Saturday, July 22, 2017

Natural Weekends - Continuing With Clouds

Senate Trumpcare Bill Shows GOP Incapable Of Governing, Only Lying To The Base

If there was ever an example of the inability and unwillingness of the Republican party to actually govern, the Senate Trumpcare bill provides an almost archetypical example. After spending weeks creating multiple versions of the bill, largely in secret, and then trying to strong-arm or buy the 50 votes they need, Senators finally found out yesterday that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled major portions of the bill as being subject the to Byrd rule, meaning that those elements would require 60 votes to pass because their are not budgetary items.

Among the important pieces of Trumpcare that now would require 60 votes are the two changes that ban insurance policies that cover abortion and Planned Parenthood services, a key piece for anti-abortion conservatives. Similarly, the change to allow Medicaid to avoid offering essential health benefits, a key piece of the GOP plan to reduce costs by reducing coverage, would also require 60 votes. In an truly ironic twist, the current bill requires the continued payment of those insurer subsidies that Trump is constantly threatening to cut off. When Obama was President, Republicans actually sued to stop these payments saying they were not properly authorized by Congress. Now they are trying to make them permanent in this bill but the parliamentarian has ruled that this change would require 60 votes. In addition, the GOP answer to the individual mandate, the 6 month lockout period if you do not have continuous coverage, will also require 60 votes as will the removal of the requirement that insurers spend at least 80% of revenue on actual medical care.

Individually, any one of these items like abortion or Planned Parenthood, would kill the bill, Collectively, they make a mockery of the whole effort to round up 50 Republican votes because even that would not be sufficient to pass significant elements of the bill. Indeed, Mark Meadows, the leader of the Freedom Caucus in the House, has already declared the abortion issue a deal killer. While the Planned Parenthood ruling may encourage the moderates, it will infuriate the hard right and the 6 month lockout and CSR rulings may actually make the resulting CBO score even worse than it already is.

Now, of course, the Republican response to this latest hurdle could be similar to their attitude toward most issues in the recent past and that would be to essentially change the rules to get what they want. That would require having the Presiding Officer of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence, simply overrule the parliamentarian, (the GOP did this once before in the 1970s), or, more likely, simply find a way to repeal the Byrd rule. It was the approach the party has taken with Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch, and a whole host of other issues.

Mitch McConnell may not be the political wizard that Democrats and some Republicans apparently believed. But he is a parliamentary expert. He had to know these issues would never pass muster to be passed with 50 votes. So you really have to wonder why he's wasted months of Senate time on a bill he had to know would never pass.

McConnell has relied on an absolutely unified Republican caucus ever since Obama was elected in 2008. Under his leadership of the opposition, the party learned many ways to successfully say no. Now that they need to actually govern, a majority sill only seem to be able to still say no. For the first time that I remember, a Republican Senator actually openly questioned McConnell's leadership when Ron Johnson said the leader had engaged in a "breach of trust" regarding the phase out of Medicaid funding.

More than anything, Trumpcare shows that Republicans are so far simply incapable of making the difficult trade-offs that actual governance requires. Part of this is the split between the minority of moderates in the conference and the hard right majority. But most of this is because the GOP has been lying to their base for a decade about what they would accomplish and the costs it would entail to do so. And, at least to this point, the party is so scared of the base they refuse to admit to their lies. Only when they do so, will they be capable of actually governing.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Europeans Have No UK Partner To Negotiate Brexit As Tories Are In Disarray

We are already one-sixth of the way through the two year period allotted for Britain to reach a deal to exit the European Union. In these past four months, virtually nothing has been accomplished and very little has even begun. Nor does it seem like the current Conservative government is anywhere near a consensus on how it wants to move forward.

The views among Conservatives themselves about how to implement are as varied as can be. As one European commentator said, "[W]e have heard everything and the opposite: hard Brexit, soft Brexit, quick Brexit, long Brexit. When you follow what is coming out of Theresa May’s cabinet, it is not clear what vision Britain is opting for."

Britain's chief negotiator, David Davis, apparently showed up for negotiations with his European counterparts with no notes or documents in contrast to his the Europeans who were, as always, loaded with position papers. Those meetings broke up with the Europeans still unclear of what exactly the British negotiating position really is.

Theresa May is at least still publicly committed to a hard Brexit, giving the UK control over immigration and judicial considerations. That approach, however, is coming up against the economic realities facing the country. Not only is immigration critical to keeping the UK economy growing but the financial sector, which makes up somewhere between 6% and 8% of the UK economy is preparing to abandon London en masse in order to be able to serve Europe effectively after Brexit. Both Citigroup and Morgan Stanley have announced big moves to Frankfurt while other banks are looking at Paris, Dublin, and other cities on the continent.

While May still talks up the hard Brexit, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, apparently prefers the long Brexit, with a long transition period after the agreement is finally reached. His views reflect the general consensus among the business community which fears a "cliff-edge" agreement which will cause enormous disruption and probable recession.

