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Trump and the Stubborn Persistence of Obamacare

For more than eight long years we griped almost every day about almost everything President Barack Obama did, and were especially critical of his crackpot Obamacare law. Lately we’ve been griping almost every day about almost everything President Donald Trump does, though, and we even have some gripes about he’s going about undoing one of the worst mistakes of Obama’s administration.
Despite Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and a Republican president in the White House, the Grand Old Party has thus far been unable to keep its seven-year-old promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, so Trump has chosen to hasten the crackpot system’s demise by executive action. First he signed an order that allows insurance companies to offer and consumers to choose low-premium but high-deductible programs that cover only catastrophic circumstances, which were previously disallowed by Obamacare, then he ordered a halt to federal subsidies for the low-income customers who have been forced to purchase the higher-premium but lower-deductible and more comprehensive coverage. Both moves would make perfect sense in an efficiently free market system of health care, but that seems unlikely to happen any time soon, and both are admittedly designed to wreck the crackpot health care system we’ve wound up with instead.
Obama’s promises that Obamacare would save you thousands of dollars and allow you to keep your doctor and your plan and not add a dime to the federal deficit while covering everyone have since proved complete balderdash, just as we glumly predicted back when we were griping almost every day about Obama and Obamacare, but even then what our anti-authoritarian instincts most hated about the crackpot scheme was the tyrannical notion of government mandating that individuals purchase a product and then limiting their choices of what to buy. We’re therefore grateful that Trump that has struck a blow for the liberty of those young and healthy and relatively low-wage workers whose best bet on the health insurance market is a low-premium and high-deductible catastrophic plan, and we fondly recall those halcyon days when we were among them, but our middle-aged have to acknowledge that without their coerced subsidies the rest of the current system is destabilized.
An end to those federal subsidies for low-income workers stuck with the high-deductible coverage is on even more solid constitutional ground, as the crackpot Obamacare law didn’t include them and they’ve been paid all along by executive orders of very dubious constitutionality, but Trump proudly admits that it’s intended to hoist Obamacare on its own petard, although we doubt he’d recognize the Shakespearean reference. Without those subsidies many insurers will will have no choice but to pull out of many markets, leaving millions of Americans without any coverage at all, and millions more paying higher premiums for the plans they’re still stuck with under the still-existing Obamacare law.
Trump’s plan is that the resulting catastrophe will force the Democrats to come begging for some efficiently free market solution such as the Republicans have been promising for seven long years, which we’d much prefer over the long term, but in the short-term it seems unlikely to happen. The plan assumes that the public will blame Obama and his crackpot law’s inherent flaws, rather than Trump for faithfully executing it to the letter and thus blowing it up, and it seems a rare case when Trump has over-estimated the public’s intelligence. If Trump expects the congressional Democrats to be so moved by the plight of those uninsured and over-paying low income workers that they will come begging for a efficiently Republican free market solution, rather than allowing the press to pillory him for admittedly blowing things up and gleefully watching his approval ratings further plummet, we think he’s overestimating them as well. He can plausibly blame those congressional Republicans, but he won’t have anything to claim to credit for, and it will make a complicated mid-term election next year.
In any case we won’t be any closer to that efficiently free market health system we’ve yearned for far longer than the past seven years, what we’re stuck with instead will wind up imposing misery on millions of Americans earlier than necessary, and there will be plenty of blame to go around.

