Aug. 13

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Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain, Part I: Immigrants

Did you know that The Wizard of Oz is the most watched movie of all time (at least, according to the Library of Congress)? And in one of the film's climactic scenes, which you can watch here if you wish, the titular Wizard's smoke and lights show is revealed to be a giant fraud when the heroes of the film (Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodsman) see a smallish and decidedly non-magical fellow operating a bunch of gears and levers behind a green lamé curtain. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," bellows the Wizard, when he realizes his cover is blown. The scene is now well established as a metaphor for powerful people who distract with what they say, so that nobody pays too much attention to what they actually do.

And thus the stage is now set for the theme that will run through this item and the next three. The American party system is realigning right now; there is no longer any doubt of that. And the Republican Party has a serious identity problem. It is no longer the party of Reagan or Bush, much less the party of Eisenhower. No, it's the party of Donald Trump. But what, exactly, does that mean, given that Trump has few consistent principles, and certainly does not have a cohesive political program of the sort that can serve as the long-term basis for a political party? Put another way, what will the GOP look like in 4 or 8 or 12 years, when its central organizing principle will no longer be "support whatever Donald Trump says or does"?

We actually can't answer that; nobody can. We'll all just have to wait and see what happens. What we can do, however, is point out the ample evidence that the Republican Party is still paying lip service to many of the core principles of its past, while undertaking actions that run decidedly contrary to those principles. To put that another way, there is much in common between Trump and the Wizard.

We start with immigration. Since Trump does not often issue forth with clear policy statements, and even when he does, he often changes his mind within the hour, we're instead going to rely on the 2016 Republican platform as our source for the principles the Party ostensibly stands for right now. Here is the key passage on that subject:

The greatest asset of the American economy is the American worker. Our immigration system must protect American working families and their wages, for citizens and legal immigrants alike, in a way that will improve the economy. Just as immigrant labor helped build our country in the past, today's legal immigrants are making vital contributions in every aspect of national life. Their industry and commitment to American values strengthen our economy, enriches our culture, and enables us to better understand and more effectively compete with the rest of the world.

The Republican Party has always painted itself as a pro-immigrant party, dating all the way back to its founding in the 1850s. The most positive reading of that position is that they saw the contributions that immigrants have made to America, and valued that. The slightly more cynical reading is that immigrants have been a core constituency of the Democratic Party for nearly two centuries, and the GOP was simply trying to steal some of that support away. The very most cynical reading is that immigrants provide a very cheap source of labor for the corporate interests that the Republican Party has embraced for at least 100 years.

Now, when the GOP was founded, there really was no such thing as an "undocumented" or "illegal" immigrant. That didn't come until half a century later, give or take. Over time, the party did develop a pretty staunch anti-undocumented immigrant stance, but they continued to embrace legal immigrants, certainly as late as Bush Sr., and maybe even until Bush Jr. And if the passage from the 2016 platform is to be believed, they still do.

Of course, as anyone who has been paying attention the last three years knows, the truth is that the party of Trump has become hostile to immigrants of nearly any sort, not just the undocumented ones (with white immigrants from Europe being the exception). Although the Donald ran a wall-building, MS-13-bashing, "Mexicans are rapists" anti-illegal immigration campaign, his administration has consistently tried to significantly reduce legal immigration, and also to limit the opportunities and rights of those legal immigrants who are already in the country.

The latest news on this front came on Monday, when the administration announced a new plan to deny green cards to immigrants with low income or limited education if they have used benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli explained:

We certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet, so if people are not able to be self-sufficient, then this negative factor is going to bear very heavily against them in a decision about whether they'll be able to become a legal permanent resident.

While the government's right to reject a green-card applicant based on their financial and educational situation has technically been on the books since the 1990s, no administration prior to this one has utilized that authority so broadly. It's estimated that as many as 400,000 people could lose their legal status if the new policy is allowed to take effect.

Past GOP administrations, even those that did not like handing out benefits to non-citizens, were clever enough to recognize that such a policy is likely to have unintended consequences. By discouraging people from taking advantage of government services, you are likely to produce increases in the following things: homelessness, outbreaks of disease, hungry children, and crime, among other things. Undoubtedly, this administration thinks that will make a lot of these folks return home, and maybe it will have that effect for some of them, but the fact is that most are not in the United States because of the abundance of opportunity where they came from. Meanwhile, the immigrants who are being targeted are the absolute backbone of the workforce in certain economic sectors in the states that border either Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico. If they leave the country, or get sick, or cannot afford enough food, then the U.S. economy will take a hit much greater than what is "saved" by these folks not using social services anymore.

