Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunday Reading

Sweet Home Alabama — Ryan Lizza on how Trump lost in Alabama but is still winning the GOP civil war.

To understand the political tsunami set off by the Alabama Senate primary on Tuesday, when Roy Moore, an anti-gay Christian fundamentalist who believes that Biblical law should supersede the Constitution, won the Republican nomination* for a Senate seat in a runoff election, consider the case of Senator Bob Corker.

Corker is a two-term Republican from Tennessee. He is up for reëlection next year, and has already raised six and a half million dollars. He’s only sixty-five years old, which is young in the geriatric U.S. Senate. He has one of the most coveted committee assignments in Congress: chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which, aside from making him one of the most influential voices on foreign policy, is also a perch that makes raising campaign funds enormously easy. Corker won his 2012 campaign by thirty-five points. Trump won the state last year by twenty-six points. In short, Corker is a senator at his professional peak.

And yet on Tuesday, the day that Moore defeated Luther Strange, the incumbent senator who was appointed to the job when Jeff Sessions left to become Attorney General, Corker announced that he was retiring. “When I ran for the Senate in 2006, I told people that I couldn’t imagine serving for more than two terms,” he said in a statement. “Understandably, as we have gained influence, that decision has become more difficult. But I have always been drawn to the citizen legislator model, and while I realize it is not for everyone, I believe with the kind of service I provide, it is the right one for me.”

Nobody really believed him. Corker, after Strange, seems to have been the second Senate casualty of this latest phase of the G.O.P. civil war. Even though there was no heavyweight Republican lined up to challenge him in a primary, Corker decided that the environment was too toxic. “That guy did not want to go through the house of pain,” a Republican who worked on the Moore race said. “He did not want to go through what Luther Strange went through.”

Expect a lot more Republican casualties, especially in the Senate.

While it’s dicey to read too much into one state’s special-election primary, there are a number of lessons from Alabama. The first is about Trump, who endorsed Strange even though his most solid supporters in the state rallied around Moore, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was twice booted off the court for disobeying the law—once, in 2003, for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments, and again, in 2016, for directing the state’s judges to maintain a ban on same-sex marriage. The idea of having Roy Moore in the United States Senate was terrifying to Washington Republicans, and Mitch McConnell and others convinced Trump to back his opponents, first in an open primary and then in this week’s runoff.

Naturally, the race was billed as a test of Trump’s ability to persuade his own base. It didn’t work. The Republican consulting firm Firehouse Strategies, in a memo to clients, noted that there was no correlation between knowledge of Trump’s endorsement and support for Strange. In mid-May, sixty-four per cent of Alabama Republicans knew about Trump favoring Strange. By primary day, this week, eighty per cent knew about it. Over the same period, G.O.P. voter support for Strange didn’t budge. The firm’s takeaway for its Republican clients is that, “while Trump may be good at translating his supporters’ sentiments, he is unable to persuade them.”

Another memo, obtained by the Times, puts the lessons for the Republican Party over all in starker terms. Since 2010, the year that the Tea Party insurgency began rocking the G.O.P. establishment, the ability of incumbents in Washington to tame its right wing has ebbed and flowed. In 2010 and 2012, several subpar candidates making outlandish statements won Senate primaries, and probably cost the Republican Party control of the Senate. The Party regrouped and snuffed out similar unelectable challengers in 2014, when it won control of the Senate, and in 2016. But the post-2016 period has ushered in a new wave of insurrection.

“This year’s Alabama Senate special election shows that the 2014-16 playbook for winning Republican primaries needs to be recalibrated and improved” was the conclusion of the memo’s author, Steve Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund, which is essentially Mitch McConnell’s funding vehicle to protect his mainstream Republican Senate majority from being overtaken by the Trumpist right. Law argued that Republican voters were “still angry,” and that McConnell’s inability to get much done, especially the repeal of Obamacare, was “political poison” in the race.

Most interesting, the lesson for the G.O.P. establishment is that it has lost control of the Republican Party. Law writes that, in the minds of Republican voters, Obama, previously the face of the opposition, has been replaced by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. “Opposition to Obama used to be a mainstay of Republican messaging,” he wrote. “In Alabama, Strange’s litigation against Obama’s executive actions would have been political gold a year ago. But with Obama out of the picture, our polling found the issue to be a middling vote-getter. Now the answer to what is wrong in Washington is the Republican Congress.”

