emptiness of my own threats:

How the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?

(Ultimately, Indiana’s business community pushed the legislature to pass a second law, which mitigated some of the damage. Pence signed it.)

The GOP’s anti-science tendencies often come up in the Sift, but Pence has never been the national face of those issues, so I haven’t written about him in that context. However, I can’t conclude this article without mentioning a number of anti-science positions he has taken:

  • He won’t say whether he personally believes that evolution happened, but he wants public schools to teach the evolution/creation pseudo-controversy (“teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas, and let our students, let our children and our children’s children, decide”), a back-door position through which tax dollars can be spent promoting scientifically baseless religious theories in science classes. This practice not only encourages the relativistic view that you can believe whatever you want about science, but also wastes classroom time that could be spent teaching actual facts.
  • Pence wrote: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
  • Pence wrote: “Global warming is a myth … the Earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago.” (This was not as obviously false when he wrote it in 1998 as it is today, but it was still false. At the time, you could cherry-pick your data (see the second graph in this link), compare an unusually cool 1995 against an unusually warm 1945, and claim they were about the same. But even then you had to know you were playing deceptive games with numbers.) In 2009 he claimed: “In the mainstream media, there is a denial of the growing skepticism in the scientific community on global warming.” (That “scientific” skepticism comes almost entirely from the fossil fuel industry. In the actual scientific community, the consensus is solid and growing in certainty.)

All in all, I have a hard time arguing with Steve Benen’s assessment (which he bases on the DW-nominate system of quantifying congressional voting records on a left/right scale) that Pence is “the most far-right running mate in modern history”.

Let’s put this another way: during his congressional career, Pence wasn’t just more conservative than Paul Ryan. His voting record also put him to the right of Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Steve King, and even Louie Gohmert.

So I’m going to restrain myself from speculating about where Pence ranks on the Hitler Scale of human beings. But if we’re looking at the Jan Brewer Scale of right-wing extremist governors, or the Bachmann/Gohmert Scale of crazy congresspeople, he might take it to 11.

What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator

Members of the donor class must accept Trump’s personality cult to maintain their own.


Amazingly, on Wednesday somebody wrote an entire article about the presidential race that said hardly anything about Donald Trump. Even more remarkably, the article was an endorsement of Trump.

It’s true: Home Depot co-founder (and billionaire Jeb Bush donor) Bernie Marcus managed to endorse Trump without mentioning any particular thing he imagines President Trump will do, other than Make America Great Again and take the country in some unspecified “new direction”. No Mexican wall, no Muslim ban or database, no trade war with China, no deportation force rounding up 11 million people, no renegotiating the public debt, no ordering our military to commit war crimes, no nukes for Saudi Arabia. None of the positions Trump has made famous garner a single line.

OK then, maybe Marcus just dislikes Hillary Clinton. But why? That also is a little hard to get a handle on, because his denunciations of Clinton (or maybe President Obama; they’re interchangeable) are vague to the point of vanishing into rhetoric. Clinton will “push the [Supreme] court leftward for generations”, but no specific legal issue explains why Marcus believes that would be bad. Like Obama, Clinton is “hostile to free enterprise” in some unspecified way. Together, Clinton and Obama “have peddled a dangerous sentiment that government can provide for Americans better than the private sector.”

I’d be really interested to find a quote in which either Clinton or Obama actually expressed that sentiment, much less “peddled” it. (As No Democrat Ever said: “Damn this free enterprise system! Why can’t the government just own everything?”) I’ve listened to a lot of speeches from both of them, and I’ve never heard it. [1]

When otherwise intelligent people justify their actions and beliefs with vague claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, I start to wonder what’s happening under the surface. Something about Clinton, Obama, and Democrats in general pisses Bernie Marcus off. What could it be?

Our main clue is the third major topic in Marcus’ article, one that he discusses at greater length and with more feeling than either Trump or Clinton: Home Depot, and (by inference) himself. In particular: all the wonderful opportunities that it/he has magnanimously provided for others. For example:

One young man started with us at 17 years of age, bringing carts in from the parking lot. Ultimately, he became a regional president. Imagine Americans vilifying this young man, who became a millionaire and earned every penny of it.

Indeed: imagine. You have to imagine, because in reality no one is vilifying Americans for getting ahead by working hard. If anyone were doing that, Marcus could quote them. But no one is, so he has to imagine.

He imagines a lot of other things too. What if the oppressive regulations of “Obama/Clinton-style government” had existed back in the 1970s when his wondrous Home Depot was getting started? Well, a (briefly) small business like his just couldn’t have happened under those conditions, because under Dodd-Frank, bankers would have required a solid balance sheet rather than basing their loan decisions on his “character and determination”. [2]

And Home Depot couldn’t have gone public under Sarbanes-Oxley because … I’m not sure why. IPOs continue to happen. Facebook went public. UnderArmour. Chipotle. But Home Depot wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for some reason.

And that would have been horrible for America because

the risks we took in the 1970s have resulted in millions of jobs – not just at The Home Depot, but at our suppliers, our vendors, and even our customers’ businesses.

This is where I think we start getting to the root of things, because by this point Marcus has left reality completely behind and vanished into self-glorifying mythology.

You see, Marcus may think of himself as a champion of small business and a job creator, but the reality is the exact opposite. Other than WalMart and maybe Amazon [3], I can’t think of any corporation that has destroyed more small businesses than Home Depot.

Whatever Marcus may imagine, Home Depot didn’t create the home-improvement retail market, it captured that market from other businesses that were already serving it.

Not so long ago, hardware stores and electrical supply shops and paint stores and lumber yards were just about all locally owned by businesspeople you could meet and talk to. If you were a tool-loving kind of guy [4] and could scrape some money together, you could start such a business and be your own boss. Now that’s a much dicier proposition — not because of Dodd-Frank or Sarbanes-Oxley or even ObamaCare, but mainly because of Home Depot (and its rival Lowes).

I haven’t done enough research to back this up with numbers, but looking at the merchandise and staff of my local Home Depot, I strongly suspect that (all together) those locally-owned stores of the 1970s employed more people, and probably stocked more American-made products. [5] Looking at the full picture, I’d guess that Home Depot isn’t a job creator at all, especially if we’re talking about American jobs. It’s more of a job destroyer.

So while you can argue that Home Depot captured its markets fair and square (because it provides a larger selection of products at a better price, or for some other reason), you can’t give it credit for millions of jobs, or any jobs at all.

