History will remember who it was that lost it.
We are in the grip of some magical thinking. The cascade of controversies, unforced errors, and erratic behaviors gumming up the works in Washington D.C. is a feature of the Trump presidency, not a bug. Some observers appear shocked that a candidate who ran on destabilizing the American political equilibrium has delivered instability. Now, with the GOP agenda in Congress stalled amid a suffocating barrage of scandals, some on the right are calling for the president to consider resigning. Or, at the very least, the vice president should consider resigning. Or maybe the Congress should remove the president. After all, something has to give. Or maybe not, say some unduly optimistic Capitol Hill staffers. With Trump tied up in his own web, maybe the real legislative work can begin unobstructed.
This all sounds like trying to bargain with fate. The window in which real legislative achievements could be secured is closing rapidly. Its closure would mark the end of the most promising moment for the GOP in modern history.
Candidate Trump was billed as the quintessential businessman; a no-nonsense type with exceptionally high standards, zero tolerance for excuse-making or buck-passing, and a near manic focus on the details. He alone could tackle the unwieldy congressional beast and make it work for The People. Writing in The Federalist, Kurt Couchman speculated bizarrely that Trump might take an interest in reining in the imperial presidency. His White House might help to curtail executive branch authority, identify unnecessary legislation still on the books, and even oversee the streamlining of Congress’s organizational structure. Clearly, the first step toward realizing this fantastical vision would have been for Donald Trump to take any interest at all in governance.
What the president has done instead is to throw up obstacles before the Congress. After much debate and one aborted attempt at a vote, the House finally passed an ObamaCare repeal bill on May 4. That version of a health care bill arrived at the Senate in bad odor. Having declared that the House version would not pass the upper chamber as written, “working groups” began crafting their own language. The speed with which the work was engaged reveals the urgency of the matter.
There “really is no deadline,” said Sen. John Cornyn. “We are just working toward getting 51 votes.” That would mean that the legislation the Senate considers would have to fall within the parameters and timeline necessary to pass it through the Budget Reconciliation process. By statute, that has to happen by mid-June before the window closes (reopening again in the autumn, when the 2018 campaign season will be in full swing, making tough votes on sweeping reform legislation an undesirable prospect). Tax reform is supposedly dependent upon the savings that would accrue from the repeal of ObamaCare, so that, too, will have to wait. Immigration reform, an infrastructure bill, an IRS reform bill, the border wall, passing a budget; this ambitious legislative agenda is already behind schedule. Now Trump may be derailing it entirely.
When Trump unexpectedly let FBI Director James Comey go, it compelled the U.S. Senate to drop what it was doing—including a health care markup and the reauthorization of a program that funds the FDA—to handle the fallout. The debris from that bombshell hasn’t finished settling over the political landscape. A revelation that Comey took copious notes on his meetings with Trump, including one alleging that he was probed about the investigation into former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and asked to “let this go,” has sent the Congress into a tizzy. Hearings will convene, Comey will be summoned to testify—as he surely wants—and Congress will be consumed by an investigation into this political scandal (to say nothing of the contentious hearings in the Senate over the confirmation of the next FBI director).
Add to this Donald Trump’s ill-conceived decision to take a meeting with two ranking Russian diplomats in the White House and it’s nothing but trouble. Looming above all of this is the prospect of impeachment (or the invocation of the 25th Amendment), which Republicans will resist until the minute the pressure on them becomes irresistible. They would calculate—accurately, in my view—that support for the GOP will crater if their party’s leader is subject to that kind of censure from his own members. For Republicans, the path of least resistance is to march sheepishly toward November 2018 standing behind their party’s titular head, come what may. By the time the Republican conference comes around to the notion that extraordinary remedies are necessary to get their agenda back on track, it will be too late.
The GOP is in the best political position it has seen in nearly 100 years, and the party enjoys a mandate to pursue serious conservative reforms. The election of a game show host to the presidency may have spoiled it all. If the last two weeks are any indication, Trump will continue to invite controversy and sow chaos, making the GOP’s life in Congress that much harder. In all likelihood, the Republican Moment is already lost. Pundits of the Right can bray about media bias, fake news, squishy moderate RINOs, and “deep state” subterfuge all they want, but posterity will record precisely who it was that lost it.
Trump May Have Already Lost the GOP Moment
Must-Reads from Magazine
Anger over health care clouds the left's judgment.
