On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
April 24, 2019

Trump's Infrastructile Dysfunction. Donald Trump is cornered. In his increasingly desperate efforts to bully and bluff the House investigations of leads provided by the Mueller report, Trump oscillates between bluster and changing the subject.

His latest gambit is infrastructure. The American people, he insists, don’t want to hear about obstruction of justice. They want to hear about infrastructure.

Indeed they do. Democrats are proposing a multi-trillion dollar Green New Deal. So where has the president been? Nowhere. 

He had two years with a Republican Congress to produce some kind of infrastructure program, but except for some bogus public private deals, he produced next to nothing. Instead, the Republican Congress delivered tax cuts and spending cuts. 

Last October, he finally proposed an infrastructure program that was mostly imagined private money, with just $200 million of actual federal dollars—to be offset by other spending cuts. Against $1.6 trillion in tax cuts. 

Next Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will meet with Trump to discuss an infrastructure program. The Democrats have the high ground here. They should avoid throwing Trump a lifeline that can give him bogus bragging rights. They should resist his demands to hold their meeting in front of the cameras. 

And as a condition of the meeting they should insist that Trump cease the schoolyard name-calling of their Democratic colleagues. It’s the least they owe Intelligence Committee chair Adam (“Pencil-neck”) Schiff.

Meyerson
APRIL 23, 2019

The GOP Justices: Republicans First, White Guys Second, Constitutionalists Third. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on the constitutionality of President Trump’s Commerce Department adding a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census, and it looked like the five Republican pooh-bahs (Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh) are poised to give it a thumbs-up.

What this means is that the census—for which the Constitution mandates “counting the whole number of persons in each state”—will likely produce what the Census Bureau calculated to be a 5.1 percent undercount of noncitizen households, as respondents understandably spooked by Trump’s war on immigrants decide not to return their forms. And what that means, of course, is an undercount of immigrants—disproportionately Latino, Asian, or African, and thus disproportionately Democrat—and an overrepresentation of whites, disproportionately Republican.

Opponents of adding the question have argued that it would violate the Constitution’s mandate by leading to that undercount, and that it also would violate the federal law requiring the commerce secretary (in whose department the Census Bureau is housed) to report all additional questions to Congress three years before the date of the census, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross clearly didn’t do.

Three of the Republican stalwarts—Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch—had already made clear in earlier actions that they favored including the question on the census. In today’s hearing, Kavanaugh made that clear as well, and Roberts, the only potential swing voter on the Court, also indicated by his questioning that he’s inclined to back the question’s inclusion.

If Roberts does indeed side with his four Republican colleagues, the ruling would be the third in a series of landmark 5-to-4 Roberts Court decisions whose chief purpose is to cement Republican control of federal and state governments. The first such ruling, the 2013 Shelby County decision, effectively neutered the 1965 Voting Rights Act, thereby permitting Republican state governments to toss minority voters off the rolls and make it difficult for them to register. Absent Shelby County, Democrat Stacey Abrams, not Republican Brian Kemp, would almost surely be the governor of Georgia today.

The second such decision was the 5-to-4 ruling in last year’s Janus case, in which the five GOP justices decreed that employees in a unionized public-sector workplace didn’t have to pay dues to the union, though the union was still required to represent and advocate for them in collective bargaining and any grievances they had with their employer. The ruling was expected to produce a sharp drop in the membership and thus the financial and people-power resources of public-employee unions, though at least the big four public unions—AFSCME, AFT, NEA, and SEIU—have seen no such drops because their members chose to stick with them, and because they also have since recruited new members. Nonetheless, as the Republican justices were acutely aware, the public-sector unions register and mobilize more potential voters—particularly in black and Latino communities—than any other organizations, and thus play a major role in building Election Day support for Democratic candidates.

Should the Court now rule in favor of Ross’s citizenship question, that would add one more landmark ruling plainly intended to bolster Republican electoral prospects. And should the Court rule in a future case that it must keep its hands off deliberate Republican gerrymandering of districts, that would add yet one further ruling designed to enable Republicans to continue to hold power even if a majority of voters in a state or the nation vote (or try to vote) for Democrats.

