Monday, July 31, 2017

What we learned when Putin kicked out US diplomats

Well, that was interesting.  Today, I'll return to one of the more vexing questions in US politics, without being able to answer it-- is Trump controlled by Putin?  After Congress passed a bill tying Trump's hands on Russian sanctions, with enough votes to over-ride a presidential veto, Putin responded by kicking a bunch of US diplomats out of Russia.  What does this mean?

Hard question.  We still don't really know the deal between Trump and Putin.  There is a lot that is suggestive, but nothing conclusive, and the latest round is compatible with both the story that Trump is free of influence, and the story that he is being blackmailed.

Suppose Putin has nothing on Trump.  This is pretty much how things would play out.  If Trump isn't being blackmailed, then everything we have seen between them recently is basically because Trump is just a dictator-worshipper.  He idolizes Putin personally because Putin does what Trump wishes he could do.  But, in the end, Trump will do what is in his own best interests, and without any control from Putin, that means flapping about whichever way the wind blows.  Congress passes a bill?  Fine.  Fuck Putin.  Too bad, Vlady.  OOOOOH!  You kicked out some diplomats!  I'm SOOOO SCARED!

Wait.  You mean North Korea is launching ICBMs?  Fuck.  OK, that's scary.  Um...  I thought everyone was supposed to be too scared of our bigly president to pull anything like that.  You mean that doesn't work?  Damn.  So much for that...*

Anyway, back to Russia.  It is easy to see how this sequence is compatible with the no-blackmail model.  What about the Trump-is-being-blackmailed hypothesis?  There, too, it is compatible.  It simply requires understanding that Putin is a) smart, and b) constrained.  Trump's (tiny) hands are tied here.  Presidents have a lot more authority in the international arena than in the domestic arena.  In matters of war, their powers are essentially unchecked, since Congress has basically abdicated all power.  Yes, the Constitution says that Congress, not the President declares war, but Congress is a body consisting of 535 spineless cowards who never want to take responsibility for anything.  Back when Obama was President, Assad crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons.  Apparently, hacking someone's guts out with a machete is totally cool, even when done on a mass scale (see Rwanda) but killing them with chemicals is unacceptable to this fuckin' country.  OOOOH!  CHEMICALS are SCAAARY!  Anyway, Obama was going to do something, but then Congress said, "not without our authorization!"  Obama said, "fine.  Hold a vote."  Congress freaked the fuck out.  If they voted no, then they were voting to let Assad continue.  They were being a bunch of anti-war hippy pussies.  If they voted yes, they would be on the hook for any bad thing that might happen (see Iraq).  So, after demanding that Obama not do anything without a vote, Congress refused to vote.

The effect of Congress taking itself out of the war powers business is to give complete power to the executive over war.

Diplomacy, though?  Not so much.  There, Trump's hands are tied, as Trump just learned because he entered this job thinking he knew all, but knowing precisely fuck-all.  If Congress is going to impose sanctions, and pass a bipartisan law that prevents the president from loosening them, Trump can't stop them.

And Putin, being much smarter than Trump, probably knows this.

So, what if Putin has blackmail material on Trump, but simply understands that Trump can't deliver on this?  There's no reason to expose your pawn if he is doing everything he can, but just doesn't have the power to get it done, but Putin would have to respond, diplomatically, or look weak on the international front.

Really, then, what just happened is compatible with either story.  Is Trump being blackmailed?  We still don't know.

If I had to guess at this point, here's what I would speculate.  All it would take to have something on Trump is the following.  Find some low-level person in an accounting office to get some of his financial records.  Trump would pay anything to keep those secret.  But, as I have written many times before, if you do have blackmail material on someone, as soon as you make it hostile, that person looks for ways to get out from under your thumb.  Trump is positively disposed towards Putin by general inclination, so Putin has no reason to use whatever he has, but I'd bet he has something.  Trump is just too crooked, and too stupid about his corruption for him to keep everything secret from Putin and the FSB.  But, you don't make a blackmail target your enemy unless you have to do so.  You keep that in your back pocket as a last resort, particularly when Trump is so obviously enamored of Putin.  He just couldn't deliver, with Congress breathing down his neck.  He may not be able to deliver for a while.  That could spell trouble for him.  If he is being blackmailed, Putin may not be very patient.

Of course, maybe Putin doesn't have anything.  We still don't really know, and even Mueller won't find that out.  Mueller will probably find out if Trump has active business interests in Russia, which is itself important, but he can't get access to the FSB.  This is still a total mess.

Yes, we are still stuck with a mystery of whether or not our President is controlled by Russia.  We really, seriously have to consider this.  This is our world.

*I'll revisit this later in reference to a series I did a while back called "Political science and craziness."

Monday morning blues: If you don't love blues, you hate America

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Personnel management in the White House

The Sessions mess isn't the only personnel drama going on in the White House, of course.  Remember all of that nonsense about how we should have a businessman in the White House because they know how to run things?

Yeah.  So, we now have The Mooch.  Anthony Scaramucci.

This really is serious, but not for the reasons the pearl-clutchers suggest.

Obviously, I don't give a rat's ass about Scaramucci's use of Germanic-rooted words.  Yes, he says words like, "cock."  Clutch those pearls!  I've ranted enough about this in the past that I won't do another full rant here, but I'll just point out the stupidity of being more bothered by that than by the Cain & Abel reference me made in describing his relationship with Reince Priebus.  Dude!  That story is about murder!  He got more flack for saying a Germanic-rooted word than tacitly threatening murder.  Something is very wrong with how this society deals with language.  But, I've ranted about this before, so I'll just move on now...

Anyway, the businessman-as-superhero notion has been floating around, particularly in Republican circles, for a long time.  It tends to go along with the Ayn Rand worship.  One of the things a businessman should be able to handle is personnel management.  Hire good people, create a good working environment, and good things happen.  That's how a business turns a profit.

Government isn't a business.  The job of government isn't to turn a profit.  If government did turn a profit, um, there'd be a problem.  I'd want a fuckin' refund on my damned taxes!  Working environment still matters, though, and while there are multiple models of a functional working environments, we obviously aren't seeing one.  If we were, we wouldn't be seeing the internecine warfare, constant leaks, etc.

Why not?  Because Trump never had to create a real, successful working environment in the business world either.  Remember that he wasn't really the head of a major, multinational corporation, or anything like that.  In fact, he inherited a lot of money from his father, and then lost it by being a fucking idiot.  Then, he made it back by going on tv and playing the role of an ostentatious rich guy.  His operation has always been based on nepotism.  Why are his kids his closest advisors?  Because he has always operated that way and he doesn't know any other way.  He never learned the skills.

In an interesting way, this leaves open the question of what would happen if a real businessperson were to become president.  What if, say, Jeff Bezos (to pick a name Trump would hate) became President?  Bezos clearly knows what he's doing.  He is a far smarter businessperson than Trump, and obviously knows how to construct an organization.  Would those skills really translate?  Trump's utter failure to manage his personnel tells us nothing because he was clearly destined to fail all along.

If I had to speculate, I'd guess that Bezos wouldn't do very well.  The structure of government is too different.  He'd do better than Trump, but that's a low bar.  At the end of the day, yes, the president needs to manage personnel and create an environment in which things happen non-chaotically, but the president operates within constraints that no CEO faces.  The checks and balances, which Trump still doesn't understand and still finds endlessly frustrating, are so fundamentally different from anything in the business world, and yet so central to the job of the presidency that the businessman-as-political-superhero notion still strikes me, and probably most other political scientists, as a bad joke.  Trump is failing abysmally, but he is the worst test of the model one can imagine, given that he is an incompetent moron.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Not strictly bluegrass, and they're actually Canadian, but I'll go with it for today.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Trump versus Sessions: What kind of a person is Jeff Sessions?

For all of the Obamacare repeal drama, I haven't had a chance to focus on the other drama this week, like the White House telenovela (wait 'til Trump finds out that's Spanish!).  Trump is trying to bully Jeff Sessions into quitting as AG so that he can appoint someone more pliant, who will stifle the Mueller investigation.  Earlier, I did a pair of posts (here and here) explaining that Trump really just needs to get it over with and pardon himself, but this is an interesting approach.  The flaw, strategically, is that even if he bullies Sessions into quitting (or fires him), and even if Rudy Giuliani, for example, takes over as AG and tries to muzzle Mueller, an underling could still accidentally uncover something.  If Trump just pardons himself now, he can shut down the investigation entirely.

Still, Trump's strategy here, and his conflict with Sessions, rests on an important question.  What kind of person is Sessions?

There is a great book about Eisenhower's Presidency called The Hidden-Hand Presidency, by Fred Greenstein.  A lot of political scientists, influenced by Richard Neustadt, underestimated Eisenhower as a President because he did things a little differently from Neustadt's model of an effective president-- FDR.

Neustadt was fond of a line from Truman, predicting Ike's troubles as President.  Ike, as a General, would, "sit there and say, 'do this, do that,' and nothing will happen.  Poor Ike.  It won't be a bit like the Army.  He'll find it very frustrating."  And, that's sort of how Neustadt thought about Eisenhower as President.  Unprepared for a different model of power.

According to Greenstein, though, Eisenhower was far more shrewd than that.  He was just subtle.  So, for example, Eisenhower would talk about "not engaging in personalities," but in fact, figure out exactly how to deal with any specific individual.

