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Reservoir Dogs in the White House

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since then, including ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, but nobody would call them unscathed. And in has come Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who appears to have escaped from the same Quentin Tarantino movie. Maybe Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink.

Fun fact: Scaramuccia (literally “little skirmisher”), also known as Scaramouche, is a stock character of the Italian commedia dell’arte. He combines the roles of a clownish servant and a masked assassin carrying out his master’s will. He often ends up decapitated.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Fun…decapitated”; and “This…House”)

The US Debt Crisis

30 July 2011

The US Debt Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

By the time you read this, you will probably know whether the United States is going to default on its debts this week, or not for another ten to twelve months. Unless there is a deal by Tuesday, the US government runs out of cash right away. But either way, American politics is becoming utterly dysfunctional.

“The biggest threat to the world financial system comes from a few right-wing nutters in the American Congress,” said Vince Cable, Business Secretary in Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government. Fair enough, but the true believers of the Tea Party, which controls a large fraction of the Republican Party’s seats in Congress, haven’t the slightest interest in the world financial system.

“It’s like a form of economic terrorism,” Wall Street financier Steve Rattner told the British Broadcasting Corporation. “These Tea Party guys are like strapped with dynamite standing in the middle of Times Square at rush hour and saying either you do it my way or we are going to blow you up, ourselves up and the whole country with us.” But that’s not what they intend. They just want to blow up Barack Obama.

The permissible limit on US government debt, currently set at $14.3 trillion, has been raised by Congress 106 times since 1940, including 18 times during the presidency of Republican saint Ronald Reagan. It normally goes through without debate, almost unnoticed.

The Republican decision to withhold agreement this time is rooted in the Tea Party’s 19th-century belief that the only appropriate response to a financial crisis is to cut spending and balance the budget. But most Republicans have heard of John Maynard Keynes and learned the lessons of the Great Depression; it’s more than fifty years since the mainstream Republican Party preached that all government spending was sin.

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, President George W Bush (“This sucker’s going down”) did what he had to do to ward off a second Great Depression: spend huge amounts of money to keep the economy turning over and to bail out financial institutions that were “too big to fail.” Barack Obama did the same, but he may pay a high price for it.

For Republican strategists, the attraction of a crisis over the US government deficit is that it could sabotage Obama’s re-election bid in 2012. With Republicans controlling the lower house of Congress, raising taxes on the rich and on corporations is out of the question. The deficit can only be cut by raising the taxes and cutting the benefits of the poor. So withhold permission to raise the debt limit until Obama agrees to attack his own key constituency.

That was doubtless the original idea, but then the Tea Party faction took the bit between its teeth.

First they forced John Boehner, the Speaker (Republican majority leader) in the House of Representatives, to drop his plan for $3 trillion cuts in government spending over the next ten years. Instead, insurgent Tea Party members of his own caucus made him adopt a two-stage approach mandating only $1.3 trillion in cuts now, with more to follow later.

Under the Tea Party plan, Congress would also authorise only a small increase in the debt ceiling now, so that Obama would have to come back and ask for another increase in mid-2012. It is a ploy intended to prolong the political crisis into next year and make the budget deficit the sole focus of attention during the election campaign.

Then, when Boehner was trying to get that amended plan through the House of Representatives last week, the Tea Party members threatened to vote against it unless they got further concessions from him. The second-stage negotiations in mid-2012 could not even start unless Congress also began work on a new constitutional amendment that would oblige the federal government to balance its budget every year, forever.

Obama could thwart that strategy if he could reach a compromise deal with the mainstream Republican leadership in Congress, which is why the Tea Party has worked so hard to radicalise the Republican position. It doesn’t want a deal because it believes that if the US government cannot pay its employees or send out social security cheques, the victims will not be interested in the political details. Obama’s in charge, so it’s his fault.

That may be true, but the collateral damage would be extreme. About 40 percent of US federal government spending would stop at once (ongoing tax revenues would cover the rest), and millions of people who work for the government or depend on social security payments, veterans’ benefits and the like would suddenly have no income.

The US government would almost certainly lose its AAA credit rating, so interest rates would rise not just for government debt but for every mortgage and personal loan in the country. The US would tumble back into recession, and the rest of the world would probably be dragged in behind it.

