Mar. 27

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Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, Part I: Obamacare

Special counsel Robert Mueller's announcement last Friday that he would not pursue any more indictments was a win for Donald Trump. Attorney General Bill Barr's report on Sunday that there was no case for collusion or obstruction was possibly an even bigger win. The President might have taken a victory lap or two, basked in the glow (such as it is) for a while, and done a softball interview or two with Fox News. Instead, in a fairly transparent case of score settling, he decided to punish Democrats for the investigation by striking out at Barack Obama's signature achievement, namely the ACA, with the goal of scrapping the program entirely. This is very poor political strategy.

Let's start by pointing out that this maneuver clearly comes from Trump himself. Even the members of his administration, including Barr and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, counseled against it. However, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney convinced the President that the time was ripe to make a move. "Mick the Knife" thinks (and Trump agrees) that if they can pile up a few more court rulings unfavorable to the ACA, they can force Congress to repeal the law. Keeping in mind that Mulvaney spent his entire career in Congress as a rabble-rousing tea partier, whose goal was mucking up the works and not getting things done, he may not be the world's best choice for insight about how to get the Congress to actually do things. And if he and Trump really and truly think that the Democratic-controlled House is going to vote to repeal the ACA, then they ought to get their heads examined—and quickly, while the ACA still covers mental health.

In any event, the short-term problem here is that the administration just threw the Democratic Party a giant-sized life preserver. Team Trump could have spent the week celebrating while the blue team squirmed. But by going after Obamacare the next day, they allowed Nancy Pelosi & Co. to quickly begin changing the narrative. Already, on most of the news sites (including some of the right-leaning sites, like The Hill), the lead story is Obamacare and not Mueller.

The long-term problem is that attacking Obamacare is, politically speaking, a big loser. In poll after poll we learn that the law, while controversial 10 years ago, now enjoys the solid support of the majority of voters. It was one of the key issues that propelled Democrats to victory in the 2018 midterms, and that was when the discussion was merely about the possibility of tossing 10-20 million people off the insurance rolls. If the whole law is struck down, then not only would millions be thrown off the insurance rolls due to the end of the ACA exchanges, but a raft of other provisions that folks have become accustomed to would disappear into the ether. Many young adults under the age of 26 would be tossed off of their parents' policies, people with chronic conditions would start receiving letters that they are up against their policy limits, people with pre-existing conditions would find themselves unable to get insurance, prescription drug prices would go up, and so forth.

Republicans who are not Trump, including many who once savaged the ACA, know that the issue is a loser for them. So, they are trying very hard to avoid comment on the decision made by the administration. But if Trump sticks to his guns—and, given his loathing of Obama and his desire to erase everything Obama ever did, then he probably will—then the GOP members of Congress who are up in 2020 will either have to hitch their wagon to a stinker of an issue, or else will have to take sides against Trump. Meanwhile, Trump himself will be running on a plank that might even give some his base pause (say, the ones who are sick, or who have loved ones that are sick). Hence our argument: Going after Obamacare was very poor political strategy. (Z)

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, Part II: Obstruction of Justice

By striking out at Obamacare so rapidly, Donald Trump has already lost much of the Mueller wind that was in his sails. Meanwhile, there's another substantial problem for him: As things currently stand, the "Barr summary" isn't helping him at all, and there's still plenty of potential for the Mueller report to do the President harm.

The evidence that Barr's four-page summary didn't actually help Trump comes in the form of the first post-Mueller-report poll, courtesy of Morning Consult/Politico. It reveals that the President's approval ratings are holding steady; he neither gained nor lost ground by being "cleared." It's possible that a bounce is still coming, but it doesn't look that way. Further, 47% of respondents think that Trump tried to obstruct the investigation, while only 39% think he didn't.

Ultimately, this is a very predictable outcome. The vast majority of Americans, whether they are pro- or anti-Trump, had already reached their conclusions about the President's guilt (or innocence). It is essentially inconceivable that a four-page executive summary from Barr was going to change that.