While all this is happening, Theresa May is a dead woman walking. A recent article in the Conservative mouthpiece and rag, the Daily Mail, quotes a source as describing May as "shrivelled and struggled to engage. It was upsetting." The details are, of course, probably wildly overstated but the important point is that this story ran in the Mail, indicating that a powerful faction within the party obviously want May out.

Her potential successors, Hammond, Davis, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, are all circling like vultures. Right now, it looks like May will not be challenged until the Conservative party congress later this fall and any change in leadership will probably result in yet another election. This could mean this entire year of 2017 was essentially wasted as the UK tried to figure out its negotiating position, and that assumes the election actually provides a decisive result.

For Britons, as the Times article states, there is a "growing, if belated, realization that there are few good options". The Europeans hold all the cards in the negotiations. This has caused some commentators to propose either backing out of the agreement entirely or not completing an agreement in the two year window and letting WTO rules take effect. In addition, the chaos within the Conservative party caused one UK commentator to say, "I am not sure that anybody is in control at the moment".

We all know that negotiations always wait to the last minute to finally get done. But this deal is so complicated that at some point detailed negotiations have to take place. The problem is that, right now, the Europeans really don't have a UK partner to negotiate with.

As Constitutional Crisis Looms, Republicans Act As Trump Co-Conspirators

As Donald Trump test the waters and lays the groundwork for firing Robert Mueller, his Republican co-conspirators in Congress are largely silent, saying they won't discuss hypotheticals or that Trump's comments "aren't helpful". But their refusal to stand firmly behind Mueller and to lay down their own red line that firing Mueller is impermissible simply gives Trump the green light to go ahead and do it.

But this is nothing new for Republicans in Congress. They were equally complicit with Trump in colluding with Russia during the campaign for their own advantage. They may not have had direct contact with the Russians like the Trump campaign, but they were well aware that the Russians were interfering in the election to not only help Trump but also down ballot Republicans and not only did they do nothing, they intentionally refused to help make the American public aware of the extent of the Russian efforts. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan refused to join a bipartisan statement on the extent of Russian hacking back in October of last year. Ryan and the House GOP leadership joked about the fact that not only Trump but also a GOP representative in Congress, Dana Rohrabacher, was probably being funded by the Russians. So it is clear the Republican leadership all knew that Russia was interfering on the election and were quite happy to let it continue as long as they benefited.

That collusion with Russia by the GOP leadership continues to this day, not only by allowing Trump to fire Comey with virtually no repercussions but also by not standing firmly behind Mueller and essentially giving Trump the OK to fire him. Earlier this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) asked its Republican counterpart, the NRCC, to join together to "protect our committees and keep foreign adversaries and criminal actors out of our elections." The NRCC dismissed the letter as a "political stunt".

The fact of the matter is that Republicans in Congress do not take the Russian collusion investigation seriously. A recent Atlantic article showed that many of them view the issue as simply "partisan noise" or that any collusion "wasn’t anything malicious" but just an indicator of the Trump campaign's inexperience. Others apparently believe this whole issue is a "media obsession" and that the Democrats are "overplaying their hand" by talking about potential treason and possible impeachment. None of those cited in the article, mostly anonymously, seem to have any grasp of the depth of Trump's business with the Russians, clearly involving massive amounts of money laundering, before the campaign and how that might impact what came after.

But it is not just the area of Russian collusion where Republicans are turning a blind eye, it is to criminality of all sorts within this administration. There is the clear and constant violations of the Emoluments Clause by the President. He continues to force government and his own 2020 re-election campaign to funnel money into those businesses, either through rent or events at those locations. Just recently, it was revealed that Trump will be taking payouts from his businesses whenever he wants despite repeatedly saying he would isolate himself from the business.

Trump's senior and probably most trusted adviser, Jared Kushner, has blatantly lied on his security clearance form and has now made at least two revisions and named over 100 meetings with foreign representatives after initially declaring he had none. In addition, Kushner and his family continue to push their contacts with Trump in order to find someone who will bail them out of their disastrous investment in 666 5th Avenue. The Secretary of State's former company, ExxonMobil, was just handed a $2 million fine for violating US sanctions on Russia while Tillerson was head of the company and clearly aware of the illegal activity.

And now the President is floating the idea of firing Mueller and pardoning himself and his family, possibly preemptively. In addition, Trump is spending time trashing the reputations of virtually everyone in the FBI and DOJ in a further attempt to intimidate his investigators, as well as lay the groundwork for firing Mueller.

None of this provokes any reaction from Republicans in Congress, the very same group that spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to create a scandal out of Benghazi!.  As Matt Miller writes, "[W]e are headed for certain crisis. Trump just will not, cannot allow this investigation to go forward...These leaks are partially intended to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. Like w/ Comey firing, silence is acquiescence." And acquiescence is what he is apparently getting from his Republican co-conspirators in Congress. And when, not if, the crisis comes, Republicans in Congress will be just as guilty as Trump.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

NY Times Interview Questions For Trump Apparently Prepared By Fox News

Donald Trump's interview with the New York Times and his threats against Mueller and almost every top official in the Department of Justice are one of the big stories today. If anything, the interview shows just how vague and unfocused Trump is and how he must show himself superior to at least one other person on almost every issue that comes up.

