On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

January 3, 2018

It sure looks as if an impeachment proceeding is inevitable, and that the issue of impeachment will dominate the 2018 elections, especially in the House. There is already enough on the public record, beginning with Trump’s obstruction of justice in his firing of FBI Director James Comey, to justify impeachment, and you can be sure that Robert Mueller’s report will provide a lot more details.

And the ever-helpful Steve Bannon is quoted in a just-published book calling a meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians “treasonous,” and adding, “They’re going to crack Junior like an egg on national TV.” Treasonous of course describes Trump Senior, too.

On December 6, a third of the Democratic Caucus, 58 House Democrats, voted for Representative Al Green’s resolution to open an impeachment proceeding. And on December 20, the Democratic Caucus voted to make Representative Jerry Nadler of New York the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, setting him up to become chairman.

Nadler, a strong progressive, defeated the more moderate Zoe Lofgren. Nadler did not vote for Green’s impeachment resolution, but only because he was keeping his powder dry. He will be a strong leader of an impeachment investigation that seems increasingly inevitable.

But is a fast track to impeachment a good idea? Skeptics led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argue that it might deflect focus from the monumental unpopularity of congressional Republicans, just as the Republican effort to impeach Clinton backfired in 1998. Worse, it could mobilize the Trump base, and increase Republican turnout.

On the other hand, given what’s likely to come out on Mueller’s report—not to mention the possibility of Trump’s firing of Mueller (which would be impeachable all by itself)—impeachment one way or another will be a dominant issue in the 2018 elections. If the Democrats do take back the House, which seems increasingly likely, it’s hard to imagine that impeachment will not proceed.

That’s a good thing—it’s the necessary way to get Trump out of office. But in the fall campaign, impeachment should not crowd out all other issues; the Republicans have plenty of other sins to answer for.

January 2, 2018

On the first day of 2018, The New York Times reported on a technological breakthrough. Google Street View’s images of America’s neighborhoods, a Stanford University study concludes, can now be interpreted by artificial intelligence to predict a neighborhood’s—or a street’s or a block’s—politics.

“Image recognition technology, much of it developed by major technology companies, has improved greatly in recent years,” the Times reported, noting that the primary data on which AI drew its conclusions were the cars parked on the street. “The Stanford project gives a glimpse at the potential. By pulling the vehicles’ makes, models, and years from the images, and then linking that information with other data sources, the project was able to predict factors like pollution and voting patterns at the neighborhood level.”

The story didn’t say if a name has been given to this project, but I know what its name was in 1980: Michael Berman. In that year, the most prominent California Democrat in the House of Representatives, and the most brilliant legislative strategist of House liberals, San Francisco’s Phil Burton, was the Democrats’ choice to head up the state’s decennial redistricting. California was growing by leaps and bounds, and Burton used the opportunity not only to give Democrats the edge in most of the state’s newly added districts, but to redistrict several right-wing Republicans—most notably, former John Birch Society Western Regional Director John Rousselot—into districts they could not win. Rousselot and several other Republicans lost their re-election bids in 1982.

Burton was an acknowledged genius at redistricting; he later called his 1980 line-drawing “my contribution to modern art.” (In fairness, I should note that he also steered to passage expansions of welfare, protections for mine workers, and the creation of Redwoods National Park; led the anti-Vietnam War Democrats in the House, engineered the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and ended the practice of assigning committee chairs strictly by seniority, which had the effect of dethroning the party’s remaining old guard Dixiecrats.)

What was Burton’s secret? How did he redistrict so masterfully, in a time when computers couldn’t yet spit out the data routinely used today to draw the lines? The answer is Michael Berman.

A onetime Burton aide who later became one of California’s most successful political consultants, in 1980, Berman got in his car and drove all over the state, assessing a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status by noting which cars were parked on which streets. His methods were essentially those of Google Street Views as interpreted not by artificial intelligence but his own. (As early as Henry Waxman’s first campaign for the California State Assembly, in 1968, Berman was experimenting with an embryonic version of micro-targeting voters, decades before it became common practice.) In 1990 and 2000, Berman was to play a similar role working with his brother Howard, a San Fernando Valley congressman who succeeded Burton (who died in 1983) as California Democrats’ capo de redistricting. But with each succeeding decade, the capacity to redistrict using computerized data grew substantially stronger. And today, in our age of digital marvels and artificial intelligence, tech has finally caught up with Michael Berman c. 1980, tooling down the street, noting all the cars.

December 22, 2017

The latest CNN poll has Democrats up 18 points in the voter choice for members of the House. There is an increasing chance that in a Democratic wave election, gerrymandering could backfire on the Republicans, and lead to a massive Democratic sweep, with a pickup of 75 seats or even more. (It takes only 24 for Dems to take back the House.)

