Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The role of “moderate” Republicans in the Trump end-game

by William Hausdorff

I started writing for this blog 15 months ago, in July of 2016, when it became evident that Trump was about to capture the Republican nomination for President.  In the first column, I conveyed my bewilderment that “decent individuals” of the Republican establishment were playing along with Trump.  I noted the creepy parallel with how the conservative German political establishment played along with Hitler in the early 1930s.

Even before Trump was inaugurated the questions continued--would the Republican Senate majority blithely approve all of his cabinet nominations, no matter how crazy, nasty, or unqualified?

Only one Trump cabinet nominee failed to be confirmed.  Most strikingly, even though the National Security Advisor position is not subject to Senate confirmation, the certifiable whack-job Michael Flynn was named to the post with nary a Senate peep despite his and his son/advisor’s tweets on all manner of sick, bizarre conspiracy theories.

Since then, the deranged toddler-president, a serial liar, openly corrupt in so many ways, bitterly obsessed with his predecessor and his opponent in the last election, continues to be loathed by more than half of the population.  Lashing out uncontrollably on all topics and individuals trivial and powerful, especially women, black athletes, and Hispanics, he flagrantly and personally taunts the nuclear-armed North Korean dictator, and declares his scorn for the victims of catastrophic hurricanes and flooding in Puerto Rico by hinting at viciously cutting off vital humanitarian relief. 

Meanwhile, by unilaterally withdrawing from international agreements, the US government is systematically alienating its closest allies in Europe, as well as the other superpowers badly needed to help control North Korea and the still volatile Syrian situation.

This is not just bad for the US, it’s bad for business and bad for the Party in power.  For these reasons, I believe this is not sustainable.  The federal government cannot continue to function like this, even in the medium term.  I believe that the Party in power recognizes that.

So, where are most Senate Republicans today?

It is true that the manifest incompetence of the administration in failing to inspire, guide, cajole, or even effectively threaten the legislative branch of government has meant that the Republican Congress—perhaps more ideologically united than any in recent history--has been unable to produce a single coherent, professionally elaborated piece of legislation on any topic.  But this is misleading as a gauge of Senate Republican views, because the failures are largely due to the votes of 2 or 3 senators.

In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight.Com, Senate Republicans have voted for Trump’s legislative positions 93% of the time.  Individual senators’ scores range from a low of 80% and 83% (Susan Collins and John McCain, respectively) to 96% (many Republican senators).

To put this in perspective, the Democrats who vote with Trump most often are Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, at 55% and 51% of the time, respectively.  All the rest of the Dems and independents are <50%, down to 8% (Kirsten Gillibrand).

What about the “reasonable” Republicans?

Despite this endorsement, by all press accounts, a substantial proportion of the Republican Senate recognizes the dangerous situation for what it is. By all accounts, a substantial portion of the Republican Senate collectively wince at every Presidential tweet-fart, and some occasionally respond to these noxious emissions in kind.  Many apparently share the views of Senator Bob Corker (hardly a raging liberal) that the White House has become an adult day care in which only the adult minders stand between him and World War III.

Incidentally, the “adults in the room” trope is less reassuring when one recalls that in 2000 the foreign policy establishment had offered similar assurances about the recently “elected” and equally vacuous (but not personally vicious) President in 2000: thank God Bush Jr. surrounded himself with the “steady, competent hands” of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell! 

If we focus on the Senate, beyond McCain and Collins, there are a number of “reasonable” Republicans who are not obviously stupid or venal, and who either during the campaign or since the inauguration have occasionally appeared thoughtful or semi-independent.  While Corker is the most recent example, Senators Sasse, Flake, Heller, Murkowski, Portman, Graham, Cassidy, Moran, Rubio, Burr, and Alexander have each at one time or another showed a glimmer of free thinking.

In light of this, it is curious how rare it is for an article to highlight their complicity in quietly supporting, for example, the embarrassing mess that was the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. In fact, taken together they have voted for Trump’s positions 91.5% of the time.

Why do the “reasonable” Republicans go along with it?

The conventional wisdom, even in publications known for their rigorous investigative journalism, is that it’s all about fear of paying the political price, most notably a right-wing primary challenge.  For example, in a recent New Yorker article:

In terms of the ease with which Republicans in Congress can oppose Trump, “there is a hierarchy, in ascending order,” the Hill veteran said, with House “members and senators in cycle next year” at the bottom, followed by “senators who intend to run for reelection but are not in cycle next year,” then “senators who will probably retire but have not yet announced,” and finally, at the top, “senators who have announced they will retire.”