Nate Silver spoke for most of the liberal blogosphere when he objected to the mainstream media’s coverage of Senator John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
McCain appeared in the Capitol just days after he had a blood clot removed from above his left eye. Amid that process, doctors discovered that a particularly malignant form of brain cancer was responsible for the clot. Despite his condition and his recovery, McCain made his way back to Washington to vote on a motion to proceed with a debate over the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Following his critical vote, which allowed the motion to carry only after the vice president broke a tie, McCain gave a stirring address extolling the virtues of the republic and the Senate, while also castigating his congressional colleagues over their approach to the health-care reform process.
“Among younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter,” Silver began, “a lot of people are pointing out McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” Silver added, however, that more traditional reporting outlets in print and on television were far more awed by the remarks. They didn’t seem to recognize the inconsistency that so irritated the Twitter-verse.
“Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with the establishment media,” Silver wrote. “Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.”
The self-selected, cloistered, like-thinking population of professional cynics on political Twitter is a bad target for professional statistical analysts to critique. Moreover, this criticism is a value judgment founded not in rationality but pique.
McCain’s speech on the floor of the Senate was worthy of all the praise it received if only because not every political observer has yet abandoned basic human decency (a frailty that political Twitter discourages). McCain is by any definition an American hero who spent his life serving his country. On what may be his last speech to the nation from the upper chamber of Congress, the man deserves a hearing. Silver and his colleagues did not give him that.
McCain’s speech was mostly dedicated to the dysfunction of the body in which he serves. “When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’m not so sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today,” he said. “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”
McCain implored his colleagues to ignore the professional rabble-rousers who have made a career of sowing internecine discord. “To hell with them,” he said. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.” If this speech started to sound like an appeal to bipartisanship, that became explicit in the following sentence.
The senator said that the virtue of the American system is found in those features that stifle one-party governance. “Top-down” “parliamentary maneuvers” that abandon the process of regular order to govern without bipartisan consent have poisoned and radicalized the country. And to repeat Democratic mistakes by shutting the other party out of the process of reforming one-sixth of the American economy would be a mistake.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered,” McCain said. “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
Only ignorance of what a motion to proceed is or rage-induced blindness over the concept of repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead Silver or those for whom he speaks to make their claim. McCain’s vote to proceed with a debate is entirely consistent with regular order, to say nothing of his stated reverence for the process of deliberation in the Senate. His insistence that he would not support the health care bill as it exists, without major reforms (including a bipartisan buy-in and, likely, a return to the committee process), is also intellectually consistent.
I would add that it is clear that the activist left with whom Silver has lumped himself simply didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear the substance of McCain’s address. The senior senator from Arizona delivered a moving and eloquent statement of affection for the extraordinary history of the American republic. He painted a portrait of the United States as a fundamentally moral nation. He shared his love for the institutions that have made the American Constitution the world’s longest surviving governmental charter. And while he criticized American politics and the politicians who practice it, his reverence for the American system of government—to say nothing of the prosperity and security it has afforded the American people for nearly a quarter thousand years—was infectious.
The left dislikes that kind of sentimentality. They find it mawkish, at best; chauvinistic, at worst. But an American who has dedicated his life to his countrymen, often at great cost, is owed a little maudlin schmaltz, even if the popular Twitter clique does not share those sentiments. Not only was McCain’s vote consistent with his opinions, his speech was a moving tribute to the country he loves. It’s a shame, but a telling one, that the left didn’t hear any of it.
Donald Trump sees disloyalty even in his closest supporters.
In a performance that would have shocked sensibilities if they weren’t already flogged to the point of numbness, President Trump delivered a nostalgic, campaign-style stem-winder on Monday to a troop of boy scouts. The commander-in-chief meandered between crippling self-pity and gauche triumphalism; he moaned about his treatment by the “fake media,” praised himself for the scale of his Electoral College victory, and pondered aloud whether to dub the nation’s capital a “cesspool” or a “sewer.” Most illuminating in this manic display was an exposition on the virtues of fealty. “We could use some more loyalty; I will tell you that,” the president mused. These days, Trump seems fixated on treachery—among Republicans in Congress, among his Cabinet officials, and among his subordinates in the administration. His obsession may yet prove his undoing.
