Foreign Elections — French Edition

On Sunday, French voters will go to the polls in the first round of their presidential election.  There are several key differences between the U.S. and France.  First, the French have more than two main political parties.  Out of the eleven candidates running, at least five represent significant political groupings.  Second, the French president is elected by popular vote.  Third, if no candidate gets a majority of the popular vote (likely based on current polls), there will be a run-off.  Fourth, the center of French politics is significantly further to the left than U.S. politics.  While folks try to put things in U.S. terms, the best way to view it is that the top five is like Donald Trump, John Kasich,  Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and someone to the left of Bernie Sanders, and even the Donald Trump candidate is more liberal on fiscal issues than President Trump.

Of course, what is the same is the existence of the National Front — an organization that Donald Trump loves.  As it’s name implies, the National Front is a xenophobic party opposed to French membership in the European Union and the Islamic influence in France.  It is also pro-Putin.  The National Front typically polls somewhere in the teens.  While this has historically been enough for the National Front to contend for run-off slots (both in Presidential and Parliamentary elections), the National Front is so far out of the mainstream of French politics that it normally loses most of those run-off elections (it only holds two seats in the outgoing French Parliament.)  In this election, the National Front is (again) running Marine Le Pen — daughter of the founder of the National Front and its leader since dear old dad retired.

There are some signs that the far right nationalist views of the National Front are making gains in France.  There is a symbiotic relationship between ultranationalist candidates like Le Pen and Trump on the one side and Islamic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS.  Each terror attack make the law and order and anti-Islam messages of the ultranationalist sound like the only option that voters have if they want security.  However, that very anti-Islam message feeds into discrimination against Muslims who are native-born citizens.  Young Muslims feeling rejected by their own country then turn to leaders who call for a return to an era when Islam was dominant and promote violence as a means to that end.  When these young people follow through on that call and engage in acts of terror, the cycle begins again.   Given a spate of terror incidents on the eve of the election, the National Front may pick up an extra couple of percent in the first round of the election.

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Why Vote? Seven Reasons

Why vote? I get asked this a lot.

Especially in an odd year like 2017.

Where to start?

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The Democratic Party: Where do we go from here?

In the past week, I had three conversations that all intersect on the issue of the future of the Democratic Party. Three quite different people, and varying subject matters. I have not yet reached a conclusion, but the questions raised fascinate me.

Conversation 1

I belong to a political action group and we had a meeting. While the topic doesn’t matter, this comment still rings in my ears: “I work in a factory, and we make decisions immediately. I hope the rest of you won’t take this wrong, but you are pencil pushers.”

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Special Elections — Kansas Edition

As I write this post, the results are coming in for the special election in the Fourth District of Kansas.  While the election has been close all night, it now appears that, by a very narrow majority, the Republicans will keep this seat.   This seat is the first of four special elections to fill vacancies in seats formally held by Republicans who are now serving in the Trump Administration.  (There is also a special election to fill a Democratic seat formerly held by the new Attorney General of California — who was appointed to that office after the previous A.G. won the U.S. Senate seat last fall.  The primary for that seat was held earlier and two Democrats advanced to the runoff.)

It is hard to tell whether this seat was close because of the unpopularity of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback — a stellar example of why the Freedom Caucus’s plan for government is a roadmap for a complete disaster — or the unpopularity of President Trump.  The Republican candidate is the current State Treasurer and as such is unable to avoid association with Governor Brownback’s reckless scheme to bankrupt Kansas.  And Donald Trump will probably claim that his assistance via a last minute robocall saved this seat.

