GOP, Idaho Politics

Delusional…

Idaho Republican elected officials, with a couple of notable exceptions, seem unable to control, let alone influence their party. In political terms, the inmates have taken over, once and apparently forever, the GOP asylum.

The GOP state central committee elected a new party chairman last week and the rank and file chose as their new leader the guy who lost the Republican nomination for governor last year to Brad Little. At the 2018 convention, he refused to explicitly endorse the man who is now governor. “We should unite as a party behind the nominees, but we should never forget that 63 percent of our party voted for change,” Raul Labrador said.

Labrador: Called Trump a “whiner” and questioned his temperament, but that was before it became impossible for a Republican to speak the truth about their leader.

Actually, fewer than 33 percent of GOP primary voters voted for Labrador in 2018, but now he is the change the party has apparently been waiting for, as well as the organizational face of Idaho Republicans just a year after one of the most divisive primary fights in recent Idaho history.

Memorably, former Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said of the GOP primary in 2018: “I’ve been around elections for 45 years, and this is the most negative gubernatorial primary I’ve ever seen.”

Well, Ben, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

And also memorably, Labrador said, as he is wont to do, something nonsensical after his two-vote victory over former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. “It’s amazing how close it was, and it tells us how our party is divided and united,” he said.

Divided and united.

And as Labrador famously said in Lewiston a couple of years ago,“Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,” either.

Here’s the best evidence of division: Gov. Little was nowhere in sight for the GOP summer confab and had no candidate in the hunt for the chairmanship of the party. It was undoubtedly wise of the governor to avoid all this party business. He had no chance to win and a big chance to lose and lose embarrassingly. Still it’s just short of astounding that a guy elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote seven months ago hardly gets a mention while his party elects his chief rival.

Other prominent non-entities: Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and the one routinely adult member of the Idaho delegation, Congressman Mike Simpson.

As Boise State Public Radio’s James Dawson noted, Congressman Russ Fulcher, the latest darling of the far out right, received a standing ovation from central committee members, as did the militia-endorsed, white supremacy flirting Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, while five-term Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and House Speaker Scott Bedke did not.

Idaho’s Lt. Governor: the symbol of the GOP’s cozy embrace of the alt right fringe

It’s clear the rank and file of the Idaho GOP has consumed the Kool-Aid of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party and no one dares — at least publicly — to take issue with the Emperor and his lack of clothes. In the modern GOP, up is down, objective reality is unreliable, all news is fake and a lie is just an alternative fact.

Labrador campaigned for chairman by showing off a photo of himself with Trump, while Bonneville County Republican Party Chairman Mark Fuller, re-writing history on the fly, claimed that “Raul unapologetically supported President Trump while others were waffling or outright hiding.”

That ignores the by now historic mash-up tape of Labrador trashing Trump during the GOP primaries in 2016 while the then-congressman was supporting first Sen. Rand Paul and then Sen. Ted Cruz. Labrador called Trump “a whiner,” questioned his temperament and wondered “is that the kind of person that we want running the United States of America?”

That tape, you may recall, made its way — perhaps at Little’s behest — to the Trump White House where it seemed to have headed off a Trump primary endorsement for the man who now chairs the Idaho party.

In fairness to the new chairman, he did stick with Trump during the “Access Hollywood” tape expose and ultimately fell in smartly behind the man he once didn’t think was suitable to run the country. It took Labrador a while to get bought, but once there, he stays bought.

Poor Tom Luna. The best he could do in his pre-election pitch to central committee members was to feature a photo of himself with Donald Trump Jr.

The modern Republican movement — it’s no longer correct to call it conservative — is a fact-free personality cult, where if you profess loyalty to all Trumpian values, you can stay square with the GOP base. Not even a tiny bit of deviation is permissible.

You can trace all this, including the embrace of a would-be autocrat who has shredded virtually every long-established Republican value, to the culture that has been created in the party by all the whoppers Republican leaders have been telling their base for a generation or more.

Tax cuts for the wealthy strengthen the economy.

Affordable health care is a socialist plot.

Labor unions are evil.

Paying teachers a decent wage is unaffordable.

Or, this one repeated by Labrador last weekend: The party has to be united to defeat Democrats, or as he said “the real enemy.”

The ultimate question, of course, is what will Chairman Labrador do with his new position atop a united and divided Republican Party? It’s hard to see him as a uniter. He’s more a bomb thrower from the fringe. Will he pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the job or seek the spotlight on hot button issues that play to the Tea Party base of the party? Will he support the conservative pragmatism of Little and Simpson or will he use his new position to prepare another run for governor?

There was a certain crazy symmetry that Idaho Republicans anointed as their leader the loser of a GOP primary who spent his time in Congress trashing the national party leadership, often warring with Simpson and itching to take on a mainstream conservative such as Little. Meanwhile, the president – the only real thing other than a casual dance with white supremacy that unites Idaho Republicans — was off in Asia creating, as Bloomberg noted, a few good days for authoritarian leaders.

A Republican Party able to embrace Raul Labrador, Vladimir Putin, a murderous Saudi prince, a brutal North Korean dictator, crippling tariffs whacking major elements of the Idaho economy and the daily antics of a reality show presidency really isn’t both divided and united, whatever in the world that means.

The word that comes first to mind is delusional.

Boise, GOP, Human Rights, Politics

Focus…

It is often said – and correctly so – that we live in tumultuous times. Our devices spew forth a never-ending avalanche of information, much of it of dubious veracity. The “news cycle” is non-stop, populated by presidential tweets and cable news talking heads that aim not to inform, but mostly seek to agitate and “win” the narrative story line of the day. 

The wheat is easily lost in the chaff. Disinformation and misinformation flourish. It can seem impossible to keep up or make sense and it is increasingly likely that we miss the important, while overwhelmed by the irrelevant. 

Here are three stories that hit my screen in the last week, stories that seem to me to demand urgent attention and comprehensive political action.

The Brookings Institution rolled out a study of four U.S. cities last week, Boise included, that is both fascinating and sobering. In a nutshell the study finds that Boise’s economic engine, the principle power behind Idaho’s sustained economic growth, is fragile and subject to collapse. 