Here’s how that works. Let’s say you are the Republican architects of extreme gerrymandering in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. You redraw the districts, as Republicans did in 2012, so that a popular statewide vote of 52-48 Republican translates into an allocation of two-to-one Republican House seats.

In order to accomplish that trick, however, you need to spread out likely Republican voters. You assume a normal election, with a modest but not an overwhelming Republican margin in each district.

But in the case of a Democratic wave election, the tactic backfires and the wave turns into a tsunami, because there aren’t enough Republican votes to go around. An 18-point average advantage for Democrats, depending on how the votes are distributed, could turn dozens of gerrymandered Republican seats into Democratic ones. That, plus normal Democratic gains in non-gerrymandered districts, could make 2018 one of the tidal swing years.

It’s true that Republicans will try to steal elections by voter suppression tactics, but that only operates in some states, and can only take you so far. The ordinarily risk-averse Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now considers fully 91 Republican-held seats worth contesting. The wave that began on Election Day in Virginia, and deepened with the Alabama election of Doug Jones, compounded by voter backlash against the tax bill, will only intensify.

December 21, 2017

One distinctive feature of Republicanism in the Age of Trump is the destruction of government agencies by appointment. Time and again, the president has appointed and the Senate confirmed directors committed to the destruction of the agency they’re directing and the inversion of its values. Think Scott Pruitt at the EPA, or Betsy DeVos at Education, or Ben Carson at HUD—the list, as you know, goes on and on.

Modern Republicanism being arrayed against the government’s protection and advancement of the public interest, GOP senators have happily confirmed each such nominee who’s come before them. Until this week.

On Tuesday, two Republican senators—South Dakota’s Mike Rounds and South Carolina’s Tim Scott—joined all their Democratic colleagues on the Senate Banking Committee to reject, by a 13-to-10 vote, Trump’s pick of Scott Garrett, a former GOP House member from New Jersey, to head the Export-Import Bank. While in the House, Garrett had repeatedly and vociferously called for abolishing the bank, a position that would align him with such agency mission-reversers as DeVos and Pruitt. But this time, some Republicans demurred.

It was a revelatory demurral. The Export-Import Bank is one of those rare institutions whose work draws both intense support and intense opposition from American business. The Bank helps multinational corporations like Boeing (which has a plant in Scott’s South Carolina) and General Electric find customers in distant lands by guaranteeing loans from foreign buyers. Not surprisingly, Boeing and GE lobbied furiously against Garrett’s appointment. (Garrett insisted he’d had a conversion and now favored the Bank’s continued existence, but Bank proponents clearly doubted his assurances.) The non-exporting sectors of American business have never warmed to the Bank, and pure laissez-faire conservatives have viewed it as an affront to the gods of market economics.

Placed alongside the Republicans’ simultaneous enactment of the tax monstrosity, Garrett’s rejection underscores a reliable guide to GOP behavior: When big business is united, Republicans give it what it wants (tax cuts, deregulation). When it’s divided, so’s the GOP.

December 20, 2017

I keep having arguments with friends and colleagues about the importance of electing a Democrat in 2020. Some say, let’s just find a Democrat who can be elected. Others say that it matters what kind of Democrat.

I’m emphatically with the second group. The road to Trumpism was paved by Democrats who really didn’t care about working-class Americans, who thought social issues and demographic shifts would carry the day, even if working people (of all races) got stiffed by Wall Street, who were happy to take gobs of money from Wall Street.

We saw how that worked out. And there is nothing to keep the right from winning on issues of class resentment—unless America elects not just a Democrat but a Democrat who puts pocketbook issues first, and who pays attention to the injuries of class.

This brings me to the year of the woman, and the issue of sexual harassment and abuse, now rightly occupying center stage. This reckoning is long overdue, and at the same time it is not the only issue that matters.

I was one of those who thought Democrats jumped the gun on hounding Al Franken to resign. It would have been just as effective—more effective—to let the ethics committee do its job. It is good to see some Democratic senators, such as Pat Leahy, having wreckers’ remorse on the railroading of Franken.

On that score, I’m no fan of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the leaders of the Senate's anti-Franken mob. Nor am I much of a fan of her tactical repositioning from Wall Street Democrat to sort-of-progressive Democrat.

After the abuse that Hillary Clinton took last year, it would be terrific to have a woman president. It would be even better to have a genuinely progressive woman president.

Maybe some of the good people on the Gillibrand bandwagon can explain why, if we can elect Gillibrand, we can’t elect Elizabeth Warren.