— Bud Norman

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A Taxing Situation

Having failed in their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, President Donald Trump and the congressional Republican majorities are moving on with plans to revamp America’s tax system. So far, at least, it doesn’t look any more promising than the previous crusade.
Which is a shame, as America’s tax system is badly in need of revamping, and the traditional Republican remedies are probably best. The system should be simplified, flattened, rid of deductions that serve only well-lobbied special interests, include more deductions that encourage investment in the broader economy, and that highest-in-the-world corporate tax rate especially needs lowering. If commensurate budget cuts could somehow be effected, so the already disastrous national debt didn’t explode, it would probably be helpful to lower every other tax in sight.
A Republican president and Republican majorities in Congress should be able to get it done, and even persuade a few centrist Democrats from well-heeled districts with big corporate donors to go along, but at this particular moment it seems a daunting task. Any attempt at serious tax reform is difficult, as all sorts of well-lobbied special interests immediately get involved, and there are lots of class resentments and economic theories to be considered, so that last time it happened was way back when President Ronald Reagan unified the Republican minorities in Congress and got more than a few centrist Democrats in well-heeled districts to go along.
This time around the Republican president is Trump, the leaders of the congressional Republican majorities inspire little more confidence, the Congressional Democrats are more unified in opposition to anything they might come up with, and the economic and political circumstances aren’t quite so ripe.
When Reagan offered his 461-page tax plan to Congress he knew every minute detail of it, and had spent the previous decades making a persuasive case to America for the sophisticated free market theories that inspired it, and with his experience as a past president of the Screen Actors Guild and two-term governor of California he knew the more down-and-dirty practical arguments to use with reluctant Republicans or potentially friendly centrist Democrats from well-heeled districts. The tax rate on the uppermost bracket was 70 percent at the time, which was steep even by the standards of the moribund European economies, cutting that by rate to 28 percent freed a lot of capital for pent-up investment in the private sector, and after the stagflation that had started in Nixon administration and lasted through the Ford and Carter administrations, most of the the country and enough Democrats were willing to roll the dice on those sophisticated free market economic theories.
When Trump unveiled his nine-page outline of how to revamp America’s tax system during a typically rambling speech in Indiana, we couldn’t shake a vague suspicion he didn’t understand a word of it. We had a hard time making sense of it ourselves, as did everyone else we’ve read, but everyone seems to agree with Trump’s opening unscripted that it does involve those “massive tax cuts” that Democrats are always accusing Republicans of yearning for.
During the speech Trump insisted the vaguely worded tax plan wouldn’t benefit himself, and he added his catchphrase “believe me,” which will surely endear him to his many lower-bracket fans, but until he releases his tax returns you’ll have to take him at his word, and by now most Americans don’t. Reagan had released his tax returns and put his relatively modest fortune into a blind trust, so he didn’t have that rhetorical problem. He could also make a case that taking a 70 percent cut from anybody who got lucky or smart enough to make it to that rarefied tax bracket was unfair, whereas Trump is stuck with a rate that went up and down and up again through the Clinton and Bush and Obama administrations and lands in a mid-30s range that strikes the more average earner as about fair. The relatively insignificant cuts proposed won’t unleash a relatively significant amount of capital into the private sector, too, and with Trump constantly boasting about how high the stock market indices and how low the unemployment rates are the populace probably isn’t in any mood for tax cuts for the rich at the moment.
Those Reagan tax cuts brought a promised doubling of federal revenue collections, but without any commensurate budget restraint the deficits and debt swelled. The broad economic expansion nonetheless continued long enough to get his vice president elected for a third term, and although a brief and relatively mild recession got President Bill Clinton he fiddled so slightly with the tax system that all that capital wound up investing in a technological revolution that has propelled the American through the desultory administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and even into the era of Trump. That soak-the-rich mantra the Democrats are still loudly chanting is as stupid as ever, and we discern a few very good ideas in that nine-page outline about how to revamp the tax system, so we’ll hope for the best.
The highest corporate tax rate in the world is an obvious problem that every last Republican and at least a few centrist Democrats with corporate donors should want to solve, and there’s also a strong case to be made against estate taxes, but there was also a strong argument to be made for repealing and replacing Obamacare. Trump and the congressional leadership weren’t quite coordinated on how far to slash the corporate tax rate, both were failing to acknowledge that the actual corporate tax rate is much lower, given all the deductions their lobbyists have obtained, most of which do have a invigorating affect on the broader economy, and we can’t shake a suspicion that Trump is about to find out that tax reform is even harder than health care.
The Republican majorities in Congress are as always all hepped up for tax reform, but they have diverse districts and different donors and individual viewpoints to consider, and no matter the ranch hands Republicans are always harder to round up in a pen than Democrats. There are still a few debt-conscious Republicans left, perhaps including the Speaker of the House, some Republicans from less well-heeled districts that went big for Trump and his promises of tax hikes on the rich, and even some free market hold-outs who now worry that the tax rates are not far off from optimal. A zero percent tax rate yields zero revenues, but so does a 100 percent tax rate, and both liberal and conservative have always agreed there’s some point in between at which tax rates start to result in lower revenue, which many of our states have tried to ignore, but with Trump boasting about the great economy he’s unlikely to convince anyone outside the hated Republican establishment that his rich buddies and cabinet members need any sort of tax break.
If it we’re up to us we’d concentrate on the arguments for a lower corporate tax rate, which are so compelling they have even persuaded all of the Europeans and the Asians, state the moral case that after someone has spent a long and fruitful life paying exorbitant taxes he shouldn’t be taxed a final for dying, and not antagonize any of those lower-bracketed and class-resenting die-hard Democrats and heartfelt Trump supporters with any noticeable tax cuts for the rich, and if we were Reagan we could probably get it done. Trump isn’t at all a Reagan-esque sort of ranch hand you might have seen on the silver screen, neither are that Senate Majority Leader or House Speaker, and at this point we can’t see any of them winning over any sort of Democrat. We’ll still hope for the best, but we won’t be making any bets, and will anxiously wait to see where the Wall Street money goes.

— Bud Norman

Disasters and Normality

Nature has gone on a destructive rage lately in our hemisphere, and now the entirety of Puerto Rico is without power, the same hurricane caused it is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands that had already been largely wiped out by last week’s hurricane, and at least 250 people died in the second major earthquake in Mexico City in the past two weeks. After the devastation wrought on Texas and Florida from two other unusually large and intense hurricanes this month, catastrophe is starting seem commonplace.
The media are still all over it, complete with scary radar images, heartbreaking footage of downed buildings and bandaged people, and heroic stories of rescue and sacrifice, but by now they’re making more room for yet another Republican attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the numerous noteworthy developments in the “Russia” story, and whatever else President Donald Trump might be up to. All sorts of historic disasters, both natural and man-made, are quickly becoming normalized.
One reason the latest natural catastrophes have been somewhat downplayed is that they happened in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which are part of America but not among the 50 states, and in Mexico, which is not part of America at all. Americans have always tended to take scant interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, and in the age of “America First” and a clamor for building a giant wall along the southern border that tendency is stronger than ever. The country is still obliged to pay its share of the costly recovery efforts in its territories, though, and would do itself a much needed public relations favor by chipping in something to help out the Mexicans, so some attention should be paid.
Eventually nature will settle down for a while, although probably not for so long as those 12 blissful years North America enjoyed without any hurricanes at all until lately, and at that point all the man-made disasters will retake their rightful places on the front page and the top of the hour. We’ll hope that the recent disasters are not forgotten, that a few of the reporters will stay on the long enough to scrutinize both the recovery efforts and the preparations for the inevitable next time, and that no one regards it as normal for two of America’s most populous cities to be underwater and two its territories wiped out altogether. Here’s hoping, too, that people don’t start to regard all those man-made disasters as at all normal.