But a closer read of the interview shows that the Times approach to the interview was to simply have a breezy little chat and allow Trump to ramble wherever his mind let him. It was hardly a hard-hitting interview and, in fact, had as many softball questions as something you might see on Fox News.

Kevin Drum kindly put together a representative sample for us:
  • How was your lunch [with Republican senators]?
  • You are generally of the view that people should have health care, right?
  • Did the senators want to try again [to pass health care]?
  • Where does it go from here, do you think?
  • How’s [Mitch] McConnell to work with?
  • Will you go to Britain? Are you going to make a state visit to Britain?
  • A lot of people are curious about your conversation with President [Vladimir V.] Putin at dinner. Not surprising. But what did you all talk about…?
  • You asked them [Republican senators] about it [Don Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer] at lunch?
  • Sorry to interrupt. The email, though, said something I thought was really interesting, and I wonder what you thought of it. It said this “is part of Russia and its government’s support of Mr. Trump.” So whatever actually happened at the meeting—
  • So, what do you interpret that to mean, now that you have seen it?
  • I do want to come out, on the email, now that you have seen that email that said Russia’s government — I mean, how did you — did you interpret it that way?
  • Given what’s happened since then, though, was it a political mistake to have fired him [James Comey], given what’s happened?
  • But look at the headache it’s caused, you know?
  • Do you wish you had done it on Day 1?
  • What would be the line beyond which if Mueller went, you would say, “That’s too far, we would need to dismiss him”?
  • Did you shoo other people out of the room when you talked to Comey?
  • This is why I want to come back to that email, because, like — does it concern you? Let’s say that the election didn’t change because of anything Russia did, which has been your point, right? You point —
  • But did that email concern you, that the Russian government was trying something to compromise—
  • Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?
Wouldn't it be nice if one day a reporter asked a real specific question about policy and tried to actually pin Trump down about the actual details of the Trumpcare, for instance. Or ask whether the decision to stop funding the moderate Syrian opposition forces was made by Trump and whether that decision came after talking to Putin.

It is clear that Trump does not understand most federal policy and the press knows that, which perhaps makes them reluctant to pursue that line of inquiry because it will come to nothing. But it might be helpful to some less politically aware Americans to see just how ignorant and dangerous their President actually is.

Trump's Support Among Republicans Is Overstated In Polls

A couple of days ago, I posted that Trump's support was slipping as the failures of the Republican agenda mounts. However, despite the  Russia investigation, Trump's erratic behavior in general, and the collapse of the GOP agenda, support for Trump among self-identified Republicans still remains high, in the low 80s according to recent polls.

While an approval rate in the low 80s sounds great, that reflects a nearly 10 point deterioration since Trump was inaugurated. And now a new study indicates that approval number may be artificially inflated by the collapse in the number of self-identified Republicans. A new study by Emory University political scientists shows that Republican identification has dropped a significant 4% since the 2016 election. The Emory study then tried to determine what Trump's approval rating would be assuming that 4% still identified as Republican. An earlier Pew study showed that 84% of those who switched from leaning or identifying as Republican from late 2015 until April, 2017 disapproved of Trump, as one might expect. Extrapolating from the Pew study, the Emory political scientists believe that Trump's approval rating among Republicans is probably really somewhere in the 70s, which is getting into the real danger zone not only for Trump but for Republicans in general.

Even more worrying for Trump and the Republicans is the fact that most Republicans still do not think the Russian investigation is very important. As Robert Mueller starts digging into the Trump family business dealings, you can be sure a lot of damaging information will come out. In addition, there is also the risk of a real constitutional crisis if, as Trump indicated in his NY Times interview, he decides the FBI and DOJ must answer entirely to him and he fires Mueller.

For Republicans in Congress who continue to turn a blind eye to Trump's incompetence and transgressions, the downside risks of that continued support are growing by the day, especially if their agenda is not moving forward anyway. And Republicans may also find that what they thought was strong support for Trump among the rank and file is far weaker and thinner than they imagined.

Trump, GOP Escalate The Assault On Civil Liberties And Core Of Our Democracy

While it appears that Republican overreach in order to give massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and corporations may have saved Medicaid as we know it as well as healthcare for tens of millions of Americans, at least for the time being, Trump and Republicans are continuing the full frontal assault on our civil liberties and the core of our democracy.

Last December, I wrote a post about Jeff Session's rather expansive view of the power of civil forfeiture. Back then, Sessions declared that the standard of proof the government "should not have a burden of proof higher than in a normal civil case" for civil forfeiture. Of course, in practice, many citizens have had their assets seized without ever being accused of a crime.