Boise: Prosperity may be fleeting

The goose that laid the golden egg for the Idaho economic has been high tech, but Brookings starkly notes, in language you rarely hear from Idaho policy makers, that the goose is ailing. Hewlett Packard, which once employed 7,000 in the Boise Valley, now has 1,500. Micron, the homegrown success story, has half the 12,000 workers it paid at its peak. And, “despite Idaho’s generous state subsidies and a long local history as a darling firm in Boise, Micron chose Manassas, Virginia for its newest expansion, a $3 billion dollar investment expected to create about 1,000 jobs.”

“Recent economic growth has primarily come from non-tradable service sectors rather than from growth-sustaining, export-driven sectors,” the Brookings researchers said. “Population growth resulted in part from retirees who drive housing prices, but who have less incentive to fund public goods such as education and workforce development.” 

And, not surprisingly, at all levels Idaho’s woefully inadequate educational system is in no way ready to support the kind of jobs that can continue to fuel the state’s economic growth. The Brookings study said “the Idaho Department of Labor projects 49,000 unfilled jobs by 2024, 36,000 of them in science, technology, engineering, and math,” but that the state produced only 2,000 graduates in those fields in 2016. Little wonder decent jobs flow to places with better educational stories to tell. 

Idaho’s much ballyhooed efforts to improve college graduation rates have been a demonstrable failure. As Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Reichert noted recently, “With a completion rate mired at 42 percent, Idaho has made little progress toward the 60 percent threshold.” Even if Idaho some how sees a dramatic improvement in college completion rates it likely can’t meet high-tech needs that Reichert said “might take a completion rate approaching 80 percent.”

The second story, with a Spokane dateline, might not seem all that connected to the Brookings study about the state’s fragile future economy, but it is. Associated Press reporter Nicholas K. Geranios’s story was about how far-right extremist groups have never really left northern Idaho and eastern Washington despite the fact that two decades ago, the high profile Aryan Nation’s compound near Hayden Lake was wiped off the map. 

A street sweeper follows a parade led by white supremacist Richard Butler, riding in car with megaphone, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2000, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Aryan Nations leader Butler filed for bankruptcy on Monday, Oct. 30, days before he was to relinquish control of his 20-acre compound to satisfy part of a civil rights lawsuit. (AP Photo/Tom Davenport, File)

Idaho’s national image, with direct impact on the state’s economic vitality, has too often in the past been linked to white supremacist and hate groups. It still is and, at some level, support for those on the dangerous fringe has gone mainstream, or at least what passes for mainstream, in the region’s Republican Party leadership. 

“In the county that is home to Hayden Lake,” Geranios wrote, “Republicans last month passed a measure expressing support for U.S. entry of a prominent Austrian far-right activist who was investigated for ties to the suspected New Zealand mosque gunman.” 

The woman who made the request of Kootenai County Republicans “was a big promoter of the hoax known as ‘Pizzagate,’ telling her online followers Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats were involved in satanic rituals and child sex trafficking tied to a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.” That conspiracy theory, completely debunked of course, is still being widely promoted by various right wing media outlets. 

That Republican Party officials would traffic in such nonsense is cause for profound concern and should immediately be repudiated from the highest levels, including from Gov. Brad Little. That GOP leaders haven’t disowned such behavior will only encourage more extremists to be more extreme.

The third story is related to the second. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) made a deep dive into various efforts to influence the recent European Union elections by what it called “tactical adoption of the ‘Putin playbook’ by non-state actors, from far right online militias to populist parties in their use of automated influence operations.” In other words, far right actors are continuing with renewed determination to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and, as special counsel Robert Mueller made crystal clear this week concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election, also in the United States. 

ISD is a collection of business, academic and political leaders dedicated to pushing back against those who are “promulgating hate, division and conflict.” The group succinctly described the methods, including campaigns aimed at “distorting the political debate through the promotion of outrage, amplified by social media (often inorganically) and exploiting the traditional media’s desire to appear impartial to seize the agenda.” 

In Europe the groups “build up their own highly partisan media channels” and they “take aim at the courts, forcing judges to retire early as in Poland and Hungary and pack the courts with compliant officers.” 

“Public officials that don’t toe the new regime’s line are sidelined or replaced” often with a campaign of “smearing and intimidation, as happened to the Hungarian central bank governor.” 

If you don’t believe the very foundations of representative democracy are under assault you’re not paying attention. Which closes the circle back to persistent inadequate attention to education. Without better education at every level, combined with knowledge of how to discern facts from disinformation, we risk being overwhelmed by our tumultuous times. 

We must focus on what’s important. 

—–0—–

(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on May 31, 2019)

GOP, Immigration, Trump

A State of Emergency…

The only conceivable path Donald Trump has to re-election next year is to continue to fire up faithful fans by invoking his dystopian view of a nation threatened by an immigrant horde determined to storm the southern border and wreck havoc on America. It is the one constant theme of his presidency and the overriding theme of his State of the Union speech this week, a speech laced with words like bloodthirsty, sadistic, venomous and chilling.

Trump has perfected the politics of resentment, fear and scapegoating that Republicans have been shoveling ever more aggressively toward their “base” since Barry Goldwater invoked “extremism in defense of liberty” more than fifty years ago. 

Donald J. Trump delivers the State of the Union address.

That the image of the “lawless state of our southern border” is at odds with the facts hardly seemed to bother cheering Republicans in the House chamber Tuesday night. Republicans have largely embraced Trump’s resentment theory of politics, which is exemplified by his demonization of refugees and immigrants, while they have simultaneously tied the party’s future to Trump’s frayed coattails. 

The overheated rhetoric about border threats, of course, also clashes with Trump’s claims about the strength of the American economy and his calls for unity, the issue that members of Idaho’s congressional delegation chose to emphasize in their reaction. 