If you were wondering why Trump and Mitch McConnell are determined to pack the courts, and the Court, with Republican hacks, wonder no longer.

Kuttner
April 22, 2019

Warren Does it Again. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s twin proposal for substantial student debt relief plus tuition-free higher education is a huge winner—economically, politically, and even fiscally. It demonstrates once again why she is such a leader at connecting brave policy ideas to the lived condition of ordinary Americans.

The idea of cancelling $50,000 of debt is smart. It puts the relief where it is most needed. And it pays the cost by a tax on the super-rich—those whose own kids have no trouble paying for their own kids higher education. What a brilliant and salutary illustration of the class warfare already sundering America. How exactly will Republicans oppose this?

From Warren’s letter on the plan:

According to independent experts, 95% of people who have student loan debt right now would get at least some of it canceled under my plan.

And more than 75% would get all of it cancelled—poof, gone. We’d provide targeted cancellation for the families that need it most, substantially increasing Black and Latinx wealth, and helping decrease the racial wealth gap.

Once we’ve cleared out the debt that’s holding down an entire generation of Americans, we’ll ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again.

We can do that by recognizing that a public college education is like a public K-12 education—a basic public good that should be available to everyone for free.

The other candidates need to support Warren’s initiative. For instance, I admire much of what Pete Buttigieg has put forth, but he got one big thing wrong that Warren got right. When asked at the CNN Town Hall whether he supported debt relief for indebted college grads, Buttigieg replied that he did not, because college grads made more money on average than non-grads, and that we’d be asking poorer people to pay for the debt relief of richer ones.

But this conclusion commits a logical fallacy—a fallacy of composition—that Warren’s plan solves. There’s no need to have the “average” taxpayer cover the costs of debt relief when rich people can cover it.

In addition, college represents a ladder of upward mobility for people who are far from rich. And the prospect of college debt causes students without rich parents to have to work part time, and increases the non-completion rate. It is black and Hispanic students, who seldom have wealthy parents, who are most vulnerable to this syndrome. 

See this fine assessment by economist Marshall Steinbaum. And this one by Jamelle Bouie. And this one by Tessie McMillan Cottom. 

In this proposal, as in her recently announced daycare plan, Warren superbly knits together class and race. She gives relief and opportunity to the non-rich, in a way that particularly helps people of color but without relying on racial targeting. 

She reminds people of different races of all that they have in common. The Democrats’ success in 2020 will hinge on how well they pull this off.

Kuttner
April 19, 2019

It Ain’t Over. Bill Barr gave it his best shot, clumsily playing the role more of Trump's defense attorney than attorney general. But Barr's grotesquely dishonest spinning of the Mueller report has backfired and the reverberations will only increase. 

Here is the key line from the special counsel’s report:

The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system’s checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.

Translation: Trump’s conduct did not quite meet the threshold of indictment, but it sure meets the threshold of impeachment. The special counsel's report, even with the censored passages, is a devastating portrait of a corrupt and power-crazed president. It may not reach the criminal definition of an indictment, but it is an indictment in every other sense of the word.

Trump recognizes the true message. His own characterization of Mueller’s report has gone from “total exoneration” to “total bullshit” in is latest tweet.

Mueller will surely reinforce his true findings, as opposed to Barr’s attempted cover-up of them, when the special counsel testifies before the House Judiciary Committee. 

Because of the murkiness of whether a sitting president could or should be subjected to criminal prosecution, the Founders devised impeachment. Some Democrats may be reluctant to dig deeper and proceed to an impeachment, but it’s hard to see how they can avoid their constitutional duty. Once again, the House freshmen are leading the way. 

And we still don’t have the full story of Trump’s tax evasion and corrupt business dealings with Russian financiers. Mueller's report is just the beginning. This sordid chapter is far from over. 

Kuttner
April 16, 2019

Notre Dame: God must be very angry at Her children. I am neither a Catholic nor any sort of believer, but my first reaction to seeing Notre Dame in flames, oddly, was that God must be very disappointed in us, Her children.