Understanding the job-creator mythology and how divorced it is from reality puts us in a position to explain why Marcus (and so much of the donor class that supported Romney and Bush) has to come around to Trump eventually, even if all his policies and positions are too embarrassing to mention: Republicans have incorporated job-creator mythology into their larger myth of America, while Democrats have not. The reason Marcus and his compatriots think Democrats like Clinton or Obama (or me) are so hostile to “free enterprise” is that we don’t worship them the way they think they deserve to be worshiped.

Democrats readily acknowledge that billionaires like Marcus and corporations like Home Depot are currently King of the Hill. But they want to believe that they created the hill.

Republicans are happy to tell them that they did. Democrats, on the other hand, tell the story this way: Business in the United States has always been a game played under certain rules. Under the rules of the 1970s and the decades that followed, Home Depot succeeded and Marcus became a multi-billionaire. We don’t begrudge his success, or the success of his 17-year-old cart-pushing millionaire employee either (assuming that guy really exists). Marcus won the game and captured the prize, so congratulations to him.

But we’d like to shift the rules so that in the future the workplace becomes safer and less discriminatory, so that workers don’t have to go bankrupt if they or their children need serious medical care, and so that those cart-pushers who don’t rise to be regional presidents still make a wage that lets them feed their families without food stamps. With those amendments, we want the game to continue, and businesspeople to keep on winning or losing according to how well they play.

Maybe Marcus and his fellow Kings of the Hill would win the game under those rules too, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s not the end of free enterprise. Conversely, restoring the rules of the 1970s or 1950s or 1850s won’t make America great again, whatever great and again mean in that context.

Understandably, though, Bernie Marcus and his friends are not going to come around to the Democratic point of view, no matter how reality-based it is. They see themselves as Gods of the Hill, and view our attempts to landscape the hill as sacrilege. I can only hope that their self-deifying religion is still a minority faith.


[1] Preserving a role for the private sector is kind of the point of ObamaCare: How do you get healthcare to millions more Americans without the government taking over everything, by working through the existing insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and clinics? That’s what the conservative Heritage Foundation designed their proto-ObamaCare system to do, way back in 1989.

[2] They also couldn’t have considered his race. I wonder how many black businessmen were getting loans based on their “character and determination” back in the 1970s. I also wonder how much money the banking industry has lost over the years due to lenders making loans unjustified by financial principles. That was a major cause of the S&L crisis of the 1980s. To the extent that current law limits the digression of federally-insured bankers, it happens for good reasons.

[3] One of my friends recently closed a local bookstore that had existed in the same location since the 1920s. I never heard him complain about government regulation, but Amazon seemed to be a much bigger problem. I suspect a lot of small businesspeople would tell a similar story.

[4] Yeah, you probably did have to be a guy. It was the 70s.

[5] You can argue that retailers sell Chinese products because that’s what’s available, but the big-box stores — especially Walmart — have been instrumental in pushing their suppliers to manufacture overseas.

What Will Republicans Do Now?

Donald Trump will be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. After his landslide win in Indiana, his last remaining rivals dropped out of the race. So there is no longer any alternative: Donald Trump will be nominated at the Republican Convention in July.

Even though he has led in the polls almost without interruption since last summer, right up until Tuesday a lot of Republicans were still telling themselves it wouldn’t happen. The early theory was that his gaffes would doom him. Then his supporters weren’t serious; when it was time to start marking ballots, they’d either stay home or come back to more sensible choices like Bush or Rubio. Then he had a low ceiling, so his victories were the effect of a splintered field; whoever survived long enough to get him in a one-on-one showdown would win. And finally, he might come into the convention with a lead, but he wouldn’t have a majority and then somehow the Party would unite behind somebody else.

Admittedly, the rest of us were wrong too. Nate Silver certainly. And I was no better: In July, I made the prediction that he’d fade when it came time to spend real money in November or December. As late as April 11 (in the aftermath of Trump’s loss in Wisconsin) I was buying into the low-ceiling theory. Already in late December, I was noticing that I couldn’t generate a convincing scenario where somebody else got nominated. Nonetheless, I struggled against that insight. I mean … Donald Trump?

But das Trumpentrauma is definitely hitting Republican elites harder, because it has exposed their denial about their party. As far back as the rallies for Sarah Palin in 2008 and the Tea Party in 2010, it’s been pretty clear to the rest of us that something ugly was stirring among the GOP rank and file. But Republican insiders ignored all the evidence of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, as well as the rumbles of potential violence. They told themselves they were seeing a patriotic protest against big government or rising debt or some other kind of liberal overreach.

Now their bubble has popped.

Control of the brand. Establishment Republicans thought they were in control of the unreality of Republican discourse. They believed they could raise voter energy by promoting (or at least winking at) conspiracy theories of global warming or gun confiscation or death panels; they could make wild claims about revenue-generating tax cuts or what a sweet deal it is to be poor in America; they could stoke irrational fears about reverse racism and Christian persecution; they could benefit from entirely baseless charges against Obama like birtherism or his Muslim faith or his Communist upbringing — all without worrying that someday they themselves might need to appeal to facts and the kind of understanding that is based on evidence and expert insight.

That’s all untenable now. Donald Trump has ignored everything GOP leaders thought was the essence of their party, and instead embraced the craziness they thought they could control. National Review‘s Yuval Levin called Trump “the least conservative Republican presidential aspirant in living memory”, and the NYT’s Ross Douthat wrote:

Trump has consistently arrayed himself against this vision. True, he paid lip service to certain Reaganite ideas during the primaries — claiming to be pro-life, promising a supply-side tax cut, pledging to appoint conservative judges. But the core of his message was protectionist and nativist, comfortable with an expansive welfare state, bored with religious conservatism, and dismissive of the commitments that constitute the post-Cold War Pax Americana. And Trump’s policy forays since clinching the nomination have only confirmed his post-Reagan orientation. … Reaganite conservatives who help elevate Trump to the presidency, then, would be sleepwalking toward a kind of ideological suicide.

Instead of championing conservative ideology, Trump became an avatar of resentment. His runaway win over “the strongest field of candidates that the Republicans have had in 30 years” proves that resentment is what the Republican Party has really been about in the Obama era.

For months, GOP insiders seemed so sure that they could just call Trump on his apostasy, and that once the voters realized he wasn’t a true conservative they would reject him. But it turned out that Trump wasn’t fooling a conservative primary electorate about his views; it was conservative leaders and pundits who had been fooling themselves about the importance of their ideas. In the era of a black president, bilingual signs, and same-sex marriage, conservative ideology has simply been a way to dress up racial, sexual, and cultural resentment. Conservative sounds so much better than bigot, but in practice the difference has shrinking for a long time.