Corker’s decision not to run again and his subsequent emboldment fits this truism. You would therefore expect that Senators up for reelection in 2018 would be more likely to support Trump’s program than those in 2020, a Presidential election year when the dynamic will certainly be quite different, and certainly more so than in 2022.  And yet we see no such pattern.  Again, according to FiveThirtyEight.Com:

·      The 7 Republican senators running in 2018 voted with Trump 94% of the time.
·      The 21 Republican senators up for election in 2020 voted with Trump 94% of the time.
·      The 22 Republican Senators up for election in 2022 voted with Trump 93% of the time.

Let’s focus on only the subgroup of Senators most likely to speak their mind:  the 10 Republican senators who will be >80 in 2020 or 2022 when they are up for re-election, or who have already pledged to retire (these include McCain and Corker).  Yet one finds they too voted 93% of the time with Trump. 

If fear of direct electoral retribution is not the real driving force here, there still could be a related explanation:  perhaps they simply don’t want to be attacked publicly, either by members of their “team” or by the Senate leadership, or to be subjected to bullying Trump.  Pure political and personal cowardice says Aaron Blake of the Washington Post.  But that hardly seems a sufficient explanation for elected officials who likely have endured and/or promoted nasty campaigns in the past. 

Another, not mutually exclusive, explanation is that they generally agree with the policy goals of the President—i.e., there are no longer any “moderate” Republicans in the Senate, except perhaps for Susan Collins (and she voted with Trump 80% of the time).  But this is complicated too.  If they really are true believers that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in health care, as Rand Paul may be, and still take their job in the Senate seriously, then you would expect them to be committed to an intelligently designed, systematic (though cruel) dismantling of Obamacare.

This doesn’t seem to be the case.  A recent Vox interview with several Republican senators suggested that a free-floating attraction of the Graham-Cassidy bill was that it was “giving control to the States.”  But few of the Senators interviewed by Vox appeared to know really what was in the bill, nor were aware of nor even seemed to care that funding for the states was to be slashed by 20-30%.  In reality, Graham-Cassidy was, by all accounts, an embarrassing shambles from both policy and procedural perspectives.  No senator who took his/her job seriously would have voted for it, and it proved even too much for McCain, Lindsey Graham’s buddy.

The bottom line is nihilism

In other words, the “moderate” Republican Senators simply don’t care that millions will lose insurance, that pre-existing conditions will once again effectively block people from affording heath care, and that it would disintegrate in a mess.  Which suggests to me that in reality, it’s post-ideological: the vast majority share Trump’s brand of nihilism. 

Almost all Senate Republicans essentially believe in the same things as Trump:  it’s a free for all, survival of the fittest, cut taxes on the rich, plunder the environment—it’s a nasty, brutish existence.  The poor, and especially blacks, are mainly to blame for their fate.  America is alone in the world. What is it but nihilistic to watch your state incinerate every summer and fall, or be walloped by increasingly destructive hurricanes and floods, and adamantly refuse to accept that addressing man-made global warming is a major priority?

I suspect their differences with the groper-in-chief mainly come down to style—he’s too coarse, too openly crude, too overtly racist.  But the policies and fundamental world view are the same.  So there will be no impeachment hearings or serious challenges from the Senate no matter what he does.

The End Game

Except that, in the meantime, everyone knows the G-men are closing in.  The only real question is whether Mueller’s crackerjack investigators will bring the Beast and his cronies down in one fell swoop or whether it will be a just a long, slow, but ultimately lethal, bloodletting.

Not surprisingly, there are also increasing reports that Trump’s mental health is deteriorating, though it’s not clear how one could tell.  I’m waiting for Trump to make an appearance at the Presidential podium decked out only in his Harvey Weinstein signature bathrobe.

The self-castration of the Senate (borrowing Corker’s lovely metaphor about Rex Tillerson) doesn’t mean all is lost.  It is now apparent to all but the full knuckle draggers (apologies to the Neanderthals) that Trump doesn’t have any policy agenda he is committed to implementing.  The closest thing is his pathetic obsession with trying to reverse whatever Obama has said or done.  While he’s making a good try through executive orders, it’s not clear how successful it will ultimately be. 