— Bud Norman

Socialized Medicine and the State of the Union

Self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has officially proposed a Medicare For All Act, which is basically a socialized single-payer insurance scheme, and although it’s not likely to become law in the near future it’s nonetheless an ominous development.
The bill already has 15 Democratic Senators signed on, including several who are considered contenders for the party’s next presidential nomination, and all the polls confirm our anecdotal evidence from conversations at the local hipster bars that the party’s increasingly leftward base is enthusiastic for the idea. For now they don’t comprise a majority of popular opinion, much less the needed congressional majorities, and there’s also a putatively Republican president to veto anything they might get passed, but the idea no longer seems so far-fetched.
Democrats have been chasing the white whale of socialized medicine for a century or so, and Republicans have been successfully fending off the bogeyman of their efforts for just as long, The left has long noted that America is alone among the industrialized nations in not offering some sort of universal health insurance, and the right has long been able to reply by noting how much longer people in those countries have to wait for a medical procedure, and how much they pay in taxes, how puny their militaries become to pay for it, how free markets are as always more efficient than the government-run variety, and all those arguments still stand.
Even the editorial board at The Washington Post acknowledges the budget-busting implications of Sander’s proposal, and such relatively centrist Democrats as recent Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are warning against Sanders’ influence on the party. The Democrats had a hard enough time getting the semi-socialized Obamacare passed with bigger majorities in congress and a more true-blue Democrat in the White House, they suffered huge electoral losses on the lower ticket right down to the city council levels as a result, and for now there are only 15 Democratic senators and the usual number of House members signed on.
That’s for now, though, and these days there’s no telling how long that will last. For four consecutive electoral cycles the Republicans gained everything but the presidency on a promise to repeal Obamacare, and on the fourth try a putatively Republican won the White House on the same promise, but so far it’s proved as impossible as ever to undo any entitlement program that has a couple of million telegenic beneficiaries. The Republicans are betting that when Obamacare inevitably fails with vast human consequences both public opinion and the Democrats will come crawling for some free market solution, and not notice they didn’t try to at least stave it off, but we wouldn’t make that bet.
Some Trump-wary Republican pundits we respect think the Democrats are lurching so far leftward with a socialized single-payer system that they’ll wind up with a ’72-style loss, but these days seem even weirder than that weird year. Once upon our young lifetimes the words “socialized medicine” were a career-ending slut, but that was before a self-described socialist won 45 percent or so of the Democratic votes. It’s not good to root for other party going to the extremes, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, because there’s always a good chance that your party will as well.
Those sound arguments about the inefficiencies and far-reaching costs of socialized medicine still persuade most Republicans and the more sane sorts of Democrats, but the vast majority of the country is as always susceptible to promises of coverage for everyone at a vastly lower price. We can easily believe that next time around those silly Democratic primary voters will buy it, as the last time around the Republican party nominated a candidate peddling the same snake oil. All indications are that after an illegal-immigrant-bashing campaign Trump is eager to sign the illegal-immigrant-friendly “DREAM Act” that Obama and those bigger Democratic majorities couldn’t get passed, and he’s also capitulated to the Democrats’ budget and debt ceiling proposals, so there’s no telling how he might come out on a deal to immortalize him as the man who brought universal health coverage to America.
For now, at least, there are clean-ups from the floods and “Russia” leaks and plenty of other things to worry about.

— Bud Norman

Taxes and Texas and Other Disasters

The news was largely swept away by the flood waters that continue to wreak havoc on Texas and Louisiana, but the Republican party has officially commenced the tax reform part of its legislative agenda to make America great again. President Donald Trump kicked it off with a little-heard speech in Missouri, and it’s probably for the best that such an inauspicious start was largely swept away the flood waters.
We’re the old-fashioned conservative Republican types who like our taxes low and government lean, and we’ve shared to a certain wary extent in the stock market’s giddy expectation that Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a more-or-less Republican president might nudge the economy in that direction, but for now we’re warier than ever. The speech sounded all the same populist soak-the-rich themes that Trump expounded during his burn-down-the-establishment campaign, yet seemed to promise all the usual old-fashioned conservative promises about tax cuts for the rich along with everyone else, but didn’t explain with any specificity about how they’re going to pull that off, much less while keeping all those newfangled and old-fashioned campaign promises about reducing the budget deficit and eventually even the national debt.
We doubt that any of those darned newfangled Democratic liberals with their tax-and-spend ways were swayed, even that long-established Democratic Senator from Missouri that Trump threatened by name during a strikingly partisan oration, and we are not assured that even the needed entirety of those of Congressional Republicans will be on board. It largely depends on the details that have not yet been revealed, of course, but whatever they might prove to be they’re bound to offend either the populist of or traditional wings of the Republican party, and in any case won’t please of those darned tax-and-spend Democrats.
Even in a best-case scenario a massive tax cut to whoever without similar cuts in the entitlement programs that are driving the annual deficits and mounting national debt would lead a a temporary budget shortfall, especially with all the increased defense spending that every corner of the Republican party is proposing, and the debate is lately even more complicated than that. The short term budget shortfalls the as-yet unspecified Republican proposals presumably propose assume they’d be offset by the savings they’d realized from repealing and replacing the hated Obamacare law, which somehow didn’t happen despite Republican majorities in Congress and a more-or-less Republican president, and the cost is likely to swell after the fourth-most-populous metropolitan area in the United States finds itself under even more literal water than the president’s approval ratings.
The cost of gasoline is already up by about 25 percent around here after the city that provides a fourth of America’s energy was flooded, the extra five bucks that motorists are paying per fill-up won’t be going to any of the other businesses around here, and the national economy hasn’t yet started to feel the effects of its fourth-most-populous city being underwater. Though we wish them the best all those Republicans are wading into this debate with strong headwinds and few few victories to bolster them, and we expect their allies on the stock markets will be hedging their bets on the promises that had been made to them, which also won’t help. That’s not to mention all the already complicated talk about continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases and funding for crazy campaign promise about building a tall wall across the entire Mexican border, along with the rest of the bipartisan craziness of late.
There’s also all that drip-drip-drip flooding about “Russia,” the latest nuclear saber-rattling from the nutcase North Korean regime, and a general sense that we’re all in the midst of one of those one-thousand year floods. A severe cut in America’s steepest-in-the-world corporate tax rates really is a good idea, even if they do pay an effective rate that’s more-or-less competitive after all the tax exemptions that might or might not be retained under the as-yet-undisclosed Republican proposals, but that’s a pretty dry subject given all the recent floods. There’s an old-fashioned conservative Republican case to be made that cuts in the top rates that will benefit the poor folks those rich folks will wind up hiring, but Trump promised that he and his fellow billionaires would take a hit without revealing the tax returns that would prove his claim, and he’s still a poor advocate for low taxes and lean government and old-fashioned conservative Republicanism.
Those darned Democrats and their tax-and-spend ways don’t seem to have any better ideas, so for now we’re bracing for one of those occasional thousand-year disasters.