In fact, rampant abuse of civil forfeiture has caused a number of state governments to pass laws that require an actual criminal conviction before the assets can be forfeited. In addition, President Obama also tried to limit the practice on a federal level, where the law is even more loose. Local police and officials working through a federal program can keep up to 80% of the assets they seize, creating an enormous incentive for abuse.

Now Sessions has decided to rescind Obama's restrictions and actually encourage state and local officials to make even greater use of civil forfeiture through the federal program. This seems to mean that the federal civil forfeiture rules can be used against citizens who have not been charged or convicted of a crime, even in those states that require a criminal conviction for forfeiture. All that is required now is a determination of "probable cause" which, as we all know, police can find whenever they want to.

How civil forfeiture passes constitutional muster is simply beyond me. The whole process totally disregards the presumption of innocence in its entirety. But, under Trump and Sessions, we will only see more of it.

Over in the Senate, the greatest deliberative body has somehow managed to find at least a small degree of bipartisanship by trying to criminalize free speech and activism against Israel. A group of 47 Senators, 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats, have banded together to propose a bill that would make it a felony for American citizens to support the boycott of Israel, with punishment of up to 20 years in jail and $1 million in fines.

As the ACLU points out, "[t]his bill would impose criminal and civil punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies...Under this bill, however, only a person whose lack of business ties to Israel is politically motivated would be subject to fines and imprisonment - even though there are many other who engage in the very same behavior."

The fact that 14 Democrats in the Senate, including Schumer, Gillibrand, Wyden, Blumenthal, and a number of prominent Democrats in the House, including Schiff, Swalwell, and Lieu, support this bill is an absolute disgrace. Whatever your views on Israel, a bill like this strikes at the heart of free speech and is typical of Trumpian authoritarianism that Democrats should be fighting tooth and nail against.

Finally, of course, there is the constant and continuing assault on voting rights. Today Trump met with his Election Integrity Commission as it begins its quest to keep as many mainly Democratic voters from being able to participate in our democracy while at the same time sowing doubts about the integrity of the electoral process as a whole. The commission's initial request for voter data that included Social Security numbers and voting history has largely been ignored by the states as unnecessary, a federal intrusion into state control of elections, and an invasion of privacy. But that request is already having its desired effect as nearly 4,000 voters in Colorado have removed their names from the voter rolls for fear that information will be passed on to the federal government. While Kris Kobach, the de-facto head of the commission, stated these removals were probably illegal voters, most complaints from individual voters revolved around privacy issues.

Kobach also made news when he told Katy Tur at MSNBC that "we may never know" if Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote. As Tur and others have pointed out, if there was that much voter fraud occurring that nearly 3 million people voted illegally, then it calls Donald Trump's Electoral College victory into serious doubt as he won three important states by only around 100,000 votes in total.

As Charlie Pierce points out in an eloquent column today, the Republican assault on our democratic processes really began in earnest when they were able to steal the 2000 election with the help of the Supreme Court. As Justice Stevens wrote in the Bush v. Gore opinion, "What must underlie petitioners' entire federal assault on the Florida election procedures is an unstated lack of confidence in the impartiality and capacity of the state judges who would make the critical decisions if the vote count were to proceed." But that's exactly the viewpoint the Supreme Court endorsed and it gave the green light to Republicans to begin the greatest assault on voting rights in nearly a century. In addition, that ruling also paved the way for Republicans to virtually ignore court rulings on their voting restrictions, resulting in many minority voters in certain states voting in what had been ruled illegally gerrymandered districts in election after election.

I'm pretty certain that the battle to roll back the ACA is not over but it appears that, for now, the resistance has beaten back that effort. That is huge. But the damage the Trump administration and his Republican allies are inflicting in other areas is horrific and largely unstoppable. Civil rights, the environment, voting rights, and a host of other areas of our democracy are under constant assault from this administration. And we need every Democrat fighting those efforts, not joining in for political gain, every step of the way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Moderate GOP House Members Just Had The Limb They Went Out On Sawed Off By Senate

Swing district House Republicans are in the middle of a total freak-out these days as it is becoming clear that they may have made a fatal mistake in being bullied into voting to repeal and replace Obamacare without any clear understanding of what would actually happen in the Senate. Now, it looks like moderate GOP Senators are going to be forced to walk the plank in order to simply protect the reputation of hard right Senators while at the same time becoming a target for the Trump base.

Back in 1993-1994, Democrats made a slightly different, but similar, mistake that cost them dearly in the 1994 midterms. But at least when Democrats realized they were never going to pass the Clinton health care plan, they never forced their members to take a vote. That decision may have cost the party Democratic votes in the midterms while the Republicans were highly motivated. But at least no individual member was targeted for the specific vote.

