Are Politicians Responsible for Their ‘Base,’ or Is It the Other Way Around?

Political caricatures don’t come much broader than these. Strange was the establishment incarnate; Moore was the Republican electorate’s id made ruddy flesh, an avatar of the latent nativism and conspiracism that Donald Trump’s detractors inside and outside the Republican Party blamed for his rise.

.. This was a “Jurassic Park” vision of the Republican base, in which party leaders, after fecklessly creating and nurturing a monster, find themselves powerless to stop it once the electric fences go out on the island.

.. Reagan’s 1980 campaign won seven percent more of the labor-union vote than Gerald Ford did in 1976, but he won just 10 percent of the nonwhite vote, significantly less than Ford.

.. Many of the major contenders for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination ran explicitly on the idea of bringing nonwhite constituencies into the party — none more enthusiastically than Representative Jack Kemp of New York.

.. Kemp believed that his vision of racial outreach could bring the party control of Washington.

.. Kemp lost to George Bush — himself a self-identified base-broadener, but one whose candidacy was marred by the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad

.. Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, vowed — and later apologized for vowing — that “by the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”

.. It was a testament to the party’s cynicism, naïveté or both that Atwater, in taking the helm of the Republican National Committee after Bush’s victory, was tasked with improving outreach to black and Hispanic voters.

.. The base had, in Gingrich’s formulation, become something new: not a coalition to be expanded but a force to be propitiated or crossed at Bush’s peril. It was not there to be molded by politicians like Jack Kemp. It was there to give orders to them, through mediums like Gingrich

.. When Bob Dole — who had campaigned for the 1988 nomination on, as his spokeswoman put it, the “need to broaden the base of the Republican Party” — said he had no “litmus test” for the abortion views of his running mate in 1996, he drew harsh words from James Dobson

..  It implies that the Republican Party is not a coalition of interests but the tribune of an essentially unified tribe.

.. Conservatives often point out, correctly, that today’s Democratic base is, if anything, more monolithic in its policy views than its Republican counterpart, with more uniform positions on issues like abortionimmigration and taxes.

.. Republican voters, meanwhile, passed over candidates with actual fiscal-conservative and evangelical bona fides, like Ted Cruz, in favor of one whose only sustained and consistent point of contact with past Republican practice was the winking subtext of the party’s white identity politics, delivered without the wink. One party’s base knew what it believed; the other’s knew who it was.

The Bannon Revolution

Bannon’s grand ambitions should inspire the same soul-deadening déjà vu, the existential exhaustion, with which Bill Murray’s weatherman greeted every morning in Punxsutawney, Penn. They should bring to mind both Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence and his warning that if you stare deep into the abyss, it stares into you.

.. What Bannon is promising is what the Tea Party actually delivered, in a past recent enough to still feel like the present: a dramatic ideological shake-up, an end to D.C. business-as-usual, and the elevation of new leaders with a sweeping vision for a new G.O.P.

.. The ideological shake-up took the form of paper promises, not successful legislation. The end to D.C. business-as-usual just created a new normal of brinkmanship and gridlock. And when the Tea Party’s leaders — Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, above all — reached out to claim their party’s presidential nomination, they found themselves steamrolled by a candidate who scorned all their limited-government ideas and offered, well, Trumpism instead.

.. when it comes to governance, Trumpism turns to have two fatal weaknesses:

  1. the dearth of Trumpists among elected Republicans, and
  2. the total policy incapacity of Trump himself.

So having failed in his appointed role as Trump whisperer and White House brain, Bannon has decided to do the Tea Party insurgency thing all over again, except this time with his

  • nationalist-populist cocktail instead of the
  • last round’s notional libertarianism.

.. Maybe the Tea Party was a dead end, but some Trumpist primary candidates will finally produce a Republican Party capable of doing something with its power.

.. His professed nationalism, with its promise of infrastructure projects and antitrust actions and maybe even tax hikes on the rich, is potentially more popular than the Tea Party vision ..

.. But this imaginative exercise collapses when you look at Bannon’s own record and the candidates he’s recruiting.

.. At the White House, Bannon did not manage to inject much heterodoxy into any part of the same old, same old Republican agenda. But he did encourage the president to pick racialized fights at every chance.
.. his new grass-roots populism promises to be more of the same:
  • a notional commitment to some nebulous new agenda,
  • with white-identity politics and the
  • fear of liberalism supplying the real cultural-political cement.
.. Especially because the would-be senators he’s recruiting are a mix of cynics and fanatics who seem to share no coherent vision, just a common mix of ambition and resentment.
.. if you believe figures like Roy Moore and Erik Prince are going to succeed where Trump is obviously failing, I have some affidavits attesting to Harvey Weinstein’s innocence to sell you.
.. He and his allies are the latest group to recognize the void at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party, the vacuum that somebody, somehow needs to fill.
  • .. The activists and enforcers of the Tea Party era tried with a libertarian style of populism.
  • Paul Ryan tried with his warmed-over Jack Kempism.
  • My friends the “reform conservatives” tried with blueprints for tax credits and wage subsidies.