— Bud Norman

A Two-Front War of Words, For Now

President Donald Trump was waging a two-front war of words on Thursday, against both the nutcase dictatorship of North Korea and his own party’s Senate majority leader. Trump has bragged that he has all the best words, but we worry if they’re right ammunition for either conflict.
The feud with Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell is somewhat the less worrisome, as all the talk about the “nuclear option” in the Senate is merely figurative, but it’s also consequential and we don’t see it ending well for either side or the country at large.
McConnell stands accused by the president of failing to round up the necessary 51 votes out of a 52-vote Republican majority to to make good on the on the party’s longstanding and the president’s more recently embraced promise to repeal and replace the hated Obamacare law, and he’s indisputably guilty as charged. There’s a strong argument to be made that Trump also bears at least some of the responsibility as the titular leader of the party, given that he never set foot outside the White House to rally public support for any of the various bills he never seemed to fully understand, but Trump “tweeted” all the blame to McConnell. McConnell had the temerity during a Rotary Club meeting in his home state to offer the mitigating circumstances that “Now our new president has, of course, not been in this line of work before, and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process,” so of course that escalated the war words.
Trump quickly and correctly “tweeted” back that his expectations of a quick repeal-and-replace had been fueled by the Republicans’ promises of the last seven years, then later told the press that he’ll await whether McConnell has to step down because of it, wisely not noting that was a lot longer than he’d been on the bandwagon, so he seems to have the upper hand. McConnell has long been the “establishment” bogeyman of the Grand Old Party on all the talk radio shows where most of Trump’s most loyal supporters get their news, Trump is their hero of the burn-the-establishment-down style of conservatism, and the hated liberal media aren’t likely to come to McConnell’s rescue, so Trump seems to have at least bolstered his base in their intr-party dispute.
The three lost votes were a Senator from deep blue Maine who’s about as red as you could hope for, another equally contrarian woman from contrarian Alaska who didn’t take kindly to Trump’s threats to punish her entire state for her lack of loyalty, and a dying old prisoner of war hero that the president once insulted as a guy who “got caught.” That bill they were expected to pass was polling in the mid-teens, the president who was strong-arming them was polling in the 30s, and even here in deep-red Kansas we had a Senator who cast a killing vote against one of the the various versions, and an awful lot of Republican senators seemed eager to move on, despite Trump’s “twitter” tantrums, so at this point we don’t expect Trump’s words to bully McConnell or anybody else into trying again.
Best to move on to such sensible Republican promises as corporate tax cuts and and fiscal solvency and an upright military posture, but that will likely require both Trump and McConnell working together with other poll-watching Republican votes, and we can’t see how a war of words between the two about the lost battle of Obamacare is going tho help any of that along. The rest of the Republican domestic agenda is pretty dry stuff, requiring all sorts of nuanced explanations about why it really is all pretty sensible, and Trump seems far too colorful and McConnell for too drab for either of them to do the job. What with the all the intra-party feuding, such sensible reforms seem all the less likely.
At this point we expect it will come down to another Republican argument about whom to blame. Trump’s base will hear on talk radio that it’s all the establishment’s fault, the high-brow but low-circulation establishment press will reluctantly make the case for McConnell’s mitigating circumstances, and of course the rest of the media that the rest of the country hears will delight in the in-fighting. For now the rest of the country seems predominate, and although Trump seems to be winning the intra-party battle he seems to be losing the broader.
Our patriotic instinct is to rally around any old Republican or Democrat president during a time of potential literal nuclear war, but we can’t shake a nagging suspicion that Trump isn’t trying to similarly shore up his political base. The nutcase dictatorship of North Korea has lately acquired the ability to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile that can reach strategic American soil, Trump has defiantly responded that any further further threats would be met with “fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen,” and that was met with the nutcase North Korean dictatorship’s explicitly-stated threat to land a missile just off Guam and some taunts from North Korean generals that Trump was “old” and “deranged” and “senile,” but for now it’s just a verbal conflagration.
Trump’s tough talk and caustic put-downs of the past four presidential administrations and the many failures of America’s intelligence as he addressed the current crisis probably shored up that that burn-down-the-establishment base, but we suspect it  played less well in Seoul and Tokyo and Beijing and the rest of the world. As much as we’re rooting for the president in a time of potential nuclear war, we’ve seen enough of the guy that we’re worried how he’ll personally he might respond to such taunts as “old” and “senile” and “golfs too much,” which might enough to provoke a literally nuclear response.,”
Back when it was just intra-party Republican politics, Trump could “tweet” with impunity about “Lyin'” Sen. Ted Cruz or Sen. Rubio “Little” Marco or a “look-at-that-face” female opponent and be assured they’d be too gentlemanly to respond by calling him “Fat” Donald or “Sleazy” Trump, but that nutcase dictatorship in North Korea seems to be playing by different rules. There’s an argument to be made for Trump’s apocalyptic hyperbole, given the undeniable failure of the last 50-plus years of establishment policies to forestall this awful moment, but we’d like to think it all run past the more seasoned foreign-policy heads and coordinated with a well-oiled machine of diplomats and public relations who were part of a coordinated strategy.
That’s what even such a stodgy and failed old Republican establishment fellow as a President McConnell would do, and that’s what we’d do our amateurish best to do, with even a damned old Democrat likely to do the same, so,we hope these competing instincts of the Republican party will somehow prevail on both fronts of this so-far-merely-war-of-words.