By general consensus of fact checkers the biggest whooper in Trump’s speech was his claim that a border wall built during the George W. Bush administration had reduced violent crime in El Paso, Texas. But, the actual statistics show that violent crime in El Paso – one of the safest larger cities in America – had actually plummeted before the barrier was constructed. Such twisting of reality helps explain why those who represent the border, Texas Republican Will Hurd for example, reject Trump’s wall as a waste of money, an ineffective simplistic symbolic fix for a complex problem. 

The U.S.-Mexican border at El Paso, Texas

While Trump did attempt the rhetoric of bipartisanship in the face of another looming government shutdown over funding the wall he offered no path out of the political dead end he himself has created. He avoided mention of the declaration of a national emergency, a tactic likely illegal and surely to be immediately challenged, but he left that explosive option on the table. 

That Republicans actually tolerate talk of a declaration of national emergency over Trump’s failure to secure a policy objective that he could not accomplished when his party controlled Congress is Exhibit A in how completely the GOP has abandoned common sense, old fashioned conservatism and the Constitution. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently actually said Trump “must” invoke emergency powers to construct a border wall “if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal.” 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch also seems resigned to a Trump strategy that will include a national emergency. Risch predicted recently to KBOI radio’s Nate Shelman that the president’s Constitutional overreach was likely to happen, and apparently that is just fine with him. 

“I think that the President has figured out that (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) is not going to give the President a dime for the wall,” Risch said. “They hate this president so badly, that they won’t do anything for him, or give him anything that makes it look like a victory, so they are not going to vote for it. They’re happy with the shutdown.”

That is typical of Risch’s constant partisan gaslighting – the super partisan blaming others for partisanship – as well as his acquiescence to all things Trump and it begs the question conservative columnist George Will asked recently about Graham and could have asked about Risch. 

“Why do they come to Congress, these people such as Graham,” Will wrote recently. “These people who, affirmatively or by their complicity of silence, trifle with our constitutional architecture, and exhort the president to eclipse the legislative branch, to which they have no loyalty comparable to their party allegiance?”

Once again history provides some perspective if we’re willing to understand what is at stake. In the early 1970s, in a true bipartisan effort, Senators Frank Church of Idaho, a Democrat, and Charles Mathias of Maryland, a Republican, worked for months to craft legislation – the National Emergencies Act – ensuring that Congress and not a president will define and supervise a true national emergency. The two senators co-chaired a Special Committee on the Termination of National Emergencies, determined to unwind generations of presidential emergency declarations dating back to the Great Depression. In their view such open-ended exercise of one-person power created vast opportunities for Constitutional overreach by the kind of president the nation now suffers. Their subsequent legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate. 

Senators Frank Church of Idaho

Church and Mathias, apropos of the current moment, were, as constitutional scholar Gerald S. Dickinson wrote recently, “acutely aware of and sought to prohibit a future president from taking advantage of the emergency powers for partisan and policy purposes.”

In testimony before a Senate committee in 1976, Church said the president “should not be allowed to invoke emergency authorities or in any way utilize the provision of [the National Emergencies Act] for frivolous or partisan matters, nor for that matter in cases where important but not ‘essential’ problems are at stake.” He might have been talking about “the wall.” 

Church, as his biographers note, believed containing a president’s ability to invoke a national emergency was one of the Idahoan’s proudest moments, an affirmation that Congress, armed with the Constitution, can and should stand against the overreach of a would be autocrat. 

We shall see where all this is headed, but make no mistake Congress can halt the national emergency nonsense and doing so would be a profoundly “conservative,” not to mention Constitutional thing to do. 

As for Risch and others like him in Congress don’t expect them to protect congressional prerogatives or stand up to a demagogue. When he recently became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a position Church once held, he proudly proclaimed that he would be no Frank Church. On that much, at least, his is absolutely correct. 

(Note: This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)

—-0—-

Foreign Policy, GOP, Trump

Two Things About the Mattis Resignation…

  Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

–Resignation letter of General James Mattis

————

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is being seen, as it should be seen, as not merely a senior Cabinet member leaving after losing a policy battle, but rather as a fundamental repudiation of the worldview of an American president. 

The resignation has stunned Washington, shaken our allies and, for the first time in the first two years of his chaotic presidency, caused significant numbers of elected Republicans to stir themselves to something approaching opposition.

The push back comes too late however. The damage is done. The work to re-establish American moral and political leadership across the globe will take a generation to repaired, if in fact it can be repaired.

Two things about Mattis’s resignation strike me as historically significant. 

Mattis and Trump

First, a principled resignation from public service has rarely, in fact hardly ever, been a feature of our politics. The only resignation in modern times that comes close to what Secretary Mattis did yesterday was the resignation of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages held in Iran. That resignation, quietly made before, but not publicly announced until after the ill-fated rescue mission failed, was mentioned in the first three graphs of every Vance obituary when he died in 2002.

In other words, Vance, like Mattis, told the president of the United States that he was so fundamentally opposed to an administration’s policy that he could no longer serve. 

This kind of resignation (as I have noted before) occur with some regularity in other western democracies. Key officials, for example, have been fleeing Theresa May’s government – 19 high profile resignations so far this year – over the British prime minister’s handling the Brexit mess.

Anthony Eden, then the British foreign secretary, resigned in February 1938 after a dispute with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over the best approaching to dealing with Benito Mussolini.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently suffered the resignations of several high ranking officials in his government, one of whom spoke publicly of Macron’s “lack of humanity,” a line that could just as well apply to Trump.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that the Mattis resignation over a serious matter of principle – of course, Donald Trump broadly ignored Mattis’s advice on a range of issues, not just Syrian policy – begins a new phase in American politics where serious people quit rather than work in an environment that debases their judgment and their sense of patriotism.

As for the argument that Mattis has provided what little adult supervision exists in the Trump Administration, and that he stayed so long in the face of so much chaos in order to protect the military and the world from the worst of Trump, I just don’t buy it.