The bigger question is what this close race means going forward.  In the last two elections, the Republicans won this seat by 30%.  This race looks like a final margin between 4-8%.  That type of swing if replicated across the country would lead to a Democratic majority in the next Congress.  In the shorter term, the question is whether this result can be replicated in next week’s special election in Georgia or the upcoming elections in May and June in South Carolina and Montana.  With the exception of the Georgia seat, even if a Democrat wins the special election, these seats are going to be difficult for a Democrat to hold in 2018.  Having a Democratic incumbent in these seats would, however, require the Republicans to devote a significant level of resources to get them back, making it easier for us to pick up seats elsewhere.  More importantly, if the Democrats can keep these races close and even win some, it is going to increase the jitters of Republicans in lean Republican seats.  During the Obama Administration, it was easy for Republicans to just say no and not have to accept responsibility for the gridlock in D.C.  The Republicans are now fully in charge and are responsible for getting things done.  The problem for Republicans in Congress is that the American people do not want what the Republican Party wants — even the voters in Republican seats do not want what the Republican Party wants.  That puts Republican Representatives on the hot seat.  They can either tell their Republican colleagues to slow down and take a second look at things or they can follow Speaker Ryan and President Trump like lemmings to their downfall in the 2018 election.  My hunch is that, like most politicians, the Republican members of Congress are tuned into their own survival.  The warning signs from the 4th district of Kansas this week and the 6th district of Georgia next week is going to make it very difficult for President Trump and Speaker Ryan to get their plans through Congress.

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The Supreme Court and the Filibuster

This week has the potential to be a significant week in Senate history.  Over the past two presidencies, there was a rise in the use of the filibuster to block executive branch and lower court nominees.  During the George W. Bush presidency, there were enough Democratic and Republican senators willing to work out a deal in which the Democratic senators agreed to vote for cloture on most nominations and the Republicans agreed not to invoke the “nuclear option” (exempting such nominations from the three-fifth’s rule for cloture by the vote of a majority of the Senate).  During the Barack Obama presidency, there were not enough Republican senators willing to make such a deal and the Democrats were forced to go with the nuclear option on such executive branch and lower court nominees.  However, the normal cloture rules were left in place for Supreme Court nominees.

As a starting point, here is the tentative schedule for the week.  First, on Monday, the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination of Neal Gorsuch.  Right now, it appears likely that the committee will approve that nomination by a majority vote.  Assuming that the Committee sends its report on that nomination to the Senate on Monday, that would trigger Rule XXXI which provides that (except by unanimous consent which will not be given) the Senate may not vote on a nomination on the same day that the nomination is reported to the full Senate.   The Republicans will then attempt to call the matter up for a vote by unanimous consent on Tuesday.  At least one Democrat will object, and the Republicans will file a cloture motion.  Under Rule XXII, that motion will probably come up for a vote on Thursday and would take sixty votes to pass.  Based on current whip counts, those sixty votes will not be there.  If somehow, the Republicans get the sixty vote or invoke the nuclear option, Rule XXII would permit thirty more hours of debate resulting in a vote between Friday and Monday the 10th.  (Technically, the Easter state work session is currently scheduled to start on the 10th and go through the 21st.  The last two weeks of argument in this year’s Supreme Court term are the weeks of April 17 and April 24.  So if Judge Gorsuch is confirmed this week, he could sit on the last thirteen arguments of this term.  If the final vote takes place after April 21, Judge Gorsuch will not sit on any argument until the next term beginning in October.)

Assuming that the cloture vote goes as currently anticipated, the Republicans will have three options.  Option number one would be to use the Easter recess to put pressure on vulnerable Democratic senators.  Right now, the two most vulnerable Democratic senators (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota) seem likely to vote for cloture, but there are other Democratic senators from other states that Trump won by wide margins.    While there are ten Democratic senators on the 2018 ballot from states that Trump won (and Maine’s independent Senator is not necessarily going to join the Democrats on this issue), half of those senators are from swing states.  The only two other Senators who come from states that were not too close to call in 2016 are Senator McCaskill from Missouri and Senator Donnelly from Indiana.  Unless the Democratic senators hear from party activists that party activists do not really care about this issue, the vote is unlikely to change much after the recess.  On the other hand, the Republican leadership would be in a stronger position to invoke the nuclear option after the recess.  (The more moderate members of the Republican caucus might believe that the Democrats should at least be given some time to debate and make their case before the nuclear option is invoked.)