This is doubly weird, since the God I imagined was a vindictive Old Testament God, banishing Adam and Eve, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, or drowning the Egyptians—but of course Notre Dame is supremely a New Testament creation.

Why might God be angry? The neglect of Notre Dame is a metaphor for the despoiling of all God’s creation.

The French state, after all, is obsessive about that nation’s patrimony, and it doesn’t get more Gallic than the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Yes, the French have a complex view of the separation of church and state, but Notre Dame is what the French call a Monument, to French culture. Why did they keep putting this off, and then cutting corners?

France, when it was a much poorer country, managed to find the money to sandblast much of the City of Light. (When I first visited there, it was the city of dark. Most of the buildings including Notre Dame were near-black, from centuries of coal dust.) So why did a nonprofit foundation have to pass collection plates to try to find funds to repair Notre Dame when experts knew that it was near collapse?

The Fire This Time—come to the point, Bob—is of course a metaphor for the larger devastation of all God’s creation by an ungrateful and all-consuming humanity. It should be taken as warning. Humankind keeps neglecting all of the other warning shots, from glaciers melting, to exotic diseases spreading, to biblical floods, to the sharks invading my cherished Cape Cod beaches.

You don’t have to be a believer to notice. But let’s notice, for God’s sake. 

And it was in Paris where the major nations came together in 2015 to sign a climate agreement, only to have the U.S. under Trump withdraw. God help us.

Let’s take the near-destruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame as a warning sign of the arrogance of man, whether from an angry God or from nature’s propensity to bite back and clean house.

 

Kuttner
APRIL 12, 2019

Can the Deep State Contain Trump? For Trump’s first couple of years, we consoled ourselves by believing that Trump was a kind of Gulliver figure, an overgrown child restrained by the adults of the deep state.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was a sort of serious person who resisted Trump’s worst impulses. The generals at the Department of Defense and the National Security Council were bulwarks against Trump’s nuttier impulses. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was the worst kind of racist but a proud man who would not bend the law to do Trump’s bidding.

But as a number of students of tyranny have observed, tyrants learn in office. One by one, Trump has gotten rid of these restraints, in favor of people who, if anything, are more reckless than he is.

At State, we now have Mike Pompeo, who is just as bellicose and disdainful of the consequences as Trump. Ultra-hawk John Bolton has replaced H.R. McMaster at the NSC.

Trump dumped Defense Secretary James Mattis in favor of the far more malleable Patrick Shanahan. And as attorney general, William Barr is a figure of superficial and seductive polish who is there to help Trump get his way—we will see if he succeeds in bottling up the most damning parts of the Mueller Report.

Worst of all, as the inner circle we now have Mick Mulvaney running something like half the government and Stephen Miller running the other half. These are guys with a knack for channeling Trump’s inner lunatic, and coming up with Trumpian schemes that only egg the boss on.

Steve Bannon may be gone, but Stephen Miller is his protégé. Miller is continuing at the White House the kind of political, base-agitating stunts at which Bannon specialized during the campaign.

Forget the fantasy that Trump’s own appointees can help contain him. They are now inflaming him.

It will take Congress’s full power of investigation, including impeachment, plus what’s left of the independent judiciary—and of course the 2020 election—if we are to be spared full-blown tyranny.

Meyerson
APRIL 11, 2019

The Israeli Election and American Jews. One major by-product of this week’s Israeli election is that the already gaping rift between Israeli and American Jews is sure to gape even wider. The disappearance of the Israeli left and center-left, as evidenced by the dismal performance of their respective standard-bearers, Meretz and Labor, in Tuesday’s voting, has no counterpart whatever in the politics of American Jews. The re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to begin unilaterally annexing the West Bank, confirms that majority sentiment among Israeli Jews runs from right to lunatic right—again, in stark contrast to the sentiments of their co-religionists in the United States. And should he actually begin that annexation, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the U.S. will surely grow, expanding beyond its current left base into more mainstream liberal circles—even among American Jews.