Now, however, moderate Republican House members will be on the hook for their vote this spring. This was the risk they took when they were bullied by Paul Ryan to vote for the bill in the House with the almost explicit promise that the Senate would improve it. Instead, the Senate may not even have a vote at all and some House members are not happy.  Darrell Issa, representing a district that Trump lost by 8 points says, "The Senate dropped the ball." Mark Amodei admitted he was "pissed". Even Michael Burgess, a hard-core supporter of repeal, was on MSNBC earlier today almost demanding the Senate at least take a vote.

On the Senate side, Mitch McConnell seems determined to try to still get something passed under the guise of bringing something to the floor. Once that happens, amendments will be allowed meaning that no one knows what the bill will finally look once that process ends. It is hard to believe that the numerous Senators who both openly and silently oppose the current Senate plan would even allow something like this to come to floor. In addition, many of those Senators, especially those who were publicly hedging or silently opposed would surely not be interested in having to record their vote and essentially become a target. By trying to force this vote, McConnell and the hard right are essentially trying to isolate moderate GOP Senators is yet another step in the growing split in the Republic party.

Just now, the CBO score of the Senate bill just came out and it shows that 17 million would lose insurance in 2018 and that number would rise to 32 million by 2026. In addition, premiums will almost immediately rise by 25% and would double by 2026. On the other hand, it will cut the deficit by over $450 billion over the next 10 years, opening up room not only for McConnell to bribe reluctant Senators but also big tax cuts for the rich. These numbers are only going to harden Senator's opposition to this bill making it even less likely McConnell will be able to bring anything to the floor.

One last point, it is clear that three female Senators, Collins, Murkowski, and Capito, were going to sink this bill no matter what. Much of this was simply because the bill would decimate health care in their states. But it does show that perhaps more female members might bring a little more sanity to Congress in general.

Moderate Republican House members have already gone out on a limb and had it sawed off by the Senate. It is hard to see why those Senators who oppose the current Senate bill would want to join those House members on a different limb where they will be forced to take a vote simply so they can become a target of the Trump base.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trump's Support Keeps Slipping As Failures Mount

Failure is an orphan and Donald Trump is building a monument to failure. His signature promise to the American people was that he could make Washington work and he has had every opportunity to do so with unified Republican control of all the levers of power. And so far he has nothing to show for his vaunted leadership.

The promise to repeal and replace Obamacare has crashed and burned. At this point, Trump's latest tack is to simply destroy the ACA and then hope that Congress can piece together some kind of solution at some point in the future. Let's just say it is usually not smart politics to make things demonstrably worse for your voters when you have absolute power so that you can run on fixing those problems later. Republicans have been doing that for years while they were in the minority, but that plan is far more difficult when they are in the majority.

As I wrote earlier, the collapse of Trumpcare is liable to derail the entire Trump/GOP agenda and further fracture the already riven party. It is quite possible that we could get to November and the only thing that Trump would have to show for nearly a year in total control is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and even that required busting Senate norms to get done.

All this not winning is being reflected in the polls. Last month, I wrote about how the level of strong support for Trump has slipped by over one third since he was inaugurated. According to the latest Washington Post poll, Trump's approval rating is stuck in the mid-30s and disapproval is near 60%. Strong disapproval is near 50% and his favorability among independents has sunk to around 30%. According to 538, Trump's approval has taken an amazing 14 point tumble since took office. Among Republicans, his support has slipped into the low 80s. In addition, only around one-third of Americans trust the President.

Support among Republicans still remains strong for Trump but not only is that support slipping but the intensity of the support is also collapsing. The number of self-identified Republicans is also falling which further mitigates his deteriorating support.

The next few months in Congress will probably be dominated by the messy business of crafting a budget to avoid a government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling. Some of that will require working with Democrats which will further alienate the moderate and conservative elements of the Republican party and further infuriate the hard right base. Trump will probably not be a factor in those negotiations but he will certainly manage to create additional chaos with ridiculous tweets and more outrageous lies during the process.

Trump, as usual, will always try to distance himself from his failures. Last night he tweeted "Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!" as though he were totally removed from the process. Today, he called Republicans who opposed Trumpcare as "disloyal". That kind of triangulation may have worked for Bill Clinton when he was working with a Republican Congressional majority. I don't think it will work for Trump today.

As it becomes clear that there will not be much "winning", I also expect the Russian investigation to also begin to weigh on his support. Right now, only about 10% of Republicans really believe that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Right now, to admit that happened would almost require abandoning Trump and his supporters are not prepared to do that yet, if ever. Even today, this number will probably never get close to 50% but it is possible to see that further revelations about Trump's Russian connections and continued domestic policy failure could push that number up to around 30%, which would be significant.

The real danger is that Trump begins to feel the pressure of failure and lashes out in some unpredictable way to get a "win". Whether this would be an attack on North Korea or an imposition of tariffs on imported goods or killing the Iran nuclear deal or some other hare-brained scheme is anyone's guess.