.. now they, too, need to reckon with a reality that has confounded every kind of Republican reformer since Barack Obama was elected: Our politics are probably too polarized, our legislative branch too gridlocked, and the conservative movement too dysfunctional and self-destructive to build a new agenda from the backbenches of Congress up, or even from the House speaker or Senate majority leader’s office.

.. Our system isn’t really all that republican anymore; it’s imperial, and even an incompetent emperor like Trump is unlikely to restore the legislative branch to its former influence. So if you want to remake the Republican Party as something other than a shambolic repository for anti-liberalism, the only way it’s likely to happen is from the top down —

  1. with the election of an effective, policy-oriented conservative president (which Donald Trump is not),
  2. surrounded by people who understand the ways of power (which Bannon, for all his bluster, didn’t) and
  3. prepared to both negotiate with Democrats and bend his own party to his will.

.. I would not be wasting my time trying to elect a few cranks and gadflies who will make Mitch McConnell’s life more difficult.

Instead I would be looking for the thing that too many people deceived themselves into believing Trump might be, and that Bannonite populism for all its potential strength now lacks: a leader.

The GOP Base Is Beyond Trump’s Control 

You can get elected as an outsider, but once in office, you have to actually govern.

The conservative movement is caught in a Catch-22 of its own making. In the war against “the establishment,” we have made being an outsider the most important qualification for a politician. The problem? Once elected, outsiders by definition become insiders. This isn’t just a semantic point. The Constitution requires politicians to work through the system if they’re going to get anything done.

.. Look at all the senators who rode the tea-party wave into power: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee. To one extent or another, they are now seen as swamp things, not swamp drainers, by the pitchfork populists.

.. Merely talking like a halfway responsible politician — “we don’t have the votes,” “we have to pay for it” — is proof of selling out. Trump bashes NBC News as ‘Fake News’ on Twitter

.. He wore the animosity of his colleagues, including the GOP leadership, like a badge of honor. He was the leader of the insurrectionists. He had only one problem: He talked like a creature of the establishment — largely because the Princeton- and Harvard-trained former Supreme Court clerk and career politician was one. He knew the lyrics to every populist fight song, but he couldn’t carry the tune.

..But not only did Donald Trump jump into the fray at the height of populist fervor, the field was also divided 17 ways. No one spoke less like a politician. No one who understood how governing works would have promised the things Trump promised

  • health coverage for all, for less money,
  • eliminate the debt,
  • bring all those jobs back, etc. —

because they’d either know or care that such things are literally impossible.

.. The establishment remains the villain and Trump the hero for his willingness to say or tweet things that make all the right people angry. For his most ardent supporters, the fault for his legislative failures lies entirely with the swamp, the establishment, or the “Deep State.”

.. he most important factor was Moore’s demonization of the establishment, particularly Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The voters valued sticking their thumbs in the establishment’s eye more than giving Trump a win.

.. there is remarkably little intellectual or ideological substance to the current populist fever. Strange was more conservative than Moore but less bombastic. Moore opposed Obamacare repeal and, until recently, couldn’t say what DACA was. In other words, MAGA populism is less of an agenda and more of a mood.

GOP senators are rushing to pass Graham-Cassidy. We asked 9 to explain what it does.

The GOP senators insisted that the tens of billions in cuts to federal health spending proposed in the bill would not result in coverage losses because, they said, the states would have more flexibility.

..  The GOP senators insisted that the tens of billions in cuts to federal health spending proposed in the bill would not result in coverage losses because, they said, the states would have more flexibility.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS):

“If we do nothing, it has a tremendous impact on the 2018 elections”

.. as a general rule the states do things better than the federal government does [things]. And that is essentially what the bill is

Jim Inhofe

..  I think the efficiencies that come with transferring the funding to the states can very well make up the difference between what the federal thing would be.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):

“It lets states innovate and adopt creative solutions”

the heart of the legislation takes the policymaking role of Washington and sends it to the states. It lets states innovate and adopt creative solutions to local problems, which vary state by state.

Jeff Stein

But it’s not just devolving power from the federal government to the state. It also involves a 16 percent cut in federal spending [upfront] and a 34 percent cut over the next 10 years.

.. Ted Cruz

CBO’s analysis throughout this process has been ridiculously slow, unreliable, and based on policy assumptions that are demonstrably false.

Jeff Stein

You really believe that cutting federal spending by 34 percent will not result in any other people losing their insurance?

Ted Cruz

What federal spending is cut?

Jeff Stein

Well, the Medicaid expansion would be sunset, for one, is my understanding.

Ted Cruz

The decrease in future rates of growth is not a cut. And it is only in the bizarre world of Washington that billions more money is characterized in the press as a cut rather than an increase, which is in fact what it is.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA)

.. I have sent four amendments to Lindsey [Graham] and Bill [Cassidy] that I think will strengthen the bill. The one I feel most strongly about is that I want the Medicaid work requirement — I don’t want it to be optional; I want it to be a requirement. Just like we did with welfare reform.

.. number two, I want to get us to give guardrails to the states to say, “You cannot use these moneys to set up a state-run single-payer system.” I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a mistake.