— Bud Norman

Trump, Sessions, a Son-in-Law, the Boy Scouts, and the Rest of a Very Bad Day

Monday was just another day in the era of President Donald Trump, and whatever else you might say about it at least it’s not boring.
The day began with a “tweet” blasting his own “beleagured” Attorney General for not pursuing a criminal investigation against his vanquished Democratic rival, and was shortly followed by his son-in-law having to explain to a congressional committee why he’d attended a meeting that the president’s son had set up with the clear understanding that Russians they knew to be tied to the Russian government were offering campaign help as part of that foreign adversary efforts on the Trump campaign’s behalf. Trump then finally got around to delivering a public address on behalf of his party’s longstanding but recently ailing attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and after that delivered a speech to the Boy Scouts’ annual Jamboree that has to be heard to be believed.
As usual one hardly knows where to begin, but we’ll follow Trump’s lead by starting with that “tweet” and saving that bizarre Boy Scout oration for last. Trump first “tweeted” that “Sleazy (Sen.) Adam Schiff, (D-Calif.), the totally biased congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all his on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” A short time later he wondered “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleagureed A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” Putting aside the arbitrary capitalizations and missing apostrophes and deliberate rudeness, which are by now the modern presidential standard, it was a bad start to the day.
Sessions is mostly beleaguered these days by Trump, who recently fumed to The New York Times that he never would have made the pick if he’d known that Sessions would wind up recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of what he now calls “Russia” after some inaccurate testimony to the Senate,  so that embarrassing story got at least another day in the news. Why Sessions isn’t pursuing various criminal investigations against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a valid question to ask, given her long and sordid history, and we can’t wait for some impertinent reporter to pose it to the President of the United States at some possible future news conference. Candidate Trump ran on a rallying cry of “lock her up,” president-elect Trump immediately reneged on the promise by saying that Clinton had suffered enough, but President Trump is clearly in high dudgeon about that outrage, so our only guess is that it will all turn out to be Sessions’ fault.
Sessions resigned his membership in the more respectable clubs of the Republican party when he was the first federal elected official to endorse Trump’s anti-establishment candidacy, relinquished a safe life-long sinecure in the Senate to serve as Trump’s Attorney General, and bravely defended all the indefensible things that Trump had said and done and “tweeted” along the way, but as a respectable Republican he also did his ethical duty by recusing himself from “Russia” after giving some inaccurate and under-oath testimony to the Senate during his confirmation hearings. That wound up with a special counsel who’s now looking into Trump’s previously opaque financial empire, however, so Trump and all the apologists who once cited Sessions’ endorsement as proof of Trump’s conservative bona fides seem eager to defenestrate the poor fellow.
The guy Trump nominated to be the Federal Bureau of Investigation director after the firing of the predecessor told his congressional confirmation hearing interrogators that he didn’t consider his predecessor’s investigation a “witch hunt,” as the president calls it in his “tweets,” and advised any future presidential campaigners to call the FBI if they got any e-mails from people they knew to be connected to a hostile foreign powers promising helpful information. Should Trump fire Sessions or “tweet” him into resignation we expect that any nominee for the job would also face the same questions, and at this point we don’t think anything but the same answers would win anyone confirmation even with a slight Republican majority in the Senate if they answered differently.
At this point we can’t imagine any remotely qualified candidates wanting to work for such an erratically disloyal boss, too, and we note that he’s also having trouble filling a lot of other high-level positions for similar reasons, so we think the “tweet” got Trump’s day got off a bad start.
Trump’s son-in-law didn’t have to testify in an open session about that meeting that Trump’s son set up with those Russkies they knew to be tied closely to the Kremlin and were were told was part of the Russian government’s efforts to help the campaign, so at least is was relegated lower than most people read in the day’s news. Son-in-law Jared Kushner issued an 11-page explanation of the matter to the broader public, explaining that he’d attended the meeting because his brother-in-law had asked him to and he hadn’t read the e-mails subject heading about “Confidential –Russia,” and that he’s recently revised his security clearance forms to include all the numerous Russian meetings and the hundreds of millions of dollars of business transactions that he’d previously forgotten.
Even if you believe every word of it, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that the 36-year-old wunderkind son-in-law is up to the challenges of ending America’s opioid crisis and re-inventing American government and negotiating Middle East and everything else his father-in-law president has asked him to do. Despite the closed hearings and all the rest of the distracting news, we think Kushner also had a bad day.
Trump’s long-awaited address about repealing and replacing Obamacare wasn’t bad, we have to admit, but we’ll have to see how effective it was. Trump stuck mostly to a teleprompter-ed script about how Obamacare had not fulfilled all the promises it was made, and he was surrounded by some telegenic real Americans who have been paying much higher premiums rather than the $2,500 annual savings and had lost the plans they been told they keep and been denied all the rest of that President Barack Obama had promised them, and with characteristic bluntness he called Obama a “big, fat, ugly lie.”
At this point there’s no denying any of that, but we think the same point could have been made without language that precludes any red-state Democrat from agreeing, and we can well understand why all the polls show landslide majorities of Americans are doubting all the claims being made for any of the various Republicans’ proposals, with no one  quite sure which one Trump was touting during that big speech. Candidate Trump ran on promises of coverage for everyone with the government and paying for it, at far less a cost to the average American, President Trump has previously “tweeted” that the proposals he’s now currently touting are “mean,” and we can well understand why all the polls show a public leery of the latest promises of fewer people being covered but lower costs for the rest.
Trump had the golden opportunity to end such a day with a rousing patriotic address to the 30,000 Boy Scouts and troop leaders assembled at an annual Jamboree in rural West Virginia, but in typical Trumpian fashion even that went very, very weird.
At one point in his speech to the too-young-to-vote Boy Scouts, Trump noted that “Tonight we put aside all the policy fights in Washington, D.C., you’ve been hearing about from the fake news. Who the hell wants to talk about politics when I’m front of the Boy Scouts?” He then proceeded to ramble on for 35 minutes about fake news and politics, blasting former president Barack Obama and Clinton, attributed the turn-out an the annual Jamboree to his popularity, and vowed that more people would be saying “Merry Christmas” as a result of his presidency.
Much of the speech was a guy-at-the-bar-style rambling reminiscence about real estate developer William Levitt, whose Levittown development outside New York City started the suburban development craze that transformed America in the long-ago ’50s, and although he didn’t mention that Levitt insisted on white and gentile-only sales he did reveal that Levitt came to a sad and lonely end at least he stopped short of the more sordid details about Levitt’s late night parties, but somehow it wound up as some sort of cautionary tale about grandiose ambitions of a real estate mogul who wound up friendless despite “all the hottest people” at his old age parties. We can only guess what all those Boy Scouts made of it, and we note that the Boy Scout leaders had already issued a plea for an apolitical address,and urged that the audience be respectful but not partisan,  but the kids seemed to love it.
Trump was never a Boy Scout during his childhood as the son of a big-time New York real estate developer who never quite matched Levitt’s historic significance, but he was joined by a couple of cabinet members who’d attained Eagle Scout rank, one of whom was dressed in full Boy Scout uniform, even if fellow Eagle Scout Sessions was conspicuously absent. He also he gave passing mention to the Boy Scout creed of being “Helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent,” none of which seem to describe Trump. He also noted that the Boy Scouts value loyalty, but it probably went over the heads of most of the Boy Scouts when he added that “We really could use some loyalty, I’ll tell you that.”
We’re not only lifelong Republicans, we’re also silver-medal-holding Eagle Scouts due to our parents’ insistence, and even from our unhappy middle-aged perspective we’d have to say that all in all it was another dreary day in the age of Trump.

