It is a mere 593 days until the 2020 general election, which means it's high time for everyone, from Donald Trump on down, to start thinking about their campaigns. The problem for GOP officeholders is that the President cares little about the health of the party, and he's also not much interested in thinking strategically (more on this below). Consequently, one of the most important and interesting things to watch in 2019 will be whether or not Congressional Republicans remain in lockstep with Trump, particularly on issues that they know could be poisonous at the polls.
On Wednesday, there were a couple of indications that the elephants in the room are not happy. The chattering about the President's sudden effort to erase Obamacare got louder, and several Senators gently but firmly advised that this is not a wise course of action unless Trump comes up with a replacement plan. Of course, the next time that the Donald comes up with a plan that requires more than 280 characters to communicate will be the first time. And so, the GOP members are going to have to pray that the President forgets all about this (unlikely), or else they will be inviting another flaying at the polls in 2020.
The other area where the grumbling got noticeably louder on Wednesday was tariffs. Most of the GOP members of Congress have presumably studied their history well enough to know that protective tariffs are not only not a panacea, but that they often backfire. And all of them know that China, in particular, has been quite shrewd about its response, and has fine-tuned its counter-tariffs to exert maximal pain on Republican voters. As with the ACA, several Senators have tried to gently but firmly educate the President on this point. The problem is that sometime in the 1980s, Trump somehow internalized the lesson that trade deficits are a sign that a country is weak and stupid, and that protective tariffs are the magic cure to all of that. This might literally be the only policy position he's held consistently for the last four decades. So, it is improbable that he backs off. In fact, it is more likely that he adds even more tariffs, particularly on "foreign" automobiles (many of which are actually constructed in the U.S.)
In short, the goals of Donald Trump and the goals of Congressional Republicans are starting to diverge in a very clear fashion. It is, of course, within the power of Mitch McConnell & Co. to solve these problems—they can protect part or all of the ACA, if they wish, and they can certainly overturn Trump's tariffs (heck, they can even take away his power to impose tariffs). But will Congressional Republicans actually use their power? Or, will they try to stay out of the tariff/ACA fights, forgetting Dante's warning that "the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis"? Or, will they meekly fall into line, tails between their legs? That, of course, has been the M.O. so far, but it is also the case that 2019 is the first year in which the GOP has the disastrous election of 2018 to reflect upon. So, any of these three outcomes is within the realm of possibility. (Z)
It's no secret that Republicans have had a field day with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal. They loathe (and fear) her, they are disdainful of science, and global warming, and pointy-headed academics, and so right-wing politicians and commentators have twisted and distorted the plan (which is actually more like a statement of principles) to the point that it is almost unrecognizable.
Donald Trump was asked about the plan on Wednesday, and he refused to give any comment. Not because he doesn't have an opinion, or because he's suddenly become untalkative. No, it is because he wants to keep it in his back pocket, so he can wield it as a weapon in 2020. "I really don't want to say anything about it," Trump told Sean Hannity. "I want them to keep going forward with it because I want to campaign against it."
When it comes to the President's reelection chances, this response encapsulates the single biggest argument for why he's in trouble in 2020. If he really wants a second term, the question he should be asking himself is something like this:
I'm going to lose some number of the "anyone but Hillary" votes I got in 2016. What can I do to try to replace those votes?
However, the question that he actually asks himself goes something like this:
What will drive the rally crowds into a frenzy?
The Green New Deal is ideal for Trump rally purposes. Again, the base loathes Ocasio-Cortez, and they think global warming is a sham. Trump will make some jokes about cow flatulence, and maybe a few snide remarks about the Congresswoman's appearance, and ask a question or two about how there can be global warming if it's snowing in Washington, and the crowd will eat it up.
But from a "picking up votes" standpoint, running on an anti-global warming/anti-Green New Deal platform is almost as big a loser as running against Obamacare. More Americans (73%) accept the reality of global warming right now than have ever accepted it in the past. That includes virtually all Democrats and, significantly, most independents. Almost half of Americans feel they have been personally affected by global warming and, also very significantly, 86% of those who accept global warming believe that it's not too late to do something about it. In other words, much of the voting public is eager for a viable plan of action, whether it be the Green New Deal or some less ambitious initiative. Meanwhile, the number of folks with the heads still stuck in the sand is shrinking rapidly.
All of this is to say that Trump's attacks on the Green New Deal will certainly gin up the base, but they are already voting for him anyhow. Meanwhile, with nearly three-quarters of the American public accepting that global warming is real, it's hard to see how this will gain the President a single vote. On the other hand, it could hurt him badly with fence-sitting independents, and it will also encourage many millennials—a.k.a. the single largest generation in America—to get out and actually cast ballots.