You only provide the kind of supervision Trump needs (but won’t accept) if you are effective. In the main, the retired Marine Corps general, was not all that effective when it comes to policy. He opposed the decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway. He opposed the senseless and constant Trump criticism of NATO allies. Trump kept it up. He even lost on the question of who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Trump rejected his favored nominee. Even when Trump refused to acknowledge the importance of the late Senator John McCain’s career, Mattis publicly did so, but without offering even a mild rebuke to the president’s petty meanness.

The best outcome of Mattis’s resignation could be that the impact of his action will jar Washington Republicans out of their get-along/go-along Trump stupor and cause, at least some of them, to provide real oversight and substantive checks on the president. Mattis presumably could have stimulated this outcome months ago. Now, at last, he has. Maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned in the reality TV series that the American presidency has become. 

Mattis resignation letter

The second takeaway for me from this historic moment is simply the head spinning reality that this foreign policy and national security chaos is taking place in a Republican Administration. The laws of politics and the orientation of our political parties has been turned completely upside down. The same Republicans who lamented, often with good reason, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign and defense policy now own the most dysfunctional presidency in modern times. 

Republicans were once able to savage Democrats as “weak” on national security and eager to retreat from world responsibilities. That story line is now completely reversed thanks to Donald Trump.

Republicans who once based a good part of their brand on a clear-eyed reality about America’s role in the world have now embraced an ignorant, uninformed foreign policy that has trashed the post-war international order, facilitated the ambitions of China to further dominate the Pacific, emboldened authoritarian dictators, faked its way through North Korean talks about nuclear weapons and made Vladimir Putin the happiest man to occupy the Kremlin in a long, long time. 

Historians will write about this Republican collapse of rationality for generations to come, as well as those who aided and abetted it. While I suspect General Mattis will be mostly a footnote to this history, remembered more for his resignation than his accomplishments, one phrase in his resignation letter should be the jumping off point to assess why the GOP has fallen so far so fast. A fundamental reason for this debacle is simply the wholesale abandonment of fact-based competency in favor of the ranting and ignorance of a man totally unfit for the office he holds.

“Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies … Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” 

Associated Press coverage of Trump’s Syrian decision.

The key phrase in Mattis’s letter came as he explained his belief in the importance of international alliances and the need to oppose the evil intent of what he called “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis based his opinion, he said, on insight gained, and this is the key phrase, “over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

In their hearts and minds most elected Republicans know that Donald Trump is an ignorant buffoon totally out of his depth. They must pray every night that he will not have to confront a real international crisis.

To allow Trump to get and keep the job he has many Republicans have suspended belief in the importance of “immersion” in reality. The GOP has traded competency and rationality for power and party. And that train wreck continues to unfold in real time.

Many Republicans have been relying on a guy like Jim Mattis to keep this careening locomotive on the tracks. Now, what do they do?

GOP, Idaho Politics, Russia, Trump

Moral Rot…

My weekly column from the Lewiston Tribune 

———–

In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.  

The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.” 

The new GOP brand: moral relativism. 

Senator John Thune

South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says. 

Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”

You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”

Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.

Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch 

Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests. 

In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”

Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.

Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”

We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all. 

When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution. 

Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.” 

GOP, John McCain, Trump

It Was All So Predictable…

          Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.

        “I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.

New York Times, August 22, 2018

—————-

         “We just learned longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was granted immunity in the Michael Cohen probe, becoming the latest figure close to President Trump to cooperate with investigators. Weisselberg follows Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, David Pecker and, of course, Cohen. Pecker, like Weisselberg, had immunity; the others got plea deals.”

Aaron Blake, The Washington Post

—————-

I composed most of what follows before we got the news early Saturday that Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had lost his fight with cancer. McCain, a flawed, often cantankerous politician of the old school, was also amazingly self-aware, a pithy, independent SOB who was tough and smart and funny. It seems strangely appropriate, as sad as it is, that John McCain left us just as Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly disparaged this genuine American hero, has begun his decent into utter disgrace.

John McCain on the presidential campaign trail. October 28, 2008. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

This week, to remember Winston Churchill’s famous line, is not the end for Trump, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but almost certainly the end of the beginning.

One remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s historic debasement of the American presidency, perhaps the most remarkable, is how completely predictable it was. It was all there to see from the very beginning. Now the only question is how much more damage this profoundly corrupt and ignorant man will do before he’s done, because it is increasingly clear that he will be done.

A characteristic of too many people intimately involved in politics is the ability – or the willingness – to suspend belief in the cause of a partisan victory, no matter the cost. That kind of suspension of belief is an absolute hallmark of the Trump Era and what the man has done to the Republican Party. Normally sane, sober, serious Republicans – many of them in the know from the get go – nevertheless made a devil’s bargain, accepting Trump as their leader in exchange for the hope and expectation of political gain.

Now these Republicans, finally coming to grips with the consequences of suspending belief about their leader, are well down the path toward the chaos and defeat that was all too predictable. If there is any political karma many of them will get precisely what they deserve come November.

The warning signs of where Trump would take Republicans and the country are almost too many to recount – the racially charged announcement speech with references to Mexican rapists, the clown car cast of jokers surrounding the campaign – Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen – the mentally touched boasts, over the top superlatives and need for ego gratification (who talks like that?) and the “only I can fix it” policy pronouncements. All this nonsense was devoid of basic common sense and immune to even elemental fact checking, but Republicans from Paul Ryan to local legislators lapped it up.

Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, now convicted of tax fraud and facing trial on more charges

When Trump promised to release his tax returns and then didn’t his explanation was as much a sham as a diploma from Trump University. The obvious question was simply “what’s he got to hide?” Plenty it would seem. It was well known that American bankers had long refused to do business with Trump and now his long-time lawyer and chief financial officer have flipped, helping, it would appear, to peel back the multiple layers of corruption that will eventually drive Trump and the political party he now owns over a cliff.

Republicans, at least most of them, have long known that he was a conman, a grifter, and as Melania and the rest of us now know he’s a shameless and constant liar about absolutely everything. None of it was a surprise. None.