And that brings me to Donny Trump.  Trump comes from the business world.  He is accustomed to surrounding himself with sycophants who do everything he says, and where Ike somehow got the reputation for being not-that-bright, Eisenhower beat Hitler.  Trump really is a fuckin' idiot.  And that brings me to the question of whether or not he knows how to engage in personalities.

Trump knows one way to deal with people.  Bully them.  That's it.  He has one trick up his sleeve.  Push people around, expect them to do what he wants, and get frustrated when they don't.  Sound vaguely familiar?  Trump is trying to bully Sessions into stepping down as AG so that he can appoint a sycophantic replacement who will quash the Mueller investigation.  This strategy only works if Sessions can be bullied into stepping down.  It is the strategy he is using, only because it is the one strategy he knows.  So, what kind of person is Jeff Sessions, and how will he respond?  Let's go through some possibilities.

1)  Maybe Sessions is a cowardly, little weakling.  Trump assumes that everyone will shrivel under his scorn.  He may be right!  He got the GOP nomination and then unified the party behind him because there wasn't a single member of the Republican Party who really could stand up to him.  In the end, he called Ted Cruz's wife ugly and his father a co-conspirator in the Kennedy assassination, and Cruz wound up being brought to heel.  Remember what he did to Romney?  Rubio?  Sure, some of them stood up to him for a little while, but the GOP hasn't really shown itself to be brimming with people who have the fortitude to stand up to Trump's scorn.  They are the most pathetic bunch of weaklings I have ever seen, with no capacity or willingness to stand up to a bully who is obviously, himself, a pathetic weakling.  All he does is call people "third rate" and "loser."  That's not strength, and yet it was enough to crush an entire political party.  Why?  Because they really are weak-- the core of every insult he hurls at people.  Expose his tax returns to the light of day and he'll shrivel like a slug doused in salt, but the modern Republican Party is a bunch of cowardly lions, so it makes sense that they are led by Joffrey Lannister.  (Yes, I'm mixing references, but fuck it, it's Saturday morning).  Sessions really might shrivel up in a little ball, beg for mercy and resign.  Why?  He's a modern Republican.  Therefore, there is a high likelihood that he doesn't have the courage to stand up to Trump for the long haul.  No other modern Republican does.  He made a statement about Trump's comments being "hurtful."  To a bully, that's called "positive reinforcement."  Sessions might not be able to take it, in which case he quits.

2)  Maybe Sessions is a vindictive fuck.  Here's the thing about Trump.  He is a piece of shit, and while Sessions was an early loyalist, Trump has now decided that, by recusing himself on Russia and not devoting the entire DoJ to the personal protection of Donny J. Trump, none of that other loyalty matters.  At this point, Sessions has to hate Trump as a person.  And all he has to do to make Trump suffer is... not quit.  All he has to do is stay on the job and dare Trump to fire him.  If that's the kind of person Sessions is, then Trump is doing exactly the wrong thing.  He is strengthening Sessions's resolve to stay on the job and shield Mueller.  If this is the case, then maybe Sessions could have pulled some strings behind the scenes before the bullying started, but what Trump is doing now will just backfire.  If Sessions is a vindictive fuck, then Trump's "strategy" (or really, reflex) of bullying him is just 180 degrees from the right move.

3)  Maybe Sessions thinks of himself as a pure law-and-order guy.  If that's the case, then he took the job, and will see himself as honor-bound to keep doing it until fired.  Nothing Trump says or does will matter.  The recusal was because he thought he was supposed to do it.  This is the most positive reading of Sessions one can give, and if it is the case, then Trump's attempt to bully Sessions into quitting won't do anything except reveal to Sessions that the guy he used to respect is what the rest of us already knew him to be-- a piece of shit.  At the end of the day, Trump is still stuck with an AG who hates him until he fires said AG.

Unless Case 1 is correct, Trump will probably wind up firing Sessions out of frustration because there's no way little Donny gets through 3.5 years of this.  One of them is going to crack.  Trump is impatient, so unless Sessions is a shrinking violet, Sessions will probably get fired eventually.  I have a hard time seeing how he lasts four years.  For what it's worth, here's the betting on whether or not he makes it through August.

Now, Lindsey Graham puffed up his little, weakling chest and warned that Republicans wouldn't stand for it if Trump fired Sessions, but...  Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it.  Lindsey Graham also gave an impassioned speech about how horrible "skinny repeal" was.  And then he voted for it, so, you know, fuck that hypocritical little coward.  He's been acting like he's just about to finally stand up to Trump, any day now for a long time.  It never happens.

Will Sessions last four years?  Not likely.  So, is Sessions the kind of person to shrivel up and cry like a cowardly, little weakling (probably...)?  More importantly, then, is Trump patient enough to wait him out?  That... I don't know.  There's also the question of whether or not Trump loses focus.  He has the attention span of... SQUIRREL!  If Trump loses focus for too long, Sessions gets a reprieve anyway, and while that is playing out, the Mueller investigation proceeds, and whatever comes out of that, it's too late for Trump to undo by firing Sessions.

All in all, another Trump mess.

Remind me again, who thought it was a good idea to make this idiot President?  This is a joke, right?  Someone gave writers from The Onion control of all of my newspapers, just to fuck with my head, right?!  Admit it, that's what's going on.  Please!  Otherwise...

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Remember that one person determined the fate of healthcare in America

Right now, grand, system-level explanations are floating around for the failure of the GOP's Obamacare repeal efforts.  Protests worked!  Public opinion shifted!  Listen to my NARRATIVE!!!

I don't like narrative explanations for politics.  I'll just remind you of a simple fact.  The Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate.  They could lose two votes.  Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were always considered lost votes, at least by me if you read back through my posts.  When "skinny repeal" was introduced, I thought they might go along with it, but they were never necessary, and as moderates, they were locked out of the process anyway.  McConnell's strategy was to aim for 50 votes-- the "minimal winning coalition," following the strategy of William Riker (yes, that was his name) from The Theory of Political Coalitions.

He got 49.  Why?  Because ONE PERSON-- John McCain-- voted no.  One person.

John McCain, as I pointed out in my other post today, has a generally-undeserved reputation as a "maverick," but for the first time in over a decade last night/this morning, he earned it.  If ONE PERSON had acted differently, we'd be in a different position now.  Paul Ryan could have passed "skinny repeal" through the House, Trump could have signed it, and...  and...

Yeah.  So, don't give me any of that fucking bullshit about grand, system-level narratives for the failure of the GOP's repeal efforts.  One guy made one decision.  If he had acted differently, you'd be telling a different grand narrative.  That's why I hate grand narratives.  They are so easy to reverse-engineer around an outcome.

Skinny repeal was REALLY close to working.  I was convinced "repeal-and-replace" was dead until "skinny repeal" came along, and I'm not going to forget the sequence of my thoughts.  That's actually a benefit of keeping this blog.  Understand just how close the GOP came...  One person made one unexpected decision.  Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Assorted thoughts on the failure of "skinny repeal"

I have a lot of brief thoughts here, so rather than one big post, here's a bunch of little stuff.

1)  Skinny repeal failed.  The premise of skinny repeal was that the Senate should pass a horrendously stupid bill that nearly everyone knew was horrendously stupid (just ask Lindsey Graham!) so that the real bill would be written in the House-Senate conference committee.  There were 49 Republicans stupid and vile enough to vote for this proposal.  Only 3 were willing to vote against it, and 2 were no-votes all along anyway (Collins and Murkowski).  Yes, 49 out of 52 Republican Senators looked at this idea and said, "yeah, I'm cool with that."  49 out of 52.  Is it any wonder that this is the party that elected Donald Fucking Trump?

2)  I give John McCain a lot of shit.  He withstood five years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, and didn't break, but since then, he's basically been all about posturing.  He was caught up in the Keating 5 scandal, and then decided that the best way to resuscitate his career would be to become Mr. Campaign Finance Reform to convince a bunch of simple-minded journalists that he is clean and honest and maverick-y.  Most of the time, though, he goes along with the party.  That's why I always remind everyone about his involvement in the Keating 5.  Oh, and you know who else was involved?  John Glenn!  Your heroes suck!

Anyway, McCain gave that speech about hating the process Republicans had used on healthcare reform, and then voted yes on the motion to proceed.  That's typical McCain.  He postures, and then goes along with the party.  Trump bashes him and every other POW, and he still kowtows to that piece of fucking shit.  That's McCain.  Until about 2:00 AM this morning.  He made a speech about process, and voted in accordance.  He lived up to his rhetoric.  Well, then.