Donald Trump wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. That has become obvious, and not just because Trump’s new communications director (whose portfolio seems to consist of inflating the president’s ego in friendly media venues and purging the administration of experienced political professionals) admitted as much. Trump told the New York Times that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign was “very unfair” to him personally. The president has criticized his “beleaguered” attorney general for taking a “weak” position on prosecuting Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and investigating the Ukrainian government’s efforts to support the Clinton campaign.
This is all post hoc. Trump expressed no interest in re-litigating the charges against Hillary Clinton (which his former FBI director dismissed as beyond the scope of prosecution) in November of last year. The tenor of Trump’s agitation with his attorney general is proportional to the tempo of new revelations regarding the special counsel investigation into the president’s campaign, many of which were first revealed to the public cryptically in Trump’s own public pronouncements. As a self-described campaign operative, Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign’s activities, and he did so in February. The move reportedly irritated Trump at the time, but his outrage has boiled over only as the probe has begun to ensnare his family.
There is no small amount of absurdity in the fact that Jeff Sessions is perhaps the most loyal of Trump’s associates in Washington. His every action has been designed to shield Trump from the consequences of his own recklessness. When Donald Trump was still regarded by the majority of GOP officeholders as a liability and a usurper, Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse the rogue candidate. He was a stalwart campaign-trail surrogate and turned in a workmanlike performance at the Justice Department. When Trump fired his FBI director, Sessions refused to testify before Congress as to the nature of pertinent conversations between the president and his Cabinet. When privilege did not protect those conversations, Sessions insisted that he had simply forgotten many of the particulars.
Perhaps more than most, Sessions helped to make Donald Trump the president. As attorney general, the former senator has been effective in overseeing an increasingly restless Justice Department populated by people who chafe amid Trump’s regular attacks on them and their superiors. Even now, by declining to be goaded into resignation, Sessions is protecting the president. Trump seems to imagine that Session’s removal would clear the way for a new attorney general, who would be free to dismiss Robert Mueller and dissolve the special counsel’s office at will. But that wouldn’t happen. Trump would merely ignite a political firestorm and be faced with the task of finding another person to serve as a punching bag atop his least favorite agency.
This is all to say nothing of the fact that such a masochistic individual would have to be confirmed by Republicans in the Senate. In that process, lawmakers would surely seek assurances that the new attorney general would not touch the special counsel’s office. The Republican-led Congress is already conducting four of their own investigations into Trump’s campaign. The president’s extraordinary relationship with Russia has forced the GOP-led legislature to prepare a sanctions bill that robs the presidency of its freedom to administer those injunctions.
This all might seem like hostility, but it’s precisely the opposite; it’s guidance of a kind that a political novice with self-destructive impulses sorely needs. But this sort of protection, too, has led the president to wallow in melancholy and a sense of betrayal. “It’s very sad that Republicans do very little to protect their president,” he wrote of the incoming sanctions bill.
The kind of paranoia on display in Trump’s attacks on his most loyal partners in government is not unfamiliar. It is the kind that mistakes a desire for self-preservation—an instinct found in every successful political actor—as weakness and perfidy. Trump is fortunate enough to have surrounded himself with people devoted enough to him to know when his requests are inappropriate or when the president is better served by preserving the appearance of their independence. The fact that Trump finds even that kind of pantomimed insubordination intolerable is disturbing. This is a man who would sacrifice competence for sycophancy. In a less robust system of constitutional laws, they are the impulses of a leader who would corrupt the very government he manages. They still might.
In his attacks on Sessions—an early Trump supporter, a dedicated public servant, and a man with more goodwill among Republicans on Capitol Hill than the president may ever possess—Trump might have gone too far. Even Trump surrogates who are loath to criticize the president when he most deserves it are no longer being shy. Perhaps they know the bell will toll for them one day, or maybe they sense the danger of the moment. If past behavior is a guide, these defections won’t compel Trump to rethink his conduct. In fact, they might only reinforce in Trump the notion that he is surrounded by traitors.
I have written before about Steven Salaita. Once a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech, he resigned from that position on the strength of an offer from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign to serve in the American Indian Studies program. But in the summer of 2014, UIUC rescinded the offer, mainly over of a series of reprehensible Salaita tweets.
Let the tone of one exemplify many others: Concerning three kidnapped Israeli teens—there was already reason to believe they had been killed—Salaita opined, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” As I noted at the time, reasonable people could disagree about whether the offer should have been rescinded.