What really drives Trump is the politics of personal resentment, concern about his image and his brand.  Numerous reports suggest his hotels and Mar-A-Gogo are starting to take an economic hit, though a few others report the opposite.  If his brand is truly being damaged, and more stars, athletes, businessmen, and even Republican politicians continue to take wounding potshots at him, he’ll be looking for an exit strategy.  Especially if Mueller’s probe begins to entangle members of his family.  After all, despite his tough words his tendency has been to settle lawsuits left and right, rather than pursue them to the bitter end. 

Mueller needs a few more months.  I’m not a bettor on this topic, though many others are, including his erstwhile “autobiographer,” and yet it seems increasingly plausible to me that by June 2018 an unhappy, beaten down, loopy Trump will declare victory and resign to play golf full time.  Plenty of time to muse about his next reality show.


Shag from Brookline said...

I'm not aware if Trump has responded as yet to the latest Forbes 400 list showing a drop in his wealth ranking. Maybe Trump thinks this will help with his populist base, knowing of Trump's personal sacrifices in his public service.

If " ... by June 2018 an unhappy, beaten down, loopy Trump ... [were] to declare victory and resign to play golf full time ... his next reality show" might be in the manner of "House of Cards" shuffling through events of his actual presidency, perhaps titled "It's Not My Fault!" permitting Trump equal time to respond to late night comedians' treatment during his campaign and presidency perhaps on Fox.

Joe said...

An "end game" at this point is optimistic.

Chris Hayes noted the number of so-called principled types (including Sen. Mike Lee, who is an ideological extremist, but allegedly a principled one) endorsing Roy Moore is a telling point. What is the basic necessity there? The fear that maybe you can get two senators on some issues to go against the Trump Party? For that is what it is now. Perhaps so but they still could get stuff done including the courts, in part per openings their own intransigence helped leave open.

The "concerned" Republican don't impress me much. To be honest, yes, it's somewhat useful to keep up the pressure, to make sure Trump is not truly normalized. It probably does make it harder, let's say, to destroy ACA. But, as in November, it doesn't do enough. The Republican Party is tainted and for the good of the republic deserves to be strongly beaten at the polls. Might take more than one cycle, but they failed at the bare minimum of sound governing.

Michael A Livingston said...

"The deranged toddler president." Language like this obviously does not convince anyone who does not agree, already. Is the purpose here some kind of signaling of one's participation in a cause, like shouting "The People of Israel Live!" At a Jewish event, or is it more a matter of letting off steam? One way or another, Trump has succeeded in one way: lowering the level of the debate to the most personal and angry tone possible. This is no small achievement.

Shag from Brookline said...

Considering that that low bar was set by the Caddyshack candidates, Trump in the Rodney Dangerfield role and Pence in the Ted Knight role, William's "The deranged toddler president" seems rather mild. Apparently Michael L. won't be convinced as he lauds the success of Trump ("no small achievement") in lowering the debate bar. Trump accomplished this in the course of the GOP Clown Car Debates. And as President, Trump has come close to flooring the bar. Perhaps Michael L. will raise the bar by conceding false equivalency. But at times, it may be more effective being cheeky than turning the other cheek.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I echo Shag's rejoinder to Michael Livingston regarding false equivalence. Trump's own Secretary of State has all but confirmed that he called Trump a "fucking moron." Whatever else terms like that and the somewhat milder "deranged toddler" signify, they are not about ideological polarization. They are expressions of outrage and astonishment at Trump's gross incompetence, arrogance, narcissism, lac of impulse control, and ignorance. None of that signifies what Michael calls "participation in a cause" except perhaps the causes of sanity and survival of life on Earth.

John Barron said...

"This is beyond narcissism. I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him." ~Charles Krauthammer

FWIW, he was trained as a psychiatrist.

John Barron said...

As it appears that the time has expired wrt our earlier conversation...

Shag: "I asked those questions just once"

But I answered them a long time ago, and on several occasions. Whatever you can do on a desert island is a natural right. You could do them in 2017 AD, and you could do them in 2017 BC (if you can make allowances for technology)." Ergo, they don't "surface" at all. Nor are they fixed at any moment in time.