— Bud Norman

Too Much News on an Otherwise Nice Summer Day

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump the stories keep coming fast and furiously. Wednesday had more big headlines than could fit on the front page of a full-sized newspaper, and none of them were helpful to Trump.
On the day after the Republicans’ seven-year effort to repeal and replace Obamacare had widely been declared dead, Trump was still applying electroshocks to the patient’s chest. After two Republican senators had joined two others in opposing the repeal-and-replacement bill, leaving it two votes short of passage, and three senators killed a backup plan to simply repeal, Trump had “tweeted” that he’d just let Obamacare fail and leave so many Americans in dire straits that the Democrats would coming begging for a fix. He seemed sure the public wouldn’t blame him for the consequences of letting the health care system fail, but just to be sure by Wednesday he was back to urging some immediate repeal and replacement.
The urging was rather heavy-handed, too. Trump didn’t mention the names of Kansas’ Sen. Jerry Moran and Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, who had simultaneously announced their bill-killing opposition, but he did say “The other night, when I heard a couple of my friends — my friends — they really were and are. They might not be very much longer, but that’s okay.” He was seated next to Nevada’s Sen. Sean Heller, who has not announced his opposition to the bill but has expressed criticisms of it, and said in a sort-of-but-not-really joking way that  Heller would eventually come on board because “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” The performance demonstrated Trump’s continued commitment to repeal and replace, which will probably satisfy his base of support, but it might not accomplish anything else.
A president with a 38 percent approval rating warning that a vote against a bill with a 12 percent approval rating will have dire political consequences isn’t likely to scare any politicians who won their jobs with solid majorities. Moran isn’t up for reelection until two years after Trump is, he’s savvy enough to know that there are going to be a lot of headlines between now and then, and Heller is probably more worried about what Nevadans think than he is about Trump. Trump’s got enough of a following in the Republican party to create primary problems for any Republicans who don’t fall in line, but even if that succeeded those challengers would be less likely to prevail in a general election than the more-popular-than-Trump incumbents.
Meanwhile, all the stories about Trump and Russia kept coming on Wednesday. The president’s son and son-in-law and former campaign chairman are all being asked to testify in congressional hearings, where there will be a lot to talk about, and some of the Republicans running the committees won’t be cowed from asking some very tough questions that need answering. Trump has assured us via “twitter” that the previously undisclosed second meeting he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit was nothing to worry about, and we’ll have to take his word for as only he and Putin and a Kremlin translator were present, but he’s nonetheless dogged by questions about why it undisclosed and why there were no other Americans present to vouch for the assurances.
Wednesday also brought the news that the Trump administration has ended a covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels opposed to the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Putin ally, but that might be a coincidence and barely fit on the front page.
In the midst of all this, Trump sat down for an interview with The New York Times, of all people, and of course wound up generating another page of headlines. The biggest one was his angry rant about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from anything to do with the justice departments investigations regarding Trump and Russia, saying “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.'”
By now Sessions is also probably regretting he didn’t forewarn Trump during the job interview that in a few months he was going to give inaccurate testimony to a congressional committee about his own meetings with the Russian government, and would feel ethically obliged to recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations as a result, but it still doesn’t make Trump look good. If Sessions does another honorable thing and resigns, and Trump replaces him with someone free and willing to end any nosiness about Russia, that probably won’t put an end to the headlines.
It was also reported on Wednesday that Arizona’s Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with advanced brain cancer, and that the prognosis is not good. McCain is a significant historical figure, the news is a human tragedy, and he and all the rest of you will be in our prayers.

— Bud Norman

Kansas, Back in the Middle of the Country

The Republicans’ seven year quest to repeal and replace Obamacare is currently as dead as a proverbial door nail, and likely to remain so for a long while, so for now the party is mostly concerned with apportioning the blame. Many of the fingers are pointing at our beloved Kansas’ very own Sen. Jerry Moran, and from our wind-swept perspective here on the southern great plains that suggests the party has some hard-to-solve problems.
Moran and Sen. Mike Lee of the equally blood-red state of Utah simultaneously “tweeted” on Monday that they would vote “no” on the Senate’s repeal-and-replace bill, and with Sen. Susan Collins from deep blue Main already voting “no” because of the bill’s stinginess and Sen. Rand Paul from the hard-to-define shade of red Kentucky objecting to its largess, that that was two Republican votes too many for the bill to survive. On Tuesday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also from that complicated Kentucky, floated the idea of simply repealing Obamacare with a promise to replace it with something so great it will make your head spin within within two years, but Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of the reliably red state of Alaska and Sen. Shelley Moore Caputo of the West Virginia, which is only recently red but with all the fervor of a new convert, joined together to put the kibosh on that. All will be blamed for the party’s failure to get something passed, but we suspect that many of their colleagues are quietly grateful for the favor.