December 19, 2017

With the Republican tax bill poised to pass and propel economic inequality to still greater heights, the newspapers are full of stories charting how increasingly, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the rich are different from you and me.” While the growing distance between the billionaires and the rest of us is challenging art directors to come up with charts that still will fit on the page, the stories, depressingly, often seem as if they could be written on autopilot. Is there any new way to dramatize the rise of the new mega-rich?

Actually, yes. On Sunday, The New York Times ran a story revealing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the previously unrevealed purchaser of, at a cool $300 million, the world’s most costly home, the Chateau Louis XIV, just down the road from Versailles. (Bin Salman, it turns out, is also the guy who recently plunked down $450 million for that painting of Jesus, presumably by Da Vinci.)

Its name and neighborhood notwithstanding, the Chateau Louis XIV isn’t an old palace but brand new digs, on which construction was completed just two years ago. “To the naked eye,” the Times reports, “it appears to have been built in the time of Versailles … but the 17th-century design camouflages 21st-century technology.” Set on 57 landscaped acres, complete with a gold-leafed fountain and a guardhouse modeled on Marie Antoinette’s cottage at Versailles, the fountains, sound system, and lights can all be controlled by the Prince’s (or the Grand Vizier’s, or the Master of the Hounds’) iPhone.

The Times also notes that, “the moat includes a transparent underwater chamber with sturgeon and koi swimming overhead.”

The moat. Thank you, Mr. Crown Prince. By bringing back the moat, you have resurrected the most precisely apropos symbol—le moat juste, if you will—for our new age of inequality. There’s thems on the inside, and thems on the outs, and what better way to signal that divide than a moat, which commoners will be able to cross only after extensive vetting and security checks?

How about inserting moats into the Republican tax bill? Maximum marginal personal tax rate of 37 percent for the rich, and, say, just 7 percent for the rich with moats? What better expression could there be of Republican philosophy? 

December 18, 2017

At what point do working people who supported Trump start noticing the chasm between his rhetoric and reality—which is a government of, by, and for billionaires? This is trickier than it seems.

The tax bill, as we’ve all read, is a phony. It delivers most of the benefits to the rich, and screws middle-class homeowners in high-tax states. But it does deliver modest help to about 45 percent of the poor and working class.

How does it do that? Well, if you increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion, there is a lot of tax cutting to spread around, even if most of it goes to the rich. The doubling of the standard deduction will help many working people, and so will the rate cuts.

So even though public opinion polls show that the tax bill is monumentally unpopular, it may not be the best weapon to use against the Republicans in 2018.

But there are plenty of others, and the whole is more toxic than the sum of its parts.

Voters may not grasp all the nuances of how Trump is gutting worker and environmental protections, or failing to deliver on public works, but almost nothing about Trump or his program is popular. Most of all, Trump himself.

The Alabama Senate election gives some important clues to where the Republican vote will seriously crater in 2018 and 2020. Moore suffered big losses among women, relative to Trump’s Alabama’s support in 2016. Moore, of course, had a record of predatory sexual behavior not unlike Trump’s, and Trump’s own outrageous sexual conduct is back in the news.

In Alabama, there was a big falloff in Republican support among the young, the well-educated, and in the suburbs. And there was impressive black organizing and turnout.

Individual Republican candidates may try to distance themselves from Trump in 2018, but it won’t work. The midterm election will be a referendum on the most unpopular president in modern history, and the Republicans in Congress work hand in glove with him.

After Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report comes out, and it’s clear that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, Republicans will be even more unpopular if they try to stonewall an impeachment inquiry.

Yes, the tax bill is an abomination—and a very complex one—but it’s only one arrow in the Democrats’ quiver for 2018.

December 15, 2017

Maybe Trump’s crowing about the tax bill is premature. He staged a truly disgusting display at the White House, promising the legislation as “a Christmas present for the American people,” but a Christmas tree bill for lobbyists is more like it.

However the true Christmas present is that the bill seems to be in trouble again. Here are the elements:

Little Marco: Senator Rubio, repeatedly ridiculed by Trump during the campaign, has decided that his price for supporting the bill is a more generous child tax credit, and he has reminded his GOP colleagues that they’ve found gazillions for corporations, so how about something for working families? Rubio has a surprise ally in Utah Senator Mike Lee. A bigger child tax credit requires going back to the drawing board on the whole, delicately balanced bill, to make the numbers work without further increasing the deficit and losing deficit hawks.

Susan Collins: A true faux-moderate, Collins of Maine seems to be backing the leadership bill, but opposed the cut in the top rates. And in conversations with constituents she has left a little wiggle room to perhaps vote against final passage.