Trump certainly has some advantages heading into 2020 that he didn't have in 2016, including more money, a proper campaign apparatus, and the advantages of incumbency. However, if he goes down to defeat in 2020, the biggest reason will be his failure to accept or understand that he has to bring at least some new voters into the fold. (Z)
One of these days, AG William Barr is presumably going to release a version of the Mueller Report to the Congress, and maybe even to the general public. It may be lightly redacted, or heavily redacted, but unless the AG was lying through his teeth earlier this week, it's coming. Until that day, however, the story is developing at a fairly slow pace.
One of the (few) developments on Wednesday was that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) announced that he wants special counsel Robert Mueller to come chat with his committee (Intelligence). This isn't all that newsworthy, since it was all but inevitable that Mueller would get called before Congress eventually. But now, given that Schiff has subpoena power and a burning desire to prove that he did not spend the last year tilting at windmills, it is a certainty.
Meanwhile, another piece of news that certainly caused some Democratic partisans' ears to perk up was Asst. U.S. Attorney David Goodhand's advisory that the Mueller grand jury is still empaneled and is still "continuing robustly." Since the main thing that grand juries do is bring indictments, that certainly seems to suggest that more of them are coming. Against whom is anyone's guess, though.
And finally, CNN did its first poll since the Mueller report was completed, and their findings affirm those of the Morning Consult/Politico poll from Tuesday, namely that Trump's approval rating is holding steady, and that the number of people who think he colluded/obstructed justice (56%) and the number who think he's been exonerated (42%) are also holding steady. That is to say, before the report was finished and the "Barr summary" was released, about 56% of CNN's respondents thought Mueller would indicate Trump's guilt, and about 43% thought Mueller would clear Trump on all charges. So, by all indications, it would appear that approximately nobody has actually changed their minds so far. It's unlikely that those numbers will improve in Trump's direction once more details from the report come out; his best-case scenario is likely that they continue to remain steady. (Z)
There are a few candidates (Beto O'Rourke, Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, maybe Sen. Elizabeth Warren) who had (or have) a segment of the Democratic electorate eagerly awaiting news of their 2020 presidential candidacy. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is not one of those people. Nonetheless, he apparently feels that he is exactly what the Democratic field needs. And so, he is reportedly very close to announcing a 2020 bid.
A lot of 2020 candidates are trying, in one way or another, to be Barack Obama v2.0. McAuliffe, on the other hand, is more like Bill Clinton v2.0: former governor of a Southern state, pro-business, fairly moderate, good fundraiser and campaigner, well-connected to Democratic movers and shakers. McAuliffe does not have Clinton's charisma, of course (few do), but he also doesn't have Clinton's sexual baggage. We are skeptical that the Democratic voters of 2020 are in the market for what McAuliffe is selling, but he's been underestimated before, so who knows.
Our profile of him, for those who are interested, is here. (Z)
With Terry McAuliffe about to join the horse race, and a Joe Biden announcement presumably imminent, Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilly has an interesting suggestion: Maybe the Democrats should start holding their candidates debates right now, instead of waiting the three months until June (as is currently the plan).
There would be at least two obvious benefits to getting the ball rolling, and Mathis-Lilly points both of them out. The first is that the longer the period of time over which the debates are spread out, the less debate fatigue there will be. The second is that it behooves the blue team to start whittling down the field as quickly as is possible, and also to start honing their 2020 platform, testing out which ideas do and do not resonate with voters.
Given how early campaigns start nowadays, particularly this year's, it's not a bad idea at all. Presumably, it would require buy-in from all of the candidates, but since every one of them looks in the mirror every morning and sees a future president, they would ostensibly all be eager to get to work showing off their political chops, and mowing down the chaff. Someone should get Tom Perez on the phone, pronto. (Z)
We are not nearly as knowledgeable about U.K. politics as we are about U.S. politics, but we do know a train wreck when we see one, and that is what the Brexit has become. Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated two different plans, and seen them both go down in flames in Parliament. In particular, the Democratic Unionist Party (a hardline Northern Irish faction) is unwavering in its opposition to May's latest plan, and without them, it is all-but-impossible for her to scrape together the necessary votes. In a desperate effort to break the logjam, the Prime Minister made a surprise announcement on Wednesday: If and when her Brexit plan is adopted by Parliament, she will resign her post and let new leadership handle the rest of the process.