The Senate bill was polling so horribly it had actually made the hated Obamacare bill popular, which was more than President Barack Obama’s oratorical flourishes and outright obfuscations ever achieved, and every sort of Republican also had some objections. It wasn’t the root-and-branch repeal-and-replacement that the Republicans had been promising since every single member of the party had voted against the damned thing those many years ago, and retained many of the poll-tested but economically unworkable provisions of Obamacare that are currently driving up premiums in a politically potent number of states and congressional districts, so the conservative arguments were hard to refute. The bill also included significant cuts to Medicaid and other entitlement programs, and when Vice President Mike Pence tried to deny that at a governor’s conference several Republican governors politely explained he was flat wrong, and given that they and all those wary Republican congressional members are all polling much better in their home states than either President Donald Trump or his senate there’s no arguing with the political logic.
All politics is local, as the old proverb put it, and as Kansans we sympathize with how complicated that must be for Moran. Ever since the abolitionists came here to fight the Bleeding Kansas pre-civil war the state’s tended Republican, and except for the landslide elections of ’36 and ’64 it’s voted GOP in every presidential races and has only once sent a Democrat to the United States senate, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Those abolitionists were upright establishment New Englanders with high-minded ideas about good government, and of course they were also religious zealots and unabashed radicals, always facing the harsh reality of making a honest living on treeless plain, and those various forces still inform the political debate around here. They were later joined in the party by Swedes and Russians and Germans and the black Exodusters fleeing the slavery of the south, but the party remained in steadfast opposition to the Democrats and the even crazier Prairie Populists and in disagreement about everything else.
For the most part the moderate factions always prevailed, standing firmly against the most radical Democrat ideas but willing to embrace a certain amount of good government. The party generously funded the state’s schools, kept the roads between all the small towns paved, locked up the occasional mass murderers and other criminal types, paid the salaries of all the pointy-headed professors at the regent universities, and provided for widows and orphans. Kansas has always provided fertile soil for a more ruggedly individualistic style of conservatism, though, and it has also exerted an influence on the party.
When the election of President Barack Obama unleashed some of the Democratic Party’s more radical ideas back in ’08 the state was at the forefront of the “Tea Party” reaction, with pretty much the entirety of the Republican Party on board. All of the state’s congressional delegation, including then-First District Rep. Moran, voted against Obamacare and the rest of the Democratic agenda, and the conservative outrage trickled down to the rest of the state’s politics. By ’10 the Republicans in Congress and the statehouse who were deemed insufficiently rocked-ribbed faced primary challenges, the successor to Democratic-governor-turned-Obama-cabinet-secretary Kathleen Sibelius was replaced by the exceedingly rock-ribbed Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, and when some of the Republicans in the state legislature balked at his tax-and-budget-cutting proposals they were largely replaced by primary challengers.
When Brownback relinquished his Senate seat to run for governor Moran beat out the more “Tea Party” Fourth District Rep. Todd Tiahrt in a hotly contested primary, and a couple of years later the curmudgeonly conservative but by-now-establishment Sen. Pat Roberts barely survived a primary challenge from an even more curmudgeonly conservative political neophyte who was related to Obama on the Kansas side of the family tree, but the conservative and anti-establishment faction of the party was clearly in control.
Since then, however, the moderate and establishment wing of the Grand Old Party has been making a comeback. Brownback and Roberts and all the rest of the party won re-election in the nationwide Republican wave of ’14, but by then it was clear that Brownback’s theoritically-sound but admittedly radical tax-and-budget-cutting proposals weren’t spurring the economy and balancing the books as predicted, and that after so many rounds of cuts the schools and roads and prisons and the rest of the states business were bound to be affected, so suddenly the establishment moderate types were winning the primary challenges. Enough of them won in the last election that they were able to join with the Democrats to recently override Brownback’s veto of a tax increase. Tax increases are anathema to a Kansas Republican’s soul, but so are unbalanced budgets and uneducated schoolchildren and unpaved roads and unpunished criminals, and in Kansas as elsewhere politics is complicated that way.
Which is pretty much the complicated place that Moran found himself when he decided to cast a “no” vote that he surely knew would invite plenty of pointing figures, here and in the rest of the Republican precincts of the country. He and Lee shrewdly timed their announcements so that neither could be blamed as the guy who cast the fatal vote against repeal-and-replace, both reasonably explained that a “yes” vote wouldn’t have fulfilled their campaign promises of a root-and-branch repeal and replacement, and both surely have other unstated more moderate reasons that make an undeniable political logic.
Once you get outside the big bad city of Wichita and the trendy suburbs of Kansas City or the booming college town of Lawrence and the recently-recession-plagued state capital of Topeka, Kansas is mostly a scenic but sparsely populated expanse of rapidly aging small towns with a dwindling supply of rapidly aging people. In many of these locales, which are still quite charmingly all-American, the main driver of the local economy and the most crucial local institutions are the local hospitals and old folks’ homes, largely funded by Medicaid, and despite what Vice President Pence says on behalf of President Obama those Republican governors with the healthier poll numbers are probably right about the Senate bill. For all the economic harm Obamacare is doing to the healthy young hipsters of Lawrence and the family guys commuting back to the Kansas City suburbs and the factory guys here in Wichita, we can hardly blame Moran for not wanting to face the wrath of all those paid-up geezers in the rest of the state.
If Moran wants to cynically claim conservative principles to justify his more moderate political instincts, we’ll not blame him for that the next time he’s up for reelection. After a half-century of proud Kansas Republicanism, which instinctively stretches back to the abolitionist Bleeding Kansas days, we’ll not fault a guy for insisting on anything less than an root-and-branch repeal-and-replacement bill, and that a truly free market would have cared for those old folks in those charming small towns, and until then we’ll also figure we have to take care of them somehow.
All the rest of the Republican votes that killed the Republican dream probably have their own local logic. Trump won Utah by the same usual Republican margins that he won Kansas, but he finished a distant third in both state’s Republican primaries, and his polls numbers aren’t sufficient to scare Republicans in many states. The three senators who took the stand against repeal-only are all women, each of whom were excluded from the behind-closed-doors writing of the bill, which is one of the many very stupid things that McConnell did during the failed process, but we credit each of the ladies with more sensible local political reasons for their “no” votes.
Go ahead and blame them all for wrecking the Republicans’ seen-year quest, as they willingly volunteered for the finger-pointing, but from our perspective here on the southern plains there’s plenty of blame to go around. Trump arm-twisted enough House Republicans to pass a bill that he later “tweeted” was “mean” and lacking “heart,” never gave any major speeches with oratorical flourishes or outright obfuscations on behalf of the similar Senate bill, and not even such sycophants as Sean Spicer or Sean Hannity can deny that he didn’t made good on his campaign promises of universal coverage and lower costs and no cuts to Medicaid within 100 days of his inauguration. If you’re more inclined to blame McConnell and the rest of that GOP establishment that Trump vowed to burn down, well, we can’t readily think of any excuses for them.
Those treasonous turncoats might have saved the Republican Party from passing a wildly unpopular bill that set off another round of wave elections, though, and given the party a chance to go slowly according to old-fashioned good government principles and get things right, which is more than those damned Democrats ever did. That’s what we’re hoping for here in the middle of the country, at any rate.