Family values? Nowhere has this been clearer than in the final showdown between Trump and Ted Cruz. Cruz is literally a preacher’s son, a lifelong believer in Christian theocracy. Trump, by contrast, has openly lived a libertine life that he has never repented. He has regularly traded in his wives as if they were cars, always upgrading to a newer model. (In the most recent case, literally a model.) His anti-abortion position was obviously pasted on for political purposes, and he seemed not to understand the rhetorical nuances of defending it. His praise for the Bible — the only book he acknowledges as better than The Art of the Deal — is similarly cardboard-thin; asking him about his favorite Bible verses was a gotcha question that he had to dodge — until he responded by quoting a verse that doesn’t exist.

And yet, Cruz couldn’t get evangelical voters to pick him over Trump. In the decisive Indiana primary, evangelicals chose Trump over Cruz, 51%-43%, and Trump even got the votes of a third of those who claimed to attend church more than once a week. All through the primaries, so-called “values voters” showed little interest in candidates who shared their values or tried to live by them. Instead, they were looking for someone who would stick it to their enemies.

Ditto on immigration. Deporting the undocumented isn’t about the rule of law, it’s about sticking it to Hispanics. Banning Muslims isn’t about protecting us from terrorism — they’re effing Muslims, who wants them here? Few who claim to care about aborted fetuses actually do; they just want somebody to do something about all these damn empowered women. Get them back on their knees where they belong.

That’s the party that just nominated Donald Trump. If you thought the GOP stood for something else, you’re having a tough time now.

Getting in line. In every nomination cycle, politicians and their supporters say bad things about rivals that they eventually end up supporting. Most famously, George H. W. Bush attacked Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economic policy” during the 1980 primary campaign, but then accepted his vice presidential nomination that summer.

That’s why many Democrats have been taking Stop Trump or #NeverTrump statements with a grain of salt. Come November, surely, those Republicans would say “OMG! Hillary Clinton!” and endorse Trump. And as predicted, Bob Dole, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell have gotten in line and welcomed their new overlord, though perhaps with little enthusiasm. Paul Ryan claims to be unsure, but that might be a negotiating tactic. After a planned meeting on Thursday, he might claim to have received the kind of assurances he needs to get on the bandwagon.

Many Republicans up for election, like my own state’s Senator Kelly Ayotte, are trying to have it both ways: express pro forma support while not embracing Trump too closely. Ayotte says that she “supports” Trump but will not “endorse” him, whatever that means. John McCain says, “You have to listen to people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party”, but he won’t commit to any joint appearances.

(The Atlantic has a more complete list of which Republicans are where.)

Bells that can’t be unrung. But if you’re planning to come around by November, you start hedging your bets when it becomes clear your favored candidates are losing, and you go silent for a while after the candidate you’re trying to stop becomes the last man standing. You don’t publish something like David Brooks just did:

this is a Joe McCarthy moment. People will be judged by where they stood at this time. Those who walked with Trump will be tainted forever after

In a May 2 piece on RedState.com called “I lied to myself for years about who my allies were. No more.” contributing editor Ben Howe regrets recognizing Trumpists as part of the conservative movement:

When your life becomes politics and you are surrounded by people in the industry, you learn a key term: allies. Allies aren’t friends. They may not even be colleagues. They are simply people that you find enough agreement with on enough issues to not go after each other. … I kept quiet about these allies in new media and in Washington. People who I thought I agreed with only 70% of the time. Which normally is a great reason to consider someone an ally, but not when the other 30% is cringe-inducing paranoia and vapid stupidity.

I chose peace over principle. I chose to go along with those I disagreed with on core matters because I believed we were jointly fighting for other things that were more important.  I ignored my gut and my moral compass.

The result is that, almost to a man, every single person I cringed at or thought twice about, is now a supporter and cheerleader of Donald Trump.

The next day, another RedStater, Leon Wold, wrote “#NeverTrump Means Never Trump. Never Ever.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months and years, as a conservative movement we will spend a great deal of time in self reflection, examining the weaknesses in our movement that allowed a cancer like Trump to flourish in our midst. We will have hard decisions to make about our affiliation with the Republican party, and what we will do with our votes in November. But one thing and one thing only remains certain: Donald Trump will never have our vote. We said it, and we meant it.

And RS founder Erick Erickson even invoked the Great Satan himself:

Republicans owe Bill Clinton an apology for impeaching him over lies and affairs while now embracing a pathological liar and womanizer. That apology will not be forthcoming. In fact, for years Republicans have accused the Democrats of gutter politics and shamelessness. Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.

Those are the kinds of statements you can’t walk back. Ditto for Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who wrote an open letter to “Those who think both leading presidential candidates are dishonest and have little chance of leading America forward”.

With Clinton and Trump, the fix is in. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger.

Ted Cruz hasn’t said yet what he’ll do, but the “pathological liar” diatribe he unleashed just before Indiana goes way beyond ordinary political back-and-forth. It’s hard to see how he can embrace Trump and maintain any credibility.

Between now and the convention. A very large number of Republicans — somewhere between a quarter and a third, I’d guess — are conflicted about Trump as their candidate. What a lot of them are looking for now, I think, is cover or maybe permission. Maybe you can oppose Trump like Mitt Romney does, or the Bush family’s example will let you sit this election out without renouncing your Republican identity. Maybe you can follow John McCain and vote for the Party’s nominee, while still withholding enough of your loyalty from Trump himself to keep your integrity unstained. Or maybe, like Chris Christie, you can toss aside everything you’ve stood for in the past just for the sake of being on the winning side.

David Brooks has never struck me as the sharpest pencil in the box, but this time I think he’s got it right: Republicans are facing a Joe McCarthy moment. Between now and July, they have to decide which way to go.

Trump is an opportunistic infection

For decades, the GOP has been killing off its demagogue-detecting and bullshit-rejecting antibodies. Now it’s helpless.


As Donald Trump moves ever closer to their party’s nomination for president, many Republicans are trying to understand or explain what has happened. Various metaphors have been thrown around: It’s a “hostile takeover“, or a “class war“, or a “populist uprising“.

Here’s a more accurate comparison: Trump is like the opportunistic infections that attack people whose immune systems have been compromised. A healthy political party could have thrown off Trump’s candidacy with barely a sniffle, but today’s GOP is in grave danger.

Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has been systematically destroying all the habits and mores and traditions and standards that keep a political party stable and allow it to play a constructive role in governing a great republic like the United States. Those things function like antibodies: They may be invisible to the naked eye, but they head off outbreaks of all sorts of destructive nonsense.