Trump's poll numbers are already near all-time lows and the prospects that there is any big legislative win on the horizon to help them recover is minimal. As legislative failures mount, Trump himself will continue to blame Congress and even Republicans, putting even more stress on their already horrific approval ratings. At some point, probably some time next year, Republicans will face the prospect of going into the 2018 election with a massively unpopular President, a failed agenda, and electoral attacks from the right and from the left. That will be a pretty uncomfortable place to be, especially for moderates who will have to thread the needle of keeping enough of Trump's base happy to survive the primary and then pivot away from Trump to win the general.

GOP Agenda Is In Tatters As Trumpcare Collapses

With the announcement that both Mike Lee and Jerry Moran will oppose the motion to proceed, joining both Susan Collins and Rand Paul, it appears that the Senate version of Trumpcare, the BCRA, is dead for at least the moment. In addition, there were clearly probably another dozen GOP Senators who had major reservations about the bill but did not want to risk the wrath of the right by being the final vote necessary to kill the bill. Lee and Moran got around that problem by announcing together, much to the probable relief of their GOP Senate colleagues as well as a host of Republicans in the House.

Trumpcare is a zombie, coming back to life every time it seems to be dead and buried. And within minutes, Trump and McConnell both put out the latest zombie revision, a complete repeal of Obamacare with a two year delay. A total repeal would require 60 votes so this new bill would be similar to what the Senate passed in 2015 under reconciliation and with the full knowledge that Obama would veto it. It is hard to see how this bill would be any better for the moderates who opposed Trumpcare but may have not been willing to openly oppose it. Premiums will immediately spike because the mandate will be repealed or not enforced, insurers will opt out of the market immediately knowing that the exchanges will die, and Medicaid expansion would still be rolled back as states face reduced Medicaid funding in 2019. In fact, it is probable that the coverage losses in the short term may actually be worse than the current bill. And Republicans would be totally on the hook for the outrage among all those who lose or can't afford coverage when next fall's election rolls around as they promise to do something about healthcare that they were unable to do today.

The Republicans have really done something amazing. By trying to use Trumpcare to gut the safety net and pay for massive tax cuts for the rich, Republicans have focused the country on how much Obamcare actually accomplished in a way that Democrats were neither willing nor able to accomplish. Now that they have turned the ACA into a popular program, their latest plan is to simply repeal it and promise to do something better in the future. Simply incredible.

But, assuming Trumpcare is dead for the immediate future, its failure has put even more pressure on the GOP agenda which was already in difficult shape to begin with. Tax reform  relied not only on the tax cuts included in Trumpcare but more importantly on the lower spending baseline created by gutting Medicaid so that the tax cuts would not increase the deficit beyond the 10 year window and allow the bill to be passed under reconciliation. And that assumes the GOP can even agree on what will be in the tax cuts and how, or even if, they will be "paid for".

According to Axios, there is a plan for selling tax "reform" to the American people already laid out. There is, however, no actual tax plan even on the table right now. The process resembles selling condo units in a building not only before it has been built but also before the financing is in place. Instead, the White House intends "to float a few tax policy trial balloons in August." Once again, it appears that the particulars of what is being considered is being debated primarily in secret with Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Kevin Brady, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn involved. This sounds like it will probably work out just as well as the Senate's secret version of Trumpcare.

The particulars of tax plan not only relied on passing Trumpcare but will also be inextricably linked up with the next year's budget. Both Trumpcare and tax reform will impact next year's budget baselines so the GOP is trying to build a budget while dealing with a host of unknowns. Considering the Republicans had control of the House and the Senate last year and were unable to complete a budget, it is hard to see how they are going to reach some easy agreement this year. As budget expert Molly Reynolds puts it, "The Republicans just don’t quite agree on what they want to do. They don’t agree on how much they want to spend, and they don’t agree on what they want the reconciliation instructions to look like." Just in the last few hours, the conservative Freedom Caucus has announced their opposition to the budget deal that is trying to at least make its way through the House.

In the midst of all this chaos are two other potential looming disasters, the expiration of government funding and the breaching of the debt ceiling. Once again, there is considerable disagreement within the Republican caucus on both these issues and the GOP will again need Democratic votes to move on both these issues. As the Hill story indicates, the calendar seems to be shaping up for an enormous deal to emerge sometime in late September/early October that will wrap a budget deal and raise the debt ceiling into one package, with Democrats holding significant sway in determining the details of that agreement. Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of situation that the hard right will consider entirely objectionable, showing once again the cowardice of the Republican leadership in Congress and leading to a further fracturing of the Republican party.

It is also hard to imagine that, in the midst of all this, Republicans are going to find it political palatable to sit down and negotiate details on a bipartisan health care solution. Nor is there any reason for Democrats to engage in serious negotiations at this point anyway as it will only provide cover to the GOP on the issue.