Law, contrary to some others, sees Trump’s inability to translate his support to Strange as inconsequential, arguing that the Party’s base is now defined by its reverence for Trump. “No other person, group or issue has the gravitational pull on Republican primary voters that Donald Trump commands,” he notes, adding that “support for President Trump directly correlates with likelihood to vote.” Republicans, he says, are more likely to see themselves as Trump supporters than as Republican Party supporters. The single most fatal line of attack in a Republican primary, he suggests, is evidence that a candidate has been critical of Trump. It’s worth noting that, last month, Corker told local reporters in Tennessee, “The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful”—remarks that Trump then attacked on Twitter.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political strategist, who backed Moore, is now plotting an expansive campaign to recruit challengers to Republican Senate incumbents, and is targeting some dozen races next year. Despite carrying the banner of nationalism and populism, Bannon is ideologically flexible. His first criterion for candidates is authenticity. (He obviously cared little about Moore’s anti-gay views.) But Bannon’s most important priority is the current G.O.P. leadership. When he was in the White House, Bannon believed that McConnell stymied Trump’s agenda and that, especially in the Senate, there was no constituency for the nationalist cause. So Bannon and his allies have made a decision about next year’s midterms: they will not back any candidate who agrees to support McConnell as Majority Leader.

The Next Challenge for Puerto Rico — Gillian B. White in The Atlantic.

The depth of the crisis in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria is apparent from the island’s obliterated roads, downed power lines, tainted water, and nonexistent cell service. Grief and dismay over the widespread destruction has led to calls for aid and assistance for the ravaged island, but long after the shock fades, the staggering task of rebuilding the island will remain.

That’s a challenge made markedly more difficult by the poverty of the island’s people and its government—it’s not clear where the necessary money will come from. The crisis makes clear the uncomfortable tension inherent in the island’s status as a commonwealth; Puerto Rican officials have no Congressional power when it comes to making decisions about their own survival during such a dangerous time, and the U.S. government has repeatedly declined to do anything that would change that. So, once the U.S. citizens who populate the island are given relief for their most immediate problems—as they very likely will be—the biggest worry is that the territory will be left to flounder, given enough money to restore basic necessities but not enough to set the island on course in the long run.

Managing the immediate humanitarian crisis is the first large recovery expense. In the aftermath of the storm, all of the island’s 3.4 million residents were left without power, communication on the island was severely hampered after the storm destroyed cell towers, and many were left without clean drinking water. Addressing those critical problems is made more difficult and more expensive by geography, says Steven Kyle, a professor at Cornell who studies economic development. One example, Kyle says, is that many of the workers who will help to repair and rebuild the electrical grid can’t just drive down to the disaster site with their equipment, the way they might be able to in Texas. Instead, they will need to be flown in, with some equipment shipped—which will bring up the cost of even the most basic repairs. “All those things could be dealt with if [the government] wanted to,” Kyle adds. “But I don’t think Puerto Rico’s at the top of their list in Washington.”The economic lift of managing Puerto Rico’s recovery is hard to overstate. For context, the cost of making repairs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which inflicted most of its damage on Texas and Louisiana, is estimated to be somewhere between $70 billion and $180 billion. IHS, a research and analytics firm, estimates the cost of rebuilding from Maria to be between $40 billion and $80 billion in Puerto Rico. But that’s a very early estimate, and damage to the island continues to unfold. And while Harvey’s damage might amount to more in dollars, the devastation of Hurricane Maria was concentrated in Puerto Rico, which had already sustained at least $1 billion worth of damage during Hurricane Irma. That means that Maria likely inflicted far more damage per capita.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosello has said that he’s asking the Treasury Department and the federal government for loans to help in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. He emphasized that he expects “equal treatment” and “reasonable rates” when it comes to those loans. And whether or not those terms are met will be a critical factor in the island’s future.The federal government has taken measures to meet some of Puerto Rico’s most immediate financial necessities. The president has declared the island a “major disaster” area, which makes it eligible for much-needed FEMA funds. On Thursday, after appeals by politicians, the government moved to suspend the Jones Act—a requirement that goods shipped between U.S. ports are carried by U.S.-flagged and -staffed ships—which critics said was making relief slower and more costly (but proponents said helps keep American sailors safe). And then there’s the possibility of a disaster-relief bill, such as the one that followed Hurricane Harvey, though it’s not clear yet about how large that relief package might be.