Now they’re gone, and Donald Trump is running wild.

How did this happen? For years now, the Republican Party has increasingly been winning elections (at every level short of the presidency) by misinforming voters and appealing to their darker passions. It has pandered to believers in baseless theories like Birtherism and the gun-confiscation conspiracy, while ridiculing the scientific community’s warnings about climate change. It has claimed that racism is a thing of the past — “things have changed dramatically” John Roberts claimed while striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act — and that the only real bigotry today is “political correctness” and discrimination against whites and Christians.

Rather than change its own plutocratic policies, the GOP has scapegoated undocumented immigrants for working-class impoverishment. (If you’ve been losing at poker and wonder if someone’s been cheating you, don’t accuse the Mexican who’s been sweeping the floor. Look at the guy with all the chips.) It has pushed self-serving economic fantasies like “tax cuts pay for themselves” and biological fantasies like the female body “shutting down” to make pregnancy-by-rape impossible. It has looked the other way while hucksters and con-men fleeced its faithful. It has struck down any traditional notions of fair play; beating Obama has been the important thing, and only wimps appeal to gentlemanly traditions and rules of decorum. (If it’s OK to yell “You lie!” during the State of the Union, what’s wrong with endorsing a shout-out that Ted Cruz is a pussy?)

In short, the GOP has devolved from the Party of Lincoln — or more recently the Party of Eisenhower — to  the Party of Truthiness. (Truthiness, coined by Stephen Colbert, is the seductive notion that what your gut wants to believe must be true, independent of any facts or science or expert opinion.) The result is that the party’s base has no immune system that would reject a candidate like Trump.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, there’d be no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

While many “establishment” Republicans fruitlessly look for a miracle drug to cure Trump fever without also taking down Cruz, Rubio, and half their Senate candidates, others are beginning to surrender. It’s just one election; maybe it won’t be so bad.

But this is where the compromised-immune-system analogy has something to teach: People whose immune systems have been crippled by AIDS or chemo-therapy seldom catch just one disease. Even if some massive dose of political antibiotics could flush Trump out of the Republican system, the underlying problem is still there: The Republican base cannot detect and reject hucksters. It cannot tell fact from fantasy. It values posturing and bombast over the skills necessary to govern a republic. It seeks scapegoats rather than solutions. It winks and nods at racism and white entitlement.

As long as that remains true, new Trumps will arise in 2020 and 2024, and any qualified Republican candidate offering real solutions will be defenseless against them. The Republican Party doesn’t just need to find a way to deal with Donald Trump. It needs rebuild its immune system.

How Republicans Trumped Themselves

You can’t complain just because somebody demagogues better than you do.


This week the airwaves were full of Republicans wringing their hands: What can the Party do about the wave of bigotry and hatred that Donald Trump has unleashed on their presidential primary race? How can they avoid a backlash that could wash away their 2016 chances?

That sentiment had been brewing for months, but it came to a head last Monday afternoon, when Trump made his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. So let’s start there: Exactly what did Trump propose?

Keeping Muslims out. His initial announcement wasn’t very specific — Trump’s proposals seldom are — and the first campaign spokesperson who elaborated said that American Muslims who leave the country wouldn’t be able to come back. (“Mr. Trump says ‘everyone’.”) But Trump backed off of that. So fine, Shaq can attend the Rio Olympics if he wants, and Dave Chappelle can do a show in London. They don’t have to quit America for good because of their religion.

But if a businessman from Indonesia wants to come over to negotiate a deal, or his wife wants to shop on Rodeo Drive, or his children want to see Disney World or study engineering at Purdue — no. They can’t come, because they’re Muslims. Now, their passports don’t have MUSLIM stamped on them, so it’s not clear how we’d know to keep them out. (Asking would only keep out the honest Muslims, which kind of misses the point. Maybe the Trump administration could require everybody who goes through customs to spit on a Qu’ran or something.) But let’s not get lost in the details of enforcement. Trump hasn’t thought about them, so why should we?

Trump supporters wave off criticism by pointing out that the ban is supposed to be temporary. But Trump defined the end point as “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. When CNN’s Don Lemon asked what that meant, Trump replied:

Why is there such hatred and such viciousness? Why is somebody willing to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center? … Where does this hatred come from? Why does it come? We need to figure it out.

In other words, lifting the ban is tied to a question from 14 years ago, one that has been answered many times, but with an answer that Trump and his followers don’t like. Why do they hate us? Because for decades we overthrew their attempts at democratic governments and installed brutal dictators who would sell us oil. Because our troops kicked down their doors and dragged their fathers off to hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Because we send our killer drones wherever we want, and deny that most of the people we kill are innocent. In short, many of the people who hate us have very good reasons that Trump and his supporters have no interest in doing anything about, except possibly adding to them.

So basically, Trump’s ban would stay in place until he’s willing to learn things he doesn’t want to know. That doesn’t sound very temporary to me.

This time he’s done it. The immediate talking-head response to Trump’s proposal was that this time he had finally gone too far: The American people would recoil in horror at the thought of turning away refugees and immigrants and students and tourists because we don’t approve of their religion, a religion shared by millions of loyal American citizens, decorated American soldiers, and two members of Congress.

Well, most of the American people, maybe. Whether or not they are horrified, 57% told an NBC/WSJ poll that they disagree with keeping Muslims out of the country, while only 25% agree. (Count CNBC pundit Larry Kudlow among those who disagree, but only because he wants something more sweeping: “I say seal the borders. … We need a wartime footing if we are going to protect the American homeland.” And Laura Ingraham: “I’d do a pause on all immigration.”)

However, this is a primary campaign, not a general election. And Republican respondents were split: 38% for Trump’s proposal and 39% against. So in a multi-candidate field, the Muslim ban seems to be helping him. His lead in the RCP polling average is as big as it has ever been.

Locking up the racist/fascist vote. The anti-Muslim proposal increased the number of people willing to describe Trump as either a racist or a fascist — a term I discussed two weeks ago. But whatever you think of that usage, the undeniable racists and fascists have started welcoming Trump to their ranks. Former KKK leader David Duke has endorsed Trump, saying that he “understands the real sentiment of America”.

Buzzfeed reports:

Visitors to the website for the Council of Conservative Citizens — a white nationalist group cited by Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof — will find a steady stream of pro-Trump articles.