[Guardian reporter] Lauren Gambino

Do you think that kind of goes against the idea of states’ rights and being able to use this money [as the states want to]?

John Kennedy

No, no. We have plenty of federal rules that apply to every state, but we still agree with states’ rights.

John Kennedy

I think it spends scarce resources in a more rational manner. It will control costs. I like the idea that it encourages states to innovate.

Jeff Stein

How does it do that? Any of those things?

John Kennedy

Well, you need to read the bill.

Jeff Stein

Well, you’re voting for it, right? So what is the explanation for how it does those things?

John Kennedy

I am. Because it gives states added flexibility. Read the bill and you’ll understand.

 ..

Jeff Stein

The bill would cut federal funding to states by 34 percent over the next —

Richard Shelby

But it wouldn’t cut Alabama, though.

Jeff Stein

Well, do you think the other states should deal with —

Richard Shelby

Well, you see some of our states, four of our states, are getting a disproportionate amount of money from health care now. You know which ones.

.. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)

Jeff Stein

What is the policy explanation for the Graham-Cassidy health care bill?

Johnny Isakson

Policy explanation? I’m not into policy, so I don’t really know. I’m into facts.

Jeff Stein

[In a follow-up interview hours later on Tuesday] You were joking earlier, but what is the health policy in the Graham-Cassidy proposal that you like?

Johnny Isakson

More state innovation. More input from the states.

.. Johnny Isakson

The governors — I’m from a state that didn’t expand Medicaid, and the way we were going in health care looked like those states would actually be hurt worse than other states.

By going to block grants, back to the states, the control of money stays with the states, and you have less [un]predictability and external deviation in terms of funding.

.. Jeff Stein

So just a follow-up on that. It’s one thing to say the bill gives the states power — that’s one thing.

But it doesn’t just do that. It also cuts the money they have — some estimates say around 16 percent of federal funding.

Johnny Isakson

I’m not going to confirm that statement one way or another. I don’t know what the numbers are going to end up looking like.

Jeff Stein

Right, but if it does cut federal spending overall, would you support it?

Johnny Isakson

You know, those are dangerous questions. I’m waiting until I see the totality of the legislation to say whether I support the whole thing or not, anyway.

I’m not a no, but I’m not a yes either — and I’m waiting for my governor to respond to me with their input as well. It’s really key what they’re doing.

.. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY):

“The governors who decided to expand [Medicaid] knew that they were going to lose federal funding”

..

Jeff Stein

I want to ask, in a big-picture way: What is the policy explanation for how this bill makes people’s lives better?

John Barrasso

It gets the money out of Washington, lets people at home make the decision, and gets state legislatures involved, and governors involved. It moves money out of Washington. It’s away from socialism.

Jeff Stein

CBPP says it will also reduce federal health spending on Medicaid and the exchanges by about [20] percent.

John Barrasso

I’d love to reduce federal spending on health insurance.

Jeff Stein

Right, but so it’s not just about moving power to the states — it’s also about cutting funding.

John Barrasso

It’s about moving power to the states, where money can be spent much more effectively.

Jeff Stein

How does it do that?

John Barrasso

Well, you have to read the formula and read the bill, and it will tell you how it moves money to the states and how much they get and how much they don’t get. …

Jeff Stein

There’s a concern from Republican governors who have come out and said, “This is too dramatic a cut in spending; we won’t have enough money to insure everyone.”

John Barrasso

You have to interview them on that.

Jeff Stein

Do you think they’re wrong?

John Barrasso

Well, it depends on if they’re states that expanded Medicaid or not. …

Jeff Stein

In the Medicaid expansion states, they still have a lot of people who rely on Medicaid expansion for health insurance.

John Barrasso

I opposed Medicaid expansion. I think the Supreme Court got it wrong [when it ruled in 2012 that Congress did have the constitutional authority to implement most of Obamacare].

The governors who decided to expand [Medicaid] knew that they were going to lose federal funding over time, and they’re objecting to that — but they knew it. You could say, “Some of them didn’t understand it, and so-and-so wasn’t there, and he wasn’t governor yet,” but they understood that this would be part of the process. So if they used the money poorly —

And my concern with Medicaid is that the people who Medicaid was designed for originally have been cut out of the process, because they’re still on the waiting list to get on Medicaid. I don’t know how much you understand about Medicaid, but this whole expansion of Medicaid went for healthy, working-age individuals — it did not go for the people who [Medicaid] was designed for, which was low-income women, children, and the disabled.

.. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA):

“This is the last attempt to do what we promised in the election”

.. Chuck Grassley

Let me give you a political answer, and then I’ll give you a substance answer.

The political answer is that Republicans have promised for seven years that we were going to correct all the things that were wrong with Obamacare, and we failed the first eight months. This is the last attempt to do what we promised in the election.

The substance answer is that Obamacare starts with the principle that all knowledge about health care, and all decisions on health care, ought to rest in Washington, DC. The complete opposite of that is Graham-Cassidy, that Washington doesn’t know best and we’ll let each of the 50 states [decide what’s best].