Jul. 16

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More Setbacks for Heath-Care Bill; Vote Delayed

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) must dread sunrise right now, because every day seems to bring new problems for his health-care bill. On Saturday, the first problem to present itself came in the form of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who had surgery to remove a blood clot from behind his eye. The surgery went well, by all accounts, but the Senator will need a week at home to recover. McConnell's issue is that he was counting on McCain's vote. If only 99 Senators are voting, then it takes just two Republicans to join with the 46 Democrats and two Independents to kill the bill, 50-49. Since Rand Paul (R-KY) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are already "no" votes, that would be it. So, McConnell will delay the vote until McCain returns. The Majority Leader knows that delays are not his friend, but he has little choice, unless some "misfortune" happens to befall a Democratic senator so that only 98 people are voting.

That is not the only bad news for McConnell, however. A cadre of governors, both Democratic and Republican, met on Saturday with Vice President Mike Pence, HHS Secretary Tom Price, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to discuss the GOP health-care bill. The closed-door session was described by attendees as "tense," "pretty atrocious," and "incredibly inconsistent." The governors were particularly frustrated by the administration's habit of cherrypicking the CBO numbers they like, and ignoring the ones they don't like. They were also none-too-thrilled that the general message of the meeting was "it will be up to you to deal with the fallout." Among the governors who remain opposed are Brian Sandoval (R-NV), who said "I'm no different than I was" as he departed the meeting, and John Kasich (R-OH), who did not attend the meeting, but issued a statement blasting Mike Pence. The opposition of those two governors matters a lot because they are both popular in their home states, and they will both put pressure on fence-sitting GOP senators, namely Dean Heller (R-NV) and Rob Portman (R-OH).

And finally, two major insurance groups—America's Health Care Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association—have sent a letter to McConnell denouncing the Cruz Amendment (which would allow healthy people to buy ultra-cheap "junk" policies) in no uncertain terms. "It is simply unworkable in any form," the letter declares, observing that Cruz's plan would drive up premiums for those who are old or sick, and would force many people to abandon their insurance plans. Obviously, the word of corporate and/or lobbying interests must always be taken with a grain of salt, since they have their own agenda to peddle. However, it is unusual for the industry to tackle things this bluntly and this directly. Further, their argument squares with a basic, commonsense understanding of how insurance works. If the healthy people don't subsidize the sick people, the whole model collapses.

In any event, thanks to McCain's incapacity, the issue is going to spend a week on the backburner. McConnell will likely try to find a silver lining in that, something along the lines of, "Well, maybe this will allow passions to cool a bit." That's almost certainly wishful thinking; another week of phone calls from constituents, and CBO scores, and think-tank analyses, and angry editorials is not going to be helpful for him. (Z)

Campaign Paid Donald Jr.'s Attorney $50K Shortly Before Meeting Was Revealed

Currently, when it comes to matters related to Russiagate, Donald Trump Jr. is being represented by Alan Futerfas. That hire was announced early this week, shortly after news broke of Junior's meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Now, Politico is reporting that Futerfas was paid $50,000 by the Trump campaign three weeks ago, well before news of the meeting became public. And this is just a fraction of the $677,826 the campaign has spent on legal fees in the last three months.

It is worth noting, first of all, that this is not illegal. The Trump campaign can pay Trump Jr.'s legal bills as long as it's to defend him against things that happened as part of the campaign. By contrast, it would not be legal—for example—for the President to use campaign money to defend himself against obstruction of justice charges, since the threatening/firing of James Comey happened after he was in office. It is also worth noting that the $50,000 to Futerfas may be entirely for Trump Jr.'s defense, but it may also be for other services; that's not known at this point. Nonetheless, the timing suggests the money is at least partly for Junior, which in turn means that the Trumps likely knew they were in hot water well before the rest of us knew it. (Z)

White House Tries to Move the Goalposts

Kellyanne Conway, spinmistress extreme, was on "Fox and Friends" on Friday to address Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya. And, even by her elevated standards, she came up with a real doozy:

Even the goal posts have been moved. We were promised systemic—hard evidence of systemic, sustained, furtive collusion that not only interfered with our election process but indeed dictated the electoral outcome.

Put another way, Conway is implying that a little collusion is ok, as long as it's not a lot of collusion. This runs contrary to past White House statements, in which they have consistently declared there was zero collusion. It's also a political argument, and not a legal one. As far as the law is concerned, a little collusion is like a little murder.

Sometimes, Conway seems to be freelancing when she talks to the press, so it's hard to be certain the extent to which this is the new party line. We should know more today, because Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow will appear on all five of the morning news shows. His job is damage control, and there's little doubt he spent much of the day Saturday plotting messaging with administration muckety-mucks. In other words, his spin will surely be the "official" spin. At least, until new revelations come out. (Z).