Of course, the President knows all of this, because he himself makes extensive use of both documented and undocumented labor at his properties, most obviously Mar-a-Lago. However, his #1 political principle is "re-elect Donald Trump," and that means pandering to his base's xenophobia. And so the hostility to immigrants of all stripes, even the legal ones, continues onward. (Z)

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain, Part II: Mobility

If there is a single principle that the GOP has held onto for longer than any other, it's the promotion of opportunity. Why do we say that? Well, the Republican Party was basically the successor to the Whig Party, which collapsed in the 1850s. And if there is one core principle the Whigs had, it was that the government's job is to foster opportunity for everyone, so that Americans can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. In other words, it is fair to say that this particular Republican principle actually predates the Party by about two decades (the Whigs were founded in 1833).

Naturally, the 2016 Republican platform has much flowery language on this subject, including this:

We are the party of a growing economy that gives everyone a chance in life, an opportunity to learn, work, and realize the prosperity freedom makes possible.

For blue-collar folks who do not go to college, one of the very best paths forward is to get involved in an apprenticeship program. This gives them a marketable skill set, and one that usually commands a solid, middle-class income. These programs are, generally speaking, overseen by labor unions, or by educational institutions (community colleges or technical schools), or as a partnership between both types of entities.

Just about everyone agrees that current apprenticeship programs, which train roughly 300,000 people per year, need to be expanded—both to serve more people, and to serve industries that currently have few such programs, like high tech or healthcare. The question is: What's the best way to expand? And the Trump administration has a solution, one largely crafted and promoted by Ivanka Trump. It's something they call Industry-Recognized Apprenticeships.

The fact that "industry" is in the name might trigger your skeptical impulse. The fact that Ivanka, who is not exactly a renowned expert in labor matters or education, is taking the lead should definitely trigger that impulse. In any event, the upshot is that the administration wants to make it much easier to launch an apprenticeship program, and to get it certified. Team Trump would allow a much larger list of actors, including the industries themselves, to launch and operate such programs.

Let us note again that there is a real problem being addressed here. And maybe Ivanka & Co. really think they are solving it in the best way possible. However, the less nefarious interpretation of what is going on here is that the administration is rushing in half-cocked, as it so often does, and is not thinking about the implications of its plan. Mary Alice McCarthy, who is an expert in apprenticeships, and has worked for both the Departments of Labor and Education, observes that the Trump plan would create the exact same situation for apprenticeships that past administrations unwisely created for college degrees, allowing the proliferation of low-quality and often exploitative institutions that target vulnerable students (particularly veterans) while giving them an "education" that doesn't actually prepare them for future employment.

The more nefarious interpretation, meanwhile, observes that people trained by unions/colleges are likely to end up with a diverse skill set and are, not surprisingly, likely to join the union that represents their industry. Someone trained by their employer, by contrast, is less likely to unionize. Further, the latter group may end up with a not-so-transferable skill set, useful only to that employer. Imagine a situation, for example, where Foxconn gets federal funds to train workers, and uses that opportunity to teach them how to solder together iPhone circuits. That's a skill, but not one that is all that useful to Microsoft, or Dell, or Oracle, or anyone besides Foxconn. In short, we could be looking at the creation of a large, non-union workforce with limited leverage over employers.

Whichever interpretation is correct, the probable effect of the administration's plan, if it is adopted, will be to deny upward mobility to many workers. Abraham Lincoln, who was always more a Whig than a Republican, even after the Whigs were gone, is surely spinning in his grave. (Z)

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain, Part III: Regulation

The GOP was not always the party of deregulation. In fact, the single-most famous corporate regulation in American history, namely the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, was proposed by and named for one Republican (Sen. John Sherman) and was signed into law by another (Benjamin Harrison). And, of course, Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was a very vocal advocate of trustbusting and of reining in corporate misbehavior. TR's Republican successor, William Howard Taft, was less vocal, but was arguably even more effective than the Rough Rider. Certainly, Taft broke up more monopolies than Roosevelt did.