So, for now, it's the status quo. Eventually, however, the obstruction issue could significantly hurt Trump. The fact is that Barr is a Trump appointee—one who was openly critical of the Mueller investigation. And, in a scant 48 hours, he reached the conclusion—acting as both judge and jury—that the President was not guilty of any crime. Given that Mueller was apparently unable to reach such a firm conclusion with 18 months of study, 48 hours seems a tad...brief. And on Tuesday, Barr said that very soon—weeks, not months—sizable portions of Mueller's report will be made available to Congress (and, presumably one way or another, to the general public). If Barr appears to have misrepresented or skated over damning evidence, then this whole thing could become a very bad look for the President. In fact, instead of killing the obstruction angle, the whole sequence of events could serve to heighten voters' perception that Trump pulled whatever strings he needed to in order to avoid punishment for his misdeeds.

So, it's fair to say that the Barr summary didn't actually change much of anything. It's true that the chance of Trump being impeached and convicted is now close to zero, but impeachment was always highly unlikely, given that the U.S. Senate's Republican majority is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization. "Impeachment" is going to be up to American voters in 2020. If the Mueller report, when it is released, does not satisfy them that there was no collusion and there was no obstruction, then it won't matter one bit what Barr wrote. And if Barr appears to be participating in a cover-up, or a spin job, then he may actually have done the President more harm than good. (Z)

Senate, House Each Hold Show Votes

Although congressional leaders from both parties speak disdainfully about "show" votes, they apparently only mean that when referring to show votes staged by the other party. We know that because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) both staged show votes on Tuesday with no shame whatsoever. The House failed, by a vote of 248-181, to override Donald Trump's veto of the resolution canceling his national emergency. Meanwhile, the Senate voted 57-0, with 42 Democrats and 1 Bernie Sanders voting "present," not to consider Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' (D-NY) Green New Deal.

These votes both had one purpose, and one purpose only: To force members of the minority party to go on the record in support of a position that can be used against them in 2020. The stunt basically worked in the House, as the great majority of Republican members have now twice gone on record supporting an unpopular power grab (and, at the same time, the right of the next Democratic president to cook up some dubious emergencies of their own). The stunt worked less well in the Senate, as the "present" votes allowed all of the Democrats except for Joe Manchin (WV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), and Doug Jones (AL) to avoid going on the record, one way or the other. So, today's result in the Congressional Voting Olympics is Democrats 1, Republicans 0. However, there are going to be many more show votes in the next 18 months or so, and so there will be opportunities for the GOP to make up for lost ground. (Z)

Tom Udall to Retire in 2020

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) will turn 72 in 2020, and though that makes him something of a spring chicken by the standards of the Senate, he's decided that enough is enough. So, on Tuesday, he announced that he will not seek a third term. That makes him the third senator to announce his retirement this cycle, following Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Pat Roberts (R-KS).

The Democrats would prefer to run an incumbent, of course, but the seat is still likely to remain in their hands. New Mexico is quite blue these days, as indicated by the fact that every single statewide officeholder, and every single member of the Congressional delegation, is a Democrat. Already, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) has indicated that he's likely to toss his hat into the ring. Luján has actually replaced Udall once before, having taken over the Senator's seat in the House in 2009. Another commonality is that they come from prominent political families, which means built-in name recognition for the Congressman (in fact, his cousin Michelle Lujan Grisham, who leaves the a in her name unaccented, is the current governor). Between that, his high approval rating, and his Latino heritage, Luján's a rock-solid candidate who may well be able to avoid a serious primary challenge.