And never forget that while all this is going on, there is almost guaranteed to be more revelations about Trump's collusion with Russia during last year's election in addition to the usual chaos that Trump creates. It is entirely possible that we could be well into November and the only thing the GOP will have passed with full control of Congress is a budget deal that largely protects Democratic priorities. There would be no repeal Obamacare, no tax "reform", no giveaways to corporations under a public-private infrastructure plan. In other words, a complete failure of the GOP agenda.

That does not mean Republicans won't keep trying. As with see with Trumpcare, there is no Republican agenda item that really dies. It just keeps continually coming back in slightly different forms again and again. And there will still be another year before the 2018 election for the GOP to get its act together and do some real damage.

Wimbledon Recap - Federer The Magnificent

I'm a little delinquent with my Wimbledon wrap-up but better late then never as they say. The highlight was Roger Federer capturing his eighth title at the All England Club, becoming the only man to do so. In addition, Federer added his 19th major title, also a record. And he solidified his claim as potentially the greatest player of all time. Federer at age 35 was totally dominant the entire tournament, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg to win the tournament without losing a set.

With Murray out for an extended period with a hip injury and Djokovic also out for an undetermined period with an arm injury, Federer probably becomes the early odds on favorite for the US Open too. A few years ago, as Roger was struggling in majors, he said he still believed he had a chance to win 20 major titles. Even I scoffed at that. But Federer changed racquets, revamped his game and is now poised to do exactly as he said. It just shows what a real champion he is.

It was pretty much a given that one of the big four, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray would win this tournament. It would have been a real shocker if one of them hadn't. But the real surprise was that one of the other three did not make it to face Federer in the final, that was left to an injured Marin Cilic, or semifinal. And it was injuries that forced Djokovic to retire and Murray to succumb in five sets. Nadal, on the other hand, just had not played enough on grass and was served out of the tournament by Gilles Muller in a 5 set classic, one of the matches of the fortnight. Nadal just could never get a handle on Muller's serve and finally succumbed 15-13 in the fifth.

Sam Querrey, who made the quarters here last year, once again got an American man deep into the second week by making the semifinals, where he seemed to let Cilic off the hook. The rest of the American men, including big-serving John Isner and Steve Johnson continue to disappoint. Isner especially should thrive here at Wimbledon but he has never learned how to return serve. In the early round loss that he had, I recall him being something like 2 for 23 in break points. You just can't win with numbers like that.

On the ladies' side, Venus Williams found solace away from the unfounded accusations about her off court to blast her way into the finals. There she lost to a surprising opponent in former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, who fought through to win a tough first set and then overwhelmed Venus in the second. Muguruza has had nothing but problems since her French Open win last year and had suffered a horrible first round loss at a grass court warmup tournament in preparation for Wimbledon. But a few coaching tips from the from the former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez seemed to transform her game and she became confident and aggressive and eventually champion.

Joanna Konta raised British hopes by getting to the semifinals before running into Venus. My pick to win, CoCo Vandeweghe, seemed overwhelmed by expectation and lost to another surprise in Magdalena Rybarikova in the quarter finals. Jelena Ostapenko proved that her French Open win was perhaps no fluke by winning four rounds and making it to the second week, a pretty good result considering the excitement of the last month for her.

The tragedy of the tournament was the horrific knee injury suffered by Bethany Mattek-Sands in her singles match in the first week. She and her partner, Lucie Safarova, were going for the consecutive Grand Slam in women's doubles here at Wimbledon, having won the last three majors coming into the fortnight. All that came crashing down when Mattek-Sands knee gruesomely collapsed.

While the men's and women's finals were lopsided affairs, the men's doubles final provided some real drama as Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo beat Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 13-11 in a nearly five hour marathon.

Martina Hingis won her first Wimbledon singles title 20 years ago. This year she won her second mixed doubles title pairing with Jamie Murray, an amazing achievement for someone who, like Federer, never seems to age on court.

Finally, many of the players complained bitterly about the quality of the grass and lack of it this year. Even Martina Navratilova, who made these courts her own, said that the courts were really chewed up and that there were some serious problems with the surface this year.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Inevitable Crackup Of The Current Republican Party

The only thing holding the Republican party together at this point in time is power, raw political power. The internal consistency of the party has basically collapsed as both "movement conservatives" and "moderates" become alienated as it becomes a white nationalist party dominated by Trumpism and social conservative radicals. I know that "conservative" and "moderate" are relative terms today, as both groups have essentially caved to the far-right agenda. But right now, the fact that the GOP holds power in both Congress and the White House is the glue still holding these alienated factions in the party. But eventually that bond will break. The question for these inevitable defectors is where, exactly, will they go.

Last fall, I wrote about how the political theorist Samuel Goldman laid out the case for the split for conservatives. Goldman makes the critical point that the white nationalists were only too happy to use the conservative economic agenda of free trade, tax cuts, and deregulation in order to ride the Republican party to power. But now everyone recognizes that agenda has largely failed to serve the American worker and the American people beyond the top 1%. The nationalists are now happy to reject the free trade part of that package but will continue to press ahead with the tax cuts and deregulation in spite of the knowledge they know those measures will not deal with the current economic problems. For true conservatives, the problem will come when it becomes clear, once again, that those tax cuts will never be paid for.