Since the 1920s, however, when businessman-president and Republican Warren Harding was elected, and then succeeded by Calvin "The business of America is business" Coolidge, the Party has adopted a pretty consistently laissez-faire attitude, and has tended to nominate major de-regulators. Ronald Reagan was most famous for this, but the Eisenhower, Nixon, and both Bush administrations did their fair share of regulatory rollbacks.

Undoubtedly, the general theme of the Trump administration has been deregulation as well, as the President wiped away many of the decisions and executive orders of his predecessor. The 2016 platform spends many pages on this subject, and includes this passage:

We envision government at all levels as a partner with individuals and industries in technological progress, not a meddlesome monitor. We want to create a business climate that rewards risk and promotes innovation, a learning system that gives Americans the skills needed to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, and an international order that maintains a fair and open global market for America's goods and services. We intend to advance policies that protect data privacy while fostering innovation and growth and ensuring the free flow of data across borders.

Take note of that phrase "meddlesome monitor," because it's going to be important in a minute.

Late last week, the Trump administration announced a sweeping new initiative. In response to the alleged anti-conservative bias of social media companies, the President is planning to issue an executive order that, in some way, punishes unequal treatment of conservatives by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. As one White House official explained: "If the internet is going to be presented as this egalitarian platform and most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom, then at least the President wants some fairness in the system." This would be the same President who governs via Twitter, and who regularly gets away with tweets that would get any regular user banned.

It is very hard to see how the White House might actually accomplish what they are trying to accomplish. Even if they can overcome the sizable First Amendment issues by arguing that social media platforms are a form of public space, even if privately hosted, then how can they distinguish between "fair" and "unfair" censorship? Sounds like something that, however implemented, would require a lot of...wait for it...meddlesome monitoring. Most likely, this does not go anywhere, and the only real purpose of the threatened executive order is to please the base, and scare the Silicon Valley-types a bit.

In any event, it is difficult to imagine any previous Republican administration, even if transported into the social media age, attempting something like this. Ronald Reagan, for example, tended to be an adherent of the "all publicity is good publicity" school of thought, and was famous for having his staff call journalists after they ran negative stories about him to thank them for using a handsome picture of him. The Bushes, particularly the younger one, tended to avoid negative press, and tried to do what they could to goose the fortunes of conservative-leaning outlets. But getting into the business of actually policing liberal-leaning content? That would certainly have been a bridge too far for the pre-Trump GOP. (Z)

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain, Part IV: Conservation

Republicans quite literally invented the conservation/environmental movement. If you want to give credit to a politician, then it goes to Sen. John Conness or Theodore Roosevelt. If you want to give credit to an activist, then it goes to John Muir. Either way, they were all Republicans. So too was the president who set aside Yosemite for public use (Abraham Lincoln), the president who created Yellowstone National Park (Ulysses S. Grant), and the president who established the EPA (Richard Nixon).

The GOP's 2016 platform pays lip service to this long, and rather distinguished, record of accomplishment:

Conservation is inherent in conservatism. As the pioneer of environmentalism a century ago, the Republican Party reaffirms the moral obligation to be good stewards of the God-given natural beauty and resources of our country.

That said, if you read the whole thing, the Party actually tries to have it both ways, arguing that the best way to conserve lands is to let ranchers, farmers, and businesses use those lands. Someone might want to look up the word "conservation" in the dictionary, to figure out what Roosevelt, Muir, and Conness meant when they first developed the concept. Hint: They did not regard it as a synonym for "development."

In any event, anyone who follows politics knows that the Trump administration is not the slightest bit interested in conservation. From trying to expand offshore drilling, to granting oil leases in the mountain states, to reducing the amount of land that is protected from human incursion, to denying global warming, Team Trump has done things that would have gotten them punched by the Rough Rider (who was a boxer of some skill, and who communicated his viewpoints with his fists more than once). Their latest initiative, announced on Monday, would significantly reduce the protections afforded to endangered species. That way, more land and more resources will be available for development by...ranchers, farmers, and businesses. And so, once again, the Trump administration pursues a policy that is at odds with the spirit of the GOP platform, as well as the policy of most of the last century's Republican administrations.

Now as we wrap this sequence up, let us note, in the interest of fairness, that the Democrats also fail to live up to their own rhetoric much of the time. When was the last time a powerful Democrat stood up to the pharmaceutical industry, for example? Or the last time a powerful Democrat did something substantive for civil rights, legislatively? Similarly, it's true that saying one thing and doing another is hardly a new thing for the GOP. Richard Nixon was famous for it, as was Ronald Reagan.

