Saturday, December 10, 2016

So, Now What?

Matthew Yglesias has a post up saying that the only way to fight Trump is to treat him like any other politician.  Forget character, forget corruption, he says.  Forget about character.  Focusing on his antics with just strengthen the impression that he is being persecuted by the Establishment.  Forget about corruption.  His followers are utterly cynical about corruption and will simply shrug and say that at least he is deploying it in favor of Us and against Them.  No, says Yglesias, the best way to defeat Trump is to focus on the issues, specifically that Trump is lining up behind the plutocratic priorities of the Republican establishment, priorities that find very little support among the public at large.  The Republican establishment shows all signs of doing its utmost to help.

I suppose I am somewhat ambivalent about this.  Yglesias cites polls that show one the one hand, that most Americans think Trump is a dubious character, but that they are prepared to give him a chance because they believe he will boost the economy, while on the other that the Republican agenda of tax cuts geared to the top, massive reduction in financial and environmental regulations, and banning abortion are not popular.  But here is the thing.  While none of those things may be all that popular, my guess is that, like Trump's personality, it is the sort of thing most people are willing to give a chance if it will boost the economy.  So while I don't see any huge public clamor to lower tax rates at the top or repeal financial and environmental regulations, I don't see a real groundswell of opposition to them either.  I think most people are willing to say that if our companies are being strangled to death by confiscatory taxes and oppressive regulations, if rolling back both will bring back those good paying jobs of yesteryear, then by all means, let's at least give it a chance to see if it will work.

But keep in mind what regulations Trump has not focused on rolling back.  His (and Congressional Republicans') talk of rolling back regulations focuses entirely on environmental and financial regulations.  You don't hear much talk about rolling back labor and consumer protective regulations. Partly no doubt that is because the main expansion in regulations under Obama fit in those categories and Republicans want to tear out everything Obama did by the roots.  But it may also be because most Americans aren't all that vested in financial and environmental regulations, which don't have much immediate effect on them.  Now, a proposal to roll back protections for workers or consumers might look more like the work of a heartless plutocrat and meet with more resistance.*

No, the place Republicans seem really determined to blow themselves up is in healthcare, which is unfortunate, because the potential for collateral damage is immense.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that Congressional Republicans will go after Obamacare on Day One (January 3, 2017), although whether this means actually passing repeal legislation on the first day, or merely introducing it is somewhat unclear.  But the goal in either case is the same -- to create an artificial, completely unnecessary crisis in which some 20 million people lose their health insurance. Indeed, many fear that repeal could disrupt the individual market outside the exchanges and cost as many as 30 million people their health insurance.  Republicans count on this artificial crisis as having two effects -- it will force them to come up with some sort of alternative to avoid such a crisis, and it will make whatever they come up with -- no matter how many fewer people it insures, how much skimpier the coverage, or how much higher the deductibles -- look good compared to the alternative. The only disagreement appears to be whether to postpone the crisis for two years or three.  But that appears to have been resolved in favor of two, because the House Freedom Caucus will not vote for the measure otherwise.  The Freedom Caucus may very well fear that Republicans will do themselves enough damage over the next two years to hand Congress over the the Democrats at the midterm elections, and Democrats might replace Obamacare with something very similar, but more generous.

So, granted that none of this will be very popular, will Republicans be able to avoid blame for it.  I have seen opinions ranging from the optimistic view that fear of unpopular consequences will ultimately thwart the Republicans to the pessimistic view that Republicans will strip millions of their health insurance and blame Obama.  My guess is the truth will lie somewhere in between.  Democrats need to scream at the tops of their voices, "Republicans want to take your health insurance!"  They need to deploy other people to scream the same thing.  Insurance companies and the health industry will join in the outcry.  The basic message, I think will get across.  But the damage to people's insurance will be very real.  Besides, to suggest that Democrats will be blamed is to forget another lesson of the passage of Obamacare.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  When Obamacare passed, the American people got a good look at the sausage making process and didn't like it one bit.  Well, given that Republicans right now have no idea how they will replace Obamacare and have a lot of mutually exclusive competing provisions, expect to see a lot of sausage making going on, and don't expect the American people to like what they see.

And Republicans don't seem inclined to stop at that.  At a bare minimum Paul Ryan wants to turn Medicaid into a block grant, i.e., turn complete authority over to the states, and gradually lower its funding.  Since this will squeeze people out of their health insurance gradually over time instead of in a single catastrophe, it will probably pass, and Republicans won't pay too high a price for it.  Besides, it will target poor people, which is always popular with the general public and especially with the Republican base.  Since nearly half of Medicaid these days is geared to long-term care, i.e., people in nursing homes who are "poor" only because their assets have been used up paying for the nursing home, that may strike a cord.  Democrats and the long-term care industry should shriek, "Republicans want to throw granny out in the street!"  But my guess is that this will pass and won't carry too much political cost.

But there are three other measures being tossed around that have such potential to damage Republicans that I do not expect them to come to a vote, let along pass.  Tom Price (Trump's incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services) and Paul Ryan want to limit employers' tax deduction for providing health insurance.  The point here is to encourage employers to offer cheaper coverage with a higher deductible.  Hot news flash -- this won't be popular.  Especially if it is spun (as Democrats presumably will) to undermine employer-based health insurance and force people out into the individual market.  Which Republicans are going out of their way to destroy.  Whatever "replace" consists of, I expect this to be taken out.

And that isn't all.  Ryan and Price are also proposing to replace Medicare with a voucher system.  In other words, something like Obamacare, which they are going out of their way to blow up.  I do not expect this to get very far.  Probably not even to a floor vote, let alone to pass.  It is suicidal, and the Republicans have to know it.  Rumor has it that Senate Republicans are not eager to put an end to the filibuster.  This is probably one reason why.  It will allow Senate Democrats to protect them from those crazies in the House without actually requiring Republicans to break party discipline.  But it it does come to a vote, the 30-second ads are writing themselves.  Furthermore, it is hard to see what Republicans hope to accomplish this way.  They have, after all, given Democrats the script on how to fight it.  All proposals to voucherize Medicare contain a time lag so as not to affect current or near-term beneficiaries.  Just as Republicans attempted to block Obamacare before it took effect, Democrats will have plenty of time to win a wave election and stop this from going into effect.  And if ever there was an issue to hand Democrats a wave election, this is it.

And even that isn't all.  Now the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is proposing major cuts to Social Security, without even a long delay.  Given that this is both (a) political suicide and (b) something Donald Trump ran on a campaign specifically promising not to do, I doubt very much it will ever be voted on.  But if it is -- well, I can't help it if Republicans want to make Matt Yglesias' point.

Keep in mind that whichever of these measures Republicans do or do not actually seek to implement, they will be accompanied by huge tax cuts geared to the upper income brackets.  In 2012, the Republican platform ran on many of these measures.  Democrats raised this in focus groups and found that they couldn't get any traction warning that Republicans planned to destroy Medicaid and phase out Medicare in order to make way for large tax breaks for their rich friends.  It all seemed so outrageously unpopular that no one believed that any political party would commit suicide by doing such a thing.  During the Obama Presidency, Republicans repeatedly held the debt ceiling hostage in order to force over measures like these.  They hoped to pass them under a Democratic President so that he would be blamed.  But Obama was always able to convince the American people that the Republicans were holding the economy hostage and must be stopped.  The unpopularity of the measures Republicans wanted to force over no doubt did a great deal to reinforce the message.

And if these legislative battles take place, it should finally bring to light any number of political facts that should have been obvious for a long time.  Republican populism is a big lie.  There is, indeed, a liberal elite, and it does, indeed, live in a bubble.  But there is also a conservative elite, and it lives in a bubble as well.  The liberal elite may have greater visibility and greater influence of popular culture, but the conservative elite  has lots of money, lots of influence in policy-making circles, and the ability to harm people in ways that the liberal elite never thought of.**  And it should lay to rest the illusion that the Republican elite are the reasonable ones and the Republican base are the crazies.

Notice here that I keep talking about Republicans, rather than Trump.  But, as Yglesias says, the whole strategy here is to blame any unpopular measures in Congress on you-know-who.  As the Republicans proved throughout the Obama Administration, when Congress is a mess, people tend to blame it on the President.

*And incidentally, it also shows why Trump's hostile tweet toward Chuck Jones, the union leader at the Carrier plant where Trump bragged about saving 1,000 jobs was a mistake.  Jones accused Trump of "lying his ass off" about the number of jobs saved and the ones that would still be sent overseas. The sensible response would have been to ignore the comment.  The story would have been about the Carrier plant staying and the jobs saved, with a caveat somewhere in the fine print that the full story might be exaggerated.  Jones might even be quoted.  But the President (elect) of the US has a bigger megaphone than a local union leader, so guess who would get more attention.  Successive tweets, "Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!" and "If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana. Spend more time working-less time talking. Reduce dues," do Trump no good, for several reasons.  First, they blame unions (rather than government) for companies sending jobs overseas, which raises the awkward possibility Trump wants to avoid that maybe companies aren't sending plants overseas because they are being strangled by taxes and regulations, but because overseas wages are lower.  Second, picking a fight with a union leader might give offense to the white, blue-collar constituency Trump wants to appeal to -- at least in the Rust Belt, where unions have been historically strong and respected, and where Trump's appeal to the white working class was most decisive in swaying the election.  Third, it draws attention to Jones' claims that the success in saving jobs wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  Now what was once an asterisk to the overall story gets attention for at least several days and causes the account of how the jobs saved were less than they appeared to be as much a center of attention as the original story.  And finally, it encourages the Twitter mob to send threatening tweets, texts, and phone calls.  Whether this was intended is anyone's guess.  But it was foreseeable and, again, draws further attention to a story that Trump would prefer to see forgotten.  It has been suggested that Trump is deliberately unleashing the Twitter mob to intimidate, but most union leaders are tough and don't intimidate so easy.  As for the question of whether Trump's tweets show he is out of control or whether they are a calculated provocation -- I am inclined to see them as both.  On the one hand, yeah, a lot of them are undoubtedly just attempts to grab headlines, especially if something more harmful might grab the headlines otherwise.  On the other hand, well, Trump shows a distinct tendency to be bated into exchanges that bring him nothing but trouble.  So let's recognize his brilliance in trolling without attributing to him any superhuman powers or anything.
**Neocons are illustrative.  As a voting bloc, neocons are negligible.  But their influence in foreign policy circles is extraordinary.

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