Tuesday, April 18, 2017

GOP's Centrist Rhetoric vs. Hard Right Policy

Ezra Klein exposes this fundamental conflict underlying the GOP's belly-flop on health care on vox.com.

The most interesting policy argument in America right now is the debate between conservatives’ real position on health care and their fake position.
The fake, but popular, position goes something like this: Conservatives think everyone deserves affordable health insurance, but they disagree with Democrats about how to get everyone covered at the best price. This was the language that surrounded Paul Ryan and Donald Trump’s Obamacare alternative — an alternative that crashed and burned when it came clear that it would lead to more people with worse (or no) health insurance and higher medical bills.
Conservatives’ real, but unpopular, position on health care is quite different, and it explains their behavior much better. Their real position is that universal coverage is a philosophically unsound goal, and that blocking Democrats from creating a universal health care system is of overriding importance. To many conservatives, it is not the government’s role to make sure everyone who wants health insurance can get it, and it would be a massive step toward socialism if that changed.
This view provided the actual justification for Ryan and Trump’s Obamacare alternative — it’s why they designed a bill that led to more people with worse (or no) health insurance and higher medical bills, but that cut taxes for the rich and shrank the government’s role in providing health care.
There was, for decades, a logic to the GOP’s dual positions: the fake but popular position was used to pursue the ends of the real but unpopular position. But in the post-Obamacare world, the chasm that has opened between conservatives’ fake and real positions has become unmanageable, and how — or whether — conservatives resolve it has become perhaps the most interesting public policy question going today.
It is notable, then, that the “conventional conservative view” is so utterly absent from the rhetoric of top conservative politicians. It is part of my job to be a close listener of Republican statements on health care policy, and they virtually never admit that universal coverage is not a conservative goal, nor do they defend the idea that freedom is the ability to choose to not be able to afford health insurance.
Instead, Republicans carefully use terms like “universal access to health care” as a way of sounding like they’re endorsing a world where everyone has health insurance even when they’re not. Top Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, spent years arguing that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t covering enough people with sufficiently generous health insurance. Then the GOP elected Donald Trump, who promised “we’re going to have insurance for everybody” with “much lower deductibles.”
This conflict between Republican rhetoric and policy is not new and is not confined to health care. Presidential scholar Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas at Austin has described George W. Bush as using "centrist rhetoric to cover hard right policy." The GOP's problem is that its signature policies (tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, pre-ACA status quo on health care, deregulation, ignoring climate change, militaristic foreign policy) are deeply unpopular.
Its solution to this problem has been to lie. This strategy has been politically successful but a governing disaster. Once Republicans get into office and implement their real policies, things go very badly (e.g. tax cuts ruining Kansas and Louisiana state budgets, Bush administration fiasco) and their poll numbers tank.
The Democratic party's major failure has been in making a convincing case in exposing this dishonesty and the abysmal governing it conceals.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

WH Staff Isn't the Problem

Matthew Yglesias explains why a White House staff shake up won't solve this administration's problems on vox.com.