3)  That vote really was about process.  McCain isn't a moderate.  Collins is.  On the -1 to +1 NOMINATE scale, she's about dead center at 0.  McCain is at around .4, making him roughly as conservative as Clinton is liberal.  He didn't vote to kill this thing because he opposed it.  He showed a shred of integrity, unlike the 49 Republican Senators who said, "oh, fuck it, we've had 7 years, but let's write the bill in conference, and I'll vote for this horrible, stupid bill that Paul Ryan might pass based on the hope that he won't 'cuz.... uh.... yeah."  Let's talk about the phrase, "regular order."  It doesn't mean that much.  There is a book by the late Barbara Sinclair called Unorthodox Lawmaking.  Congress, though, has deviated so much from the Schoolhouse Rock model that orthodox lawmaking doesn't mean anything anymore.  Send a bill to committee.  Hold hearings.  Mark up the bill.  Vote, report the bill out of committee, etc.  That kind of thing just doesn't happen anymore anyway.  It has become normal for the minority party to complain that the majority party doesn't use regular order because deviations from regular order usually deprive the minority party of power.  Then, when the tables are turned, the new majority doesn't use regular order either.  And, when the new majority is run by Mitch McConnell, the new majority finds the most egregious violations possible, and implements those because he's Mitch McConnell.  And then, when that party is in the minority, they find the most extreme obstructionist tactics possible and use those because, again, he's Mitch McConnell.  Regardless, the majority never seems to have much interest in implementing "regular order."  McCain just killed "skinny repeal" as a plea to use something like regular order.  He agrees with the policy goals, but says he wants to use regular order.  Wow.

4)  Then again, McCain probably understands that "regular order" won't work.  McConnell turned to "skinny repeal" as a desperation maneuver.  Everything McConnell has done has been based on the idea-- probably the correct idea-- that regular order would lead to failure.  No real replacement bill could survive an open legislative debate and amendment process.  If McCain actually understands this, then he's being disingenuous, and killing the legislation in a way that looks sanctimonious.  Is that what's really going on?  I... don't know.  It's hard to say with him.  I don't tend to give McCain the benefit of the doubt because he sooooo looooooves to posture.  But, Republicans can't pass anything through regular order, so telling the Senate that they have to work through regular order to get his vote is the same thing as saying that this is dead.  If McCain really understands that, then we have to interpret his actions differently.

5)  Why did the GOP use a process driven by such secrecy, ludicrous speed, recklessness, etc.?  I think it has to do with the lies they told about 2009 and 2010.  In 2009 and 2010, the Democrats went through a long and drawn out process with lots and lots of public hearings, debate, mark-up, amendments, etc.  However, Republicans decided to tell a lot of lies about Obamacare, and not just the "death panel" lie.  Among the lies they told was the story that it was written secretly, in the dead of night, never shown to anyone, and passed with undue haste.  They told the lie so often that they probably convinced themselves it was true.  If you tell a lie often enough, it is easier to believe the lie than to accept that you are lying all the time.  So, they decided that turnabout was fair play, and used what they believed, falsely, were the tactics Democrats used, because they lied so often about what Democrats did.  This is one of the many dangers of lying all the time.

5)  Will the Republicans keep trying?  Quite possibly.  Skinny repeal was so insane, and so stupid and such a sign of desperation that we must accept that the GOP is simply a group of people frothing at the mouths (hi Rick Santorum!) any time they hear the word, "Obamacare," that they are incapable of rational, long-term strategic planning here.  After all, 49 out of 52 were willing to vote in favor of a bill they knew was stupid beyond belief so that the real bill could be written in the House-Senate conference committee, even though the House might just pass the idiotic fucking bill!

And so, one more time...

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Passing "skinny repeal" would be epically stupid, which doesn't mean it won't happen

As I wrote yesterday, I was caught off-guard by the fact that McConnell really is pushing "skinny repeal"-- a plan that is both capable of passing, and beyond stupid.  I thought I would just point out the stupidity trap itself here today.

One of three things is the case, if the Senate actually goes through with "skinny repeal."  Either a) this just sends everything to conference, and we have no idea what comes out of the House-Senate conference committee, b) the House, including the House Freedom Caucus, goes along with "skinny repeal," or c) the House and Senate remain at an impasse because the conference committee can't put together something that both chambers will accept.  Let's go through them.

a)  This is the phenomenal thing.  McConnell is saying, flat-out, that he is lying to everyone.  He is actually telling everyone that, if they vote for "skinny repeal," that's not what they are actually going to get.  The bill will just go to conference.  Here's the thing about "bait-and-switch."  It isn't supposed to work when the con artist tells you that he's doing it.  If someone tells you that he is pulling a bait-and-switch on you, and you still go along with it, you don't deserve to have your money.  McConnell is telling the Senate that he is pulling a bait-and-switch.  And it might work.  These people are too stupid for words.  Yes, they might fall for it.  I hate stupid people.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "didn't these people just reject every 'repeal-and-replace' plan imaginable?  Wouldn't any switch be voted down?"  Well, let me remind you of a little joke that I'm sure you have heard, but that people don't like to tell anymore because it is kind of politically incorrect.  So, you know, like, trigger-warning, or something.*  A well-dressed, clean-cut man walks into a bar with a briefcase full of cash.  He walks up to a woman having a drink, opens the brief case, and says, "would you have sex with me for $10 million?"  The woman, startled,  thinks about her bills, credit card debt, student loan debt, etc., and agrees.  The man then gets a phone call and says, "I'm sorry, but that was my accountant, and the $10 million is off.  How about $50?"  Horrified, the woman says, "NO!  What kind of a woman do you think I am?!"  The man responds, "we've already established that.  We're just haggling about the price."

50 Senators have already voted yes on the motion to proceed, including that hypocritical, sanctimonious grandstanding member of the Keating 5, John McCain (who really doesn't want anyone to remember the Keating 5!).  If at least 50 vote for skinny repeal too, then whatever switch McConnell pulls, he will have established what kind of Senators they are, Heller and Capito included (thank you, Dean, for saving me from some really uncomfortable politics there...).

b)  Maybe "skinny repeal" really happens.  In that case, we know what happens.  The health insurance death spiral, or at least spiking premiums combined with more and more counties facing no insurers in the individual markets.  Now, some Members of Congress are too fucking stupid to understand this.  Most of them are in the House.  See:  Gohmert, Louie.  Grassley?  He fuckin' knows.  Passing a bill that they know will seriously risk a death spiral?  This is smart, how?  In yesterday's post, I gave a Rube Goldberg-scheme of a way that this leads to full repeal, but this isn't a plan.  This is flailing.

c)  Best case scenario, this just leads nowhere.  So, the only way this turns out non-disastrously for the Senators who vote for "skinny repeal" is if negotiations between the House and Senate collapse.  Now, maybe that happens.  The Freedom Caucus is not exactly open to negotiation most of the time, so this comes down to 1) whether or not the Freedom Caucus accepts reality on what the Senate parliamentarian will allow, and 2) how thoroughly McConnell has established what kind of Senators Heller, Capito and the rest really are (see above).  That second obstacle is probably the lesser obstacle.  Still, we don't know what happens in conference, and trusting in scenario C to negate a yes vote on skinny repeal makes little sense.  In case you haven't noticed, Mitch McConnell would sacrifice his own children to Satan if it meant he could claim to have "repealed and replaced Obamacare."  House-Senate negotiations could very well fail, but voting yes in the hope that cross-chamber negotiations fail, given McConnell's determination is Stupid with a capital "S."

Unfortunately for the Senators who might understand this, they already passed up their free chance to vote yes on repeal.  Since the parliamentarian ruled the Senate's repeal-and-replace bill to be in violation of reconciliation rules, Republicans could have voted yes for it, subject to a 60-vote threshold rather than a 51-vote threshold, claimed that they did vote to repeal Obamacare, but the GOP just didn't have enough seats.  It was the Democrats' fault.  Now, though?  You see my point.

McConnell is playing with fire on "skinny repeal," and the stupidity of his caucus might burn things down.

*I'm pretty sure I first heard a version of this joke from one of my undergrad professors, but I choose not to name names...

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

I didn't think McConnell was this crazy: "Skinny repeal" CAN pass!

I've been reading back through my post-November posts on Obamacare repeal strategies, and most of them look a lot like this March critique of the House mess, in which I pointed out that the easiest thing to do was always small-bore stuff.  Repeal the medical device tax.  Repeal the employer mandate.  Call it a series of victories.

The Senate just barely managed to open debate yesterday, and "repeal-and-replace"already went down.  In my opinion, Republicans missed an opportunity there.  Anyone who wanted to cast a "repeal Obamacare" vote without consequence could have used the parliamentarian's declaration that they needed 60 votes to invoke cloture on McConnell's bill to say they voted yes on something, giving them a pass for any other no votes, but what's done is done.  Their loss...

Regardless, where we are now is that Mitch McConnell is playing with fire.  Nuclear fire.  The new proposal is "skinny repeal," which means repealing the medical device tax, the employer mandate (so far, so good) and... the individual mandate.  "Skinny repeal" can pass, and it is extremely dangerous.

In my original strategic proposition, I excluded the individual mandate because the idea of repealing the individual mandate while leaving in place the regulations requiring insurance companies not to discriminate on the basis of pre-existing conditions is absolutely fucking batshit crazy.  Insurance is a low-margin business.  That's a death spiral waiting to happen. If the healthy people pull out, the insurance companies can't make a profit, and they go under.  Or, they just pull out of the exchanges altogether before it happens, en masse.

Obamacare itself is an ideological bill motivated by the notion that the government has a redistributive role to play in the healthcare system.  You can oppose it on ideological grounds if you oppose Robin Hood-ism.  Obamacare puts the government's gun to people's heads and says, "pay up," as a mechanism to fund healthcare for the sick and the poor.  That's a moral tradeoff that not everyone wants to make.  That's about ideology.  Repealing the individual mandate without repealing the insurance regulations isn't about ideology.  It is insane and stupid and indefensible.  Some ideas are the realm of legitimate debate.  Others deserve nothing but scorn.  This is the latter.  And of course, this is hypocritical since we all know that the individual mandate was part of Romneycare, which came from the Heritage Foundation, and the GOP supported it until the Democrats did too.