It is not at all clear that May's threat will actually help move things forward, especially since Speaker of the House John Bercow has already announced that if May wants to hold another vote, it must be on a plan substantively different than the previous two. In other words, the MPs are not going to get a second bite at either of the two apples they've already thrown in the garbage, resignation or no. It's also not clear what May is going to do if no deal is approved, and the UK ends up with a hard Brexit. She may be planning to try to hold onto power in that case, although if she is, observers are in near-unanimous agreement that she's too badly damaged to survive, and that her premiership is dead in the water no matter what happens with the Brexit.
So, what exactly is the likeliest outcome? To answer that, allow us to take a brief detour into an incident from (Z)'s time in academia, specifically the occasion a few years ago when his department was hiring a new professor. Half the department thought candidate A was fantastic, hated candidate C, and had no strong opinion on candidate B. The other half thought candidate C was fantastic, hated candidate A, and had no strong opinion on candidate B. The ultimate hire, of course, was candidate B, as that was the only candidate that nobody was dead set against.
That brief anecdote (hopefully) sets the stage to introduce a fairly prescient, data-based analysis of the situation from BusinessWorld. In brief, about 40% of the British public wants to stay in the EU and absolutely hates the idea of a hard Brexit. Another 40% wants out of the EU at any cost, even a hard Brexit, and absolutely hates the idea of staying. The plan that is acceptable (if not ideal) to the largest number of Brits (about 50%) and that is loathsome to the fewest number of Brits (about 30%) is...May's plan (or something very much like it). And so, the odds are that May eventually gets her way, even though she's going to lose her job in the process. (Z)
More Mueller questions, of course. However, we'll limit them to three for now, so that we don't flog that horse too much, given that this is likely to be an ongoing story for weeks or months.
Why is producing the Mueller report for Congress and the public not automatic? I don't recall this being an issue with the Starr report. I vividly remember all the boxes being delivered to the Capitol and the day the report itself basically broke the Internet. Is it because of the possible counter-intelligence or grand jury information, or special prosecutor vs. independent counsel? The other difference I've noted is that Robert Mueller doesn't seem to push for conclusions whereas Starr was a zealous advocate for Clinton's impeachment—why is that? C.J., Lowell, MA
To an extent, you've answered your own questions. However, to fully address them, we will point out three major differences between the investigations conducted by Starr and Mueller.
First, as you note, Starr was an independent counsel. His appointment was governed by regulations that were in effect from 1983 to 1999. Crafted primarily in response to Watergate, those regulations made Starr answerable to Congress, and not the Attorney General. In 1999, the regulations expired, and new regulations written by Janet Reno, et al., changed the title to "special counsel" and returned supervisory authority to the Department of Justice. So, the release of the Starr report was entirely the province of the Congress (though you may have forgotten the slight detail that the Starr report literally sat unread in its box in the Capitol for two days while the members agonized about what to do, before they voted to release it). The release of the Mueller report is entirely the province of the AG.
Second, because of what Starr was investigating (stuff that was entirely domestic in nature), and because the focus was pretty much entirely on Bill Clinton, there wasn't anything in the report that needed to remain confidential. On the other hand, the Mueller report probably contains information about intelligence gathering, and also about ongoing prosecutions (see above). So, some redaction is necessary and apropos.
Third, Mueller is—by all accounts and evidences—a fairly modest and retiring fellow with no particular interest in the spotlight. Starr, by contrast—and forgive our bluntness—was and is a grandstanding publicity whore with personal and legal ethics that are questionable at best and non-existent at worst. Even while he was investigating Clinton, Starr was widely criticized for his habit of leaking salacious information to the press, so as to keep his activities in the spotlight as much as possible. Afterwards, he got himself involved in a number of controversies, most obviously getting himself fired as president of Baylor University because of his poor handling of rape and sexual assault charges filed against athletes by at least six female students.
Between these three things, it pretty much covers the very different paths the two investigations have taken.
If the Mueller report contains evidence that Donald Trump committed financial crimes, and a sitting President can't be indicted, then what happens? J.S., Rio Grande City, TX
Well, Congress could impeach, but that's unlikely. Alternatively, a U.S. attorney could roll the dice, ignore Justice Dept. guidelines, and try to indict. Reportedly, SDNY is more than willing to do that. A third option is that a U.S. Attorney could file a sealed indictment, to be executed once Trump leaves office.
However, none of these things is the likeliest outcome. What is likeliest is that a state-level official, like New York AG Letitia James, charges the President with state-level crimes. The presidential pardon power would be moot, and since state governments are not bound by Dept. of Justice guidelines, they could try to move forward with their prosecution immediately. Trump would go to the Supreme Court and ask for a delay until he's no longer president, of course, but since SCOTUS has already ruled that a president can be civilly sued while in office, they are likely to approve criminal suits, too.