Ultimately, UIC paid $875,000 to make the case go away. But it was troubling that some on the left chose not only to defend Salaita’s academic freedom—as one might defend the freedom of the Westboro Baptist Church to say vile things—but also that they made him into a kind of hero. To this day, he remains an elected member of the National Council of the American Studies Association and is still from time to time invited to give lectures at prestigious places about how he is not allowed to speak.
He has been occupying a chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut. But that was not a tenured or tenure track position and, apparently, no one else will offer him a job. So he has decided to leave academia.
We will now be endlessly subjected to the claim that Salaita cannot find a job merely because, as he puts it, he has “disdain for settler colonialism.” The problem is, he says, that academia is a “bourgeois industry that reward self-importance and conformity.”
That is nonsense.
First, Steven Salaita’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, roughly that Zionism is the problem and that turning Israel into a pariah state is a prudent and moral way of dealing with it, may be foolish and morally obtuse. But it is hardly out of bounds in academia and well over a thousand academics have expressed public support for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many of them occupy tenured positions at prestigious colleges and universities and, at least as far as I can tell, pay no professional cost for holding the very same set of views Salaita wants us to think is too hot for academia to handle.
Second, in the field Salaita inhabits, a pro-BDS position is not a nonconformist position. It is famously the official line of the American Studies Association. The Association for Asian American Studies, which preceded the ASA in passing a boycott resolution, passed the resolution unanimously with nary an extension. Over four years ago, I observed that not one scholar in that field had publicly dissented. As far as I know, that remains the case today. Salaita himself, in spite of a thin scholarly record, was offered a job at UIUC, the flagship of the Illinois system, presumably on the strength of his activism. There is no doubt in my mind that were it not for his disgusting tweets, he would be happily tenured at U of I spouting the same line he was spouting before he got into trouble.
Of course, people who take radical positions, even if those positions are popular in their subfields, may find themselves under closer scrutiny than people who don’t, even at colleges and universities that are supposed to value unconventional thinking. That’s unfortunate, and should be decried. Indeed, the U of I’s defense of its decision to rescind Salaita’s offer in terms of civility was unconvincing and rightly earned the disdain of academic freedom organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors. People do sometimes lose their jobs over this kind of thing. But Salaita’s views are not what undid him. He was undone by his own callousness and recklessness, neither of which has he found any reason to regret.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Has Washington given up on Syria?
Last week, I wrote about one of the troublesome byproducts of the Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg: a ceasefire in southwestern Syria that Israel worries will entrench Iranian control of that area bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. The day after my article came out, the Washington Post reported on another troubling decision that President Trump has made vis a vis Syria: Ending a CIA program that had provided arms and training to anti-Assad forces.
Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, insisted that this decision was not a sop to Russia. But whether intended that way or not, that is the effect of this decision. The Post quoted a current U.S. official as saying: “This is a momentous decision. Putin won in Syria.” That seems indisputable. By stopping support for the anti-Assad forces, the U.S. is conceding that Bashar Assad—Russia and Iran’s client—will stay in power indefinitely.
The U.S. continues, of course, to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, the misleading name of the largely Kurdish YPG rebels that are besieging the Islamic State city of Raqqa. But the YPG has no interest in overthrowing Assad and no interest in governing Arab areas. Their objective is to set up a Kurdish state, Rojava, in northern Syria, and they have friendly relations both with Damascus and Tehran. There is no way that the Kurds can rule the majority of Syrian territory, which is populated by Arabs.
That will leave multiple factions to battle it out for control of most of Syria: the Iran-Assad-Russia axis (spearheaded by Hezbollah and other Iranian-created militias, and backed by Russian air power), the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is rumored to get support from Gulf states), and the Islamic State, which may be down at the moment but hardly out. These factions have their differences, but they are united on certain core essentials. All are rabidly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli, and all are violent jihadists, whether of the Shiite or Sunni persuasion.
It is not in America’s interest for any of these groups to control a substantial amount of Syrian territory. Yet President Trump has now made the puzzling decision to stop support for the only faction that could keep substantial swathes of Syria out of jihadist hands.
Granted, the moderates loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have been losing ground for years. That is largely the fault of President Barack Obama, who unwisely refused to heed the advice of the officials in his administration who advocated a vigorous train-and-assist program for non-jihadist rebels. Such a program would have had a much greater chance of working in earlier years. America’s failure to help the moderates has led many fighters to defect to more radical groups, and many of our allies have been killed or expelled.