I didn't originally think the GOP would push a repeal of the individual mandate without changes to the insurance regulations because it would be so insanely dangerous.  Yet, here we are.  McConnell is doing exactly that.  Holy shit.

And it can pass.  Why?  Because it will be really hard for anyone in the GOP Senate delegation to vote against it.  The problem is that the GOP has railed against the individual mandate-- itself intrinsically unpopular-- for so long and with such intensity that once you put it on the agenda, voting no will look really fishy.  I wouldn't be surprised if even Collins or Murkowski voted for "Skinny Repeal."  I just have no prediction here.  The pressure to vote yes will be intense.

Make no mistake: on policy grounds, this is probably the most dangerous bill the GOP has proposed.  This isn't ideology.  This is stupidity.  I did a series a little while back on the death of "classical conservatism," and unwillingness to consider unintended consequences, but the thing about this is that we know the consequences of "skinny repeal."  This is knowingly crashing the system.

Now, one could imagine a sequence in which "skinny repeal" causes the entire healthcare system to collapse, and the GOP uses that as an excuse to repeal the rest of Obamacare, but this doesn't look like an elaborate plan to me.  This looks like McConnell flailing around blindly for anything that can pass.  So, he has latched onto something that has been knowingly kept off the agenda precisely because putting it on the agenda alone is so dangerous.  Besides, intentionally crashing the healthcare system and expecting to remain in power is hardly a foolproof plan.

There is also the question of what happens when the House Freedom Caucus gets a look at "skinny repeal."  After all, McConnell is currently telling everyone in the Senate that it doesn't matter what they pass, because the whole point is to get to conference, but if that's the case, he is basically admitting that he is a shyster, and that nobody should trust him.  If the Freedom Caucus wants something bigger, the Senate is back in the same mess, and "repeal-and-replace" is probably dead again.

If the Freedom Caucus accepts reality, though?  I've said all along that small-bore stuff can pass.  I just never thought McConnell would be this crazy.  Small-bore doesn't mean harmless.  A tiny blood clot, in the wrong place, can kill you.  Holy shit.

I didn't think McConnell was this crazy.  He is.  He's doing this.  "Skinny repeal" really might pass, and it is probably the most dangerously stupid piece of legislation I have ever seen.  What next?  Are we going back on the gold standard?  I know, I know...  Don't joke, with this crowd of fuckwits.

Regardless, what are the chances of passage for "skinny repeal?"  I have no clue.  I wouldn't even hazard a guess.  McConnell's strategy all along has been secret negotiation, reveal the bill at the last minute and give nobody any time to think or respond.  It hasn't worked so far, but this one is really dangerous.  Once it gets to the floor, though, the best chance to defeat it will be the amendment process.  Keeping it "skinny" is what keeps it acceptable to the GOP, so once it gets loaded down with amendments, if it gets loaded down, the support collapses.  If people really want to defeat it, then, they'll vote for amendments so that support drips away.  Beyond that...  I just don't know.  This is beyond insane.  At the last minute, proposing a bill with no formal study that everyone with a brain knows will crash the system, all based on the premise that everyone should ignore its contents because everything will change in conference?  This is insane.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Doomed votes and this week's plans in the Senate

So, Mitch McConnell is apparently going to schedule some votes on healthcare, starting today.  I got a little, colorful... over the weekend in my description of how doomed the GOP's last attempt at a "repeal-and-replace" bill was after the Senate parliamentarian told McConnell that they couldn't use budget reconciliation, which means that we are entering this process with some uncertainty over what the GOP will be doing.  There is also the usual assortment of wackiness.  As you may recall, I have a certain fondness for the craziest and dumbest Members of Congress, and Blake Farenthold is whining that he'd challenge Susan Collins to a duel for blocking the GOP's repeal efforts if she weren't, ya' know, a chick.  (Does anyone remember this?)  Regardless, McConnell doesn't have the votes to pass anything.  He may have the votes to start debate today, but he can't pass anything.

So, some assorted comments.

1)  Good, old David Mayhew wrote a classic, from 1974.  Congress: The Electoral Connection.  Basically, electorally-motivated Members of Congress engage in three main types of behaviors: advertising (self-promotion that includes more than just running ads), credit-claiming (getting pork for your district) and position-taking.  That last one is the vital one here.  Do a lot of stuff that isn't actually about shaping policy, but instead is about taking a public position that will be electorally beneficial.  When the GOP could count on anti-Obamacare votes to be futile, they were happy to cast them.  Now, they're scared.  Plenty of people have commented on it, including, at one point, Sean Spicer!  McConnell wants people on the record when there are policy stakes based on the premise that past promises will constrain them, or at least shame them.  Note that those past promises aren't.  See, for example, Capito.  Why?  Because position-taking votes are bullshit.  Now that it matters, Senators are acting differently.  When policy is on the line, and Senators know it, they take that into consideration.  Should we really expect otherwise?

2)  Weird quirk of Senate rules:  Anyone who votes no on a bill can bring the bill up for a vote again.  So, Senate Majority Leaders will often vote no on bills they support because they don't have the votes now, but think they might later.  Watch what McConnell does.  Suppose he gets enough votes for a motion to proceed, but whatever bill there is goes down.  If he votes yes, he is admitting defeat because he isn't casting the vote that will allow him to bring the bill up for another vote later.  He is, instead, casting the "position-taking" vote, a la Mayhew.  On the other hand, if he votes no, he is casting the strategic vote that will allow him to try again later, thinking he might be able to get it done later.

3)  The thing about 2 is that most of the time, other actors understand Senate rules and don't get in a Majority Leader's face when they cast a strategic no vote to exploit that rule.  What happens, though, if our fucking idiot Tweeter-in-Chief sees it happen, doesn't understand it, tweets something about how McConnell is a traitor who should be dragged out into the street and flayed alive, and then won't back down once it is explained to him because Trump never backs down and always pretends to have understood everything, even when it is clear that he is just a fucking moron who reacts based on no knowledge whatsoever?  Just a thought....

4)  This is all pointless.  McConnell doesn't have the votes and he knows it.  Stop stepping on those rakes, Mitch!

Tuesday music: If you only listen to American music, you just suck

Crazy shit in Poland, right?  Adam Makowicz is a great jazz pianist.  He isn't Tatum, to whom he is sometimes compared, but the man can play.  I'm not a fan of Tomasz Stanko most of the time, but here, with Makowicz, I like what I hear.  (OK, so it's still jazz today, but who the fuck knows anything about Polish folk music?)

Monday, July 24, 2017

The rationality of self-pardoning

In yesterday's post, I argued that Trump's best move now is to pardon himself immediately.  Trump's people are now doing what they do, well, not best, but by default-- lying, and claiming that Trump isn't even thinking about the topic of pardoning himself, but come on.  He is.  He has simply decided not to do what I think is his best move.  There is a high likelihood that he will have to do it anyway as his last act in office.  If he does it now, he can shut down the Mueller investigation before Mueller finds whatever it is Trump is hiding, which is probably in his personal finances, where Mueller is now looking.  The trick is that it looks really bad.  So, let's go through the math!

Probability Trump is guilty of something:  G
Probability that Mueller finds enough evidence to convict:  C | G (notation for conditional probabilities)
U(proof of guilt vs. ambiguity)
Cost of early self-pardon:  P

So, four basic terms.  It may seem odd to include the first.  We don't know for certain whether or not Trump is being blackmailed by Russia, but doesn't he?  Um, maybe not.  Remember that a) he's fucking stupid, and b) because he's fucking stupid, he is easy to manipulate.  So, he really might not know whether or not he's guilty.  Actually, he might sincerely believe he is innocent of everything, so he might sincerely believe G=0, which will blow all of this math up, but, well, let's go through with it anyway.  Why?  It's what I do when I'm not just ranting.

C is sort of a measure of Mueller's competence as an investigator, combined with the efficacy of the legal system.  Personally, I think the legal system is fucking bullshit, but I'm a political scientist, not a lawyer.  (Hey, kids!  Don't be lawyers!)  Regardless, this combines the evidence that Mueller is likely to get with how a legal proceeding would work if it happened.  Remember, no legal proceeding will ever happen.  If Mueller ever actually found anything, or if any investigator ever found anything, Trump absolutely would pardon himself.  There is zero chance of Trump ever facing a trial for anything.  Presidents, in this country, are above the law, at least when they are as shameless as Trump and have a party that, contrary to Trump's latest tweet, will defend him against anything.  C is there because of the third term.

That third term is tricky.  It is a "utility function," in econo-jargon.  Economists translate outcomes into units of comparable value so that every dollar, every car, every computer, every cup of coffee etc. can be compared on the same scale.  Everything is converted to units of utility.  "Utils."  Yes, a "util."  How many "utils" is it worth for Trump not to be embarrassed?  Trump is all about status.  It is the only thing that really matters to him.  Here is a question that I sometimes pose, to demonstrate the basic shallowness of The Donald.  Would he rather be dirt-poor and have you think he is rich, or be rich and have you think he is dirt poor?  By that, I mean that his actual lifestyle would match his actual financial circumstances.  Eating out of dumpsters if poor, the whole deal.  You know he'd rather have you think he is rich, even if it means eating out of dumpsters, sleeping in a cardboard box etc.