Two ailing Republicans: Arizona’s war-hero senator, John McCain, whose surprise vote killed the ACA repeal, is back in Walter Reed Hospital for an indefinite period. His staff won’t say when he is likely to be well enough to return to the Senate for a vote. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is also ill. McCain, like Rubio, was treated disgracefully by Trump.

Senator-elect Doug Jones (Democrat, Alabama!): There is some fencing over when Jones will be seated. First, the election results need to be certified. But if the voting slips beyond the Christmas break, the Republicans will likely have one less member of their caucus, making it just 51-49.

So here’s the state of play: In a Senate divided 52-48, the Republicans have already lost the vote of Bob Corker of Tennessee. If they lose one more, it’s 50-50, and Vice President Pence breaks the tie. If they lose two more, the bill goes down.

Those two could be any combination of Rubio, Lee, Collins—or McCain being too ill to vote, or Jones being seated, or Jeff Flake of Arizona, another object of Trump's crude ridicule, deciding to deny the increasingly unhinged Trump a big win.

It ain’t over till it’s over, folks.

December 14, 2017

Of all the numbers in the Alabama exit polls that should petrify Republicans, a few fairly jump out. A good deal of attention has been paid, and rightly so, to the level of African American turnout, which, at between 28 and 29 percent of the overall electorate, actually exceeded black turnout in 2012, when President Obama was on the ballot. If a comparable level of turnout can be approximated next year in Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s chances of re-election would rise significantly. And if Latino turnout follows the upward trajectory of minority participation we’ve seen in Alabama and Virginia, that would bode well for Democratic Senate pickups in Arizona and Nevada (which would enable Democrats to retake the Senate), and—who knows?—maybe even Texas, where Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who should have a lock on the Irish-Latino vote, is challenging Ted Cruz.

But the exit poll numbers that pose the real long-term peril to the GOP are those of the young. Among voters under 45, Doug Jones cleaned Roy Moore’s clock, winning 61 percent of young Alabamians. Cross-tabs from the election exit poll show that Jones got the vote of 41 percent of whites under the age of 30, and 28 percent of the vote of whites 30 and over.

In Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful 1939 comedy Ninotchka, Greta Garbo, playing a Soviet commissar delivering a short report on the latest purge trials, announces, “There will be fewer but better Russians!” The Trump-Bannon plan for the Republican Party seems to be to ensure there will be fewer and steadily more repulsive Republicans. The flight of millennials from Republican ranks has now extended to Alabama whites (who should be the party’s staunchest redoubt). A Monmouth national poll released Wednesday afternoon showed Trump’s approval rating among women down to a mere 24 percent, while his disapproval had soared to 68 percent—numbers at once completely understandable and utterly breathtaking. The GOP looks to be winnowing down to a party of old white men who don’t much like anybody else. 

Finally, a word on Alabama. At the end of World War II, when the Pentagon pondered where to put Werner Von Braun and his German rocketeers, it decided that if there was anyplace in these United States that wouldn’t be upset by a sudden influx of actual Nazi scientists, it would be Alabama. Seventy years later, the state is still backward and benighted, but as Doug Jones said in his victory speech, it cast a vote for decency on Tuesday. It may take a while, but let’s hope it’s the first of many. 

December 13, 2017

The election of Doug Jones portends several hopeful things. First, it shows that under the right circumstances, 30 percent of white Alabamians will vote for a Democrat, even a pro-choice Democrat; and that black anger can be turned into black voter mobilization. We may have a biracial progressive coalition yet.

Second, it deepens the schisms in the Trump-era Republican Party. The defeat of Roy Moore made a fool of Steve Bannon, and forced Trump into one of his bizarre dances with the truth: He was against Moore before he was for him. Most obviously, the win gives Democrats one more crucial Senate seat.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This victory was a one-off, and everything had to break right for Jones. It took a GOP candidate not only as fringe as Moore, but one who is also an accused child molester; combined with Alabama’s other Republican senator, Richard Shelby, denouncing Moore almost on election eve and refusing to support him; and Mitch McConnell signaling that he'd refuse to seat Moore. And with all of that, Jones won by just 1.5 points—barely more than the margin of theft.

Even so, coming in the wake of the Democrats’ stunning blue wave on Election Day, this win continues the momentum, and the narrative of Democrats on the march and Republicans in disarray. As Trump becomes increasingly unhinged by a resurgence of sexual complaints against himself, combined with Special Counsel Robert Mueller closing in on Trump’s own obstruction of justice, it’s not a great time to be a Republican.

Most importantly, in a state that is one of the worst offenders when it comes to voter suppression, with a long history of denying voting rights to blacks, democracy held. Given all the threats of the Trump era, that is the best news of all.