hardline political news and analysis

Month: November, 2016

Is Trump the Republicans’ Cowbird?


The fledgling Populist Party made a fateful decision 120 years ago to join forces with Democrats in supporting William Jennings Bryan for president. Populists and Democrats did not agree on many issues, but they shared a common enthusiasm for the free coinage of silver to boost the money supply. That was sufficient to persuade Populist leaders not to field their own candidate (as they had in 1892) but to throw in with Bryan. When the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, the Populist Party was virtually obliterated as a significant entity in American politics.

Both contemporary observers and historians have questioned the wisdom of the Populist decision, a strategy of opportunism that linked the party to a dubious issue and subsequent campaign disaster. Henry Demerest Lloyd, the muckraking journalist who was sympathetic to the Populists, faulted party leaders for allowing themselves to be lured into their fatal political alliance. Lloyd called “free silver” the “cowbird of the Populist movement” after the fowl that lays its eggs in the nests of others and often fouls the host’s brood.

One question emanating from the shocking 2016 election is whether Donald Trump is the cowbird of the Republican Party. Historically, Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative in the contemporary sense of those terms: Trump is a party unto himself, with positions on issues from immigration to LGBT rights to trade to tax policy that have distinguished him from Republican conservative orthodoxy. He abandoned central tenets of conservative thought dating back a half century.


After an initial hesitation (doubtless mingled with dread), most of the Republican establishment has opportunistically lined up behind Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan realized that withholding support from the party’s nominee was inconsistent with their obligations as Republican leaders and might also jeopardize their own candidates if Trump supporters sought payback at the polls.

Much of the Washington Republican community has loyally lined up behind the president-elect. He named the Republican National Committee chairman to be his chief of staff and he has tapped into the deep reserves of K Street lobbyists to staff his transition and likely his administration as well. Indeed, by the time Inauguration Day arrives, it is likely the distinction between Trump and the GOP will seem indistinguishable.

Which is where that cowbird analogy comes in.


Trump, whose conservative credentials are suspect, successfully bullied his way into the Republican roost, but how beneficial will his presence be for the other residents of the nest? After all, for better or worse, Trump’s misfortunes and setbacks will inevitably become those of the Republican Party, which has embraced him. But the GOP may well come to rue the day it invited such an unpredictable and volatile leader into its midst. A

s Trump pursues policies that clash with longtime Republican dogma and interests, will conservatives revolt? When he agrees to defer deportations and sanctions only a partial fence paid for by U.S. taxpayers, how will the wall proponents respond? If he declines to repeal the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — entirely or reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders on LGBT rights or rescind the Iran arms agreement or the Paris climate treaty, will conservative stalwarts suspect they have been duped?


We are only a week into the Trump pre-presidency, and there already are signs that this could be a fecund administration for intrigue and scandal. The reports of bloodletting within the transition team already are legendary, with the abrupt firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief along with several top deputies, reportedly as retribution for Christie’s prosecution of the father of Trump’s son-in-law. The appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to a top West Wing position stunned and worried observers on all sides of the political divide, including the oddly repentant Glenn Beck. And this is just the beginning.


Historians never like to make predictions, especially in circumstances as unprecedented as Trump preparing to occupy the Oval Office. But the early indications suggest that major embarrassments and scandals could easily overwhelm this amateur political operation that is rife with financial conflicts of interest, inflicting deep damage not only on Trump but on his fellow Republicans.


Is Trump the cowbird of the Republicans? It’s too early to say, but one fact is beyond doubt: It’s too late to kick him out of the nest without likely bringing the whole flock down with him.


(Reprinted from the Santa Fe New Mexican, November 18, 2016)

Don’t Mourn: Organize!

(Printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Saturday, November 13, 2016)

A decade ago, after Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress, President George W. Bush admitted that Republicans had taken a “thumping.” Two years later, Republicans were plunged into even greater despair when Democrats won the presidency and enacted a substantial litany of progressive legislation.

Last Tuesday, Democrats took a “trumping” that has left progressives alternating between shock, anguish and, in some cases, genuine fear of what an America governed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the House Freedom Caucus might unleash.