Keeping that in mind about how image-conscious Trump is, what happens if Mueller gets the goods on Trump?  He immediately pardons himself, but Trump is humiliated, and Trump hates that.  That's what the third term is about.  On the other hand, it's still embarrassing to pardon himself early because it is basically an admission of guilt.  That's why his people are now denying that he is even thinking about it.  It's all about image.  I still say that has contained impact like every other Trump "scandal" because his party will cover for him, contrary to his latest bullshit tweet, but a self-pardon followed by shutting down the investigation is still a cost.

So, there's the deal.  By letting this thing go on, Trump is making the following gamble.  He is running the risk of getting caught (G*C), which is associated with something really bad, U(proof of guilt), rather than choosing to keep things at least somewhat ambiguous and paying a definite but small cost, P.

GC*U(proof of guilt)>U(ambiguity)-P

The problem is that I've left something out.  Did you notice?  And it's what Trump has been saying all along is the reason Mueller shouldn't look into his finances...  It's why he claims he won't release his taxes.  Mueller can and will find unrelated, embarrassing stuff.  There is no question about that.  It will come out, with probability 1.  Put certain embarrassment on the left-hand side of the inequality from unrelated aspects of the investigation (remember that Lewinsky had nothing to do with Whitewater) and this inequality can't be true anymore, even if Trump were certain of his own innocence.

Trump's best move now is to pardon himself immediately.  He won't, because he is reckless, arrogant and stupid, but that's why he is being investigated.  Of course, it didn't stop him from becoming President, so...

There is also the fact that Trump already admitted to firing Comey over the Russia investigation, which is clearly obstruction of justice to anyone who isn't an asshat lawyer, but like I said, Trump's a moron, and he really needs to pardon himself.

Monday morning blues: If you don't love blues, you hate America

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The smartest thing Trump can do is pardon himself and his flunkies... now

As a simple strategic proposition, Trump needs to pull the trigger on this.  Now.

Trump has already admitted to obstruction of justice on national tv.  Mueller is looking into his personal finances, which scares Trump to death.  There's Flynn, Don Jr....  There is precisely one way to make sure that Trump never faces any criminal charges.  Pardon himself (and his cronies) as his last act in office (since no charges can be brought against a sitting president, and no charges will be brought against his associates while he is in office anyway).  There is a high likelihood that Trump will do so.  This turns out better for him if he gets it over with now.

Keep in mind the basic pattern in presidential elections:  two, then two.  This is the motivating observation behind the Alan Abramowitz "Time for a Change" predictive model.  You know, the one that called 2016 correctly?  The one that's always right?  Even if Trump gets two terms, he'll probably be followed by a Democrat, who will be under intense pressure to keep the heat on Trump, but the way Trump's approval ratings look now (an important factor in the Abramowitz model), he may not make it to two.  A Democrat who beats him in 2020 on the basis of the Russia scandal won't do what Trump did with the "lock her up" thing because, unlike the email "scandal," this is real and major.  Trump will, in that case, need to pardon himself before being succeeded.  He won't be able to take the risk of facing charges.  Clinton had already been cleared by the DoJ.  Remember how Comey's handling of it was the original excuse for Trump to fire him?  Yeah, that won't be the case.  Trump will have to pardon himself, just to be safe.

If a pardon is forthcoming anyway, why wait?  The effects of pardoning himself now are twofold:  it stops Mueller dead in his tracks, and it creates another "scandal."

Let's start with Mueller.  Mueller can be fired, but problems ensue if an investigation continues.  There is always the risk that some lower-level schmuck accidentally does his job.  On the other hand, if everyone involved has already been pardoned, then there is nothing to investigate.  Trump really can shut down the investigation on the grounds that there is nothing to prosecute because everybody has been pardoned.  That is the surest way to prevent Mueller from digging up whatever it is Trump doesn't want him to find.

At that point, the only route to an investigation would be Congress.  A Republican Congress would never conduct a serious investigation, as we have seen, and even if the Democrats take Congress in the 2018 midterm-- even a single chamber would be enough to grant them subpoena powers-- all Trump would have to do is stonewall for two years, and that's it.  Don't kid yourself.  If Democrats take control of a chamber and start investigating, Trump won't hand over a single document.  Ever.  His people won't respond to a single subpoena.  Ever.  They will extend the claims of "executive privilege" beyond all historical precedent, and dare anyone to stop them.  The only thing that could ever stop Trump is impeachment, and even if Democrats had the will, they'd never get the votes for it.

That moves us to the second fold-- the "scandal" of pardoning himself.  Note the quotation marks.  In legal terms, yes, Trump can pardon himself.  The Constitution is a shitty document, and the framers fucked up on that one.  By not prohibiting it, they left it open.  The president can pardon himself, but doing so doesn't prevent impeachment, and like I've been saying, Congress won't impeach him.  It would still be a breach of norms, and basically an admission of guilt, in the same way that taking the 5th seems like an admission of guilt.  Now, in a trial, you can't convict based on the fact that someone took the 5th.  That's kind of the point.  But, it looks bad, and it would look bad for Trump to pardon himself.

But, then again, this is President Pussy-grabber, and he already directly admitted guilt to Lester Holt.  He will insist that he is doing it because the scandal is fake news, liberal conspiracy, blah, blah, blah.  And his entire party will stand with him to minimize the partisan damage.  If you want public opinion to move dramatically, you need all of the messages to move in one direction, as we learned from John Zaller, which is why I've been arguing (see, for example, here) that Trump's support won't drop that far simply because his party elites won't abandon him.  Ever.  Not even if he pardons himself.

And here's the catch.  If he pardons himself at the end of his term, then you've got a Marc Rich scenario.  Bill Clinton took a lot of flack for pardoning Marc Rich-- a campaign donor-- as a lame duck right after the 2000 election, before Dubya was inaugurated.  Even his own party wouldn't stand by him on that, and there would have been no reason to do so.  The earlier Trump pardons himself, the more he boxes the GOP into supporting the action.  And, the less that comes out before the pardon, the more they are locked into what they have already said-- that the scandal is nothing, parroting Trump's bullshit.

As long as the conflict over the pardon is partisan, then it's just another partisan squabble as far as the unwashed masses are concerned, and GOP elites will defend the action, making it seem like just more partisan bickering over a scandal that was, itself, also partisan bickering.

But, that doesn't work if Trump waits until after Mueller digs too far into Trump's finances and finds whatever it is Trump has been hiding.  There is always the possibility that Mueller finds something so bad that it brings the whole thing down.  Let's bring this into consideration.  Yes, let's consider the possibility that Trump is a Russian puppet.  He can't get financing from American banks because of his sleazy business practices, and Don Jr. has admitted to his dealings with the Russians.  What if he really is so tied into the Russians that he just has to do whatever Putin says, and Mueller finds so much Russian debt, combined with more direct contacts between Trump's people and FSB agents directly referencing that debt that this whole thing comes down?  There is a possibility of this going so far that the GOP can't maintain a unified front of support for Trump, and the way to prevent it from getting to that point is for Trump to pardon himself now.

The tradeoff is that, yes, this is ugly, and it could do at least a little damage to Trump's already low approval ratings.  Trump's ideal outcome is for Mueller to be too incompetent to find whatever it is Trump doesn't want him to find, and to recommend no charges.  But, that's a big gamble, and Trump's approval ratings have been hovering around and below 40% for a while at Gallup.  It is hard to see, short of a war (which I have been warning about), what brings those up, which could put 2020 out of reach anyway.  The smart move?  Pull the trigger on those pardons.  It is the most effective way for Trump to keep his secrets.

Of course, Trump has never been one to play it safe.  Still, there is no way in hell he ever faces criminal charges for anything.  If he thinks he will face charges, he will pardon himself, at least as his last act in office.  That depends on what comes from Mueller.  But, if it's going to happen anyway, he can reduce his pain a lot by just pardoning himself now.  That way, he has more justification for shutting down the investigations.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Senate parliamentarian performs unspeakable acts on corpse of GOP healthcare bill

Over, and over, and over again, I told you to keep an eye on the Senate parliamentarian because the Republicans' healthcare bill had some serious problems with the "Byrd Rule."  The Byrd Rule requires that any bill considered under reconciliation rules (and thereby immune to the filibuster) must be strictly budgetary.  The most obvious place I called foul was the GOP's substitute for the individual mandate, which blocked people from the exchanges if they had a lapse in coverage for too long.  Clearly not budgetary, but the GOP recognized that they needed something in place of the individual mandate.

Well, I don't know the laws about corpse desecration, but let's just say that if such laws exist, the Senate parliamentarian just broke all of them.  And while Trump is looking into presidential pardons for himself and his flunkies, I wouldn't count on a pardon for this...

The bill was dead when Lee and Moran jumped ship, and McConnell flailed by trying to resurrect the repeal-and-delay idiocy.  Hence, my "dead parrot" references.  But, you need to understand just how serious it is that the parliamentarian called foul on the lapsed coverage provision.

