Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Reading

What’s Next — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on what the Republicans are planning to do with Social Security and Medicare.

Much of journalism is dedicated to the proposition that the truth is often hidden. Sometimes, though, it is right there before our noses. Despite the chaos, the insinuations, and the scandals surrounding Donald Trump, he and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are making progress toward enacting the radical conservative agenda that the G.O.P. has been developing over the past two decades.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, talked about the budget-busting, reward-the-rich G.O.P. tax bill—he didn’t describe it that way, of course—and what will happen after Trump signs it into law, assuming the House-Senate conference can agree on a final text. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” he went on, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Even by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Ryan’s comments were pretty brazen. No such worry about deficits came up when the G.O.P. proposed slashing taxes for the wealthy. This about-face wasn’t anything new, however. For the G.O.P., tax reform was always part of a larger agenda: dismantling the welfare state, rolling back the regulatory state, and crippling the Democratic Party. Other prominent Republican politicians have made similar comments to Ryan’s, including Senator Marco Rubio and Trump himself. In a speech last week, the President talked about moving onto “welfare reform”—seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress dismantled the primary welfare programs back in the late nineteen-nineties. About the only big federal means-tested programs left are Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Evidently, these will be on the Republican hit list, even though the primary populations they serve are the sick, the elderly, and children.

But the Republican leaders won’t stop there. For years, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, the great liberal creations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and radically downsizing Medicaid, another Great Society innovation, have been their primary goals. In Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” the legislative blueprint that he first put forward in 2008, these proposals were the central element, while tax cuts were secondary. During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to protect these popular programs from cuts—but he still called for the abolition of Obamacare, which would have involved drastic cuts to the Medicaid budget. Now, Trump’s attitude toward Social Security and Medicare appears to be changing, too. Ryan, in his radio interview, said that he had been speaking privately with Trump about the approach they should take to entitlement programs, and he added, “I think the President is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare.”

Ryan’s remarks illustrate why he and other Republican leaders have refused to break with Trump despite his frequent outrages, which, most recently, have included endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, Roy Moore, who stands accused of repeatedly molesting teen-age girls. The alliance between Trump and congressional Republicans is sometimes an uneasy one, but it’s based on mutual self-interest. With his approval rating in the mid-thirties and Robert Mueller’s investigators circling, Trump needs to maintain the support of Republican leaders, who could theoretically impeach him. The Republicans, meanwhile, need Trump—and the fervent supporters who follow him—to maintain even the barest populist pretense to their reactionary endeavors. Senior Republicans know full well that they have made a Faustian pact. With passage of a tax bill seemingly within sight, they think it is finally paying off. And from their perspective, they are right.

Earlier this week, the conservative economist and Trump supporter Stephen Moore pointed out that the Republican tax bills don’t just include the Party’s long-standing aims to slash tax rates on corporations, eliminate (or drastically curtail) the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and abolish the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. By getting rid of the personal tax deductions for state and local income taxes, the bills also target high-spending Democratic states and municipalities, such as New York and California. As this provision bites, these Democratic strongholds will come under increasing pressure to cut their budgets. That, in turn, will hurt the public sector unions that are a key pillar of the modern Democratic Party.

In addition to undercutting the base of the Democratic Party, the tax bill would boost key Republican constituencies—and not just the corporate and plutocratic ones. In a last-minute move as it was hashing out its version of the tax bill, the Senate approved an amendment from Ted Cruz that would greatly expand the scope of 529 college-savings plans. If Cruz’s proposal makes it into the final bill, as seems likely, parents will be able to use money from 529 plans to help pay the tuition fees for private K-12 schools. That would give a big lift to charter and religious schools, many of which are staffed by teachers who aren’t union members. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s radio show on Thursday, Cruz said that the G.O.P. tax bill was now the “biggest schools-choice bill ever.”

To sum up, the Republicans are using Trump as a blunt instrument—a term that Steve Bannon once used—to help them enact the legislative and administrative counter-revolution that they have long been plotting with their mega-donors and corporate-funded think tanks. And Trump, despite his efforts to portray himself as a defender of the working people, is eager to go along with this plutocratic agenda, which, of course, benefits him and his family.

It is tempting to think that Trump’s hard-pressed supporters will eventually see through him. But that moment of revelation could be a good while coming. Like many right-wing populists, he uses divisive and diversionary tactics to disguise the true nature of his regime. And when it doesn’t come into conflict with Republican dogma or his own interests, he tries to repay the groups that supported him. (This week’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, widely presented as a big foreign-policy initiative, was also a sop to Evangelical Christians, who for theological reasons have taken up the Zionist cause.)

A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates that just twenty-nine per cent of Americans support the Republican tax plan, and sixty-four per cent (rightly) believe that it will benefit the wealthy most. And yet eighty-two per cent of Republicans still approve of the job that Trump is doing as President. That, of course, is another reason why G.O.P. leaders won’t break with him.

It’s Their Turn — Joan Walsh in The Nation argues that it’s time for the Democrats to hold hearings on Trump.