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Health Care 2019

Barring something unexpected, as discussed in Doc Jess’s post, the major action for the rest of this Congress on health care is likely to be at the administrative level with Tom Price doing his best to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  However, there have been some unanticipated holes that have developed over the past seven years that do need to be fixed.  As such, if Democrats regain control of the House and Senate in 2019 what issues should they be looking to address.

At the top of my list is the Medicaid expansion hole.  Back in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states did not have to participate in the Medicaid expansion.  The Affordable Care Act assumed that every state was going to participate in the expansion and only provided for subsidies for those who did not qualify for Medicaid.   When a significant number of states opted to not expand Medicaid coverage, this created a group who earned to much to sign up for Medicaid, but too little to get subsidies to purchase insurance.  The obvious fix is to expand the subsidies to cover this gap group.

The second issue concerns the exchanges.  Again, the Affordable Care Act assumed that most (if not all) states would opt to set up exchanges just on principles of state autonomy.  (Why would Republicans who complain about the feds taking over the insurance market let the feds take over the insurance market in their states?)  It turned out that Republicans in the state wanted the symbolism of resisting more than actual local control.  This problem offers a chance to offer the Republicans a two-edged sword.  The Republicans complain that one of the problems with health insurance is that companies are unable to offer policies that cross state lines.  (Placing the blame on regulations is not accurate, and the biggest restraint on such policies is the need of insurance companies to have deals with the local hospitals.)  So I would offer up for discussion an exemption for policies offered on the federal exchange.  If a state does not have its own exchange, policies on the federal exchange will be exempt from state regulations and will only be subject to federal regulations.   If a state wants to regulate those policies, it can take over the exchange.  If not, a state will not be permitted to sues state regulations to obstruct the federal exchange.  My hunch says that the states will not opt to set up their own exchanges and that the exemption of insurance companies from state regulations will not increase the number of policies that cross state lines.

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Healthcare: Next Steps

We had our day of glee over the abject failure of the GOP. And let’s recap: they had SEVEN YEARS to come up with a replacement and chose not to. It’s critical to understand why they didn’t, because it affects what we do moving forward. The Republicans never developed a replacement because they don’t want government to have any part of healthcare (or social services of any sort). Their goal is to dismantle not just the ACA, but Medicaid, Medicare and then Social Security. As a side dish – public education, environmental protection, etc. That’s their goal. And when your goal is death, you’re never looking to develop a treatment plan.

The AHCA bill was a tax bill, plain and simple. Its thrust was to create a trillion dollars in savings so that Ryan and crew could enact the tax cut bill they want: without the savings, it will be harder to decrease monies paid by individuals making over a million a year. They’ll likely make some progress, however, on corporate tax dismantling. More on that below.

It went down in flames for several reasons: yes, the protests certainly gave cover to Republican in moderate districts, especially those that Hillary Clinton carried last year. Don’t underestimate that, and DON’T STOP!!! But the overarching reasons are all on the Republican side: they have to do with the Freedom Caucus which stood en bloc in the face of direct threats from the White House. They couldn’t care less what their party thinks of them, they’re not afraid of Trump and Bannon, they don’t even care that much about their constituents. They are ideologues with no understanding of how government functions, only how to stop it. Their goal is NO government, and they’re too stupid to understand that “NO government” is synonymous with “Failed State” and “Anarchy”. In our planning, we need to consider the best ways to leverage them. Remember, this was never going to pass the Senate, and we suspected that when the first draft was published in early March. (See paragraph six in this link.)

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The Week in Review

There is an old saying that a week is a lifetime in politics.  In most weeks, there is a lot happening either behind the scenes or at lower levels (e.g., committee hearings and markups on bills that nobody is watching).  It is the rare week, however, that so much is taking place front and center competing for the attention of the American public.

The big story of the week was the non-vote on and the collapse of the Republican effort at major health care reform — the so-called Affordable Health Care Act (a name that in itself was an attack on the bill that it was trying to “repeal and replace,” the Affordable Care Act.   There are several significant aspects to this non-event.