The election is sure to deepen the divide among American Jews as well. This year, many of the leading Democratic candidates for president steered clear of the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which they viewed, rightly, as a group largely supportive of Netanyahu and his right-wing politics. This week, as an article in The Intercept revealed, AIPAC began running paid ads on Facebook in the nation’s three most populous states—California, Texas, and Florida—critical of Senator Bernie Sanders. The ad didn’t cite any specific misdeeds Sanders may have committed in AIPAC’s eyes; it merely read, “Tell Sen. Bernie Sanders: America stands with Israel.”

Like most American liberals, Sanders has criticized Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and all that that inflicts on Palestinians, and is a supporter of the two-state solution. He does not support the BDS movement. As a young man, he lived on a kibbutz; he still has relatives in Israel; many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust. He is also the first Jew in American history with a real shot of winning one of the major parties’ presidential nominations. That AIPAC should single him out for criticism is a clear signal of the group’s growing estrangement from long-held American Jewish concerns and, even more so, from the politics of non-Orthodox Jewish millennials and Gen-Z-ers.

The most defining of those long-held American Jewish concerns is racial and religious egalitarianism and tolerance. As Israel moves ever further from those beliefs, the already tenuous bonds between the two Jewish communities will weaken even more. Should Israel annex the West Bank, they may just break.

Kuttner
April 10, 2019

Trump’s Huddled Masses and the Politics of 2020. Here’s a hard question for progressive advocates of refugee rights. Did Trump just get perversely lucky?

 

Until a few months ago, critics of Trump’s wall, his caravan obsession, and his claim of an invasion had a foolproof rejoinder. His story was a fantasy. Immigration from Mexico was notably down over the past several years.

Now, however, border crossings from refugees are way up. And Trump’s story of what draws refugees from Central America is not entirely wrong. They’ve heard from friends and relatives that parents with kids and credible accounts of persecution are sometimes allowed into America and released in short order.

None of this excuses Trump’s brutal policies of separating parents from kids. Nor could the U.S. bar such refugees without violating treaty commitments that the U.S. has entered into.

But if you follow interviews from reputable media like NPR with refugees explaining how it works, or even listen to the reasoning of immigration hard-liners from outfits like the Center for Immigration Studies, you have to appreciate that the politics just got a little harder for liberals.

Basically, it’s true that refugees come with kids, knowing that they have a decent shot at being allowed into the country and then being released by immigration authorities and melting into the population. It’s also true that some are mainly economic refugees fleeing destitution, rather than “a well-founded fear of persecution.”

On a humanitarian basis, one has to be compassionate. America can well afford to let a lot of such people in. But the politics can play into the hands of Trumpian hard-liners.

Even as we abhor Trump’s cruelty, it’s a little tricky if the debate breaks down like this:

Liberal: It’s barbaric to separate parents from kids, to set up tent cities on the border, to back up thousands of refugees onto the Mexican side of the border. And besides, our treaty commitments require us to admit and screen refugees.

Conservative: The more people we let in, the more people come. We are going to enforce the law against illegal aliens working, taking jobs from law-abiding Americans. We are also going to be a lot tougher so that we aren’t taking “economic refugees.” Americans are a compassionate people, but we can’t take in all of the world’s poor.

Liberal: Conditions along the border are brutal. Trump’s policies of denying aid to Central America will only worsen conditions and bring more flows of refugees.

Conservative: Not if we don’t let them in. And America has already given a lot of aid to Central America, and conditions are worse than ever.

Liberal: Well, a lot of the corruption and brutality in Central America is the result of U.S. policies in earlier times.

Conservative: There you go, blaming America first.

Gentle progressive reader, I’m not saying we should give up one whit of our humanitarian concern or our demands that Trump cease his brutality. But neither should we pretend that this issue will be a cakewalk for liberals in 2020.

Kuttner
APRIL 8, 2019

Trump Paints Himself into Yet Another Corner. With great fanfare, Trump went through the motions of carrying out a campaign promise when he negotiated a revised NAFTA. Supposedly, this would be better for the United States, and would appeal to the same blue-collar workers who deserted the Democrats to support Trump in 2016. It might even peel off some union support.