It seems to me that what's going on right now is a coordinated right-wing effort to declare Wiliam Barr's memo the final word on the whole "collusion" narrative and to dare the left to keep bringing it up. There's no reason at this point to think that Barr will ever release the whole report, or that it will be given willingly to the House (we've already seen Mitch McConnell block efforts in the Senate to acquire it). Of course, Mueller himself could blow it up by publicly declaring that Barr is misrepresenting his report. But will he? For two years the left has portrayed Mueller as a white knight, but is there truly any reason to believe that characterization? It's constantly noted that he's a lifelong Republican, and I tend to think that a Republican is a Republican is a Republican. C.C., Los Angeles, CA
We agree with you, first of all, that there is a concerted effort by those on the right to spin this as "All done! Nothing to see here." Of course, our view (see above, as well as yesterday's posting) is that it's not working all that well in the court of public opinion.
As to your skepticism about Barr, we don't entirely agree with that. It's possible that he's sleazy, and that he will try to sit on the report, but that would be very difficult to do, politically. Plus, he'd get sued by Congress and would probably lose. Meanwhile, if burying it was his plan, it would make little sense for him to repeatedly promise that the report was coming soon. He'd be much better off with immediate spin along the lines of, "Reading the report over, I am going to try to release what I can, but I just don't think it's possible, given the sensitivity of the material within." And then, on top of all this is the Mueller problem—since the special counsel will be getting subpoenaed (see above) and compelled to testify, then the genie would still get out of Barr's bottle.
As to Mueller, he appears to be more of a George H. W. Bush-style Republicam, and so there's an excellent chance that he's not really a part of the GOP of Donald Trump. More importantly, though, Mueller earned praise from partisans across the spectrum for his service as FBI Director, a job where he had to put country before personal politics on a daily basis in order to be successful. In fact, Barack Obama asked him to stay two years beyond the 10-year term that is normally mandated by law, and the Senate voted 100-0 to approve that arrangement. So, there is good reason to think that Mueller is a man of integrity, and isn't just a partisan hack.
We don't mean to be Pollyanna-ish, and we accept that it's possible that one or both of these men is part of a venal conspiracy to protect Donald Trump at all costs. We just think that the available evidence argues against that possibility, particularly in the case of Mueller.
Is there any evidence that being the grown-up in the room is a winning political strategy, as you said today? I think playing to people's fear and anger is a more effective strategy, as Trump and other Republicans have shown us over and over. For example, we hear Republicans talk about the extreme socialist agenda of the Democratic party whenever they can, and yet we never hear Democrats talk about the extreme white nationalist agenda of the Republicans, or how they're putting party over country. Instead, all we hear from Democrats is that they won't impeach without a smoking gun (a much higher standard for impeachment than Republicans used with President Clinton). S.S., West Hollywood, CA
A proper answer to this really requires more space than is practical here, but we are going to try to answer as best we can.
First of all, appealing to the lesser angels of our nature (hatred, fear, anger) is often a good strategy for winning elections, particularly if a party is in the minority and really needs to motivate its voters. However, it does not tend to be a great basis for actually governing, as we are seeing right now. If you think about the great- and near-great presidents, the vast majority of them appealed to the better angels of our nature (hope, teamwork, optimism). Heck, the very phrase "better angels of our nature" was coined by a hope- and optimism-oriented president, namely Abraham Lincoln.
Beyond that, there are some fairly big cultural differences between Democrats and Republicans that would make it considerably harder for a Trump-style politician to claim the Democratic nomination and then to win the presidency. We will talk about two of those cultural differences, and we're going to have to rely on generalizations, given the space constraints.
Anyhow, the first generalization is that Republicans are considerably more likely to be religious than Democrats and, in particular, are vastly more likely to be fundamentalist and/or evangelical. That means that they are primed to see the world in black and white, good and evil terms. This plays right into the hands of a politician with demagogic tendencies. It also means that Republicans are more likely to accept things on faith, as opposed to requiring evidence. That is rather essential if a politician hopes to pitch you on the idea that, say, a border wall will magically improve our economy, reduce crime, and end the opioid crisis in one fell swoop.
The second generalization, which is somewhat related to the first, is that Republicans are considerably more fearful than Democrats. That seems a pretty provocative thing to say, but there have been a number of very prominent studies that sustained this conclusion. For example, in this famous one, people were asked their positions on various political issues. Then, they were asked to imagine that they were Superman. And then, they were asked their positions on the various issues again. People who identified as liberals tended to take the same stance on the issues both times. People who identified as conservatives, on the other hand, tended to shift leftward on the issues in the second trial, once they were imagining themselves as Superman. Anyhow, given this, Republican voters are much more susceptible to a campaign rooted in how scary Muslims, or MS-13 gang members, or nefarious Chinese businessmen, etc. are.