Still, the Trump administration continues to draw criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria, which many have said has been slow and inadequate. The president has yet to visit Puerto Rico, though he recently planned a trip for next Tuesday. And his tweets about the success of relief efforts stand in contrast to photos and reports of devastation and desperation on the island, where many have been without power, water, and necessities for upwards of a week. More than that, many of the efforts made by the administration have come only after activists, politicians, and concerned families have spent days imploring the federal government to provide more help.

In the longer term, there are numerous difficulties when it comes to rebuilding an island that was already struggling economically before the storm. How the federal government and the creditors Puerto Rico was already indebted to choose to deal with that rebuilding effort will determine whether the island will have a good chance of improving its economy going forward.Even before Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island’s critical infrastructure, Puerto Rico was facing $70 billion of municipal debt that it was unable to repay. And despite Congress’s passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in July of last year, the island’s economic future remained fragile and uncertain. As recently as this summer, the territory’s electric utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), filed for bankruptcy to escape billions of dollars of debt it said it couldn’t repay. Now, months later, PREPA, the island’s only marginally functional utility, has essentially been destroyed, and is still deeply in debt.

While PROMESA helped to stave off Puerto Rico’s most immediate fiscal crises, it installed a board of mostly outsiders who get to determine the best course of action for the island. And the act does little in the way of making plans to fundamentally fix the commonwealth’s broken economy or to prevent the current economic crisis from repeating itself in the future.

Indeed, some of the most promising long-term solutions for how to fix critical infrastructure in Puerto Rico require a significant initial investment. Anamitra Pal, an engineering professor at Arizona State University who specializes in power and energy systems says that, though devastating, a destroyed power grid is an opportunity to rebuild a system that’s more dependable. Pal says that in rebuilding, Puerto Rico should look at the microgrid system used by Hawaii, which uses renewable sources and stores excess energy to be deployed when needed. Plus, such a system is cheaper in the long run. “Eventually, the return of investment is fairly quick—we’re talking about a period of the next 10 to 20 years,” Pal says. But that means that an initial investment would be required in order to install solar panels or establish wind farms. And without political or private-sector will, it’s unlikely that the island could pay for it.Investments like that are something Puerto Rico’s government can’t produce on its own, the federal government isn’t offering, and private creditors would want a return on. This leaves an opening for the island’s existing creditors—collectively owed some $70 billion—to try to cut deals of their own. The opportunity they see is to loan them cash now—adding to Puerto Rico’s debt—in the hopes that doing so will improve their chances of seeing their original investments, from well before the storm, get repaid.

On Thursday, for instance, Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority received an offer from the creditors of PREPA for a $1 billion loan and a discount on a very small portion of the utility’s existing debt—from $8.1 billion to $7.95 billion. While PREPA unquestionably needs cash now, this type of small-scale relief, coupled with the addition of more debt, will not increase the likelihood that the utility unwinds its debts any sooner—something the fiscal authority was well aware of. In a statement about the rejection of the deal, the board said, “Such offers only distract from the government’s stated focus and create the unfortunate appearance that such offers are being made for the purpose of favorably impacting the trading price of existing debt.” The statement goes on to request that creditors “refrain from making unsolicited financing offers at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico.”After the hurricane, it’s vital that people currently suffering get the help they need. Once they do, the biggest worry becomes that Puerto Rico is given support for its short-term needs, and nothing more—that the relief provided by creditors and the federal government will ultimately maintain the economic status quo that left millions of residents impoverished and fleeing to the mainland in the first place. Undoing that will require a much more ambitious plan for investment and infrastructure than currently exists—and the political will to pursue it.

Fear of Flying — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In an experience that he called “traumatic” and “horrifying,” the departing Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, was seated between two screaming babies Friday night on his first-ever commercial flight.

Price, who was flying from Washington, D.C., to his home in Georgia just hours after resigning from his Cabinet position, reacted with alarm after discovering that the airline had assigned him a middle seat between two passengers holding inconsolably shrieking babies on their laps.

Moments after making his terrible discovery, Price urgently called for a flight attendant and reportedly told her, “There are babies on this aircraft. That can’t possibly be allowed.”

After informing Price that babies were, in fact, permitted on commercial flights, the attendant instructed the former Cabinet secretary to fasten his seatbelt and ignored his request to be served a free glass of Dom Perignon champagne and beluga caviar with toast points.

According to witnesses on board, the two babies flanking Price screamed non-stop for the entire duration of the flight, except for a brief period during which one of the babies vomited on Price’s Armani suit.

 Doonesbury — Resigned to the job.