The GOP understands the necessity of the individual mandate.  It was, after all, their fucking idea.  They disowned it when it ran off and married a black guy, but deep down, they get it.  As a reminder, here's this...

The individual mandate was the Heritage Foundation's plan from 1994.  They get it.  The lapsed coverage provision is there for a reason.  And they know it.  They know they can't build a plan without either the individual mandate, or something regulatory aimed at the same objective.  And, if it is regulatory rather than budgetary, they now know the parliamentarian has some creepy corpse fetish, and will not only kill the bill, but do things to the body that will give you nightmares.

What does that mean?  It means the GOP has no options for a single repeal bill.  They can still do a series of minor bills, which I have been saying from the start was the smart thing to do, but a single repeal bill is off the table.  They can't use reconciliation because they need to either leave the mandate in place (a non-starter for the Freedom Caucus and the other hard-liners), or concoct a regulatory fix, which makes the bill ineligible for reconciliation.  In theory, they could use the nuclear option and over-rule the parliamentarian, but only if they have the votes to do that.  Collins and Murkowski?  No fucking way, and I doubt that Capito or Heller would go along with that either, particularly the way that piece of fucking shit, Trump, has been treating Heller.  So, they can't use reconciliation, and they don't have the votes to go nuclear.  That's it.  It's dead.  Dead, dead, dead.  Not mostly dead, just fucking dead.

Lesson:  Do not fuck with the Senate parliamentarian.  She (yes, she) is a fucking Reaver.

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

I haven't used the Drive-By Truckers in a while...  (I debated one of their influences, Jay Farrar's "Dead Promises," but really, it's time for the Truckers)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Why it's different in the Senate

I have been making "dead parrot" references when describing the GOP's "repeal" bills in the Senate, but as I keep reading, the retort is that the same was said in the House, and then the House passed a bill.  Well, yes, but the Senate is different.  Let's go through the issues here.

1)  Back in March, before the House originally forced Ryan to pull the first bill, I posted this.  In it, I argued that the House moderates had every incentive to help the House pass a bill based on the presumption that it would fail in the Senate, so they had nothing to worry about.  (I also referenced the parrot sketch.)  So, my point when analyzing the House originally was that they should have been expected to pass the bill, with House moderates trusting the Senate to kill the whole thing.  So, don't give me this, "the bill was declared dead in the House" crap.  I originally expected it to pass the House precisely because the House moderates could trust it to die in the Senate.  Then, in a later post, I pointed out that if they had that much difficulty in the House, the Senate was going to be damn-near impossible (with references to bluegrass, 'cuz bluegrass is awesome).

2)  Senate leaders have fewer disciplinary tools.  This is just a basic function of how the chambers work.  Party leadership in the House asserts stronger control over committee assignments, who gets to offer amendments to bills, and all that good stuff.  In the Senate?  Not so much.  McConnell just doesn't have any options other than offering up pork, and there's a limit to what he can offer.  Cross-chamber rules matter.  Discipline in the Senate is always more difficult to maintain.  Again, if it was as difficult as it was in the House, the Senate was going to be a Heraclean task.  (I'm going with the Greek because I'm pretentious, and the spell-checker in this thing doesn't like it.  I should lecture it about how the Greeks came first.  Also, "quixotic" is pronounced, "keehotic.")

3)  Susan Collins is definitely a lost cause, and there's nothing anyone can do to threaten Lisa Murkowski.  She lost a primary challenge in 2010 to "Tea Party" candidate, Joe Miller.  She didn't step aside.  She ran as an independent, write-in candidate, because it was too late to get her name on the ballot.  There were questions about whether a vote would count if someone mis-spelled her name (as, for example, "Merkowksi").  Without even having her fucking name on the ballot, having just lost a primary, she still kept her seat.  If someone wants to threaten to primary her for stopping the GOP's repeal efforts, do you think that will scare her?  Oh, and she isn't even up again until 2022 anyway.  That's why McConnell was just trying to buy her off, but while he was focused on trying to buy off Murkowski, Lee and Moran bolted, which kind of makes the point.  When you have no stick and limited carrots, you're kind of screwed.  In the House?  If it gets too bad, just threaten to take away people's committee assignments, etc., and at least you have something.  Some of them are still afraid of primaries.  But, Collins is probably running for Maine Governor, and Murkowski is immune to threats.  There's no massaging either of those points.  And, every time McConnell tries to offer Murkowski something, he pisses off the conservatives.

4)  I've said, over and over again, watch Dean Heller.  Heller let Lee and Moran kill the "repeal-and-replace" bill, and he let Capito kill the "repeal-and-delay" vote because he's trying to thread a needle here.  Here's the thing, though.  That group that ran ads against him can't take those ads back.  An independent group ran a couple of ads against Heller for not being sufficiently anti-Obamacare.  Threats aren't a good way to deal with Senators, so McConnell and other leaders told the group to pull the ads, and the ads were pulled.  Then, at that surreal GOP Senate meet-and-greet with Trump, Trump decided to needle Heller.  Why?  Because Trump can't help but be a fucking asshole.  Wrong move.  This all pushes Heller away.  And what's done is done.  Can Heller be brought back?  That's not easy.

Now remember, there was always an easier way.  If you go back to what I've been saying since the beginning of this mess, the GOP has always had an easier option:  piecemeal bills.  Repeal the medical device tax.  Repeal the employer mandate, etc.  As pressure builds, they may actually turn to this option, or something like it.  But, Collins and Murkowski are lost causes, and everything the GOP is doing puts Heller further out of reach, and Capito doesn't look like she is playing along either.

And as I said in March, I expected the House to pass something precisely because the House moderates could trust the Senate to kill it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Presidential agenda-setting and presidential stupidity

In yesterday's post, I referred to Mitch McConnell's attempt to return to the "repeal-and-delay" strategy as an attempt to sell a dead parrot, like Michael Palin in Monty Python.  Let's just watch that whole sketch, shall we?

Today, we are all an exasperated John Cleese as Donald Trump tries to tell us that repeal-and-replace isn't dead, it's just sleeping, has lovely plumage, etc.

Yesterday's meeting was just surreal, but rather than comment on the meeting itself, I'll comment on the political science implications.

Presidents have few legislative powers.  They have the veto, but mostly they have the informal power to set the agenda broadly.  When presidents talk about an issue, that is the issue that Congress addresses, generally.  See, for example, the work of George Edwards (I often assign a nice little piece he did with Andrew Barrett in an edited volume called Polarized Politics).  If a president tries to get Congress to focus on a set of issues, those are the issues that Congress will address, all other things being equal, particularly if the president's party controls Congress.  That doesn't mean Congress will pass anything-- it just means that is how they will focus.

So, a couple of things to consider.  First, can Trump focus?  The man is not known for his ability to focus.  After all, he flips back and forth from day to day on whether he is going to keep working on healthcare or try to sabotage it.  That's not a good way to motivate Congress...  What do we expect?  This is Trump-- the most incompetent person ever to occupy the Oval Office.  Second, given that Republicans' healthcare efforts are a dead parrot, what do they sacrifice by continuing to focus on healthcare rather than, say, taxes, as Paul Ryan says the House will now start to address?  Keep in mind, the chances of true tax reform are zero, but they can get tax cuts done.  I'll come back to that, but this is important, given time constraints.  It is July.  The midterm election is in 16 months.  The clock is ticking.  Finally, even if Trump tries to get Congress to keep working on healthcare because he is embarrassed about losing, will they abide, or shut him down, further embarrassing him?  Some in the Senate clearly see what is going on, but the fact that McConnell dredged back up the repeal-and-delay idea shows that there's some serious brain atrophy in the party.

Anyway, those are just some questions to keep in mind.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where we go from here on healthcare

After McConnell's repeal-and-replace plan failed, and then he hilariously tried to sell that dead parrot of a "repeal-and-delay" stunt (which collapsed within hours after Collins, Murkowski and Capito told him to go fuck himself), where do we go from here?  There are two paths.

1)  Fix the law
Yes, Obamacare is screwed up.  As written, there was nothing in place for what happens when every insurer pulls out of a market, for example, and we have a bunch of counties with nobody selling insurance, combined with a mandate to buy insurance.  That's... not good.  There are other problems too, but that one is the biggest.  The "risk corridors" are also a problem.  Those would be the policies intended to transfer money to the insurers who, through bad luck, happen to get sicker pools of customers.  There are plenty of problems in the law.  Since the Republicans are not going to repeal it, the statutory problems kind of should be addressed.  The problem is that this needs to be bipartisan because of... the Freedom Caucus.  This can't be done by the Republicans alone because the Freedom Caucus and others will oppose any fix.  In the Senate, Rand Paul and the rest of the drama club will oppose any fix.  In fact, most of the GOP will oppose "fixing" Obamacare because it will mean "collaborating."  They have spent so much time decrying Obamacare as an apocalyptic nightmare that they have made this option almost unthinkable.  In the Senate, Collins, Murkowski, Capito, Heller, sure.  They can go along with this, as long as McConnnell lets it happen, but McConnell tried to revive "repeal-and-delay."  Will he really go along with it?  That brings us to...