Some Republicans have taken to saying the president’s growing body of critics suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they have it just backwards. Those who somehow convinced themselves that this profoundly flawed individual would somehow pull off the responsibilities of the most difficult job in the world were the truly deranged ones. His life, his businesses, everything he’s touched amounts to one big con. The derangement was thinking a life-long wise guy, a liar and cheat straight out of central casting fit for an episode of The Sopranos, would change at age 70. No one, of course, really believed the office would change the abhorrent behavior, the boorishness, the cruelty or the racism. Trump is studiously ignorant. That won’t change.

The “unindicted co-conspirator”

Now, as James Fallows wrote recently in The Atlantic, Republicans “confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …

“… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.”

Devoid of empathy, imbued with a mean temper and an even nastier mean streak Trump was not the least bit prepared for the presidency and virtually every Republican who finally, sometimes reluctantly, but always with full knowledge, embraced him knew it. They knew all that has happened in recent days was not just possible, but likely. They knew even under the best case that a Trump presidency would be a certain kind of crappy show, a roiling cesspool of narcissism and self-interest. Yet, they have gone along settling for a tax cut for the best off and a Supreme Court that will be much more conservative than the country; going along all the way to seeing him implicated by his own lawyer in a felony meant to deceive voters about just what he is. The con man is now the “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Now what do Republicans do? They took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but they won’t even authorize a subcommittee to investigate porn star hush money that was designed to minimize political damage days before a presidential election.

“It’s getting a little ugly,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and next year’s presumptive GOP whip told Politico in what must be the most understated thing to come out of South Dakota this year. “Most of us need to work with the president where we can to move our agenda … it’s definitely a fairly big sideshow.” Right.

Trouble is “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” – Section 4, Article 2 of the United States Constitution – is a bit more than a sideshow. We knew all this was going to happen. It has. Now what?

————–

What a remarkable contrast between the beginning of last week and the end. The week began with two men close to the president confessing to and convicted of felonies and the man with likely the most intimate knowledge of Trump’s “business empire” began cooperating with prosecutors. Meanwhile, the president verbally assaulted – yet again – his own attorney general (and seems close to firing him) for refusing to interfere with an investigation into Trump’s campaign and personal conduct. Hardly a cricket is heard from elected Republicans.

The week ends with bipartisan tributes to Senator McCain, a crusty, candid, principled Republican who repeatedly stood up to Trump, called out Vladimir Putin and suffered multiple insults from a man who couldn’t carry his briefcase or come close to matching his courage.  In the scope of seven days we have all the proof we’ll ever need of the extent of the intellectual and moral rot that has overtaken the Grand Old Party.

Yet, Congressional Republicans know, and their tributes to McCain make clear, what they should be doing. The Arizona senator should be their model. That he is not is a national tragedy.

GOP, Trump

Democracy Dies Amid all the Lying…

“We are in a strange place. I mean, it’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly, of the same party.”

— Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), quoted by The Hill.

—————-

Of all the astounding things that have happened since Donald J. Trump took office – the serial lying, the trade wars, the bizarre North Korean summit, the gruesome separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the U.S. border, the Scott Pruitt scandals, the indictments, the embrace of despots and the savaging of allies just to name a few – the most astounding thing is how easily Trump has co-opted an entire political party. There is simply no parallel in American history.

Trump salutes a North Korean general

Republicans, most quaking with political fear that crossing Trump or pushing back on his myriad outrages will get them the Jeff Flake treatment have, of course, only themselves to blame. They let an amoral, lying charlatan capture their party and imperil our democracy. Still, amid the craziness, it is an amazing thing to watch the destruction of the Republican Party in real time.

For years most Republicans have chosen to tolerate and then embrace the crazy La-La Land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, conspiracy theories and systematic denial of obvious truths. Most of the Republican base finally came to embrace the racist notion that the 44thpresident of the United States is a foreign-born Muslim.

————

       “There is no seeming consequence to the president and lies. And if we accept that as a society, it is going to have incredibly harmful consequences in the way that we operate going forward, based on the construct of the Founding Fathers.”

Rep. Mark Sanford, defeated for re-election because he wasn’t Trumpian enough

————

The intellectual rot, as Steve Schmidt the GOP strategist calls it, is truly stunning. A tiny handful of principled conservatives – Schmidt, Charlie Skyes, Michael Gerson, Jonah Goldberg, David Frum and Bill Kristol most prominently – have called out this foolishness, but Republican intellectuals appealing for GOP sanity is a lost cause in the Age of Trump.

Steve Schmidt now says he is a non-practicing Republican and he wonders if the party, even after Trump, can ever find its way again. And Charlie Skyes, a conservative with a sense of gallows humor, titled his latest book How the Right Lost its Mind.

The answer to that question is simple: It all began with lying, half-truths, fabrications, blind anger and disdain for the arts of governing.

Romney was for it before he wasn’t…

Rather than offering serious alternatives Republicans chose to demonize Democratic efforts to address the health insurance crisis, turning tail on the very policies one-time GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney embraced as governor of Massachusetts. They spent decades bemoaning spending and debt then passed a massive tax cut for the most well off Americans arguing that their policies won’t balloon the debt and actually help the middle class. The truth is precisely the opposite.

Republicans have doubled down on climate change denial by putting a corrupt grifter in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. They savaged, then abandoned an international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and now hold their breath hoping to get an agreement as tenth as good with North Korea.

The Republican base now thinks better of a murderous North Korean dictator than of Nancy Pelosi. Let that sink in. And Trump’s efforts to destroy generations of foreign policy consensus regarding NATO, the G7, etc., while celebrating dictators from Moscow to Pyongyang will have lasting impact.

A Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that once celebrated world leadership now celebrates a guy who is on his third national security advisor, his second secretary of state and insists on “happy talk” intelligence briefings because he won’t read his homework. One former senior intelligence officer told the Washington Post that “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.”

He barely listens, and won’t read.

In the GOP’s La-La Land one-time critics in the Congress are cowed and running scared. Even worse are the true believers, people like Idaho’s Jim Risch who would have levitated over the Capitol had Barack Obama taken a meeting with the North Korean dictator, handed over concessions and gotten nothing at all in return save a photo op.