First, despite their efforts, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan could not get the sizable Republican majority in the House to pass a bill (forget the exact details of the last version of the bill, they could not get a majority behind any version) on one of the top Republican priorities of the past seven years.  While Trump may have been a great negotiator, it is very easy to reach a two-sided deal.  (Of course, it’s possible that Trump’s belief in his negotiating skill may be one of his great delusions.  He may have just been offering the right deal at the right time and actually have been taken to the cleaners in his business negotiations.)When you have three or more sides to a deal, however, it becomes very difficult to keep everybody on board.  This problem is particularly true in politics — when one faction thinks that a bill is too conservative and the other faction thinks that the bill is too liberal, there really isn’t any change that could make both sides happy.  At that point, it’s not really about negotiating but selling.

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“Deep State” Paranoia

In the past several weeks, we have heard ranting out of the White House about a “deep state” conspiracy to frustrate Donald Trump’s objectives.  It is only this current fact-free administration which could turn a well-understand aspect of the American government — mentioned in political science courses for over half a century — into a sinister conspiracy aimed at President Trump.  It’s no secret that bureaucracies across the world (not just in the U.S.) function in their own peculiar ways to keep the government functioning — even when elected officials would rather destroy the government.  There are, of course, some features that are driving the Trumpistas crazy.

  1.  The United States is not a dictatorship.  The jobs and duties of the various departments and agencies are defined by statutes and existing regulations.  Because there are grey areas in these statutes and regulations, the executive branch does have some discretion in interpreting them (as discussed regularly in the posts about legal issues).  However, the President can’t on his own enact new laws or repeal existing laws.  Thus, however, much a President might see a need for new revenues to balance the budget, he can’t simply order the Treasury Department to start collecting a new $1 per day tax on every hotel room in the country.  Similarly, the President can’t simply order the permanent resident status of a legal immigrant revoked simply because that permanent resident posts a tweet criticizing the President.

2.  At the federal level, most individuals working for the federal government are careerists who have civil service protection.  Even for agencies that are exempt from civil service protection (which includes many state and city governments), there are First Amendment protections against discharge for political reasons.  Barring gross insubordination, these individuals can keep on doing their jobs as they understand their responsibilities.

3.  Most career civil servants identify with the mission of their department or agency.  It was not a shock that the organizations representing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol employees were sympathetic to Trump’s proposals to beef up border security and to step up deportation activity.   Similarly, you would expect that career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division believe in enforcing civil rights laws and that those working in the foreign service believe in diplomacy and the traditional foreign policy objectives of the U.S. government.  You may have some temporary influx of “rookies” when government changes hands that agree with the goals of the new administration.  In the long term, however, it is hard to stay in a job when you disagree with the basic goal of the job.  Additionally, many jobs in the federal government (e.g. EPA and the FDA) require a certain educational background.  Most rational persons do not choose their college majors or graduate/professional schools for the purpose of one day undermining a government department.

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Donald Trump Is/Is Not Nehemiah Scudder

One of the advantages that science fiction has as a genre is the ability of writers to recast issues by presenting them in another place and time.  On occasion, the transformation of our problems into another situation can be forced (e.g., the original Star Trek episode in which the racial conflict was between those who were black on the left side of the face and those who were black on the right side of the face).

During the third quarter of last century, one of the top science fiction writers was Robert Heinlein.  While most famous for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, his early career consisted of a series of short stories and novellas that formed a “future history” — taking the United States from the mid-20th Century until around 2200.   In several of the stories in this sequence, Heinlein mentions Nehemiah Scudder, a preacher who became popular enough to be elected president in 2012.  Scudder then establishes a religious dictatorship which governs until it is overthrown around 2100.  While Heinlein never got around to writing a story focused on Scudder’s rise to power, his summary of that rise in other stories identified some aspects of American politics that were not immune to the rise of a demagogue.  So in what ways does the election of Donald Trump mirror those aspects and in what ways do they differ.

The obvious difference is that Donald Trump is not a fundamentalist preacher.  However, writing in 1941, (well before the rise of the Moral Majority), Heinlein noted the power of fundamentalism in American power.  While Trump should not have been the natural candidate for fundamentalists, somehow he managed to get the support of fundamentalists over other “better fitting” candidates during the primary followed by the usual support for the Republican nominee in the general election.

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