BF quotes the white supremacist website American Renaissance:

If Mr. Trump loses, this could be the last chance whites have to vote for a president who could actually do something useful for them and for their country.

and neo-Nazi Stormfront radio personality Don Advo:

whether or not Trump wins, his campaign is “gonna give people the ability to come openly out of the shadows and really work very hard for something that will have a lasting effect.”

“This anger, this fire, is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s not going to go away at all. And that has not been noticed by the neocons — or perhaps we should them neo-Cohens — in the Republican Party.”

The Establishment still doesn’t understand. Republican establishment types may not grasp the implications of being “neo-Cohens” yet, but they finally do seem to be getting the message that Trump could be nominated, with catastrophic short-and-long-term effects on the Party. A year ago, it seemed possible that Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio might finesse a campaign that appealed to the Republicans’ Southern white base without being so blatantly bigoted as to drive Hispanics and all other non-whites and non-Christians into a coalition against them. But that option has pretty well vanished. (Second place in national polls and first place in Iowa have been taken by Ted Cruz, who is not that different from Trump.)

What Republicans still don’t seem to grasp, though, is that they did this to themselves. William Greider traces the problem back to the deal between Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond that created the modern GOP, the “Southern strategy”. All that time, country-club Republicans and racist working-class whites have had little in common, but

Nixon and his successors hid behind ideology and obscured the contradictions by pursuing a strategy I would call “no-fault bigotry.” Every now and then, especially in election seasons, the Republicans played the race card in dog-whistle fashion to smear Democrats, with savage effect. The GOP never attempted to repeal civil-rights legislation but sought cheap ways to undermine enforcement and remind whites, South and North, that the party was on “their” side.

So what caused the current rebellion in the GOP ranks? It finally dawned on loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers. Their causes always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The GOP made multiple promises and fervent speeches on the social issues, but, for one reason or another, the party establishment always failed to deliver. … the Republican establishment brought this crisis on itself by cynically manipulating its own rank and file.

Paul Krugman echoes the point:

But there is a strong element of bait-and-switch to this strategy. Whatever dog whistles get sent during the campaign, once in power the G.O.P. has made serving the interests of a small, wealthy economic elite, especially through big tax cuts, its main priority — a priority that remains intact, as you can see if you look at the tax plans of the establishment presidential candidates this cycle.

Sooner or later the angry whites who make up a large fraction, maybe even a majority, of the G.O.P. base were bound to rebel … So along comes Donald Trump, saying bluntly the things establishment candidates try to convey in coded, deniable hints, and sounding as if he really means them.

And Timothy Egan writes:

What [Trump has] done is to give marginalized Americans permission to hate. He doesn’t use dog whistles or code. His bigotry is overt. But the table was set by years of dog whistles and code. The very “un-American” sentiment that Republican elders now claim to despise has been a mainstay of conservative media for at least a decade.

When truth stops mattering. One more point is needed to complete the picture: the Republican embrace of post-truth politics. A party that exploits ridiculous conspiracy theories to energize its base — Birtherism, known falsehoods about Benghazi, Obama is a Muslim, the persecution of American Christians, the “war on cops” — has no defense when a better liar comes along.

Republican Congressman Deven Nunes has only been in office since 2002, but he reports a startling change in his communications from constituents.

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

This trend may have gotten worse recently, but it isn’t new. David Frum wrote about it in 2011:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

And AutoStraddle‘s Heather Hogan more recently described the effect on a personal level:

Over the last ten years, everyone I know has lost a friend or family member or mentor to Fox News. Like me, they have watched helplessly as people they love have become part of the conservative punditry herd and, over time, traded their compassion for paranoia; their thoughtful opinions for manufactured outrage; and their empathy for hateful rhetoric.

It seems quaint now that, back in 2008, John McCain corrected a questioner who said that she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was “an Arab”. He defended Obama as “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. (Trump, facing an even more outrageous questioner this September, did nothing of the kind. He later criticized McCain’s response, saying McCain was “harsh” when he “ripped the microphone out of the woman’s hands”. Actually, McCain reached for the microphone while saying, “No, ma’am.”)

But the McCain of 2008 was already a dinosaur in Republican circles. His younger running mate, Sarah Palin, catered to misperceptions of her audience, understanding that anything goes if it whips up your supporters.

Eight years later we have Donald Trump, who doesn’t know or care much about reality, but is really good at whipping up his supporters. Unreality, along with the irrational fears and passions it commands, is a powerful weapon in politics. The problem is that no one can own it. If you use it, you have no safe refuge when someone turns it against you.

What the Speakership Battle is About

The Freedom Caucus wants a speaker who will back its next blackmail play.


Anybody who writes about the chaos in the House Republican caucus should start by admitting how much we in the general public don’t know. The 247 Republicans in the House form a group about the size of a medium-sized church or high school, so decisions can easily turn on the secret meetings of small cliques, phone conversations between leaders of factions, or even the private decisions of individuals. We don’t really know, for example, why Kevin McCarthy pulled out of the race for speaker. [1] We don’t know just how badly John Boehner wants to be done with it all. We don’t know what kinds of pressure can be brought on Paul Ryan to take the job, or whether it will succeed. (For all I know, it may already have succeeded or failed by the time you read this.)

So predicting exactly how events will play out, who’s going to wind up as speaker, how long the process will take, and so on — that’s for Beltway reporters who have inside information, and even they probably won’t know until just a few hours before the public announcements. (That ignorance won’t stop them from speculating, though.)

But in addition to the “inside baseball” of the House Republicans, there is also what stats geek Bill James once dubbed “outside baseball” — the kinds of deductions you can make from publicly available information. Outside baseball can’t tell you what the major players are thinking, but it can describe the external reality they have to deal with.

Getting to 218. Keeping with the Bill James theme, let’s start with numbers: The House has 435 members. The speaker is elected by the whole House, so the winner needs 218 votes. The way that has worked since time-out-of-mind is that the majority party has a private meeting beforehand, decides on its candidate, and then votes for him or her as a bloc on the House floor. (That majority-party meeting is what blew up Thursday, when McCarthy suddenly dropped out.)

But now we run into the Republican Party’s internal friction. The House Freedom Caucus is essentially the Tea Party faction within the Republican caucus. The HFC is generally described as having around 40 members, 36 of whom are listed in the Wikipedia article. So any Republican nominee they decide not to support falls short of 218.

In theory, Democrats could provide the handful of votes necessary to put a less-conservative candidate over the top, but why should they? Why not let the GOP’s squabbles fester and keep making embarrassing headlines? So the prospective speaker would have to offer Democrats some concession in exchange, and that would create an issue that could reverberate through a series of Republican primary challenges across the country: The “establishment Republicans” would rather make a deal with Democrats than with their “true conservative” base.