Risch, who regularly brags of his many conversations with Trump, dismisses any concern about the president as being the product of “tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.” This isn’t your father’s GOP. It is a cult of personality built on lies, unethical misbehavior, craven love of power and – did I mention – lies?

Lindsey Graham, once verbally assaulted by Trump as a lightweight, now Tweets birthday wishes to the president who called the murderous North Korean dictator “a funny guy” who he trusts. The GOP intellectual rot begins in such fevered brains.

“I trust the president,” Senator Graham told CNN. “I like the president. I trust him in terms of trying to do things that are big and matter. Here’s what I’ve got. I’ve got a relationship with the president at a time when I think he needs allies.”

Republicans steadfastly refuse to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, while putting a white supremacist in charge of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, at the state level the GOP perfected the ancient art of gerrymandering allowing most House Republicans to pick their voters instead of the other way around and in the process making voting much more difficult for millions of Americans.

Needing an issue to enflame the nativist base of the party they now own an immoral, barbaric, un-American policy that separates kids from parents seeking asylum in the land built by immigrants.

Fearing – and likely knowing – that Trump is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg they trash the American justice system and consider the Republican special counsel investigating Russian interference in our politics as some dark “deep state” conspirator.

To repeat for emphasis Robert Mueller is a registered Republican, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a man of sterling personal qualities and professional ethics. The president of the United States repeatedly labels his work “a witch hunt” and guys like Graham and Risch smile and pray not to get a primary challenge.

Reaping the Whirlwind…

Republicans officeholders have been working on handing the country over to Donald Trump for a generation. They have valued power over principle, polarization over policy. They have been lying to their base for so long that, not surprisingly, people started believing the craziness. Now Trump owns them. They are afraid of losing an election or slipping out of power and they have fully acquiesced to his lies, his personal and moral dishonesty, his dangerous and deranged foreign policy, his racism and, most troubling, his ever more obvious authoritarian ambitions.

Last week Trump told Fox & Friends, the nut job echo chamber that feeds his gargantuan ego, that his new North Korean friend is “the head of a country — and I mean he’s the strong head. He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.” Later Trump said it was just a “joke,” but that same “joke” has been used in the past to discount the kind of language that authoritarians regularly use.

The nut job echo chamber…

The journalist Andrew Sullivan says Trump is “openly living in his own disturbed world” where whatever he says is true and whatever contradicts his truth is “fake news.” And the Republican Party, witness the comment from the party chairwoman, has accepted this new reality.

“Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” says Ronna McDaniel. By the way, Ms. McDaniel for a long time used her maiden name – Romney – until Trump said he didn’t like it – she’s Mitt Romney’s niece – so she quit and now has a name approved by the Great Leader.

“The party of free trade has gone protectionist,” writes Edward-Isaac Dovere in Politico. “The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget. Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums. Trump goes to war with the G-7, and the sum of the Republican reaction is a statement from John McCain and a few comments on Sunday TV from Maine Sen. Susan Collins.”

Democracy Dies With Lies…

Democracy Dies in Darkness is the new motto of the Washington Post, a newspaper that daily tries to sort out the various strains of wretched weirdness that is the Republican Party, but the newspaper motto gets at only part of our problem. Democracy actually dies when lies dominate the daily political discussion, when ethics get ignored and when principle has no place.

There is an authoritarian playbook

I’m reading a new book on an old story, how the Weimar Republic in Germany collapsed amid the lies and nationalism and racial hatred that ushered in the darkest period in modern history.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that a crazed Austrian postcard painter figured out the essential truth of the authoritarian long before we got Donald Trump.

“To sink into the minds of average people,” Hett writes, “a message [or a lie] had to be simple. It had to be emotional – hatred worked well – not intellectual. And it had to be endlessly repeated.”

No Collusion

Crooked Hillary

Witch Hunt 

Fake News 

There is an authoritarian playbook, well worn and often remarkably successful. The would be authoritarian lies about everything to the point that enough people no longer care about the truth. A free press is put to the torch. Convenient enemies – immigrants, Muslims, any opponent of the leader – are daily attacked. The rule of law is subverted. Financial and ethical norms are ignored.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: “Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency.”

This is where we are, fellow Americans.

Captured by an unhinged, lying, racist president enabled by a minority of the country thrashing about in a fever swamp of nationalism and rage, while elected members of a political party fearful of their leader, goes along to get along. What’s a little lying compared to a Supreme Court packed for a generation? Personal corruption – no big deal we got the tax cut. A deeply flawed psychopath in the White House, sure but he’s our psychopath

It’s the lies, my friends, it’s the lies. The postcard painter knew the path to power. Lie bigly. Lie always. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie to demonize the other side. Lie to discredit the press. Lie to protect your privilege. Lie often enough, loudly enough and pretty soon no one knows what to believe and the authoritarian has his day. It has happened before. It is happening again.

More on The Death of Democracy next time.

GOP, Politics, Trump

Conscience of a Conservative…

      “We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

      “Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new book Conscience of a Conservative.

—————

Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.

Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake

Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.

Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.

Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.

The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.

The Goldwater version

“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”

The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”

In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.

Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith

Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of ConscienceFlake is hitting similar notes.

In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.

Unlike many Republicans Flake never endorsed Trump and subsequently never had to eat his words. Idaho’s Mike Crapo, by contrast, withdrew his endorsement after the Access Hollywood tape became public, but then slinked back to the swamp tepidly saying he would after all vote for the man he had days earlier demanded leave the race. South Dakota’s John Thune and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer did much the same.

Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.

In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.

 New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.

Flake’s new book

He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”

I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.

In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.

Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’

“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”

Flake’s courage may end up being a one-off political aberration and while there are signs of growing disenchantment with Trump’s chaos and incompetency, don’t hold your breath waiting for any Congressional anti-Trump wave to break. John F. Kennedy’s famous Profiles in Courage highlighted only eight senators deemed worth of praise for their acts of political fearlessness.

Political courage has never been in shorter supply, but the senator from Arizona has assured that he’ll be prominent on any future list.