If the GOP is to have any hope of reclaiming the seat, there are two things that would probably need to happen. The first is a bloody primary between two or more Democrats, leaving the eventual winner damaged and low on funds. Second, because the state's Republican bench is paper-thin, the Party would really like to convince former governor Susana Martinez to run. She's got name recognition, too, and would presumably claim a fair chunk of the Latino vote. Martinez has given no indication of her interest, however, and if she stays out, then the seat is safe for the blue team. (Z)

2018 Election Was Apparently a Mess in Texas

They say that everything is bigger in Texas; apparently that also applies to their election screw-ups. The Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report about the 2018 election on Tuesday, and it is not flattering to election officials in the Lone Star State. According to their audit, roughly 278,000 voters were deprived of their votes, either by overly aggressive purges of voter rolls, late-opening polling places, lack of polling places on college campuses, malfunctioning voting machines, voter intimidation, and other kinds of missteps or malfeasance.

The first observation that pretty much everyone made upon the release of the report was that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) beat Beto O'Rourke by about 220,000 votes, which—according to our staff mathematicians—is fewer than 278,000. It seems unlikely that the outcome of the Senate election was affected, since flipping the result would require roughly 90% of those problem votes to have been O'Rourke votes. Still, the authors of the report are hoping that their analysis will light a fire under election officials in Texas and/or under Congress. Maybe that will happen, but don't hold your breath. (Z)

SCOTUS to Look at the Gerrymander Again

In the last couple of years, the Supreme Court has looked at a handful of gerrymandering-related cases, and has declined to take any substantive action against the gerrymander. They've got another chance, as they heard two more cases on Tuesday, one regarding the obvious pro-Democratic gerrymander in Maryland, and another regarding the obvious pro-Republican gerrymander in North Carolina.

The safe bet is that the Court, which has replaced Anthony Kennedy with the more conservative Brett Kavanaugh since their last gerrymandering case, is likely to maintain the status quo, just as they did previously. That said, the gerrymanders in Maryland and North Carolina are particularly egregious, and the Court doesn't generally accept multiple cases on the same point of law unless they feel like they want to make a statement. So maybe Kavanaugh, or the concerned-about-the-Court's-reputation John Roberts, might deliver a surprise. (Z)

Pete Buttigieg Channels His Inner Viking

We are going to start here by briefly summarizing meme theory, an idea first developed in the 1970s. A meme is an idea, a style, a behavior, or a piece of information that propagates from person to person. We tend to think of them today in terms of Facebook jokes and videos of cats playing the piano, but a meme can be a song lyric, or a point of philosophy, or even a type of shoes. For a variety of reasons, some memes propagate more fully, and with greater resonance, than others.

We bring this up because sometimes a politician has a moment that is especially meme-worthy, and that takes on an outsized significance. A negative example is the famous picture of Michael Dukakis in a tank, which crystallized some voters' suspicions that he was an unserious candidate, or was weak on matters of national defense. A positive example is Bill Clinton's saxophone-playing appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show," which had everyone talking (or, to be more technical, propagating), and underscored that he was young, and hip, and connected with black culture.

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who appears to be surging in polls, may have had a moment like Clinton's this weekend; a fairly small gesture that has the potential to echo very loudly. Buttigieg was speaking to a reporter from Norway, and he gave a very good answer to her fluent Norwegian. Here's the clip:

A Norwegian outlet is here and asked @PeteButtigieg to speak the language. And he did!

— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) March 23, 2019

This is an excellent example of meme theory in action, because the demonstration, which was obviously very impressive, carries with it a lot of additional (and potentially resonant) information. It raises an obvious question: Why would a guy from Indiana need to speak Norwegian? And the answer is that he wanted to be able to read the work of Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe in the original language. That leads to a slightly less obvious follow-up: So, he speaks English and Norwegian? And the answer to that is: No, he actually speaks eight languages: Those two, plus French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese (the language of his father), Arabic and Dari (a variant of Persian, which he learned while serving as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan).

The conclusions that all of this suggests are fairly obvious: Buttigieg is smart, intellectually curious, well informed, and knowledgeable about many world cultures. Donald Trump, of course, has a reputation for being none of those things. And so, in a 30-second video that's not the slightest bit negative, and that does not mention the President in any way, Buttigieg has nonetheless illustrated very clearly how and why he is the anti-Trump. That's quite a meme. (Z)

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