Let us be clear that we do not mean to suggest that all Republicans are fearful and uncritical, nor that all Democrats make evidence-based decisions. Merely that, on the whole, the two parties have different cultures that are likely to produce very different kinds of politicians.
In your March 23rd post, where you discussed criteria for ranking Presidents, you curiously left out serving two terms/winning two elections. Based on the aggregate rankings of the Wikipedia article you listed, this seems pretty important. Among the top 10, only one was a one-term President (JFK) and among the top 20 only three were (JFK, Polk, Adams). J.M., New Glasgow, Canada
If you read this book, you will see that author Robert Merry believes that one vs. two teams is absolutely critical to evaluating presidential performance, as reelection indicates wide popular support from a president's contemporaries.
We don't buy it, though. First of all, sometimes a president gets reelected because the other party put up a real stinker of a candidate. See, for example, George W. Bush. Second, while the pattern you note is absolutely correct, we were trying to list some of the factors that historians (and others) consider when rating presidents. And we do not believe that historians say, "He served two terms. That's a point in his favor." Instead, we would argue that both re-election and the favorable judgment of history stem from the same source: The guy did a good job in office.
While not doubting your assertion(s) about the intelligence of Presidents Carter, J.Q. Adams, Hoover, or Nixon (and the 'less so' of Washington, Ike, A. Jackson, or The Gipper), how does one tally the IQ for these persons? What's the formula for arriving at an aggregate or index given that some of these fellows lived long before an industry standard cognitive ability test was developed, and the others may or may not have made themselves available to sit for the requisite 1-2 hour administration of such a test? If they did, are those scores available somewhere? J.R., Lakewood, CO
As to IQ, we will say two things. First, we're not so convinced it's the best way to measure things. Second, you are right that we don't have formal IQ test results for, well, pretty much any president. What we do have, if you are interested, is a study done by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton a few years back (before Obama and Trump) in which he endeavored to estimate the IQs of all the presidents based primarily on their writings and their public utterances. If you want to see the chart, it's on the seventh page of the linked PDF (which is page 516 of the journal in which it was published).
Anyhow, we weren't basing our judgment on that, but on other sorts of evidence, even if that evidence is less objective than an IQ test. There are the written words of these men, of course; read something penned by Jimmy Carter and then something penned by Warren Harding, and it will be clear who was more intellectually gifted (Hint: It wasn't the guy who thought "Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns nor perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed." sounded good). Beyond that, however, is the anecdotal evidence. For example, Thomas Jefferson—who knew a little something about brainpower—repeatedly noted that he was not impressed with Washington's intellectual heft. Or how about the story of the time that Bill Clinton invited Stephen Hawking to the White House for a briefing, didn't even seem to be paying attention as he searched through his desk for some paperwork (irritating the great scientist), and then fired off a series of questions worthy of a tenured professor at MIT. Hawking, who also knew a little something about brainpower, was bowled over, and told many people that Clinton was among the most brilliant people he had ever met.
I notice that Donald Trump is, through word and action, trying to appeal to Jewish voters. I also notice the Democrats are vulnerable on this front, especially if the meme "it's all about the Benjamins, baby" can get attached to generic Democrats. What is the largest percentage swing in Jewish votes Donald Trump can realistically gain between now and the 2020 election? From an Electoral College perspective, where would this make a difference in moving blue states to contested states and contested states to red states? S.C.P., Everson, WA
If Donald Trump really is trying to win over the Jewish vote, well, we can't exactly tell you how many voters he might pick up, but we can tell you that it's not likely to move the electoral needle. The states with the largest Jewish populations are, of course, California and New York. And they are so deep blue that it wouldn't matter if every Jewish person there jumped on the Trump bandwagon. Meanwhile, the swing states where Trump is most vulnerable generally have very few Jewish residents. For example, there are roughly 88,000 Jews in Michigan and 33,000 in Wisconsin. Given that some percentage of those folks can't vote (they are children, or are not citizens), and that others don't choose to vote, the number of potential votes available is pretty small.
The two swing states where a Jewish exodus to the GOP (see what we did there?) could potentially
matter are Pennsylvania (300,000 Jewish residents) and Florida (629,000). However, we stand by our
previously stated belief that Trump has little chance of actually making a dent on this front. And
we don't think that's what he's trying to do, anyhow. No, his pronouncements on Israel are meant to
cater to the evangelicals in his base and also to the Islamophobes (who are, quite often, one and
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