Trump's Approval Rating Remains Dismal

Donald Trump likes to send out a tweet whenever any polling house has him with an approval rating of 50% or better. He hasn't had that pleasure since April 24, which was the last time anyone (specifically, the GOP-friendly Rasmussen Reports) had him above water. On Saturday, ABC News/Washington Post released their latest numbers, and they are pretty grim for the President.

To start, Trump's overall approve/disapprove numbers sit at 36%/58%. That's down six points from where he was at the 100-day mark in this same poll, and marks the worst result for any president at the six-month juncture since approval ratings were first tracked 70 years ago. Only Gerald Ford, who was then reeling from his pardon of Richard Nixon, was even in Trump's ballpark (39%). As bad as 36% is, however, it's the other numbers that are particularly concerning for the administration. 63% think Donald Trump Jr. behaved inappropriately in meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, 60% think the Russians meddled with the election, and 40% think that the Trump campaign colluded with them. In short, the administration's PR campaign is not working very well; perhaps Jay Sekulow can change their fortunes today (see above). (Z)

Trump May Be Reaching His Tipping Point

Thus far, when it comes to the public's relationship with Donald Trump, the story has been that the base loves him no matter what, and just about everyone else is...well, not a fan. One might assume that, if the base deserts him, it will be a gradual process. However, scholars like Malcolm Gladwell argue that it doesn't work like that, and that we should expect Trump to remain strong with the base until he reaches his tipping point, at which point the collapse will be rapid. For what it's worth, the model held for Richard Nixon, who enjoyed approval ratings in the high 50s and low 60s through late April of 1973, and then cratered to the 30s over the course of just a few months.

As we try to read the tea leaves around here, there are plenty of signs that the tipping point may soon be upon us, given how very bad the Donald Trump Jr. meeting looks. To start with, many titans of the right-wing commentariat have their knives and torches out. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg argues that, "The benefit of the doubt is gone" and that, "It doesn't frick'n matter if—note the 'if'—nothing came of the meeting. Junior can't claim he, Manafort, and Kushner never sought to collude with the Russian government when he admits that he, Manafort, and Kushner eagerly took a meeting for the express purpose of colluding with Russia." Charles Krauthammer, writing for the Washington Post, opines that "bungled collusion is still collusion." And CNN's David Gergen thinks the Trump may have engaged in, "one of the most incompetent cover-ups we've ever had." Now, it is true that none of these three men have ever been confused with a Trump supporter. However, there has been a distinct sharpening of their rhetoric, and that of their colleagues. And they do command respect and attention in some corners of the GOP world.

Of course, an outlet that has been squarely in the Trump fold is Fox News. But even that may be changing. This week, two of their hosts—Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith—took the administration to task over Russiagate. "Why all these lies?" Smith wondered. "Why is it lie after lie after lie?" He also described the deception as "mind-boggling." Wallace was a little more measured, but was largely in agreement, and said, "This really shouldn't be a matter of liberal vs. conservative, pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump. If you're a fair-minded citizen, you ought to be concerned about the fact that we were repeatedly misled..." While this isn't quite Sean Hannity turning against the administration, such criticism coming from Fox News would have been all-but-unthinkable six months ago.

Finally, the support of GOP members of Congress, at least some of them, appears to be weakening. For example, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) was on MSNBC on Friday, and was asked if he could "definitively say 'I am 100 percent sure the President and his campaign did not engage in a criminal conspiracy with a foreign intelligence apparatus.'" Lance exhaled heavily, and then said he could not, and that he was therefore eager to get to the bottom of this matter. He probably should not be expecting an invite to Mar-a-Lago anytime soon. (Z)

How Much Did Gerrymandering Help the GOP in 2016?

The short answer to the question in the headline? A lot. This week, two different analyses of the 2016 elections were published, one by the AP and the other by the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project. The two studies were in agreement that gerrymandering is a significant issue in American electoral politics, and that it's been used by the GOP in particular to outsize their representation relative to their numbers.

The two reports are full of analysis, of course, but there are really only two bits of information that matter to non-statisticians. The first is that there is virtually no mathematical chance that the non-representative districts across the nation happened by accident. In Michigan, for example, the odds against that are 16,000 to 1. In Wisconsin, it's 60,000 to 1. The second bit of information, and the big one, is that gerrymandering netted the GOP roughly 22 seats in the House of Representatives. There are presently 240 Republicans and 194 Democrats, so the GOP would still be in the majority even in a gerrymander-free world. However, the advantage would be razor-thin, 218-216. Interestingly, that might make it easier to get things done, since Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) would have virtually no choice but to turn his back on the Freedom Caucus and to reach across the aisle. In any event, if upcoming Supreme Court cases serve to weaken or kill the gerrymander, then the GOP's hopes of holding the House in 2018 will grow very dim. (Z)

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