But the devil turned out to be in the details. While some the provisions of the so-called U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) deal looked good, including the one requiring Mexico to uphold its own labor standards and the rules increasing the North American content in tariff-free manufacturing, most of the deal was a stinker.

Informally, chief trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer has offered to go back to the drawing board on some aspects of the deal—if Democrats will commit to supporting a revised deal. But there are simply too many moving parts, and no such commitment has been forthcoming, and none is possible.

There are enough provisions not to like that there is a negative majority in the House against approving the deal in its present form, or in any conceivable revised version. One of the worst provisions gives big drug companies even more power to extract exorbitant prices. The major environmental groups view the deal as far worse than the status quo.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone out of her way to throw cold water on the plan, partly to deny Trump bragging rights, but mostly out of objection to a lot of the content. Trump’s ace in the hole was labor support, but unions have come out in opposition, too.

Trump’s other gambit was his threat to withdraw from NAFTA if his new agreement is rejected. But on Monday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka trumped that ace.

“Any sovereign nation has the right to withdraw,” Trumka taunted Trump in a phone call with reporters. “I think that actually can be helpful right now.”

If Trump does act on his threat to withdraw from NAFTA, he will get little resistance from labor, and his business and farmer constituents will be apoplectic. And he would do even more severe damage to the Mexican economy, producing an even larger flow of economic refugees.

Actions have consequences. In conducting complex and delicate diplomacy, it helps to actually know what you’re doing. Trump keeps proving that he doesn’t.

Kuttner
April 5, 2019

Britain’s Unlikely Grand Coalition (Don’t Mention the War). What on Earth are we to make of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest Hail Mary pass—her attempt to work with her arch-enemy, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, to save the British economy from crashing out of the EU, and possibly save her own neck.

The Brits, unlike the Germans and other continentals, tend to avoid grand coalitions. The U.K., has had only one such successful  coalition, Winston Churchill’s wartime government, which included Labour leader Clement Attlee as deputy prime minister, and several other Labour figures in key positions. This was done only because of the wartime emergency.

The one Labour prime minister who agreed to govern with the Conservatives, Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s and 1930s, is widely remembered as a traitor and a failure. Reliant on Tory votes, he pushed austerity cuts in the face of depression, and presided over a collapse of Labour support.

May, of course, is not proposing a literal coalition government with Corbyn. She is only working to see if Corbyn and the Labour leadership will join her to save Britain from a rapidly escalating catastrophe. But the analogy is all too real, since this is Britain’s most dire emergency since World War II.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that British manufacturers have been engaged in panic stockpiling of materials (“hoarding like it’s wartime”) for fear of massive disruption of supply chains if Britain were to crash out of the EU. 

May, who never really liked the Brexit hard liners but joined their cause out of sheer opportunism, blinked first. It’s bad enough that she will be remembered as the second successive Tory prime minister who crashed her career on the fantasies of Brexit. It would be that much the worse to be remembered as the leader who destroyed the British economy.

As May’s negotiations with Corbyn conclude their third day, the most plausible deal would be for Britain to stay in the customs union with the EU, and follow most EU rules, but not allow free movement of migrant workers, as the EU treaty requires. But even if May were to agree to that deal, it’s not at all clear that EU leaders would go along.

Both Labour and the Tories are really two parties each when it comes to Brexit. The commercial, global wing of the Tories want to stay in; the nationalist, anti-immigrant conservatives want to get out. And on the labor side, cosmopolitan London feels part of Europe, while battered industrial Britain can’t see what the EU has ever done for them except to loose a plague of low-wage workers from Eastern Europe. 

Hard-liners in both parties are wary of a May-Corbyn deal. This shift also represents a role reversal and a risk for for Corbyn, who has been anti-EU through his career. Yet if he can save the day, that achievement would pave his way to Downing Street.

It does look as if Britain has pulled back from the brink. The end game of all this could well be a second referendum, and then a new general election. 

And that could also follow a precedent of Churchill’s wartime grand coalition. Churchill saved Britain from Hitler, but in July 1945 the grateful Brits tossed the old bulldog out, in favor of a Labour government that won the greatest landslide ever. 

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