hardline political news and analysis

Month: December, 2017

Here Comes Santa Claus (for the 1%)

Well, well, here comes the tax bill, all tied up in a nice red bow for Christmas. That’s “red” for the deficits its authors admit it will create (not to mention the much larger ones every other economist predicts it will generate). Also “red” as in “red-faced” for the duplicitous behavior of those behind this irresponsible law.

Not that the outcome was ever in doubt. As I have written before, tax cuts – especially for the wealthy and corporations – are the sine qua non of Republican governance: the essential reason the circus that is the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Express rolled into town. Unlike efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the “affected industry” in this case was gung-ho for passage, a sentiment shared by something around 25% of the rest of the country.

There is a certain absurdist quality to the intensity and obsessiveness surrounding passage of the tax bill. After all, when the only congressional response to madmen using automatic weapons to slaughter scores of people is to ease the interstate ability to carry concealed handguns into states that do not allow such a practice, one could reasonably wonder if the entire Republican legislative agenda is not intended as some kind of sick joke.

Any serious analysis of the tax legislation must begin and end with an evaluation of its distributional effects: how concentrated are the benefits? Of course, in sheer dollar terms, any law that grants benefits to the middle class is going to spend a lot of money doing so; but the benefits accrued by the middle class (maybe enough to buy a wide screen TV monitor) are miniscule compared to the largesse piled on the plates of the 1% (enough to buy a house to put the TV in). Indeed, more than 83% of the benefits of this absurd bill will flow to the top 1%.

The second act of this farce will be the looming cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a vast array of discretionary spending, compelled by the language of the tax bill in order to address the $1.5 trillion deficit it acknowledges will be created. And don’t go to the bank that the $1.5 trillion number is a ceiling; baked into it are rosy economic scenarios endorsed by a small number of serious economists; actually, by none. Never the mind, count on Republicans suddenly rediscovering their inner deficit reduction mania sometime after January 3. Sort of like an arsonist torching a building and then complaining the fire department took too long to arrive.

“Couldn’t be better,” an exultant Mitch McConnell declared after ramming the little analyzed bill through on a party lines vote. Actually, it could have been, if Mitch had been able to keep the sweetheart arrangement he surreptitiously dropped in to benefit a college in his own state, but that provision (like the very title of the bill) was ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian.

There are many big lies surrounding this legislation, but none moreso than to label it “tax reform.” It is a tax cut, pure and simple, ill-timed since the economy does not require priming, and inappropriate since it fails to address economic challenges like infrastructure development, the effects of expanding automation, or offshoring of U.S. jobs. Nor does it slam shut the “carried interest” loophole that allows a tiny fraction of hedge fund billionaires to escape fair taxation – a tax reform Donald Trump had promised during the 2016 campaign. Instead, like all other Republican tax schemes, this bill promises that growth will eradicate the deficits the new law will create. But take it from Bruce Bartlett, who authored the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp. “It’s not true,” Bartlett has admitted. “It’s nonsense, it’s BS.”

Well, considering the circus analogy I used earlier, “BS” probably is as good a way to describe the new tax cut as any, and the people walking behind the GOP elephants are the supposed Senate hardliners who were going to oppose the bill unless it cracked down on the deficit, protected health care and addressed DACA students: Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain. McConnell delivered nothing to any of them but a wink and a nod, and they went for it like a 5 year old swallows the magic trick in a sideshow. Don’t think for a minute these clowns are going to clean up the mess left behind the Republican elephants; the bill, while admittedly flawed in their views, was “good enough.”

The people who do deserve credit are congressional Democrats who unanimously opposed this fatally flawed legislation that they were given no role in fabricating. Since passage was assured with Republican-only votes, it would have been easy for House and Senate Democrats facing difficult races next year to relieve themselves of having to explain why they voted against a tax cut for their constituents. But they didn’t: whether for policy or politics, they stuck together, banking that the bill’s low approval rating and long term consequences will prove them right for having opposed it.

In the short term, however, there will be more celebrating by Republicans in the Congress and Donald Trump (himself an enormous beneficiary of the new law), and to some extent, they are entitled to crow. After all, no one can say they hadn’t explained their intentions; too many voters either weren’t paying attention or thought it would all work out well for them in the end. Well, it won’t, nor for the economy of the country. Politico called the new law a “once-in-a-generation success,” and let’s hope they are right; we can’t afford too many “successes” like this one.




Alabama After-Action Review

Doug Jones’ slim victory in the Alabama Senate race last night was a gigantic event in American politics, but it remains to be seen whether it, like the Virginia election in November, was a genuine harbinger of an anti-Trump, Republican-rejecting mid-term course correction. Trump naturally was quick to diminish the significance of Jones’ astonishing victory in a state he won by nearly 30 points just 13 months ago. Predicting Jones’ tenure in the seat will not last beyond the 2020 election, the President commented, “It never ends!” Don’t we know it.

Democrats have every reason to be exultant by the outcome, but there are important lessons for party activists as we gear up for the 2018 congressional races. No one should be under the misimpression that the Alabama (or Virginia) results give license to Democrats to behave like, well, Democrats, chasing every sparkling light and divisive, identity-based cause and demanding absolute ideological fealty to “progressive” axioms. Republicans are unlikely to reliably provide a Bible-thumping molester as their candidate of choice, so the district-by-district, state-by-state battles next year will not necessarily provide the same kinds of opportunities that Roy Moore presented.