However, Goldman makes the critical point that true conservatives barely exist anymore. Says Goldman, "I think the great message of Trump is that there really are not that many movement conservatives. There is an infrastructure of journalists, intellectuals who are vested in a conventional combination of limited government, a relatively hawkish foreign policy, and a sort of religiously inflected public morality. There are a few hundred such people, and they all know each other. But it turned out that there aren't that many voters who actually care about these things — or at least cared about them in quite that combination." But for the few who do exist, the Republican party may no longer be a home.

In the most recent issue of the New Yorker, Lawrence Wright details the latest wranglings inside the ever-entertaining Texas State Legislature. (Although Wright gives us a taste of some of the more "interesting" members of the current legislature, he can never match the inestimable Molly Ivins in capturing the absurdity of that body.) But Wright does describe a somewhat hidden dynamic inside the Republican-dominated Legislature that is symbolic of the strains within the GOP as a whole. As Wright notes, "the key struggle is within the increasingly conservative Republican Party, between those who primarily align with business interests and those who are preoccupied with abortion, gay marriage, immigration, religion, and gun rights". The State Senate is ruled with an iron glove by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, an evangelical Christian and former radio talk show host a la Mike Pence. The House, on the other hand, is led by Joe Strauss who represents business interests and more moderate Republicans and spends most of his time fending off the insanity coming from the Senate.

Wright details Strauss' political achievements saying his "speakership has focussed on providing the workforce and the infrastructure that Texas businesses need, by protecting public education, building roads, establishing more top-tier universities, and expanding job training. Perhaps his biggest victory was in 2013: in the middle of a devastating drought, he ushered through a two-billion-dollar revolving loan fund for state water projects." If you read that and thought it sounded like a Democrat, you would have the same thought is I did. In fact, throughout the article Strauss sounds like he would be far more comfortable inside the Democratic party than as a Republican in Texas.

For the moment, however, Democrats are powerless in Texas. While the state is slowly turning purple, gerrymandering has and will slow down any political gains that Democrats might make. But when the day comes when Democrats do regain some political power in the state, you have to wonder whether Republicans like Strauss would find it an easy move to become Democrats as the GOP in Texas becomes even more zealous in its white nationalist outlook.

In the same way, the current health care debate in the Senate has also put the Republican "moderates" in both the House and the Senate under enormous pressure. Josh Marshall at TPM has a post entitled "What Will They Do Now? O'care Repeal Bill Gives Moderates Nowhere To Hide." Senators like Capito, Murkowski, Collins, and Heller are more aligned with their Democratic colleagues on this issue than the majority of the GOP caucus. There was and probably will be a similar issue for moderate GOP House members like Leonard Lance and Charlie Dent if the Senate bill passes.

Right now, of course, many of these so-called "moderates" still fear a primary challenge from the right. They are constantly walking a tightrope between the radicalized base of the party which they fear and the more moderate populous of their districts. If and when Democrats finally regain control of the House and/or even the Senate, many of these moderates will be in the same predicament of the old Blue Dog Democrats both in the 1990s and in 2010 when they finally lost power. Some of the Blue Dogs changed parties while the rest were replace by "real" Republicans.

We have already seen this effect on both conservative and moderate punditocracy as reliable Republican mouthpieces have abandoned Trumpism. The clearest examples of this are George Will and, more recently, Joe Scarborough who was ironically one of the greatest enablers of Trump putting his "conversion" under a certain cloud.

What's even more indicative of this coming collapse is the virtual silence from Republicans outside the elected GOP structure. The Bushes, the Romneys the Huntsmans, and other "moderates" have barely raised a peep to oppose Trump or the radical white nationalist agenda. Do they have so much belief in the moneyed, oligarchic control of the GOP to believe this group will be able to waltz in and retake control of the party if and when Trumpism falls apart? I think they truly are kidding themselves if they think the rabid base of the party will accept that and I also think they know it.

This transition is not going to happen overnight. Gerrymandering, restrictions of voting rights, the Electoral College, and the urban/rural divide will provide some refuge for some Republicans. However, the process will be expedited if Democrats win the House in 2018. When Republicans begin to lose power, the bonds that are already holding the fractious factions of the party, the white nationalists, the movement conservatives, and the moderates, will quickly break. The real question is how much irreparable damage Trump and the white nationalists will do before that day comes.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Astronomy Adventure - More Messier 13

Here is an even better look at Messier 13, the fantastic globular cluster in the constellation Hercules.

Here are the technical details:
Scope: Starblast 4.5; tracking on
Magnification: ~30x
Camera: iPhone6 using NightCapPro app; ISO 8000
Processing: 2x15 sec.; stacked with Deep Sky Stacker; adjusted using curves in GIMP;

Natural Weekends - More Clouds