When sexual-harassment allegations first emerged against Minnesota Senator Al Franken, I wrote in these pages that he shouldn’t resign. Seven new accusations later, I’d come to agree with prominent Democratic senators that Franken has to go. And on Thursday he agreed.

While claiming that “some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently,” Franken nonetheless resigned from the Senate. “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” he noted.

It pains me to write this. The comedian turned politician has been an excellent senator, this year establishing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the investigation into collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Franken was also part of an earlier Resistance, against George W. Bush, in the dark days after Bush’s 2004 reelection. He raised progressive spirits and raised money for Democrats in the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama, when Franken was also elected to the Senate (after a protracted recount). I have written about him as the perfect foil for Trump. I’ve said I hoped he’d run for president. He assured me, back in May, that he would not—for one reason, he was extremely happy in the Senate.

But as the stream of allegations went on, it became obvious Franken couldn’t continue to be effective—and on Wednesday night, that apparently became obvious even to Franken.

Still, I would like to see Franken’s departure be not just another #MeToo moment but a long-delayed #TrumpToo moment. Now that Franken has left the building, why can’t the Democratic senators who’ve asked him to resign—an astonishing 35 out of 48 caucus members—now commit to holding hearings on Trump’s many sexual-abuse accusations? A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows that 70 percent of Americans polled say they want Congress to investigate the allegations against Trump; only 25 percent are opposed. Given that Trump’s pathetic approval ratings normally show him with the backing of 35 to 40 percent of those polled, this means a significant number of Trump supporters also want these charges investigated.

I know: Democrats are in the minority, in both houses of Congress. Such hearings would hold limited power. But even in the minority, ranking congressional Democrats can still get congressional hearing rooms and media attention. They won’t have subpoena power, but they don’t need subpoena power to call Trump’s victims to testify.

I would like to see the Democrats get more aggressive with Trump, because they need to be honest with themselves about what Franken’s resignation will not do. It will not force GOP leaders to concede that Democrats have integrity when it comes to these claims, and that Republicans don’t. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains, that’s because “Republicans have built an unlevel playing field of morality.” Remember: Serial prevaricator Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already explained that the difference between Franken and Trump is that Franken admitted something happened, and apologized, while Trump denied all the charges against him.

To GOP hypocrites like Sanders—and so many more—all Franken’s resignation will mean is that the senator is guilty of sexual wrongdoing, while Trump is not. And that standard applies to the brazen child molester Roy Moore, accused of sexual predation by nine women—including one who said he molested her at age 14—and who may still be elected Alabama’s next senator. And on Fox Wednesday night, host Laura Ingraham and guest Newt Gingrich previewed a new way conservatives will use Franken against them, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter: by making them the party of “weird puritanism,” denying Franken “due process” over “minor stuff” and acting like a “lynch mob.” There is no bottom when it comes to the GOP.

Another thing Franken’s resignation won’t do: It will never establish any kind of equivalence between what the Minnesota senator is accused of doing, and the accusations against Trump, Moore, and Texas Representative Blake Farenthold. Even though Franken is the first among them to pay any political price, there is no comparison in terms of what they’ve been charged with. Let’s start with Farenthold, who used 84,000 taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim with an employee. That woman told The Washington Post this week that Farenthold ruined her career. She left politics and now babysits and does other odd jobs. None of Franken’s accusers have said anything close to that happened to them as a result of his wayward hands.

Much like Farenthold’s accuser, the woman Moore molested at 14, Leigh Corfman, says Moore’s abuse took a serious toll on her life—on her romantic prospects, her friendships, her sobriety, her career. That’s a sadly common story for victims of child sexual abuse.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t have eight accusers, like Franken; he has twice that, 16. Their charges range from his reaching up their skirts to touch their vaginas through their underwear, to multiple counts of unwanted kissing, to all kinds of creepy groping, kissing, and predation. Plus, there are the four young Miss Teen Universe contestants who told Buzzfeed that Trump walked in on them while they were changing.

For both that and the vagina-groping charge, we have Trump’s own voice in confirmation.”When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said on the Access Hollywood tape. “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” About his Miss Universe pageants, Trump told Howard Stern: “I’ll tell you the funniest is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed. No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

I think it would encourage demoralized progressives considerably if Democrats followed Franken’s departure with a strategy to bring Trump to public account for his serial abuse. And to shame House Speaker Paul Ryan for having the audacity to weigh in on now-retired Democratic representative John Conyers, while saying nothing about Farenthold. Democrats are doing the right thing, morally, but they really need to figure out the right thing, politically. This doesn’t end with Franken’s departure. It begins.

Get A Move On — Humor from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In a new poll conducted on Wednesday, a sweeping majority of Americans said they support moving Donald J. Trump to Jerusalem.

The sixty-three per cent of survey respondents who approved relocating Trump to Jerusalem placed few conditions on such a move, other than that it take place “as soon as possible” and that it be “permanent.”

In other poll results, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they would support relocating Trump to any number of other foreign destinations, including Russia, the Philippines, and “that station where scientists live at the South Pole.”

Though Americans were strongly enthusiastic about moving Trump to Jerusalem, in a rare consensus both Arabs and Israelis vehemently opposed the move.

 Doonesbury — Unforgettable.