— Bud Norman

Health Care Reform in Surgery Recovery

Arizona Sen. John McCain is currently recovering from surgery, and for as long as that takes so is his Republican party’s attempts to reform America’s health care system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has once again delayed a vote on a Senate health care proposal, not because McCain is a former party presidential nominee or exceedingly senior congressional member or otherwise an especially respected member of the party, but rather because at this point not a single a Republican vote can be spared. This point arrives after seven years of every establishment Republican and every anti-establishment Republican vowing repeal and replacement of the hated Obamacare law, with a solid Republican majority in the House and a sufficient one in the Senate and some sort of Republican in the White House, so the Republican effort to make good on that constantly made promise seems conspicuously sickly.
The prognosis for McCain’s recovery is reportedly good, and we certainly wish him our very best and offer our prayers, but the chances for that long-awaited Republican repeal and replace effort seem more iffy. Health care is complicated, as that putatively Republican president discovered shortly after he took office, and the politics of the issue are more complicated yet, so it’s foolish to make any bold promises such as the all of the Republicans have been making. The party’s congressional majorities might yet pass something, and that some sort of Republican president will surely sign it, but at this point there’s no guessing how that might turn out well.
That hated Obamacare law is indeed hateful, full of all the restrictions on individual liberty and increased costs for the middle class that the Republicans predicted, utterly lacking in the promises the Democrats made about keeping your doctor and your plan and pocketing a big chunk of change at the end of year, and the Republicans won three state congressional election and one-of-two presidential elections on the issue. The law never polled well, even when Obama was winning re-election, so replacing the damned thing should have been an easy enough task for a Republican congress and Republican president to do. Replacing it, though, has proved tricky even for the co-author of “The Art of the Deal.”
Some of Obamacare’s most unworkable provisions have always polled well, such as that guaranteed coverage of pre-existing conditions, and at least a few million photogenic and sympathetic folks have derived advantages from it, and it also expanded Medicaid coverage to a few more million folks in states that voted in Republican governors and senators and representatives. Obamacare still doesn’t poll particularly well, but both the House and Senate versions of repealing and replacing it are faring far worse, and at this point in this age of cynical pragmatism we can’t hardly blame any Republicans up for re-election in a year and a few month’s time.
Those poor politicians’ political calculations are further complicated by the complex nature of Republican politics at this point. One of the unsure Republican votes is Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who voted against Obamacare when it happened and is about as right-wing a Republican as you could hope for in a such a liberal state as Maine but is nonetheless reviled by the all the right-wing radio talkers in the red states and is voting against the Senate bill because it’s too austere. Another wavering vote is Sen. Ran Paul from McConnell’s own state of Kentucky, whose standing with the right-wing radio talkers is hard to assess at the moment, because the thinks the bill too spend-thrifty. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is holding out for an amendment that would allow young and healthy consumers the choice of low-cost and low-coverage plans for catastrophic care, which warms our traditional Republican hearts, but the Republican president called him “Lyin’ Ted” all the right-wing talk radio hosts aren’t sure what to make of the Cruz amendment.
Almost everyone on talk radio and the rest of the party still seems on board with that putatively Republican president, who ran on promises of coverage for everybody and the government paying for it and no cuts to Medicaid and lower costs somehow resulting, and he now tells his televangelist interviewer that he’s waiting in the Oval Office with his pen to sign anything the Republicans might put on his desk. He’s not given any speeches or even any “tweets” about why the Republican plan is so great it’ll make your head spin, but if the Republicans in congress do give him something to sign he’ll gladly take credit for it. If they don’t, he’ll be able blame it on those gutless and devious moderate and conservative establishment types of Republicans that he that he vowed to destroy, and we’re sure all those talk show hosts will heartily agree.
There’s a Republican case to be made for those widely unpopular House and Senate bills the Republicans came up, and for the compromise that should have been reached with complete Republican control of the government, and they might yet make it. Such Republicans as that putatively Republican president keep talking about how shrewd McConnell is at getting things done, and we note that he held a Supreme Court seat open long enough for the putatively Republican president to take credit for getting a conservative confirmed, but the Republican president ran on the argument that he or any other professional politician couldn’t get anything done, and that only a real estate developer could do the job.
If the Republicans don’t get the job done there will be plenty of blame to spread around, and we’re sure they’ll all do their best to spread it elsewhere. If something does get passed and sign, they’ll probably all claim credit, then start deflecting the blame somewhere down the electoral road.

— Bud Norman