GOP, Health Care, Medicaid, Trump

The Art of the Miscalculation

“Hello, Bob. So, we just pulled it.”

        Donald J. Trump phones Washington Post reporter Robert Costa to report on the art of his failed deal.

————

Congressional Republicans spent seven years – and 60-plus repeal votes in the House of Representatives – promising their most fervent supporters that if they ever got all the political power in Washington, D.C. they would wipe away the hated Obamacare on Day One.

On Day Sixty-four they ran head long into an old political reality – don’t believe your own press releases.

What could go wrong?

In the end, the collapse of the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act – was based on a huge miscalculation, a miscalculation that is now the signature reality of the Grand Old Party. The politics of opposition met the realism of substance. Given seven years to come up with a genuine alternative to what virtually everyone concedes is a flawed national health policy, Republicans, particularly the vacuous leader of their party, punted on substance.

Just consider what President-elect Trump told the Washington Post a week before taking office. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law, he said, “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

Perhaps even he can’t spin this one…

The Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein reported in that January interview that Trump – wait for it – declined to discuss specifics. Big surprise. There were no specifics short of a massive tax cut for the most well to do and a butchering of Medicaid.

The intellectual bankruptcy of Donald Trump’s GOP, the total triumph of puffy rhetoric over hard reality, was on full display during the Republican art of the fail. The empty suit in the Oval Office met the empty heads in Congress. Of course, Trump predictably blamed Democrats for failing to undo the legislation that they bled over and that cost the party many seats in Congress. It won’t wash. Democrats actually believe in what they have done, while Republicans now fully embrace the smoke and mirrors that surround Trump and the party he now owns, if cannot control. Not surprisingly the post mortem’s have been, and brutally so, all about Trump’s failure and that of the once and never again policy wonk Paul Ryan.

“It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the Day 64 defeat,” wrote Axios’ Mike Allen, a D.C. access journalist who rarely misses a chance to curry favor with the powerful. “President Trump, who made repeal-and-replace a central theme of his campaign, and House Republicans, who made it the central theme of every campaign since 2010, lost in a publicly humiliating way despite controlling every branch of government and enjoying margins in the House rarely seen in the past century.”

The Miami Herald – Trump won Florida just four months ago you may recall – was just as critical. Republicans “made a huge political miscalculation,” the Herald’s editorial said. “They were vociferous. They were resolute. Ultimately, they were clueless. Well, their constituents, many getting preventive care for the first time, or prenatal care, or cancer treatments clued them in: Obamacare, for all its faults, was working for them.

“Ryan finally — finally — stated the obvious: ‘Doing big things is hard.’ (We’re suppressing a ‘Duh!’) And it’s especially difficult when you leave out preparation and inclusiveness to meet a long-touted promise.

And it hasn’t just been the “opposition” press delivering harsh judgments about the Republican debacle. Right wing websites savaged Congressional Republicans with The Drudge Report featuring a photo of the German airship Hindenburg bursting into flames over the headline: Republican Catastrophe.

Republican Catastrophe (Photo by Sam Shere/Getty Images)

Politico’s Tim Alberta relayed this little bit of color from a critical meeting Trump had last Thursday with the self-righteous egotists of the hard right House Freedom Caucus. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump told those who taught the new president his painful lesson about the art of the Washington deal. “Let’s focus on the big picture here,” the Closer-in-Chief opined. Trump’s message, of course, was that substance doesn’t matter. Don’t sweat the details. The art of the flim-flam got him elected, after all. Who would have thought governing could be so hard?

Trump’s constant use of shape shifting lies notwithstanding, Republicans own this colossal mess and for one principle reason: they have abandoned governing, which is to say substance, in favor of once again trotting out the old hackneyed rightwing clichés and policy inconsistency. Trump’s promise of “health care for all” that would lower costs was always nonsense and internally inconsistent, about as intellectually honest as a sales pitch for Trump University.

This defeat was so big and so obvious that perhaps even Donald Trump can’t spin it away. And Congressional Republicans are going to have difficulty escaping the reality that they fumed against Obamacare for seven politically productive years, but when given a real chance to change the law – or repeal it outright – the GOP quarterbacks took a knee.

Stipulate the obvious: Obamacare has problems. Premiums are too high for many working poor, some states have opted out of the Medicaid portion of the program and the whole scheme remains complicated and confusing. Blame Democrats for some of the confusion. They have never been able to articulate a consistent message about the benefits and there have been real benefits, including insurance coverage for millions of Americans who had not been covered before. Also blame Republicans for the confusion because they have repeatedly misrepresented the negatives impacts of a program that impacts less than 10% of the entire health care marketplace.

Still, Obamacare needs work just like the defense budget or Trump’s golf game needs work, but the constant GOP mantra that the Affordable Care Act is imploding or cratering the economy is just as nonsensical as the tweets from the West Wing. But having ridden the “Obamacare is killing America” hobby horse to electoral success Republicans, as the New York Times pointed out, went searching for a solution to a problem they invented. The problem was invented, of course, because of a burning desire to continue to exploit the issue politically rather than actually work to improve health care. The approach clearly worked. What was missing, as the Times noted, was a “coherent idea or shared vision of what [Republicans] want to achieve and what problem they mean to solve.”

The one and never again policy wonk. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As one wag noted Republicans might have had a better chance to push their plan if they could have pointed to any place in the world were their ideas about enhancing “competition” in health care is working. Americans pay more, have worse outcomes and see more of their fellow citizen’s uninsured than any other major industrialized country. And no country does health care the way we do. The Republican approach wasn’t in any way a fix for a still fractured American approach to health care, but instead would have doubled down on the only strategy the GOP has known in the last two decades: cut taxes for the wealthiest and tell the poor to get a job.

Obama, in pushing the legislation in 2009, sought to reduce the number of uninsured and encourage more preventive care. He succeeded and would have succeeded even more broadly had Republicans not spent every day of both his terms attempting to delegitimize his presidency and with it his legislation. When Republicans got their chance to show the country what they value – should I mention they have more control over the government than they have enjoyed since the 1920s – they opted to advance a plan that would have ended coverage for 24 million Americans over the next decade and gutted the Medicaid safety net for many of the same working class Americans who, against their own best interests, put Donald Trump in the White House.