But the House needs a speaker to function, so at some point in a hung-up process, Democrats might help out just to get the House running again and avoid the bad things — government shutdowns, debt-ceiling crises — that happen when no laws are being passed. Similarly, at some point the non-HFC Republicans might fear the wrath of the country even more than primary challenges, so they’d be willing to deal with Democrats. Up to that point, though — and I think it’s still a long way off — the HFC is in a position to block any speaker it doesn’t like; except Boehner, who is already speaker and doesn’t need to win a new election.

O tempora! O mores! When you realize how easy it is for a small group to disrupt the election of a speaker, you start to wonder why this doesn’t happen all the time. For example, Democrats had only 233 seats in 2007, so any 16 renegade Democrats could have blocked Nancy Pelosi’s election. Democrats also have factions, and radical members from districts so safe they don’t have to fear bad publicity, so why didn’t a couple dozen far-left Democrats hold up Pelosi until she committed to defunding the Iraq War or passing single-payer health care or something?

The answer isn’t anything in the rules, it’s embodied in our political mores and taboos: You just don’t do that. When the party picks its candidate, you back him or her. That’s what it means for a member of Congress to belong to a party.

Or at least, that’s what it used to mean. One long-term issue hardly anybody talks about is the ongoing breakdown in our political systems’ mores and taboos. (I’ve written about it here and here.) In practice, no republic — especially not one with all the checks and balances our system has — can survive for long on its rules alone. It also needs a broad unwritten consensus on the bounds of reasonable behavior. Every year, our political mores and taboos unravel just a little bit more. [2] As a result, Congress gets more unwieldy, and the President [3] and the Supreme Court [4] keep expanding their reach so that the country continues to function.

People argue about this, but to me it’s obvious who’s unraveling the unwritten consensus: the Far Right. Combining a sense of entitlement with apocalyptic exaggeration, Tea Party rhetoric justifies its members in doing whatever it takes to get their way. Same-sex marriage, the national debt, ObamaCare, abortion — they’re all end-of-the-world issues, and God is on the Tea Party’s side. So if getting your way means refusing to do your job, telling outrageous lies, shutting down the government, or threatening to crash the economy, well, that’s just what you have to do.

The Blackmail Caucus. After Republicans took over the House in the wave election of 2010, the newly ascendant Tea Partiers began pushing a new legislative tactic: blackmail.

It’s important to understand the difference between ordinary political bargaining and blackmail. In ordinary bargaining, I push for what I want and you push for what you want; eventually we compromise on something that contains a little of each, balanced according to our relative strengths. But in blackmail, you push for what you want and I push something nobody wants, because I’m counting on you to surrender rather than let it happen.

So, for example, suppose I’ve kidnapped your daughter. I don’t want to shoot her; that wouldn’t accomplish anything for me and could expose me to a death sentence someday. In fact nobody wants me to shoot her; shooting her serves no useful purpose for anybody. But I’m counting on the fact that your distaste for seeing her dead is much stronger than mine, so you’ll do what I want.

That pretty well describes the debt ceiling crises of 2011 (when Obama paid the ransom) and 2013 (when he didn’t and John Boehner made the House back down). If the federal government ever hits the debt limit, checks will start bouncing and world markets will lose faith in U.S. bonds, with catastrophic effects for the global economy. (As Henry Blodgett summarized, “In relatively short order, therefore, the United States will stiff about 40% of the people and companies it owes money to.”) Nobody wants that, but Ted Cruz and his allies in the Freedom Caucus believed in 2013 that President Obama wanted it even less than they did, so he’d have to give in and defund ObamaCare. [5]

That was all perfectly legal. Nothing in the Constitution says that a faction in Congress can’t blackmail the rest of the country, but it used to be taboo. Now the Tea Party considers it an acceptable tactic. [6]

The Boehner problem. From the Tea Party point of view, the problem with John Boehner is that he doesn’t have enough backbone to shoot the hostages. So when Obama refused to blink in 2013, Boehner gave in and let a clean debt-ceiling resolution pass the House. Again just last month, when the Freedom Caucus was pushing to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding (funding that most of the country supports), Boehner again let a clean continuing resolution come to the floor, which passed with mostly Democratic votes. So the government is funded through December 11, and the current debt ceiling should last until November 5.

After Boehner blinked in the 2013 stare-down, conservatives started rumbling about ousting him as speaker. Part of the reason for announcing his resignation last month was to allow him to keep the government open without fear of retribution: You can’t fire me, I’ve already announced I’m quitting.

The open question is whether Boehner will take advantage of the Party’s inability to replace him, and just ignore the Freedom Caucus going forward. [7] He could, for example, let a clean debt-ceiling bill come to the floor and negotiate a longer-term budget deal with the Democrats.

What the Tea Party wants from the next speaker. Now we’re in a position to understand why I think the contest for the speakership is being completely mis-covered by the mainstream press. Their focus has been entirely on who. Initially, would Kevin McCarthy be more acceptable to the Freedom Caucus than Boehner? And then later, could Paul Ryan or somebody else satisfy them?

All that talk ignores the Freedom Caucus’ published desires: not a who, a what. They want the next speaker committed to backing their next blackmail play, when the debt ceiling comes up again in a few weeks or the government runs out of money in December.

That comes through clearly when you read the questionnaire the Freedom Caucus prepared for speaker candidates. Question #15 seeks a commitment from the new speaker not to allow another continuing resolution and not to allow appropriation bills to pass if they fund “Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal, and Obamacare.” Question #13 lists provisions that should be attached to any debt-ceiling increase, including “significant structural entitlement reforms” (i.e., Social Security and Medicare cuts), and seeks a commitment to “not schedule the consideration of another vehicle that contains a debt limit increase”.

A number of the questions concern the process by which bills come to the floor, but the gist of them is that Freedom Caucus members should have an easier time attaching amendments (i.e., ransom demands) to debt-ceiling or government-funding resolutions.

So it’s not about personalities or trust or being “one of us”. The next time the Tea Party tries to hold the country hostage, they don’t want the Speaker to tell them no. It doesn’t matter whether the “no” comes from John Boehner or Paul Ryan or even Freedom Caucus Chair Jim Jordan. Who doesn’t matter. They want a commitment that the next speaker will shoot the hostages.

I don’t think they’ll get it. (I think that’s what Kevin McCarthy meant when he told National Review that HFC members “wanted things I couldn’t deliver”.) If they stick to their guns — and so far I don’t see any reason to think they won’t — then I don’t see anything moving until we get close to November 5, when Democrats and the Republican establishment will have to unite against them, either to elect a new speaker or to back Boehner’s debt-ceiling resolution.

