For the moment, try to put yourself in the position of a swing voter who will determine the course of the 2016 presidential election and the nation. You are frustrated with the direction in which the country is headed. You may not resent the gains social progressivism has made over the years, but you are concerned that they have come at the expense of the liberty of others. Those gains have come at a cost acutely felt by your friends and neighbors. Though you do not harbor any ill will towards them, those who benefit most from the advance of the liberal agenda are people who you may never meet and who, for you, are entirely hypothetical. The pace of the economic recovery has been engagingly unenergetic. The threat of a new contraction looms forever just over the horizon, even as you struggle to meet today’s financial burdens. Abroad, America has never looked more threatened and less respected by adversary and ally alike. It’s time for a change in direction, but toward what? Republicans have gone to great lengths to reestablish the trust of voters after George W. Bush’s second term and the 2007-2008 financial collapse sapped the public’s faith in the GOP’s governing program. Gradually, painstakingly, Republicans have won back the voters’ support and hold more elected offices today than they have for close to a century. But all that improvement threatens to be undone by the not inaccurate impression among voters that the GOP is in crisis — at war with itself — and that it may be unable to serve as a responsible governing party.
Contrary to pervasive but shallow consensus opinion among a prominent cast of political analysts, Barack Obama is not a popular president. While the Oval Office occupant is not as unpopular today as he has been in the recent past, that’s damnation by faint praise. “To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure,” The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost observed. “If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.” His anointed Democratic successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is also struggling. A recent Quinnipiac University survey of the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire revealed that Clinton’s favorability ratings had collapsed. Those findings were confirmed by NBC News/Marist University, which revealed that Clinton’s favorability among registered voters had sunk to -19 and -20% in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively. Nationally, according to Gallup, Clinton favorability rating is now underwater at 43 to 46 percent, “tilting her image negative and producing her worst net favorable score since December 2007.”
Clinton’s favorability ratings are no doubt a reflection of her personal shortcomings and distaste for the fact that she has such a limited regard for voters’ intelligence that she would repeatedly – compulsively — mislead them. But they are also a reflection of the country’s natural desire to move on from the Obama era after his two terms in the White House. Polls show that twice as many Americans believe the country is headed down the wrong track, and that has been the case consistently since the middle of 2010. From the expansion of same-sex marriage rights nationally to extended access to federally subsidized health insurance to the furling of the Confederate flag over public grounds; progressives have enjoyed a variety of social issues victories, and voters are not thrilled about it. “The poll finds all three issues are fairly divisive among the public at-large, with large shares seeing policy shift in a direction at odds with their views,” read a Washington Post report on a recent survey that found voters are uncomfortable with the direction “progress” has taken in recent years.
All this suggests that the 2016 political landscape should be fertile ground in which Republicans can sow the seeds of electoral victory. But the coming election will not merely be a referendum on the last eight years – it will also be an up or down vote on whether Republicans are ready to retake hold of the reins of government. At present, they don’t look like they are.
Over the weekend, an internecine squabble among Senate Republicans exploded into an outright row. A long-term highway funding bill, which has become an unattractive vehicle through which America’s political class rewards a variety of valued constituencies, became a proxy battlefield on which Republican officeholders waged a variety of fights. From renewing the expired Export-Import Bank, to defunding Planned Parenthood, to repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans went to war with one another over what the party’s various factions in Congress see as pressing priorities. In an effort to block debate over the legitimacy of federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adopted a favored tactic of his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, and used a procedural maneuver to prevent further amendments to and subsequent debate on that piece of legislation.
“What we saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over again was a simple lie,” presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of the majority leader last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.”
“We’re not here on some frolic or to pursue personal ambitions,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch shot back. “We must ensure that the pernicious trend of turning the Senate floor into a forum for advancing personal ambitions, for promoting political campaigns, or for enhancing fundraising activities comes to a stop.” Hatch added that Cruz’s conduct had been a “misuse of the Senate floor.”
In 2014, Republicans won a majority in the upper chamber of Congress just large enough to yield the party committee chairmanships and to block Democratic legislation from reaching the president’s desk, but not large enough to advance legislation of their own. But the Republican pitch to conservatives that increasingly rests on decisively winning the next election, always the next election, is starting to ring hollow. “Being a negative force is not nothing, and blocking bad policy is worthwhile,” The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote. “But when given the opportunity to put good policy into place, or to take steps to make such policy more feasible in the future, where is the Republican Party to be found?”
Nowhere, he argues. It’s an argument that resonates to an ever larger number of Republican base voters. “Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago,” the Pew Research Center revealed this week. Only two-thirds of self-identified Republicans view their party favorably, down from 86 percent in 2014. The GOP is viewed positively today by just 32 percent of the public compared to the Democratic Party’s 48 percent.
To some extent, this internal tension is healthy. Only a minority coalition is small enough to ensure that most of its members agree on specific policy proposals. But a Republican Party at war with itself does not look to the persuadable voter like a party that is capable of governing in the executive. The truly independent voters who determine the outcome of national elections don’t care about the Export-Import Bank or the parliamentary machinations that have so roiled conservatives. They care about whether or not they’re handing the levers of power to an undisciplined group of loose cannons and ideologues, and, to a marginally tuned in swing voter, that’s what the GOP looks like today. In concert with the spectacle that has become of the admittedly nascent Republican presidential primary race, it is only natural that voters would be asking themselves if the GOP should again be trusted with the White House.
Voters are ready to make a change. If history is any guide, they will swing in a more conservative direction. As was the case in 2013 when the GOP forced a showdown over ObamaCare that shut down the government, a saving grace for Republicans can be found in the happy fact that it remains an off year. Voters have time to make up their minds, and today’s fights will be forgotten well before the first votes are cast in 2016. If, however, the disunity that characterizes Republican intraparty politics today remains the party’s defining feature by next autumn, the public will be disinclined to reward the GOP with the presidency.
The Chaotic, Backbiting GOP Does Not Look Like a Governing Party
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Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.