But it would not be impossible to reverse these trends, and trying would be worthwhile. There are, after all, scores of military-age Syrian men who have fled the country as refugees. If the U.S. had the will to act, they could be trained, armed, and organized into an effective military force on Jordanian or Turkish soil and then sent with U.S. advisers and U.S. air support to secure Syrian territory. We currently provide that kind of aid to the Kurds, but we have cut off the Arab fighters, who are willing to risk their lives to fight against one of the biggest war criminals in the world—Bashar Assad, who is responsible for upwards of 400,000 deaths.
This decision makes little sense on strategic or moral grounds. Instead of abandoning the moderates, we should be doing more to buttress them. Even if it’s too late to overthrow Assad, who is more secure than ever since Russia entered the conflict in 2015, it might at least be possible to limit him to a few major cities and the Alawite heartland and prevent jihadists from taking control of most of the Syrian countryside. If we stop trying, we are conceding much of Syria to the Iran-Russia camp indefinitely. That is not in our interest, nor in that of our regional allies. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, will be very happy.
It's a duck.
Democrats are finally digging out of the wreckage the Obama years wrought, and are beginning to acknowledge the woes they visited upon themselves with their box-checking identity liberalism. So, yes, the opposition is moving forward in the Trump area, but toward what? Schizophrenia, apparently.
The party’s rebranding effort began in earnest last week when Democrats revealed a new slogan meant to evoke an old one: “A Better Deal.” Writing for the New York Times opinion page on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted the Democratic Party’s new agenda “is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum.” Any sentient political observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“First, we’re going to increase people’s pay,” Schumer wrote. “Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” He endorsed Bernie Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, a national paid family and sick leave program, and a hike of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. To reduce the cost of consumer goods, Democrats will pursue changes in the law to allow Congress to break up big firms with oppressive capriciousness.
When pressed on Sunday about what the “Better Deal” agenda may mean for health care, Schumer confessed it meant the most radical expansion of entitlement benefits in American history. “Medicare for people above 55 is on the table. A buy-in to Medicare is on the table. Buy-in to Medicaid is on the table,” the senator said. All options are available—including, apparently, a single-payer system in the form of voluntary Medicare-for-all—once Democrats “stabilize” ObamaCare’s insurance market.
Schumer admitted that the source of Democratic troubles in 2016 and since isn’t Moscow or former FBI Director James Comey; it’s that the electorate doesn’t know what values or beliefs his party represents. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy agreed. “Our failing historically has been to focus on very targeted demographic messages, cultural issues, rather than broad-based economic themes,” he insisted. So the Democratic Party’s message in 2018 will apparently be not just big government but behemoth government. And yet, the faintest warble of Schumer’s conscience compelled him to assure voters that big government isn’t the Democratic objective. Why?
Because the way for Democrats to win involves party members farther to the Right—that faction of Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. “The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] recognizes that the path to the majority is through the Blue Dogs,” asserted Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. She told Politico that she is in talks with at least 20 potential candidates vying to revive this endangered species. “We are able to convince folks who normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to vote for this Democrat.”
Before voters purged moderate House Democrats by voting for Republicans instead in 2010, their eventual disappearance was heralded as a great victory for the Progressive Monolith. “Democrats aren’t ideological enough,” wrote Ari Berman in an October 2010 New York Times op-ed. He argued that ideological homogeneity would make Democrats “more united and more productive.” In fact, the 2010 midterm elections marked the end of the legislative phase of Barack Obama’s presidency. Good call there.
The House’s Blue Dog Coalition is “dedicated to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines,” according to its mission statement. How those objectives comport with Schumer’s platform—cutting a 13-figure check for infrastructure, rampant economic interventionism, and a semi-single-payer system—is anyone’s guess. Democrats may plan on localizing individual races so as to shield their candidates from the party’s negatives, but that’s easier said than done. Just ask Jon Ossoff, who lost in a Georgia special election despite having done precisely this.
The party’s leaders seem aware that the kind of hyper-liberalism articulated in the “Better Deal” agenda is incompatible with the kind of “economic populism” that proposes individual frugality and prudence as well as solvent safety nets for those who need assistance. For all his faults, Trump was able to marry these two concepts in a way that appealed both to Republicans and enough swing Democrats to win the White House. Democrats appear to be appealing to centrists only at the point of a progressive bayonet. If Democratic candidates start winning again, it won’t be a result of their party’s coherent platform.