That will energize a string of Tea Party primary challenges against establishment Republicans, which may have been the point all along. The ultimate goal of the Tea Party isn’t to defund Planned Parenthood or even ObamaCare, it’s to complete their takeover of the Republican Party. They’re playing a long game, and even a defeat in the speakership battle could work to their advantage.


[1] In addition to the surface explanation (that McCarthy didn’t think he could put together the 218 votes to win), there’s a conspiracy theory going around. So far it has zero direct evidence behind it, but at least makes some kind of narrative sense (i.e., it would fit right into a political novel like Advise and Consent).

On Tuesday, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones sent an odd letter to the caucus chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers:

With all the voter distrust of Washington felt around the country, I’m asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

The letter has a weird I-know-something vibe to it, but doesn’t even hint at what Jones thinks he knows. The Week‘s columnist Matt Lewis tentatively suggests what it might be:

Many conservatives are buzzing over rumors — and let’s be clear, they are unsubstantiated rumors that both parties deny — that McCarthy had carried on an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

The Hill reports that congressmen were receiving emails from activists threatening to expose the affair, and that McCarthy was asked about the rumors Tuesday in a meeting with Texas Republicans.

[2] For example, the filibuster has been around just about forever, but generations of senators held a consensus that a filibuster was only appropriate on the one or two occasions in his life when a senator was willing to stake his career on an issue. So, for example, nobody filibustered Medicare.

Today, filibusters are routine, leading journalists to cover them as if the Constitution said that it takes 60 votes to pass anything through the Senate.

[3] If we wind up in a dictatorship, it won’t be because the public is disarmed or the government takes over the health care system, but because the President and the electorate simultaneously lose patience with the logjam in Congress. Imagine President Trump facing the collapse of the economy due to a debt-ceiling crisis and saying, “I’m sorry, you guys, but this is over.”

[4] The connection between congressional dysfunction and the Supreme Court’s expanded role is more subtle, but equally clear. Take Chief Justice Roberts’ decision saving ObamaCare in 2012: He ruled against the individual mandate penalty as a fine, but said it would be constitutional as a tax. In the old days, a judge would then count on Congress to fix the law. But that’s impossible now, so Roberts had a choice between killing ObamaCare and reinterpreting the text as if it had been fixed.

This kind of thing is happening more and more: Rather than give Congress instructions on how to make a law constitutional (knowing that such amendments can’t possibly pass in the current environment), the Court just fixes laws through interpretation.

[5] The other important thing to keep in mind is how against democracy this whole plan was. ObamaCare had been a major issue in the election of 2012, and President Obama had been re-elected handily. (In fact, Democratic candidates for the House also got more votes than Republican candidates, but gerrymandering maintained the Republican House majority.) So Republicans had taken their anti-ObamaCare message to the voters and lost.

[6] President Obama recently made a statement that emphasized just how one-sided blackmail tactics are:

I know, for example, that there are many Republicans who are exercised about Planned Parenthood. … But you can’t have an issue like that potentially wreck the entire U.S. economy, anymore than I should hold the entire budget hostage to my desire to do something about gun violence. I feel just as strongly about that. And I think I’ve got better evidence for it. But the notion that I would threaten the Republicans, that unless they passed gun safety measures that would stop mass shootings, I’m going to shut down the government and not sign an increase in the debt ceiling, would be irresponsible of me and the American people rightly would reject that.

Nothing in the Constitution prevents a president from making a demand like that, but Democrats still believe blackmail tactics should be taboo.

[7] President Obama has gotten much bolder after the 2014 elections, entering what I’ve been calling the aw-fukkit phase of his presidency. Boehner could join him there.

Three Hours in Bizarro World

Republican presidential debates have made fact-checking obsolete.


In a typical political debate, fact-checkers play the same role that referees do in football: They apply standards and call penalties. And like referees, they depend on the fact that violations are fairly rare. The football-refereeing system works because, even on plays that draw flags, 20 or 21 guys do more or less what they are supposed to do, making the one or two violations stand out. But nobody could referee a game in which all the players ran around the field doing whatever.

In the same way, fact-checking works pretty well when the checkers just need to catch those half-dozen-or-so moments when somebody misquotes a statistic or gets a date wrong. If a debater cherry-picks data to “prove” a point, or oversimplifies a complex situation, a checker can introduce additional information to give readers a more complete picture — as long as it doesn’t happen too often.

But when standards of truthfulness and accuracy vanish as completely as they did in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate (here’s the video and transcript), fact-checking is out of its league. When the consensus of participants is that they would rather discuss an alternate reality, picking out a handful of “errors” the next morning just doesn’t address the situation.

So, for example, the debate’s most memorable moment, the one that caused a lot of observers to pick Carly Fiorina as the “winner”, was her denunciation of Planned Parenthood. In that short speech, she didn’t simply quote some numbers out of context or use an unjustified pejorative term, she invented an entire scene from the undercover videos attacking Planned Parenthood, described it in graphic detail, and then dared Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to watch it. [1]

And Fiorina looked most presidential when she rattled off all the things America should be doing to intimidate Putin out of meddling further in Syria — unless you realize that President Obama is pretty much doing all that already.

It’s 9-11. Do you know who your president is?

Or consider the evening’s biggest applause line: when Jeb Bush responded to Donald Trump’s characterization of his brother’s presidency as “a disaster”: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.”

Well, except for that one time, when (after ignoring warnings in intelligence briefings) President Bush lost far more Americans to terrorism in one day than President Obama has in seven years, and then in response lost thousands more American soldiers attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 — removing a secular government that was keeping Islamic radicals in check and neutralizing Iran’s biggest rival in the region — while letting Osama bin Laden escape and stay hidden until Obama nailed him years later.

If that’s what you mean by “keeping us safe”, then sure, President Bush totally kept us safe. And the audience at the Reagan Library loved it, though what I heard them applauding was not Jeb himself, or even W’s record, but a candidate’s willingness to stand tall and spit in the face of an uncooperative Reality. That’s the quality Republicans seem to be looking for in a president this time around.

As for the Planned Parenthood videos, Ted Cruz had his own fantasies:

On these videos, Planned Parenthood also essentially confesses to multiple felonies. It is a felony with ten years’ jail term to sell the body parts of unborn children for profit. That’s what these videos show Planned Parenthood doing.