In keeping with his background as a showman, publicity maven, and entertainer, Trump has been a consistently fascinating story, starting from the moment he descended the escalators at Trump Tower to denounce Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists and continuing through to the surprise launch of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
Like the successful reality TV host he is, he’s always kept the drama turned up high. That’s how he managed to burn through an unprecedented number of campaign managers, while firing a national security adviser, and perhaps a chief of staff, within his first 100 days.
But while the entertainment value of the Trump presidency has been consistently high, the governance value has been consistently low. Which is why, traditionally, America has hired presidents with previous experience in the field of government.
The constant staff merry-go-round reflects the fact that Trump himself is bad at his job. He is impulsive, uninformed, and while often disengaged from the details of things, he’s also unwilling to relinquish control and delegate authority in a clear way.
But the most fundamental problem with the Republican Party legislative agenda has very little to do with Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan constructed an ambitious yet rickety framework that has proven unable to withstand contact with reality. The plan was to:
The basic problem with this scheme, as became clear after the election, was that its first plank — “repeal and delay” of Obamacare — lacked support in the Senate. Ryan acknowledged that this was true, but refused to acknowledge that this rendered the edifice he’d built on the foundation of repeal and delay unworkable. Instead, he decided to plunge ahead with a repeal-and-replace scheme that had to operate on the same aggressive timetable as the initial plan for a clean repeal vote, and that had to serve the same tax-cutting purposes.
Trump, it is true, arguably erred in agreeing to go along with this doomed effort. But Mitch McConnell went along with it too, and on some level there’s simply nothing people in other branches can do about a runaway House speaker. To the extent that Trump intervened in this debate in a relevant way, it was to break the news to the House that repeal and delay was dead in the Senate and they shouldn’t bother with it — an insight that was both substantively and strategically correct.
There’s no doubt that a certain number of amateur-hour antics emanating from the White House have exacerbated the GOP’s governing troubles. The fact that neither Bannon nor Priebus has any relevant background in executive branch management surely isn’t helping here. But, fundamentally, when you elect an amateur president, you get an amateur-hour White House. Trump himself could step aside in favor of Mike Pence, a former governor of an actual state and a veteran Congress member, who would conduct himself in a professional manner. But short of that, there’s not much one can really do here.
Meanwhile, Pence or anyone else in the job would struggle with the Republican legislative agenda for the fundamental reason that it doesn’t make sense.
The Affordable Care Act promised to provide Americans with universal, comprehensive health insurance coverage. It brought us a lot closer to that goal, but it also fell short in a variety of ways. Republican spent years tapping into public frustration with the ways it fell short to drive anger at the law. But from day one, they have proposed replacing it with measures that would move us further from what voters want — covering fewer people, raising deductibles, making insurance less useful to the sick — rather than closer, in order to pursue a policy agenda of tax cuts on the rich that isn’t even popular among rank-and-file GOP voters.
This bait-and-switch agenda is reasonably clever if you accept the key premise that Republicans must find some kind of way to advance an unpopular tax-cutting agenda. But it’s objectively difficult to pull off because inability to communicate honestly about what you’re doing undermines internal communication, and because the practical consequences of enacting an agenda that delivers the opposite of what was promised are inherently problematic.
To the extent that Trump has anything to do with these problems, it’s that the intellectual and ideological shambles of modern conservatism made the Republican Party primary process more vulnerable to takeover by a mountebank like Trump than it should have been. But the shambles itself long predates Trump, and fixing it would require something much bigger than a staff shake-up.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Lawfare: Trump's Collusion with Russia

Jordan Brunner, et al argue that Donald Trump absolutely colluded with Russia's hack of the election  on Lawfareblog.com.

There is, in fact, copious evidence of at least tacit collaboration between the Russians and the Trump campaign, collaboration in which Trump personally participated on multiple occasions. But we have collectively discounted this cooperation for two related, and quite perverse, reasons: It was overt and public and it was legal. The consequence has been that we largely ignore it in discussing the matter.