2)  Sabotage
There are actually three GOP options for sabotage.  First, do nothing.  The holes in the existing law are a problem.  How big will they grow?  We don't know.  The "Obamacare is in a death spiral" line is almost certainly bullshit, but there are real problems, some of which are growing.  Each time another county sees its last insurer pull out, the problems get bigger.  Second, at the state level, governors and state legislatures have plenty of sabotage options.  They control state exchanges, after all.  However, the most dangerous is Trump himself, and he has made noises indicating a desire to engage in administrative sabotage.  He has the option to do something extraordinarily dangerous.  Those risk corridors?  He can basically cut off payments to insurers at the federal level because of a stupid mistake in how the law was written (a sort of a typo, which is actually the subject of a lawsuit).  If he shuts down guarantees to insurers, or tells the IRS to stop enforcing the individual mandate, or something like that, we start to see an absolute disaster.

The real danger, then, is Trump.  He likes to say that sabotage will force Democrats to give him concessions.  No.  It won't.  He's just incredibly fucking stupid and vindictive.  If he engages in sabotage, here's what happens:  the healthcare system tanks, and in the next election, the president takes the blame.  He is already historically unpopular.  Gallup's daily tracking has him at 39% right now.  That's not going up, and people attribute credit or blame to the president for national conditions.  Midterms go against the party of the president anyway, except under extraordinary circumstances.  Yes, Trump was unpopular during 2016.  How did he win?  The Democrats had won the two previous elections, and James Comey decided he didn't want Clinton in office.  Neither of those will save his party in 2018, particularly if he decides to sabotage the healthcare system.

Does that mean he'll do the sane thing?  I wouldn't bet on it.  Trump is stupid and vindictive.  He just lost, "bigly."  He needs to enact vengeance, and rationality has never been his strong suit.

The only thing that would save him from that midterm disaster if he sabotages the healthcare system?  A war.  I'm not joking about this.  We are entering extremely dangerous territory now.  Here is a serious possibility to consider:  Trump may lash out by sabotaging the healthcare system, and then start a war to try to salvage public opinion.  How likely is this?  I have no idea.  This is about trying to predict Trump-- a psychopathic idiot child.  But, even Mitch McConnell has been driven so crazy that he tried to revive "repeal-and-delay."  Rationality is out the window here.  I have no idea what's going to happen, and that's scary.

On doing the same thing and expecting different results (GOP healthcare edition)

Just a quick comment here, but at the end of yesterday's post, I speculated about the GOP's willingness to keep stepping on the healthcare rake, like Sideshow Bob, and within hours, McConnell-- normally the smartest tactician in the GOP-- tried to revive the "repeal-and-delay" strategy, which was shot down at the beginning of the year, only to have it shot down within hours by Collins, Murkowski and Capito.  Ouch!  Those damned rakes!

Anyway, there's the old cliche that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.  The quote is often attributed to Einstein, but the actual origins are difficult to trace.  My old grad school advisor used to say, "famous sayings migrate into famous mouths."  I have, on occasion, tried to see if he stole that from anyone and the only name that pops up is his (Nelson Polsby).  Regardless, it is worth pointing out that in quantum mechanics, you actually can do something over and over again, and get different results, and Einstein fucking hated that.  Drove him kinda crazy, one might even say...

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On not being the one to kill repeal-and-replace

I suspect I'll keep writing about how Republicans failed, again, with "repeal-and-replace," so I will try to keep this post relatively focused.

Susan Collins and Rand Paul announced their immediate opposition to McConnell's bill, leaving no more room for no-votes.  Once Rand Paul's fellow drama-clubber, Mike Lee, and Jerry Moran announced their opposition, that was it.  I'll take a little bit of credit for my line in that post about how the other members of the drama club would want to "get in on that sweet posturing action" with Rand Paul.  Lee, who co-authored the plan with Cruz, jumped ship, and Ron Johnson, the fourth member of the drama club, was openly musing about leaving Cruz as the only drama club member supporting the bill.  The thing is, Lee couldn't do it alone.  He needed someone to take the plunge with him.  A buddy-system, if you will...

He found Jerry Moran.  Apparently Johnson was still on the fence.  That buddy-system was important.  Why?  Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.  You don't remember her.  Anyone in Congress does, or at least, they know the tale.  Back in 1993, she cast the "pivotal" vote for Clinton's 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (the Clinton tax increases).  It was an unpopular bill, and she had promised to vote no, but with a lot of party pressure, she changed her mind.  As she cast her vote, there were taunts and chants on the House floor.  Then, she lost her first and only re-election campaign in the 1994 Republican wave.  Being pivotal can suck.  Lee didn't want to be pivotal.  He didn't want to support the bill because he's a drama clubber.  He saw it going down, and there's no percentage in supporting a losing bill, particularly when your political identity is wrapped up in a combination of ideological extremism and opposing your party leadership/establishment.  But, he didn't want to be the pivotal voter.

Now, he wouldn't have been pivotal.  That was a difference.  Mezvinsky was the last vote in '93, and nobody has voted yet.  Once Lee announced his opposition, others would have followed.  But, Lee would have been remembered as the guy who killed the Republicans' goal of repealing Obamacare, and he didn't want that on him.  He needed cover.  He needed a buddy.  He needed... Jerry Moran.  If two did it at once, then neither one of them did it alone.  Instead, they simultaneously demonstrated that McConnell had failed.  See?  If one guy says no, that guy killed the Republican dream, but if two do it, then McConnell didn't get it done.  That's the difference.  It is about shifting responsibility.

In game theory, this is about the difference between sequential moves and simultaneous moves.  "Responsibility" is attributed more to the first person to cross the threshold of the 51st announcement of an intended no vote, even if there would wind up being more.  Is that, in some moral/ethical/whatever sense, right?  Doesn't matter.  It is probably an accurate assessment of how many people react, and Lee had to plan accordingly.  So, he did.  This would have been different if everything had been done on a simultaneous ballot.  Sequence wouldn't have mattered.  What would have happened?  Harder question...  Regardless, Lee used the buddy system to protect himself from the charge that he is the guy who killed the Republican dream.  He didn't.  Without Moran, he would have been accused of it, even though he would have been no more responsible for it than, say, Collins, though.  Funny how that works.

A lot more to come, because there is so much more to unpack here.  But, I'll leave you today with one more thought.  I'm not 100% convinced that the GOP is done stepping on the healthcare rake...

Tuesday music: If you only listen to American music, you just suck

Not a nation-based theme, but this just seems appropriate...

Monday, July 17, 2017

Promises to "repeal-and-replace" Obamacare

As Republicans' "repeal-and-replace" efforts stall out, yet again, it is worth taking some time to point out some of the small-d democratic issues involved here.

Political science buzz-word alert:  responsiveness.  It means having policy changes respond to public opinion.  When the ACA passed, here's the question.  Was that responsive or not?  At the surface level, no.  "Obamacare" was not popular.  Some of that was branding.  Once you put the name, "Obamacare" on it, it became unpopular.  Then again, there were three primary aspects to the policy: regulation of insurance companies to prevent discrimination on the basis of "pre-existing conditions," subsidies, and the mandate.  The first two were popular.  The third was unpopular.  Taken together, were they collectively unpopular because of the balance between the three, or because of the name, "Obamacare?"  The only way to tell would be to walk people through the healthcare economics of the bill, and ask them, after a long explanation, what they thought.  The problem is that most Americans have the attention span of a puppy with attention deficit disorder, and can't focus on anything longer than... SQUIRREL!  (I haven't even seen that, but I know the reference.  Hey, I did a modern reference!).  Without the ability to walk some poor schlub through the mechanics of healthcare reform, we can never know what people think of the tradeoffs, so we are left with the fact that, when Obamacare passed, it was unpopular.

And, now it is slightly net popular, with Republicans in a bind.  They promised for seven years to repeal Obamacare, and now, Obamacare is net popular, and their bills, in each form, are far more unpopular than Obamacare ever was.

That's actually kind of an interesting bind.  You have a critical campaign promise, made repeatedly over seven years that, if broken, makes you pretty small-d undemocratic.  On the other hand, all of your bills are very unpopular and the thing that you are trying to repeal is now net-popular.  Responsiveness, anyone?

There isn't actually a solution here.  Let Obamacare stand, and you are breaking a central campaign promise.  Repeal it, and you are doing something extremely unpopular.  This is, of course, something that Republicans understood about the necessity, from their perspective, of stopping it before it went into effect.  Once people start benefiting from a program, you can't take those benefits away, or at least it is exceedingly difficult to do so.  Prior to Obamacare going into effect, it was unpopular, and Republicans, had they been in a political position to do so, could have repealed it, and they would have been living up to a campaign promise by repealing an unpopular law.  Small-d democracy in action.  Now, they're trapped.

Monday morning blues: If you don't love blues, you hate America

Sunday, July 16, 2017

How the Senate MIGHT pass a healthcare bill

Back to your normally-scheduled national politics...

We are now starting to see the contours of Mitch McConnell's plan to pass a "repeal-and-replace" bill.  The short version?  Hope that Lisa Murkowski, Dean Heller and the other holdouts are too goldfish-brained to remember what happened to Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu in 2010.