Still, if you don’t believe that anything good can happen in the United States until that usurper Obama is driven from office, and you don’t care what happens to poor Americans and to foreigners, it’s a pretty good strategy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“It’s…Obama”; and “Then…forever”)

Muslims, Ground Zero, and the US Mid-term Elections

28 August 2010

Muslims, Ground Zero, and the US Mid-term Elections

By Gwynne Dyer

The great journalist H.L. Mencken once said that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public – but I may be about to prove him wrong.

Three or four months ago, I started betting various friends that the Democrats would lose control of both houses of the US Congress in the mid-term elections this November. I was way ahead of the opinion curve, so I got lots of takers. But now, when the general opinion has shifted in that direction, I begin to think I was wrong. And it all has to do with the “Ground Zero mosque.”

If you have been paying attention and are fully sentient, you will know that it is not actually a mosque. If the sponsors can raise the money (which remains to be seen), it would contain a prayer room, but also a restaurant, a 500-seat theatre, basketball courts and a swimming pool that would be open to all. It would not have a minaret, but there would be a memorial to the 3,000 people (including 300 Muslims) who died in the 9/11 attacks.

And it is not, of course, at Ground Zero. It is two blocks up and around the corner, invisible from where the World Trade Center once stood. Not that there’s any reason for it to hide around the corner: there’s nothing wrong with an Islamic cultural centre. It should also be pointed out that the Pussy Cat Lounge, an upmarket strip club, is closer to the site and not invisible at all.

So should we ask whether those on the right wing of the Republican Party who started this business about a mosque at Ground Zero intended to exploit the latent Islamophobia of the American public? You might as well ask if the Pope is a Catholic. This is a “wedge issue,” deliberately concocted to drive the dimmer elements of the Republican Party into supporting the right wing’s other positions as well.

I hear you protesting that the Republican Party doesn’t have a left wing any more, so how can it have a right wing? But everything is relative in politics, and the real contest this autumn is not being held in November. Most Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to the point where they are safe seats for one party or the other, so the real contest is in the primary (which chooses the party’s candidate) in any given district.

Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered in the same way, but there are also bitter primary struggles between “left” and “right” Republicans in many of them. Republican senator John McCain, the former presidential candidate, survived the Arizona primary on 24 August only by shifting sharply right on many issues, including climate change and immigration. Other moderate Republican senators are doing the same, but they may not be so lucky.

The “Ground Zero mosque” campaign was begun by players like Fox News and Mark Williams, organiser of the Tea Party Express, who warned that “The mosque would be for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey god.” (It’s really hard to tell Muslims and Hindus apart, especially if you’re really stupid.) But the campaign works for the hard right because a large proportion of the US population is anti-Muslim.

Exactly how large nobody knows, but we may safely assume that the 24 percent of Americans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim are not thinking: “Good. When Americans elected a black, Muslim president, we showed how tolerant the country is.” They are thinking: “Oh my God, there’s a black Muslim terrorist in the White House. America is doomed.”

Let us assume, therefore, that the proportion of Americans who fear and hate Muslims (in most cases without ever having met one) is somewhere between that 24 percent and the 61 percent, according to a recent Time Magazine poll, who oppose the “Ground Zero mosque.”

How excited should we get about this? Not very. You would probably get a similar figure if you asked people in almost any Muslim country whether they see contemporary Americans as a new generation of “crusaders”. They aren’t, any more than Muslims are terrorists, but the Muslim Middle East has a rather one-sided view of the Crusades.

After five centuries when the Middle East and North Africa had been mostly Christian, Islam conquered the whole region in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Crusades, three centuries later, were a counter-attack aimed at recovering some of the lost territory for Christendom, neither more nor less reprehensible than the original Islamic conquest. It’s just history, and nobody has clean hands. But I digress.

Why am I going to lose my bets on the outcome of the mid-term elections? Because the primaries attract at most ten percent of the potential voters, and they tend to be the ideologically committed ones. Hard-right candidates can win that audience over – but when fifty or sixty percent of American voters come out in the real election, the extremists tend to lose in the critical districts where the outcome might go either way.