In a word: no. Even after being doctored, the videos don’t show that, “essentially” or any other way. If they did, a political smear campaign against the organization wouldn’t be necessary; you could just prosecute them.

Speaking of prosecution, Chris Christie didn’t just repeat his previously debunked lie about being appointed U.S. district attorney on September 10, [2] he spun a crowd-pleasing fantasy about prosecuting Hillary Clinton for the wildly overblown email “scandal”.

The question is, who is going to prosecute Hillary Clinton? The Obama White House seems to have no interest, the Justice Department seems to have no interest. I think it’s time to put a former federal prosecutor on the same stage as Hillary Clinton.

(APPLAUSE)

And I will prosecute her during those debates on that stage for the record we’re talking about here. The fact she had a private email server in her basement, using national security secrets running through it, could have been hacked by the Russians, the Chinese, or two 18-year-olds on a toot wanting to have some fun. [3]

Then there was Donald Trump connecting vaccines to autism — a well-studied theory that has been pretty thoroughly debunked. [4] Ben Carson, a doctor who knows better, briefly alluded to that reality, but then acquiesced to Trump’s implication that the currently recommended schedule of vaccines might cause harm, even if the individual vaccines are safe. He did not comment when Trump then told an anecdote about a child whose autism appeared shortly after vaccination. Rand Paul, who has an M.D. from Duke, volunteered his support to Trump: “I’m also a little concerned about how [vaccines are] bunched up.” [5]

No one then protested when Mike Huckabee segued from “controversies about autism” to another topic. Because there are no scientific facts on Bizarro World, there are just “controversies” — like climate change or evolution — that people can believe whatever they want about.

So how do you “fact check” that exchange? That’s not just one lineman jumping offside, it’s a rugby scrum breaking out in the middle of a field goal attempt. Throwing a flag just won’t cover it.

With all that going on, who has time for the ordinary job of a fact-checker? Like flagging Scott Walker’s absurd exaggeration that his pamphlet on healthcare is “an actual plan” to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which puts him in a position “on day one” to “send a bill up to Congress”. [6] Or ridiculing Marco Rubio’s non sequitur that “America is not a planet” as an excuse for doing nothing about climate change. Or pointing out Donald Trump’s often-repeated falsehood about birthright citizenship, that

Mexico and almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have that. We’re the only ones dumb enough, stupid enough to have it. [7]

Compiling a list of errors for this debate would be misleading. Such lists imply that the rest was more-or-less correct, like the football plays that don’t draw penalties. But the specific divergences from reality that I have called out are like Jonathan Swift’s fleas: the closer you examine the text, the more you will find, without limit.

So I deny any claim that I have “fact-checked” the Republican debate. I spent three hours in Bizarro World, and while I was there I saw some strange things. But there was much, much more to see.


[1] How, I wonder, are Obama and Clinton supposed to accept Fiorina’s dare, when even the makers of the video can’t produce the scene she has conjured up?

[2] It’s not fair to mention that lie without also busting Carly Fiorina’s ridiculous secretary-to-CEO claim. Fiorina temped as a secretary during summer vacations from Stanford. Paul Krugman comments:

If her life is a story of going from “secretary to C.E.O.,” mine is one of going from mailman to columnist and economist. Sorry, working menial jobs while you’re in school doesn’t make your life a Horatio Alger story.

I picked up a few extra bucks as a busboy one New Year’s Eve, and then just a few years later I had a Ph.D. in mathematics! If that’s a rags-to-riches story, then just about every successful person in America has one.

As the pro-Carly site fromsecretarytoceo.com will tell you, she grew up in “a modest, middle-class family”, i.e., her father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, was dean of Duke Law School before becoming Deputy Attorney General and then a federal judge.

Let’s not even get into her record as CEO of HP. The WaPo has that covered.

[3] The image of national security being endangered by Hillary’s emails seems to be completely bogus. The heart of the issue has been described by The Wall Street Journal as a “bureaucratic turf war over complicated issues of classification”, i.e., whether information that the State Department considered unclassified at the time should have been reclassified, after input from other departments.

David Ignatius talked to experts whose opinions mirror what I remember from when I had a security clearance:

First, experts say, there’s no legal difference whether Clinton and her aides passed sensitive information using her private server or the official “state.gov” account that many now argue should have been used. Neither system is authorized for transmitting classified information. Second, prosecution of such violations is extremely rare. Lax security procedures are taken seriously, but they’re generally seen as administrative matters.

Where I used to work, a security violation — like leaving a secret document overnight in your desk drawer rather than locking it up in an approved safe — could earn you and your boss a very uncomfortable meeting with the security department. Repeated violations like that could probably get you fired, though I didn’t know anybody that happened to. But criminal charges were reserved for intentional espionage, not screw-ups. So the Obama administration and the Justice Department “have no interest” in prosecuting Clinton because there is no reason to do so.

[4] Autism tends to get noticed at about the same age as certain vaccines are administered. That seems to be the whole connection between the two. So there are bound to be a number of children whose autism is discovered shortly after they get vaccinated. If that correlation-in-time happens to your child, I’m sure the evidence against vaccinations seems compelling. But eliminating that kind of illusory causality is why we do scientific studies.

[5] The New York Daily News asked the head of New York City’s health department to comment:

The CDC guidelines aren’t willy-nilly. Infants are at greater risk of complications from these diseases. That’s why we give the vaccinations to infants. There’s no evidence to support the notion that too many shots are being given too quickly. An infant’s immune system can handle it. … What we do know is that when parents delay immunizations, it puts their children at risk of acquiring life-threatening infections.

But conservative “news” site Breitbart.com headlined this exchange differently: “Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul Foil Jake Tapper Vaccine Ambush“. By working together, the candidates saved Bizarro World from a reality-based invasion.

[6] For example, here’s Walker’s complete section on services for long-term illnesses like Alzheimer’s:

One of the greatest threats to middle-class American families is the obligation to pay for long-term services and supports (LTSS) for seniors who develop chronic or disabling medical problems. My plan would reform existing regulations to better protect middle-class families from financial hardship and to prepare for future LTSS. It would also deregulate the current Long-Term Care insurance market to allow the private sector, including health insurers, to offer products that reflect consumer demands for assistance at home. When LTSS and acute care services are coordinated, the cost of each can be lowered.
Does that sound like it’s ready to be passed into law “on day one”?
[7] In reality, it’s a New World vs. Old World thing. European countries by and large don’t have birthright citizenship, but most countries in the Western Hemisphere do, including Mexico and Canada. This has been pointed out often enough that Trump either doesn’t want to know it, or does know it and lies about it anyway.