To the moral bankruptcy that has accompanied the Congressional Republican embrace of the very idea of Donald Trump as their leader, now you may add the intellectual bankruptcy of treating actual governance the way Trump treats the presidency – with contempt and arrogance.

The Atlantic’s Russell Berman had one of the best summaries of the Republican health care fiasco and one of the best quotes. “I’ve been in this job eight years,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida told Berman, “and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening. We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”

Now, that is a perceptive politician.

2016 Election, GOP, Trump

Cue the Recriminations…

      

         “Character matters. (Trump) is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside and let Mike Pence try.”

 Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse  two weeks ago

———-

         CHRIS WALLACE : “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?”

         DONALD TRUMP: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”

The third presidential debate October 19, 2016

———-

Sometime in the late evening of November 8 as it becomes clear that Donald J. Trump has led the Republican Party over an electoral cliff the recriminations will begin. For students of politics, and particularly for those who abhor the charlatan that has held the GOP hostage for the last 18 months, it will be good sport to watch the blood letting, but soon more important issues will become obvious.

The ultimate loser...
The ultimate loser…

Surely there will be a price to pay for those who aided and abetted Trumpism. The elected officials who condemned the man, but managed to twist their logic in such a way that they could still cast a vote for him will wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their days. A cosmetic patch of political Bondo will not easily repair what Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has called “the intellectual rot” at the heart of the Grand Old Party.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has asked the right question, a question we will be hearing more and more post-Trump: “What is the Republican Party?”

Dionne wonders “whether Republican congressional leaders have any connection with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked during the Obama years but always hoped to contain. Mr. Trump is the product of their colossal miscalculations.

“And then there are the ruminations of millions of quiet Republicans — local business people and doctors and lawyers and coaches and teachers. They are looking on as the political institution to which they have long been loyal is refashioned into a house of bizarre horrors so utterly distant from their sober, community-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, conservative approach to life.”

Much time and attention will be lavished on the future fortunes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump denouncer who nevertheless continues to say he will vote for a man he likely can’t imagine having dinner with. Mr. Speaker will struggle. You heard it here firste.

The GOP's odd couple.
The GOP’s odd couple.

And what of John McCain, once a truth teller on the budgetary excesses of his own party, a pragmatist about the need for immigration reform and a realist about the impact of money on politics? Facing the very real political dilemma of repudiating Trump – remember Trump early on attacked McCain’s military service – and alienating his core of angry voters or wringing his hands over Trump’s embrace of Putin and disdain of personal character,

McCain has been like horse droppings after a Fourth of July parade – all over the place. He finally and certainly belatedly abandoned Trump after “the tape,” but some how saw fit to stick with Trump through his attacks on a federal judge, the Gold Star family and revelations about Trump’s taxes, charity scams and business failures. Sex and vulgar talk about sex was apparently the deal breaker.

The cynical might dismiss McCain’s election year straddle as merely the pragmatic machinations of a old pol riding to the last roundup, but how to explain a waffle like that of Idaho Senator James Risch who is not on the ballot this year and would have little to lose by standing up to a loser? Risch, an early Marco Rubio supporter then a reluctant Ted Cruz guy, still sticks with Trump despite what the senator call the “the vulgar and indefensible revelations relating to the Republican nominee’s character.”

It all comes down to the Supreme Court, Risch says, “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country. I will cast my vote for the Republican nominee.” The country will be fine, senator, as to abandoning character as a presidential requirement, that is problematic.

By Thanksgiving it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having voted for the most unfit presidential candidate in any of our lifetimes, but the political battlefield will be strewn with the remains of the gutless Republicans who stood with him at the edge of the cliff and then beyond. If Trump turns out to inflict as much damage to the Republican Party as seems likely – loss of younger voters, suburban women and minorities for a generation perhaps – supporting the guy who took the party into the gutter will be in the first paragraph of many political obituaries.

Ohio Governor John Kasich
Ohio Governor John Kasich

As conservative commentators Michael Gerson (George W. Bush’s speechwriter), George Will, David Brooks and Max Boot – all “Never Trump” critics – have said repeatedly, the GOP has faced in this campaign its modern day McCarthy Moment. What do you do in the face of a deeply troubled, dangerous and profoundly unfit political figure? Most elected officials have buckled in the face of the moral challenge that demanded a repudiation of Trump. Those who have not – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice among a few others – will be remembered for putting country before buffoonery.

Those who pulled a McCain or a Risch will be remembered for their profiles in political cowardice. They will continue to try to dress it up as merely sticking with the party, but the recriminations will take care of that fiction.

“Trump’s descent into ideological psychosis is tainting the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him,” Michael Gerson wrote this week. He took particular note of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, “one of the chief promoters of Christian morality in politics employing the ethical reasoning of 9-year-olds in the schoolyard. Someday Pence (and others) will look back on their shattered standards and ask: For this cause? For this man?”

Joseph McCarthy’s antics – character assassination, wild exaggeration and lying demagoguery – defined the Republican Party in the early 1950s, but a decent and well-intended man, Dwight Eisenhower, keep the GOP from falling completely under McCarthy’s sway. Barry Goldwater, never on his worst day as totally unfit for office as the current nominee, redirected the GOP rightward in the 1960s and eventually passed the reigns to Ronald Reagan, a president who stood for virtually everything Donald Trump fumes against. That history leaves us to ponder who will emerge from the coming wreckage to re-build a party suffering from “intellectual rot” after having sold its soul to a huckster?

So many who might aspire to that job will have to spend the next many months picking through the Trump wreckage, attempting to salvage their own sense of purpose after caving to a craven opportunist. How much better for these Republicans to have pulled a Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine GOP senator who denounced McCarthy early as an act of conscience, rather than continue to try and explain the inexplicable.

After all how do you explain next month, next year or ever why it was you stood for this cause, for this man?