The Democrats will keep their Senate majority. They might even keep the House.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Senate…lucky”; and “Let…mosque”)

After Iowa

4 January 2008

 After Iowa

 By Gwynne Dyer

The best news from Iowa is that Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, is still in the race. He will never win the Republican presidential nomination, because his policies would throw about half of the federal government’s bureaucrats and three-quarters of the US armed forces out of work, but he is a national treasure.

“They don’t hate us because we’re free; they hate us because we’re over there,” Paul says, and advocates the immediate withdrawal of all US troops from overseas. Who else in American politics has the courage to say that? And ten percent of Iowa Republicans supported him.

The second-best news is that Hillary Clinton came third in the Democratic race, far behind Barack Obama and just behind John Edwards. She is the “Washington consensus” candidate, the candidate with the biggest, richest machine, and even if she is still likely to win the nomination eventually — the biggest machine usually wins in the end — it is heartening that Iowans backed candidates less addicted to triangulation.

The truly puzzling news is that Mike Huckabee led the Republican pack, by a margin even wider than Obama’s lead over his Democratic rivals. Not only that, but Huckabee achieved this result even though the alleged front-runner in the Republican race, Mitt Romney, outspent him in Iowa by twenty-to-one. Even allowing for the fact that Iowans are relatively conservative and include large numbers of evangelical Christians, this is a strange result.

Huckabee believes that the world was created 6,000 years ago and rejects the theory of evolution, which would make him unelectable in most other countries, but it is no great handicap on the right of American politics. He promises energy independence for the United States in ten years — “We don’t need (Saudi Arabia’s oil) any more than we need their sand” — which is pretty implausible, but clearly has appeal to an American audience. But his tax proposals are astonishingly radical.

Huckabee would simply eliminate all income and payroll taxes — “and I do mean all,” he says on his website, “personal federal, corporate federal, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare, self-employment.” He would replace all this with a flat 23 percent national sales tax. Millionaires would pay 23 percent tax on everything they bought, and so would widowed mothers of three.

A few post-Communist regimes in Eastern Europe went to this sort of “flat tax” in a desperate attempt to jump-start their moribund economies, but at least they still had social services of a kind that scarcely exist in the United States, so there was some protection for the poor. No developed country has such a tax, because it is so brutally unfair to those living on lower incomes.

Like George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee is a congenial man with a folksy manner, and like Bush his major domestic project is to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. There are rational justifications for this in the more extreme forms of free-market ideology, but Bush’s handlers would never have advocated such a brazen assault on the poor. Subtler is always better. So how could the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 promote such a plan?

Huckabee may not remain the leading candidate past the New Hampshire primary on 8 January, but his rapid rise demonstrates the degree to which the Republican coalition that was first forged in Ronald Reagan’s time, and kept the Republicans in power for 20 of the past 28 years, is now disintegrating.

An important part of the Republican “base” consists of people who are poor enough (though not actually poor) to be badly hurt by Huckabee’s flat tax. They vote Republican because they share the party’s views on other issues, and they can ignore the fact that it does not serve their economic interests because they still believe the American myth of “equality of opportunity.” (Almost all Americans still believe it, although in fact the United States now has the lowest social mobility of any developed country.)

But Mike Huckabee’s policies are so extreme that middle- and lower-income Republican voters are almost bound to realise that they would suffer. In a more pragmatic time, the party elders would never have let such a divisive character gain such prominence, but now they can’t or won’t control it.

It was always hard to keep the richest 20 percent of the population, the “family values” crowd, the evangelicals (not necessarily the same thing), and the “angry white men” all harnessed to the same wagon,but the Republican Party managed it for almost thirty years. Now the coalition is unravelling.

Mitt Romney is the photo-fit candidate who best embodies the old coalition in this race — he even changed a number of his opinions to conform to the profile — but the formula doesn’t seem to be working this time. And none of the other leading candidates can appeal to all the different elements of that coalition. Not Huckabee, not John McCain, andcertainly not Rudy Giuliani.

What this may mean is that after two terms of George Bush, the Republican Party’s elders don’t really have much hope of winning this election. Let the lunatic fringe have its day, and we’ll do better next time.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Huckabee believes…radical”; and “Huckabee may not…disintegrating)