I've been through this before, but here's the quick version.  In 2010, Democrats had 60 seats, and they needed all 60 to invoke cloture.  They weren't using budget reconciliation because they wanted regulatory changes in addition to fiscal policy changes.  (Republicans are trying to figure out how to lie to the parliamentarian and claim that regulatory changes are just budgetary changes, but that's another matter...).  Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu represented Nebraska and Louisiana respectively, and they were appropriately not that liberal.  Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid needed their votes.  He basically pulled up to their Senate offices with dump-trucks of money for their states, called colloquially the "cornhusker kickback" and the "Louisiana purchase."  With special, little pots of money just for Nebraska and Louisiana, Nelson and Landrieu were bought off, and voted yes on the ACA.  The ACA passed the Senate with 60 votes.  Done deal.  Then, crazy shit happened.  Ted Kennedy died, and a Republican won a special election to replace him.  Before the House and Senate versions were reconciled.  The only way Democrats could get a bill signed into law was for the House to pass the Senate's unamended bill.  The House did so, only under the condition that afterwards, both chambers pass a "budget reconciliation" bill that stripped out the cornhusker kickback and the Louisiana purchase, and if Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu didn't like it, tough shit.  The budget reconciliation bill didn't need 60 votes.  That was the point.  59 would be fine.  So would 57.  So, if Nelson and Landrieu voted no along with Scott Brown, leaving only 57 for the reconciliation bill, so what?  They only needed 51 for that one.  So, Nelson and Landrieu voted yes on the ACA, and got the shaft.

Mitch McConnell is now offering Lisa Murkowski a big pot of money for Alaska.  The "Kodiak Kickback," some are calling it!  McConnell has 52 seats.  He needs 50 votes, and Susan Collins and Rand Paul have already said no.  He can't lose any more votes.  If Murkowski says no, that's it.  So, he's pulling his dump-truck of money up to Lisa Murkowski's office and offering everything he can muster.  Basically, funds to help defray the costs of high premiums in an absurdly expensive state.  Similar attempts will be made with Capito, Heller and anyone else who waffles.

Anyone who takes the deal is a moron with the memory of a goldfish.  The deal that McConnell offers ain't worth the paper it's printed on.  It wouldn't be taken away in precisely the same manner as the cornhusker kickback or the Louisiana purchase.  In fact, it can't be.  Count the votes.  Lower the threshold below 50, and you no longer have a majority, so there's no post-BCRA budget reconciliation bill (BCRA is already a budget reconciliation bill), but the deal would still have to survive the normal House-Senate reconciliation process (sorry about the multiple meanings of the word, "reconciliation"), and even if it did that, it would then have to survive the normal budget and appropriations process.  The Freedom Caucus will be gunning for that money the second the ink dries.  Could the deal be stable?  Sure.  Should Murkowski or anyone else trust that it will be stable?  Fuck no.

Will Murkowski take the deal?  Will Heller or Capito take a similar deal?  I don't know.  I'd bet against it for Murkowski on the grounds that she is ideologically close to Collins, and therefore probably really just doesn't like the bill.  Nelson and Landrieu were at least ideologically more sympathetic to the ACA.  Still, at this point, nothing is really off the table.  McConnell's resources are limited, though, and he may not have enough to buy off Murkowski, Heller and Capito, and he would need to buy off all three to make this thing work.  That may be the biggest obstacle.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

The math is a harsh mistress: vote counting on repeal-and-replace

Get it?  No?  Never mind.

McConnell has unveiled yet another attempt at a "repeal-and-replace" bill, and it has some interesting mathematical properties already.  Immediately, Collins and Paul said they were "no" votes.  That creates two fascinating issues.

First, I've been calling Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson "the drama club," based on the presumption that they would demand changes and then vote yes.  They have to posture about who is the most conservative, but I didn't think they would sink the bill in the end.  Cruz and Lee have put together an amendment to bifurcate the market into one set of plans that meet the regulatory requirements of Obamacare, and another set of plans that don't.  Johnson has been quiet, but he'll probably go along, but Rand Paul has decided to out-conservative the drama club by saying that the "Cruz amendment" is squishy liberalism, and not conservative enough.  Damn!  That's some hardcore Stanislavski drama right there!

Collins...  No shock there.  I've been saying all along that her vote was un-gettable.  Notice who hasn't come out against the bill?  Murkowski.  Murkowski is just a shade to the right of Collins, but on substance, they have been sounding similar.

Notice, also, that Heller hasn't said no.  I've been telling you to watch Heller ever since his surprise turn against the bill.

So, I said we have a couple of interesting mathematical properties here.  The first is that right now, there are two automatic Republican no votes.  That means they have, at most, 50 votes plus Pence.  In political science jargon, that means every remaining Republican Senator who has yet to announce a vote is "pivotal."  They each have a deciding vote.  Any additional Republican who announces a no vote kills the whole thing.  That's a rare thing.  Yet, it happened in 2010 in the Senate on healthcare, and as I wrote earlier when discussing Heller, that gives bargaining power to anyone really considering a yes vote.  So, consider Heller or Murkowski or Capito, to give three important examples.  Those three are probably the hardest to get, for McConnell.  They can go to McConnell, and demand X.  They have credible threats to vote no, and if any of them vote no, they kill the legislation.  That's a lot of power.  So, sky's the limit, right?

Not so much.  The problem is... Rand Paul and the second mathematical property.  Unlike in 2010, this is also a kind of ends-against-the-middle situation.  Now that Rand Paul is out-conservativing the rest of the drama club, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson will want to get in on that sweet posturing action.  If Heller, Murkowski or Capito start demanding too much, then the Judean People's Front has to re-merge with that splitter, the Popular Front.  The drama club re-unites with Rand Paul, they oppose the moderated bill, and the support McConnell keeps from the moderates, he loses from the conservatives.  The bill is still dead.  He can try money, but his budget is limited, and the problem is similar.

So, why hasn't Murkowski, Heller or anyone else said anything?  They are trying to figure out what they can get.  It doesn't make any sense to announce anything before then.  Might as well try.  So, that's where we are.

Chances?  Collins and Murkowski are ideologically similar, so your best bet is that they vote the same way.  With Collins opposed, you should bet that Murkowski is opposed too.  With Paul opposed, the odds are against the current bill.  Losing Collins, Murkowski and Paul puts the GOP at a maximum of 49 votes.   Not definite, but the odds are against.  PredictIt currently has the Senate passing the bill in July trading at 16 cents on the dollar.  If Paul hadn't come out against the bill, I'd put the chances at much higher, but that changes the math a lot.  It puts everything on McConnell's ability to separate Collins from Murkowski, and everything before rested on treating Collins and Murkowski both as lost votes and just trying to keep Heller on board.  Now, McConnell needs both Heller and Murkowski.  Oh, and Capito and everyone else.

This could pass, but the math here is brutal.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why a lot of voters won't abandon Trump

With every new twist and every new scandal, I keep saying that I don't think Trump will be impeached, or lose support from Republican officials.  The response I get, from several quarters, is that if public support drops below a certain level, Republican officials will turn on him.  My point, though, is that Republican officials are preventing public support from dropping to that level by refusing to condemn Trump.  The process is a dynamic one, or, in the jargon favored by economists, an "endogenous" one, meaning generated internally.  "Endo," from inside, and, "genous."

Anyway, suppose that Trump's public approval numbers dropped to 10%.  Would Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell keep doing the pseudo-condemnation two-step where they pretend to be bothered by something, and then the next day, talk about how awesome Trump is?  Probably not.  They might even agree to impeach him for, ya' know, obstruction of justice, for starters.

My point, though, is that if Trump's approval has gotten down to 10%, it means that Ryan, McConnell and a lot of other Republican leaders have already stopped supporting Trump.

The basic reference here is a critical book for understanding public opinion:  The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, by John Zaller.  Zaller's model is one in which people are essentially taking cues from elites.  The opinion you give in response to a survey question is the balance of liberal and conservative considerations in your head at the time.  What determines that?  You receive cues.  Those cues are sent by elites, and you selectively accept or reject them, based on how consistent or inconsistent they are with what you already hold.  So, dislodging existing opinions is kind of hard, but possible when all of the cues move in one direction.

So, you get big, unidirectional movement in public opinion when all of the signals are going in the same direction.  If even Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Fox News, etc. said that Trump is a crook and a Russian stooge, then the Republican electoral base might accept it, and his approval numbers would drop even more.  Right now, if you look at Gallup or other tracking data, you will see that Trump's support seems to be hovering just shy of 40% in the polls.  As long as those 40% can still get signals of positive support for Trump, though, their positive opinions will be reinforced.  This only changes if Republican elites decide to stop supporting Trump.  That's why their strategy can work.

Could an economic crash tank Trump's numbers?  Probably.  Trump would lie, and say that the economy isn't tanking.  He could stare down the barrel of the 2008 collapse and claim that it is the greatest economic boom in the history of the world.  "Fake news!" he'd whine...  Fox might even run with it, but it would be an interesting test of just how far lying can get you these days.  However, scandals only matter if elites tell the voters that they matter.  The Republican Party has decided that Trump's scandals will never matter.  Therefore, to a lot of voters, they will never matter.

Raw speculation time:  what would it take to get Republican officials to turn on Trump?  Trump turning on them.  Trump is a vindictive sack of shit, and he is getting more and more pissed that Congress isn't making any policy progress.  If he pulls something because of their failure to do anything on healthcare, or over failure to fund his wall...   If Trump makes this personal, maybe then the legislative caucus turns on him.  I figure if I give you a bunch of Zaller today, I'm justified in some bullshit speculation.  The intellectual merits balance out, and I'm still in the black.