  • In an election decided by about 1.5%, only 35% of Alabamans voted despite a well-publicized recognition this would be a close and consequential contest. Some of the low turnout, common in special and off-year elections, was doubtless attributable to Republicans who (for whatever reason) voted with their feet and stayed home; GOP turnout in many key counties was low. But 2018 presents a challenge for Democrats who must sustain the anger and energy that propelled the Alabama and Virginia victories to generate atypical off-year turnout; whether they can, given the inevitability of disappointments over the next year (that may leave base groups indifferent to the party) will be crucial to seizing the House and/or majority.
  • Democrats did much better among white suburbanites, college educated and white women than they did in 2016, but those changes could prove ephemeral against candidates less toxic than Moore. Even with his hair-raising record of misconduct, Moore still won white women by 29 points last night.
  • Black turnout (along with other members of the Democratic coalition) will be crucial to victory in 2018 and 2020. Although black voters were faulted for not turning out sufficiently in the key Mid-Western states whose loss cost Clinton victory in 2016, they substantially outperformed white voters in Alabama; over 70% of black voters cast ballots, a constituency Jones won by 92 points. Will black voters be as engaged nationally in 2018? Will Hispanics be, if Democrats are not perceived as pushing the DREAM Act as hard as they can in budget negotiations?
  • Democrats showed some strategic discipline, overlooking Jones’ moderate views on some topics. Will they also forgive some moderate votes he will assuredly cast in the Senate? While Jones was upfront, and risked real dangers, in his support of abortion rights, he did not pledge fealty to every special interest in the Democratic catechism. He and others understood that if you make unreasonable demands of Dixie Ds, you get Dixie Rs. DNC Chair Tom Perez caught criticism earlier in the year when he asserted the party would reject any anti-abortion candidate (he was quickly rebuked by Nancy Pelosi and others). Democrats must realize that the most crucial (i.e., the ones that determine majorities) elections are won in the middle, and must accept candidates whose views actually reflect, rather than confront, their constituents. This fall in Alabama, the activist base showed signs of behaving like politicos instead of simply like protestors.
  • Electorally, Alabama shows any seat can be in play (well, there’s always Utah) with the right candidate and the right political atmosphere. Howard Dean was correct: you need to fight everywhere to win somewhere. As was the case in the 1974, 1994 and 2010 wave elections, you can win seats you never thought were in play.
  • At the same time, no one should come to the conclusion that the conservative political movement has suffered any type of deep organizational setback. The underlying machinery of the hard Right remains quite strong, although encumbered by the divisive primary challenges promised by Steve Bannon and others. The conservative infrastructure – organization, finance, media – is  deeply rooted in three generations of American politics, and it remains largely unaffected by Moore’s defeat. Absent the multiple morals charges and the abandonment by key GOP allies like Sen. Richard Shelby, Roy Moore, in all his holy roller, gun waving, Scripture spouting goofiness, would be heading to the United States Senate (as would virtually any other Alabama Republican).
  • Among the winners, Sen. Cory Booker, who came into the state touting his own roots in sweet home Alabama and seemingly demonstrated an impressive ability to rally black voters to show up and vote. National Democrats are unlikely to ignore his success (along with John Lewis and Barack Obama, neither of whom are looking at 2020 in quite the same way as Booker).
  • Potential winners: Susan Collins and Jeff Flake. With the GOP’s Senate majority now at 2 (since a tie means VP Pence gives Republicans a victory), Collins and Flake have enormous leverage to press the demands they made during the Senate vote on the tax bill, neither of which Mitch McConnell has any intention of keeping. Now we will see whether these two “mavericks” are, as they say here in Santa Fe, all hat and no cattle. House Democrats used to say that Collins was always there when we didn’t need her. Will she insist McConnell’s promises be kept, or fold like a cheap suitcase?

In the end, the Jones victory proved Nancy Pelosi’s longstanding observation that adherence to the 3 M’s wins elections, especially under difficult circumstances: money is crucial, and Jones outspent Moore 6-1 on television; message discipline is key: stick to core issues that resonate with the target electorate, like jobs and economic opportunity), and mobilization: mailings and TV/radio are nice, but organize an army of foot soldiers, as did Jones whose supporters knocked on over 300,000 doors. Good lessons, great campaign, and an upbeat ending to a year of disorienting political chaos.

NOTE: My forthcoming book, The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship is now available for pre-order.

Some early reviews:

  • “I’ve never read anyone who ‘gets’ Congress and its characters as Lawrence does.” Chris Matthews, MSNBC
  • “A fascinating account of the Class of ’74 … Students of American politics must read this gripping story of these turbulent years on Capitol Hill.” Julian Zelizer, Princeton University
  • “A landmark volume on congressional history.” Norman Ornstein, AEI
  • “A fascinating account that sheds new light on Congress’ past and reveals deeper truths about its present.” E.J. Dionne, Brookings, Washington Post
  • “A remarkably vivid portrait … It is hard to put down and downright fun to read.” Frances Lee, University of Maryland




Barnes & Noble: