The return of the Republican “access” dodge

Last December, as the GOP brainstormed how to package their Obamacare replacement, House Republican aides came up with a cute euphemism for taking healthcare from millions of people: providing “universal access” in lieu of universal coverage.  “We would like to get to a point where we have what we call universal access, where everybody is able to access coverage to some degree or another,” a top Republican aide told the New York Times.

The “access” talking point became a go-to dodge in the GOP repeal effort.  During his Senate confirmation hearings, health secretary Tom Price repeatedly offered variations of a promise to ensure that all Americans “have the opportunity to gain access” to insurance coverage.

The Republican hope was that no one would notice the implication of their spin: the glaring fact that “access” is gigantic step backward from actual coverage.  It’s one thing to have mere “access” to a roof over your head; it’s another thing entirely to actually be covered by one.

But Bernie Sanders swiftly cut through the GOP noise at Price’s hearing.  “Has access to’ does not mean that they are guaranteed health care,” Sanders said. “I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don’t have the money to do that.”

The weak sauce of “universal access” set the tone for the slow motion nosedive of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort.  The line gradually disappeared as it became clear that there was no spin artful enough to sell the shitburger royale that was the Republican plan to toss 20 million plus people off of their health insurance.

But alas, the “access” dodge has been re-born to kick off yet another Republican effort to take from the poor and middle-class to give to the rich.  This time, it’s tax reform, the GOP’s con to goose working people with a pittance while showering its wealthy donor class with massive tax cuts.  It’s a plan that would hollow out the income distribution even more, exacerbating our already gaping income inequality.

To put a glossy sheen on this repulsive goal, Republicans are resurrecting the empty promise of “access.”  During a conference call with reporters previewing Trump’s tax reform pitch, one White House official said, “We’re going to build a tax code that really allows all Americans to have access to the American dream.”

Again, theoretical “access” to the American dream is far from the same thing as being able to attain the American dream.  As a matter of fact, Trump’s tax plan would give the poor a whole $40 toward that dream, while shoveling a whopping $940,000 to the already super-rich.  Who’s better positioned to buy the $10 million house here?

While White House staffers feel the inner tug to fudge the true nature of their policies, Trump has no qualms about outright lying.  On Wednesday, he promised that his tax plan will produce a “big fat beautiful paycheck” for millions of American workers.

It will not.  His plan will make the rich richer while tossing pocket change to the poor and middle-class.  It provides the same illusory and fraudulent pathway to the American dream that Trump University once did.  When it comes to providing access to broad prosperity, conservative policy is a bridge to nowhere.

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A supreme theft

This week, Donald Trump announced his nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy that arose after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death during President Obama’s second term in office.  The nomination is the result of stolen goods that Senate Republicans housed for ten months and then giftwrapped for Trump upon taking office.  The coming Supreme Court fight is thus a bridge between the radical insurgent GOP of the Obama years to the vengeful and autocratic Trump regime taking shape—a fight that, for good or ill, will bind Trump and the GOP more than ever.

On March 16, 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated after Justice Scalia’s death.  Garland was the widely respected, long serving Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second highest court in the land.  An ideological moderate, Garland had previously gained acclaim from influential senators on both sides of the aisle.

The Republican-controlled Senate refused to even hold a hearing or give Judge Garland an opportunity to make his case.  Instead, the Senate kept the vacancy open, denying Obama his constitutional prerogative to appoint a justice, and held onto the seat on the off-chance a Republican won the presidency in 2016.  This was an unprecedented abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty to advise and consent upon the president’s nominee.

So the vacancy that Trump is now filling is the result of plunder committed by the GOP against the country’s first black president.  And that plunder was the culmination of a relentless effort to brand that president as illegitimate.  As Obama took office in 2009, Senate Republicans cast into minority opposition seized on their base’s fear and revulsion to Obama’s politics and identity and molded it into a legislative strategy.  Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vowed total resistance to the president’s supposed radical socialist agenda.  McConnell sought to deny Obama any stamp of bipartisanship, sullying the president’s popularity and lifting the Republicans’ chances to reclaim majority status in Congress.

Congressional Republicans did the work of tarring Obama as an ideological outsider.  Meanwhile, Trump was busy stoking fears of Obama as an ethnic outsider with a fraudulent birth certificate.  This all served to cement fear and paranoia in the minds of GOP voters that the White House was in illegitimate hands—even though that president was twice elected with a popular vote majority free of any foreign or law enforcement interference.  The Republican Senate’s theft of Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee was the final malfeasant act of eight years of delegitimization.

That is the legacy of Trump’s Supreme Court inheritance: one of theft and deceit.  The process for filling a seat on the country’s highest court is no longer governed by law or custom—and certainly not by the Constitution—but instead by raw power.  The operative principle now is that if Republicans have the power to deny a Democratic president a Supreme Court pick, they will do so.  It’s about power and nothing more.  Any other claimed principles—about letting the people have a say in the presidential election, etc.—are backward-manufactured rationales to justify a power grab.

Senate Democrats must now decide how to react.  Rightfully furious about their Republican colleagues’ egregious mistreatment of Garland, many are predisposed and ready to side with the demands of the party’s base to resist Trump at every turn.  Other Democrats worry about being blinded by rage and tripping into a fight that the party simply cannot win.

It’s true, Democrats will ultimately lose this nomination fight.  The left must understand the brutal math.  But that’s beside the point.  If Democrats think Senate Republicans will hesitate to nuke the filibuster on the next Supreme Court nomination if Democrats let this one go, they are deluding themselves.

This Court battle is not about the merits of the nominee.  And Democrats cannot to take the high road in a doomed attempt to save Supreme Court nominations from becoming a partisan race to the bottom.  Republicans are already running that race, and made clear with their treatment of Garland that the Supreme Court is no different from any other political contest.  Democrats have no choice but to engage in this fight or else make Supreme Court vacancies a one-way rightward ratchet where Democrats play by an old set of rules and norms that Republicans systematically obliterate.

If Democrats need a principle to justify fighting Trump’s nomination, here’s one: appointments should be required to get support from each party.  It’s hardly an unreasonable position—after all, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor both attracted bipartisan support.  And it wasn’t that long ago that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate 96-3.  This would call for a widely-approved consensus nominee—someone in the mold of, say… Merrick Garland, of whom Republican Senator Orrin Hatch once said would be a “consensus nominee” who had “no question” of being confirmed.

But here we are.  One way or another, Donald Trump, a popular-vote loser of dubious electoral legitimacy and of whom a growing majority of Americans disapprove, will fill the Supreme Court seat heisted by Senate Republicans from Barack Obama.  This joint operation binds Trump and the GOP closer than ever, as Republican senators gush over the credentials and qualifications of his pick, seemingly oblivious to the impeccable credentials and qualifications of the man they spurned, Merrick Garland.

This linkage is about more than just a single Supreme Court confirmation, however.  There is a direct line from a conservatism that once sought small government to one that increasingly vilified government—that sowed distrust in institutions and then actively worked to weaken those institutions, creating the vacuum of authority that is ripe for Trumpism.  For an ideology that once prided itself on restraint, respect for tradition, and deference to preexisting institutions, conservatism has clearly lost it way.  When followed to its extreme, the endpoint of conservatism is Trump.  It is eminently possible that in the long run, the strain of revolutionary conservatism that has prevailed on the right since 1980 is outright incompatible with liberal democracy.

How Obamacare repeal sets the table for the entire GOP agenda

President-elect Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are ready to press ahead with Obamacare repeal come January.  The effects of repeal will be devastating enough.  But repeal also triggers problems that help the GOP justify the rest of its agenda.  By repealing Obamacare, Paul Ryan and company will try to bootstrap in drastic changes across government in the name of reducing deficits and stabilizing federal programs like Medicare.

Republican plans to repeal Obamacare would exact a massive human toll.  Repeal could throw upwards of 30 million people off of their health insurance, doubling the current uninsured rate.  And if Republicans gut the law’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions, 52 million people would struggle to find affordable insurance.

The human carnage of repeal is meant to coerce Democrats into going along with a right-wing replacement bill.  Republicans will have 52 votes in the Senate in 2017.  They can repeal most of Obamacare with 51 votes for a reconciliation bill.  But to enact new legislation replacing the law, they’ll need eight Democratic votes to overcome a filibuster.  The thinking is that creating an Obamacare cliff with massive human disaster on the other side will compel cooperation from Democrats.

Never mind whether this scheme can actually work without provoking a stampede of insurers out of Obamacare’s marketplaces during the transition period leading up to the cliff.  Like the hostage-taking expeditions during the Obama administration—the debt ceiling fiasco, the fiscal cliff, the government shutdown—this is another instance of the GOP manufacturing a crisis in order to strong-arm its policy priorities through Congress.

Conveniently for Republicans, Obamacare repeal opens the door to far more of the conservative agenda than just upending the individual insurance market.  According to a new report from the Brookings Institute, repeal would also jeopardize the solvency of Medicare.  Obamacare included a 0.9 percent payroll tax on incomes above $200,000 to help shore up Medicare’s finances.  This extended the solvency of the program’s trust fund until at least 2028.  Without this tax, Medicare could go broke in less than eight years.

It’s impossible to imagine conservatives restoring any of Obamacare’s taxes on the wealthy.  (Indeed, cutting these taxes is part of the appeal of Obamacare repeal for Republicans.)  And by repealing the law, Republicans also drag Medicare closer to crisis.  It’s easy to picture Ryan and others seizing the opportunity to warn that Medicare cannot be sustained without drastic changes along conservative lines–the type of reform Ryan has spent years pursuing.  The conservative vision would terminate our commitment to Medicare as a government-run insurance plan, and replace it with a voucher payment to seniors to shop on their own for private insurance plans.

So by repealing Obamacare, Republicans worsen Medicare’s financial position and thereby tee up the case for privatization.  But that’s not all.  The passage of Obamacare has corresponded with a marked slowdown in the growth of healthcare costs over the last several years.  The U.S. is currently on pace to spend $2.6 trillion less on healthcare than we expected before Obamacare was passed.  It’s difficult to assess how much Obamacare contributed to these savings, but it undoubtedly played a part.

If this slowdown is reversed by repeal, and healthcare costs begin to balloon again, the GOP could well use it as an excuse to pass the rest of its radical policy prescription across the entire gamut of American insurance options.  These reforms range from block-granting Medicaid to capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance to promoting higher deductibles for more people.

Repeal could even give Republicans space to shoehorn in their desired policies outside of healthcare.  The Brookings report also found that Obamacare repeal will worsen long-term deficits.  Republicans will also undoubtedly pursue massive tax cuts near simultaneously with Obamacare repeal.  This combination will cause deficits to explode.  And as the Congressional Budget Office begins projecting larger and larger deficits, Republicans will have a ready-made excuse to justify austerity politics and massive cuts to safety net programs and other domestic spending.

We’ve seen this story before: the GOP leverages a crisis of its own making to push through its chosen policy prescriptions.  Even with a congressional majority, Republicans won’t be able to quit governing through crisis mode.  Their policy agenda will be painful for millions of Americans, and deeply unpopular because of it.  Republicans need a pretext to bolster the political necessity for making sweeping changes to our safety net.  Repealing Obamacare unlocks a whole host of rationales to help the GOP do precisely that.

But this also allows Democrats and other Obamacare defenders to lay out the full stakes of repeal.  Obamacare repeal doesn’t just rob insurance from the millions who have gained coverage under the law.  Repeal also jeopardizes the financial sustainability of Medicare for future retirees.  Repeal threatens to ignite higher healthcare inflation, raising premiums and eroding employees’ take-home pay.  Repeal erodes the financial standing of a whole host of programs for low-income Americans that are vulnerable to arbitrary budget cuts.  The implications of repeal are simply massive.

By repealing Obamacare, the GOP is trying to tee up its entire legislative agenda.  Liberals have an obligation to shout from the mountaintops about the full harm of this conservative exercise in bootstrapping.

How Trump upends Paul Ryan’s conservative vision

Speaker Paul Ryan made headlines Thursday when he refused to endorse Donald Trump for president.  While Trump has now (remarkably) become the clear presumptive nominee, Ryan is “not there yet.”

Before backing Trump, Ryan wants to be sure that “we have a standard bearer that bears our standards”; someone who embraces the party’s agreed-upon “common platform of conservative principles” and will “take[ ] these conservative principles, appl[y] them to the problems and offers solutions to the country . . . .”  Trump quickly slapped away Ryan’s attempt to flex establishment muscle.  In a three-sentence statement, he countered that he is “not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.”

The alpha-dog positioning between the GOP’s nominee and its highest-ranking elected official is undoubtedly in part a dispute over Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.  But it’s also about whether Trump can be trusted to stick to accepted conservative policy stances.

Throughout the Obama years, the governing blueprint for conservatism has been the series of budget proposals Ryan crafted as House Ways and Means Chairman.  The details varied slightly from year to year, but the core instincts remained the same: hack away at social programs while slashing taxes for the rich.  He planned to replace Medicare with vouchers to purchase private insurance, and scrap Medicaid for an under-funded block grant to the states.  At one time, his budgets planned to partially privatize Social Security, a long-time conservative aspiration.   While 69 percent of Ryan’s proposed budget cuts would come from low-income programs like food stamps and Pell Grants, he would nonetheless slash tax rates for wealthy from 39 percent to 25 percent, costing nearly $6 trillion over a decade.

For Republican leaders, Ryan’s budget was the path forward.  It would shrink the size of government by converting the key liberal twentieth century social insurance achievements from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans, shifting the costs and risks from government to individual Americans.  And it would unburden the so-called “job creators” of trillions of dollars in pesky taxes.

They just needed a president to turn Ryan’s vision into a reality.  In a 2012 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist explained, “All we have to do is replace Obama. [. . .] We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

All that conservatives needed was the signature from a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—candidates who had pledged fealty to Ryan’s budget.  Instead, their only hope for the next four years is Donald J. Trump.

Between his police-state deportation and border plans, unthinking conspiracy mongering, and unrelentingly racist and misogynistic diarrhea of the mouth, it’s easy to lose sight of the shreds of policy ideas lurking in Trump’s campaign.  Some of this is because Trump’s policy positions seem subject to revision and all-out abandonment at any given moment.   But on a few key issues, he has stuck to his guns in a way that is in direct tension with the agenda championed by Ryan and others.

For instance, in 2013, Trump went to CPAC and told conservatives that they could not make any changes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and still expect to win elections.  In a book two years earlier, he chastised conservatives for dismissing the social contract embedded in these programs, saying, “that’s not an ‘entitlement,’ that’s honoring a deal. We as a society must also make an ironclad commitment to providing a safety net for those who can’t make one for themselves.”

Trump stood by these positions during the primary.  In a debate in Miami, he pledged to “do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is.”  He boasted that he was the “first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.”  He even supported strengthening Medicare by letting it negotiate drug prices.

Because these are all broadly popular programs, there’s little incentive for Trump to change course now.  But each of these positions bucks longstanding conservative goals.  In fact, Trump is already backtracking from his own proposal for a massive tax cut for the wealthy—his one policy plank in line with the Ryan budget.  “I am not necessarily a huge fan of that,” he explains.

Which makes sense.  The philosophy underlying the Ryan budget is supply-side faith in the wealthy as job-creating economic generators.  The only job creator that Trump glorifies is himself.

In a Fox News interview Thursday night, Trump reiterated that he isn’t at all interested in signing on to Ryan’s conception of conservative principles. So for Washington conservatives, Trump’s nomination jeopardizes their carefully crafted vision for reform.  Ryan’s theory of what ails the country is big government stifling and coddling away growth.  Trump’s theory is stupid government getting ripped off at home and abroad.  Only one of these theories seems to have struck a chord with voters.

 

Conservatism’s working class blues

In 2004, Thomas Frank set off a firestorm of debate with his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? He explored the question of why working-class white voters in America’s heartland insisted on supporting conservative candidates, even when such support might cut against their own economic interests. Frank’s answer was that conservatives were duping these voters by raising the salience of social wedge issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In the years since Frank’s book became a touchstone in liberal circles, conservatives have consistently blasted Frank’s thesis as a condescending and elitist anthropologic dive in to the Heartland’s psychology. It exposed the “smug superiority on the left,” they said. Even today, they condemn Frank’s narrow vision of what’s good for the working class: “To Frank, the idea that voters might have interests beyond their economic status was unthinkable.”

Regardless of whether one accepted Frank’s theory, he was early detecting a certain angst in the Heartland. The possibly curious voting patterns were simply an indicator that something was awry.

We are now learning that Frank may have had his thumb near the pulse of a deeper crisis than we knew. In November, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a jarring study finding that the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans had singularly and sharply increased over the last decade and a half. The authors found that “poisonings” and suicides among this population had spiraled to previously unseen heights. People were medicating themselves, abusing opioids, and, increasingly, ending their lives.

Deaton speculated that these Americans had “lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress.” Traditional working class jobs like manufacturing had vanished. Access to economic opportunity with basic education was once the norm, but was now nonexistent. Despair in the heartland and among the working class was producing tangible and terrifying human devastation, the economists found.

At the same time, the Trump phenomenon was sweeping through this very population. Trump was trouncing in the counties with the highest middle-aged white mortality rates. He was winning county after county with the least college diplomas; the most people out of work; and the greatest loss of manufacturing employment. In short, Trump was cleaning up in Case-and-Deaton Country: the places without jobs, education, or hope—the places where people were quite literally dying from despair.

Establishment conservatives, of course, have been tearing their collective hair out over the rise of Trump. They’ve pleaded with voters to see through his con routine and reject his strongman show, marshaling all of the intellectual firepower in their arsenal against Trump’s march to the nomination. Suddenly, there was a test of the allegiance of the conservative elite to the white working-class they had long professed to defend.

So what does the conservative elite think of the communities they used to lionize as “real America” now that they insist on supporting a candidate they loathe? Enter the National Review’s Kevin Williamson:

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

When the Twittersphere collectively gasped in horror at Williamson’s denunciation, the National Review only doubled down, sneering at the “self-destructive moral failures” of “millions of Americans [that] aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. [. . .] Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.”

Paul Krugman rightly connects this sentiment to Mitt Romney’s contempt for the 47 percent of Americans who make too little to owe federal income taxes, and to Speaker Paul Ryan’s critique of our social safety net as a coddling “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” “Stripped down to its essence,” Krugman concludes, “the G.O.P. elite view is that working-class America faces a crisis, not of opportunity, but of values.”

Simply put, this is the go-to conservative diagnosis of widespread crisis among those caught in the lower rungs of the social ladder. When evaluating (predominantly black) urban poverty, Ryan once warned that “[w]e have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” And when assessing what ails the unemployed, former Speaker John Boehner said the jobless would “rather just sit around” and coast off of public benefits.

Conservatives have been tsk-tsk’ing the morals of the urban poor and the jobless for years. Never mind that disability rolls have swelled in close correlation to the exodus of blue-collar jobs. Never mind that slashing unemployment benefits does nothing to aid the job search process. And never mind that the supposed cultural rot conservatives detect in poor African-American communities can overwhelmingly be traced to pervasive systemic disadvantage. When a community is in need, conservatives can almost always find a moral failing lurking close behind.

Yet this begs the fundamental question of whether a community’s moral anguish is the cause or the effect of its suffering. To Williamson and others, the white working class has “lost the narrative of their lives” because they picked up heroin needles, crushed OxyContin, and pulled one over on the Social Security office. End of story.

But under a more sympathetic—and, to my mind, more compelling—view of these communities, something has caused them to lose the narrative of their lives, and in response, they have stood numb as work disappeared, have resorted to disability checks just to make ends meet, and have increasingly succumbed to drug abuse or worse. The sky-high rate of poisonings, the futile search for meaningful work, and the alarming frequency of self-inflicted harm are indicators of a deeper existential crisis—a loss of self-value from far-reaching systemic upheaval. The dispiriting data uncovered by Case and Deaton are the symptoms, not the underlying disease.

What Case and Deaton want to discover—and what liberal policymakers want to fix—is that something: the root cause of this despair and these unmoored bearings. It’s undoubtedly too late to return to the ‘60s and on-shore a vast and job-intensive well-paying manufacturing sector. But if nothing else, we can craft a modern social insurance system to match the volatility and realities of 21st century capitalism. Indeed, if we want to reap the tremendous gains of such an economy, we have a moral obligation to cushion those whom it inevitably fails.

But if the determinative moral failing is the individual’s (or the community’s), then conservatives can rest easy while doing little to remedy the plight. And that’s the causation they’ve largely chosen: the cause of a community’s pathology is the community’s insistence on being pathologic. The fix is for the community to simply stop acting in pathologic ways.

It’s a diagnosis that confers agency and abhors dependency, it’s claimed. But how convenient that this theory of what ails the working class so neatly fits within the contours of the laissez-faire free-marketeering predisposition of conservatism. It’s a theory that lets conservatism wash its hands of the struggle of the dispossessed. Why alleviate hardship when you can moralize as it festers?

Conservatism has long claimed to defend the working class and the rural heartland from the snobbery of self-styled liberal elites. Now we know that these communities are suffering immensely in the twenty-first century. And the suffering has grown so acute that these communities have latched on in great numbers to a duplicitous and vulgar anti-politician who gives uninhibited voice to their rage and sense of past greatness lost.

Rather than defend these communities, some conservatives are turning their fire on them. “They deserve to die,” Williamson snorts. Which suggests that Frank was onto something all along. The white working class believed that conservatism had its back. But if there was ever any doubt, now it’s becoming clear: when times grow tough, too often the first instinct of conservatism is to cast judgment rather than to extend a helping hand.