Take Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Theirs was the most primitive kind of society. And if they so chose, they could enter into a marriage contract. Ergo, it is a natural right. And more to the point, this thought process separates originalism from the LC, and in a dispositive manner.

A paradigmatic illustration of an unenumerated right involved young William Penn, the Quaker who established the colony of Pennsylvania. He was arrested for holding a religious observance outside of his meeting hall, after he and his congregation had been barred entry by the Crown. He had what might seem to us today to be a peculiar quirk: He refused—as a matter of religious belief—to remove his hat in deference to authority. Thus, he refused to wear his own hat to the ensuing trial, so that he wouldn’t be placed in the position of having to not remove it when the judge entered the courtroom. Angered, the judge had the bailiff place a hat on Penn’s head, which he refused to remove; he was then fined forty marks, ostensibly for insulting the dignity of the Court. The People’s {Ancient and Just} Liberties Assrted in the Tryal of William Penn and William Mead (Sept. 1670). Penn’s trial was so infamous that it was common currency to every member of the First Congress, Michael McConnell, (retired judge, Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals), Natural Rights, Enumerated Rights, and the Ninth Amendment, The Sumner Canary Lecture (Case Western U., Oct. 28, 2008), and even the suggestion that a Bill of Rights would not have protected his progeny surely would have been anathema to those who enacted it. See, 1 Annals at 759-61.

In a land where “all men are created equal,” The Declaration of Independence, para. 2 (U.S. 1776), the right not to genuflect to a superior authority is necessarily implicit, irrespective of whether that refusal was borne of religious conviction. As such, Penn’s was not a “religious” right protected by the First Amendment. But it would seem, on its face, to be so trivial a matter that it could easily be found to be “non-fundamental.”

Under your LC, he may or may not have that right, as the only "rights" we have are the ones the judges are willing to recognize. And even that "right" is insecure, as it can be taken from you in an ex post facto manner. Under the LC, the Constitution is what the judges say it is; its words literally stand for nothing.

Under originalism, the analysis is clean. Is it a natural right? And if so, when was it relinquished?

Michael A Livingston said...

I understand the feelings, but I repeat my original question: what exactly is accomplished by the endless repetition of these insults? Let's assume the worst: let's assume that Trump is Mussolini without the erudition, Berlusconi without humor, whatever Would something be accomplished by referring to Mussolini as a f---king moron, Berlusconi as an idiot, etc.? In fact Trump is delivering on a substantial portion of his campaign promises, and has retained his core support since the election. To me, it would be a better use of his opponents' time to come up with an opposition strategy, like Pelosi Schumer etc., than to engage in an essentially closed circle of people who seem to be primarily interested in reassuring themselves of their own superiority. It isn't accomplishing anything, and it will leave a severely damaged public space when (if?) Trump eventually falls.

Shag from Brookline said...

A good follow up to William's post is the more sobering and much lengthier Thomas B. Edsall NYTimes column today titled (scarily) "Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction." (For Schumpeter fans, no mention is made of his creative destruction theory.)

By the bye, the thread of this post should not be interrupted because of John's snit with this Blog's Moderation policy. I'll let John's:

"But I answered them a long time ago, and on several occasions."

speak as a display of his Immoderation.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Hausdorff said...

It's interesting that the "deranged toddler" phrase is the subject of so much discussion. I agree with Michael Livingston that the endless bandying about of insults, no matter how creative, can diminish the value of an analytic piece, even when I agree with the tenor of the comments. For this particular case, I have a couple of additional thoughts. First, I was hardly the first to come up with the concept, as John Barron highlights with the Krauthammer quote. I have read or heard very similar comments by George Will, Joe Scarborough and other extremely conservative commentators, and if they (and people like Ted Cruz) are saying it, I have no doubt that a good portion of the "moderate" Republicans who are the subject of the article also think it. In retrospect, I should have embedded a URL link to the Krauthammer quote.

In that sense, I wasn't trying to convince the non-believers of anything; rather, the premise of the piece was that the "moderates" actually share this perspective, and yet are behaving in a way that (in my view) facilitates it, and that, for me, has been difficult to understand.

By the way, the Berlusconi comparison is really spooky. My Italian friends say that Trump's behavior is truly Berlusconi-redux on a surprising number of fronts.

Joe said...

The last comment suggests in context the reference is even more appropriate.

I guess this has been a learning exercise, so guess ML should be thanked.