They should be concerned. The people who will soon be in charge of the U.S. government are hard-line ideologues. It seems highly probable that ISIS or some other bad foreign actor will quickly test the inexperienced President Trump, and no one has an idea how he might respond. Domestically, he and congressional allies will use their newfound power to unwind as much of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legacy as they can, employing every governing device at their disposal from executive orders to the complex reconciliation process that will limit Senate Democrats’ opportunities for obstruction. In the House, the Freedom Caucus has apparently decided to give Speaker Paul Ryan a pass, choosing a unified GOP front to advance its agenda rather than devolving into a counterproductive internecine struggle at the outset of the 115th Congress.

There is not much point in sugar-coating what lies in store for progressives: It is going to be at least as demoralizing and destructive as the Obama salad days were for conservatives. But it is one thing to be weepy and dispirited, or to take to the streets questioning the legitimacy of the election outcome (that was going to be Trump’s response, remember?) and another to plan a serious political response to the events of Nov. 8.

Let’s take a deep breath. Allowing a little time to pass will facilitate clearer thinking than is possible immediately in the concussive aftermath of Trump’s victory. Much of what passes for “fact” right now consists of pundits inventing stories to fill dead airtime or self-promotion from aspirants to positions in the Trump administration. Prepare for the inevitable aftershocks: the Electoral College vote in December; appointments to Cabinet and White House positions; the inauguration on Jan. 20; the arrival of the first Trump budget in early February. Each will generate a paroxysm of anxiety among Democrats, which is understandable, but which doesn’t take one step toward achieving a political outcome more reminiscent of 2008 than of 2016.

It is instructive to remember than in response to the 2008 blowout, Republicans turned their energies to the state and local elections of 2010. Over the course of the Obama presidency, Republicans have amassed an increase of more than 900 such positions, and as of January will control more governorships than at any time in history. These positions have been the springboard for controlling the redistricting process that immeasurably helped the GOP build and hold its congressional majority in the intervening six years, and provided the farm team from which current and future political leaders are being promoted.

Democrats need to replicate such a strategy for all the same reasons. If Democrats pay as little attention to preparing for the upcoming 2020 reapportionment as they did a decade earlier, the possibility of controlling the House will be lost for another decade. Moreover, Democrats are in desperate need of a bigger farm team. One reason Hillary Clinton emerged as the inevitable if flawed nominee was the paucity of credible alternatives capable of challenging her. The party’s current leadership is mostly well into its 60s and 70s, and offers no credible candidates for national office. For a party predicating its appeal on young voters, a new generation of inspiring and motivating leaders is needed, not simply at the presidential level but within Congress as well.

In those states with progressive governments already in place, or those that can be won in the coming years, Democrats should embrace a “progressive federalism” that initiates policy experimentation where real impacts can be measured and replicable prototypes can be developed. Smart, creative people should look to opportunities in state capitals and city halls, not simply languish in powerless congressional offices where good ideas have little chance for advancement.

If the opportunities for creative policymaking in Washington are stymied, build capacity in Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., in Springfield, Ill., and Denver, in Lansing, Mich., and Trenton, N.J. If Trump and Congress send block-grant federal money to the states (a strong likelihood), fight for control of state governments that can demonstrate the effectiveness of progressive policies precluded at the national level. Conservatives have long advocated devolving power and money back to the states; maybe that’s not such a bad idea if Capitol Hill remains a sclerotic gridlock.

Lastly, stop with all the self-flagellation. “We liberal elitists are wrecks,” Garrison Keillor complains. “America died on Nov. 8,” Neal Gabler mourns. “It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety,” declares David Remnick. Oh, please! We lost an election we should have won, largely because nearly half the electorate didn’t vote, key portions of the Democratic base didn’t bother to show up, and millions of those who did fell for a lot of hooey from a non-taxpaying, subcontractor-stiffing, immigrant-bashing, bankruptcy-declaring, job-exporting misogynist.

Wallowing in self-pity, anguishing that we are, in Gabler’s words, “a pariah country,” or engaging in symbolic paroxysms of futility like a “Cal-exit” secession of our largest state or abolishing the Electoral College are wasteful diversions, luxuries for people who really do want to make America great again.

A century ago, the famed labor organizer Joe Hill confronted a future far more bleak than that facing today’s Democrats; he was about to be executed. Hill’s advice to his compatriots: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Still good advice.