Collusion, in this context anyway, is not a legal term. For legal purposes, it matters if Trump or his people conspired with Russian agents to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or some other criminal law; it matters if they acted as agents of a foreign power within the meaning of FISA or as agents of a foreign principal within the meaning of FARA.
When people say there is no evidence of collusion, they mean, we suppose, that there is no evidence of covert or illegal collaboration with the criminal activity undertaken in the course of this foreign intelligence operation against the United States.
But that is rather a different matter than acquitting Trump and his campaign of collaborating with the Russians. It ignores, after all, the overt and perfectly legal collaboration they plainly engaged in with what they knew to be an ongoing foreign intelligence operation against their country. We don’t need an investigation to show that this overt activity took place, for the Trumpists were caught in flagrante delicto throughout the entire campaign; indeed, caught is even the wrong word here. The cooperation was an open and public feature of the campaign.
It included open encouragement of the Russians to hack Democratic targets; denial that they had done so; encouragement of Wikileaks, which was publicly known to be effectively a publishing arm of the Russian operation, in publishing the fruits of the hacks; and publicly trumpeting the contents of stolen emails.
Most notoriously, on July 27, Trump stated during a news conference: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” 
In other words, after the Russian government had already been publicly associated with the hack, Trump urged it to conduct further hacking. One of the present authors wrote as much at the time, arguing that Trump had just “call[ed] on a foreign intelligence service to engage in operations against the United States.”
On at least one occasion, Trump also publicly celebrated a pending Wikileaks release of further hacked information, that is, the release of stolen material by an organization whose connections to Russian intelligence were hardly a secret. Giving a speech in Miami on November 2, he declared: “So today, I guess WikiLeaks, it sounds like, is going to be dropping some more, and if we met tomorrow, I'll tell you about it tomorrow, but one beauty that's been caught was, and this was just recently, newly released, where they say having a dump. We're having a dump of all of those e-mails. . . ."
He also declared multiple times that he “love[d] Wikileaks” or “love[d] reading those Wikileaks”—that is, knowing that a foreign intelligence operation had taken place against his opponent and the Wikileaks was publishing the fruits, he publicly celebrated the publisher. Three days before the election, he riffed at a campaign rally: “You know, as I was getting off the plane, they were just announcing new Wikileaks! And I wanted to stay there but I didn’t want to keep you waiting. I didn’t want to keep you waiting. Let me run back onto the plane and find out!”
Included below in the Appendix to this article is a rough and incomplete timeline of both Trump’s statements obscuring Russia’s intervention and his appeals to Wikileaks material—that is, material stolen by the Russians and published by an organization publicly identified as fronting for them—throughout the campaign.
All of which is what Clint Watts was talking about last week when he told the Senate Intelligence Committee that: “part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures, at times, against his opponents.”
Watts’s comments got a lot of attention from shocked commentators. But they are really an emperor-has-no-clothes statement of the obvious. They are another way of saying that the Russian active measures worked because Trump and his associates were collaborating with the operation. That they were doing so publicly and lawfully does not make their activity any less collaboration—just, perhaps, more honest and open. And it doesn't make it less bad.
It remains an important question whether anyone in the Trump camp colluded covertly or illegally or whether they coordinated with the Russian operation. These questions are important because they go to the question of whether any laws were violated and whether anyone in the Trump orbit may be compromised by Russian intelligence.
But there simply is no question that the Trump campaign collaborated knowingly with a foreign power during this operation, or that Trump himself was the colluder in chief.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Russia's Legal Corruption

Anne Applebaum explains how Russia corrupts its targets in The Washington Post.

We already know that social media makes it much easier for the Russian state to spread disinformation. Less attention has been paid to the Russian private businessmen who make it much easier for the Russian state to win friends and buy influence than their Soviet counterparts did. Most “independent” Russian oligarchs are nothing of the sort: Their money came originally from the Russian state, through manipulated “privatizations” and money laundering. They depend upon the state in order to keep it, and if asked they will use it to do the state’s bidding. Yet much of what they do on the state’s behalf looks like ordinary business: buying and selling companies, investing in property, hiring consultants.

That context helps explain the career of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager and longtime affiliate. According to the Associated Press, Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire, hired Manafort in 2005, both to help his company and to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” Manafort does not deny working for Deripaska, who hired him legally. But he says he did not work on behalf of the Russian state. Technically, he is right. In practice there is no difference.

In practice, Manafort was working for the Russian state in at least one other capacity as well. From about 2007 to 2012, Trump’s future campaign manager served as an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian politician who in 2010 was elected president of Ukraine. Once in power, Yanukovych worked to preserve the corrupt relationships between Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. He also stole billions of dollars, weakened the Ukrainian state, undermined the constitution and unleashed his security forces on protesters before fleeing in disgrace. Technically, Manafort would be correct to say, again, that his work for Yanukovych was not done on behalf of the Russian state. But in practice, again, there was no difference.

Russian private money has also played a role in Trump’s career. Though Trump has said repeatedly that he has never invested in Russia, Russia has invested in him. Famously, Donald Trump Jr. declared in 2008 that Russian money made up a “pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” More recently, a Reuters investigation showed that holders of Russian passports invested at least $98 million into seven Trump properties in Florida alone, a number that doesn’t include any investors who hid their names behind anonymous shell companies.

Technically, none of this money had anything to do with the Russian state. But in practice, it likely won goodwill and influence for Russia. Over many years, and long before he became president, Trump repeatedly praised Russia and its president. In 2007, he declared that Putin is “doing a great job.” In 2015, he described the Russian president as a “man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Just like Deripaska’s payments to Manafort, the “disproportionate” Russian investments in Trump’s businesses, which Trump still owns, weren’t bribes. They didn’t involve the KGB, and they probably didn’t include any secret payments either. The question now is whether our political system is capable of grappling with this particular form of modern Russian corruption at all. Congress cannot simply ask the question “was this all legal,” because it probably was. Congress, or an independent investigator, needs to find a way to ask, “was this moral,” because it surely wasn’t, and “does it constitute undue influence,” which it surely does.