With that said, it is striking how often, and how overtly, the actions of Donald Trump and his administration run contrary to the stated platform of the Party and, more importantly, to the GOP's longstanding core principles. And we only brought up the things that came up in the last week or so; we didn't even touch on subjects like the Republicans' newfound disregard for exploding the deficit, or for reining in Russia, or for partnering with the nation's longstanding European allies.

So, we conclude where we started: This is a Party with a serious identity problem. They are holding on to some past idea of what the GOP is, at least for "smoke and mirrors" purposes, but they most certainly aren't that party anymore. How things play out, once Donald Trump has exited stage right, will be fascinating (and will give this site stuff to write about for years). They aren't likely to become the party of Reagan or Eisenhower again; wherever they do end up is anyone's guess. (Z)

Reid: Abolish the Filibuster

We have suggested, multiple times, that the Senate filibuster (which has already been significantly trimmed down), is soon to go the way of the dodo. Now, we have a rather high-profile expert who is in agreement with us. That would be Nevada Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who wrote an op-ed on Monday arguing that "It's time to allow a simple majority vote instead of the 60-vote threshold now required for legislation."

Needless to say, Reid's words carry no weight with his successor, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who does not need a Democrat's permission to change the rules of the Senate. However, the Nevadan is still quite dialed in to his party's maneuverings, and his op-ed should be read as a statement of what the blue team will do once they get the Senate gavel again. McConnell, seeing the writing on the wall, might just choose to act, so as to get as much mileage out of a filibuster-free Senate as he can before the GOP loses the chamber. On the other hand, he might not, for fear of bad optics. Either way, however, it would be a shock if the filibuster survives through the next presidency. And it might not survive this one. (Z)

Trump Could Goddamn Well Lose the Evangelicals

Donald Trump's unwavering, and often near-fanatical, support among many evangelical voters is a real head-scratcher for most outsiders. It's true that he appoints conservative judges, and pushes back on abortion, but any Republican president would have done that. Meanwhile, he abuses the Ten Commandments (particularly the ones about false idols, adultery, false witness, and coveting thy neighbor's ass) on a regular basis, while also utterly disregarding many other central tenets of the Bible, like the golden rule, turning the other cheek, and forgiveness.

It appears that, after more than three years in politics, Trump might just have stumbled across the evangelicals' deal breaker. No, it's not putting children in cages, or cutting aid to poor people, or encouraging violence against those who disagree with him. It turns out that while much of the rest of the country was losing their minds over the "Send them back" chants at Trump's North Carolina rally, many evangelicals were going nuts about something else, namely the fact that at that rally Trump said "goddamn." Twice, in fact.

If that really does tip the scales, even if it's only with a segment of the evangelicals, then that is pretty wild. It's true, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," is one of the Commandments (#2 in most versions of the Bible). However, what about all the others he breaks? Do you get a freebie on the first four, but once you break five, then that's gonna cost you? Is that commandment more important than the other ones on the list, for some reason? Are only the even-numbered ones worthwhile, kind of like Star Trek movies? In any event, the linked story makes clear that a lot of folks are really bothered by this, and it has them thinking about the other un-Christian things that Trump does. And, of course, the evangelical community is one where a small number of people have an enormous amount of influence, so stepping on just a few of the wrong toes could be big trouble for him. In other words, he really needs to start watching his language, for Christ's sake. (Z)

Could Texas Go Blue in 2020?

For at least two or three presidential cycles, people have been predicting Texas' eventual move from red to purple to blue state. The basic reasoning is that the state's population is heavily Latino (about 40%, at the moment), that the Latino segment of the population is growing relative to the rest of the state, and that the strongly Democratic lean of that demographic will eventually cause the state to turn.

It hasn't worked out that way, quite yet, for a number of reasons. To start, a lot of Latinos can't vote, by virtue of not having citizenship or not having reached voting age. Another sizable portion chooses not to vote; Latino voters disproportionately do not exercise their franchise relative to other groups. And finally, Latinos, as a group, are not quite as left-leaning as people might believe. Among black voters, for example, Democrats outnumber Republicans about 8 to 1. Among Latino voters, by contrast, it's more like 3 to 1. Consequently, it takes a lot of new Latino voters to swing a state as big as Texas.

CNN's Harry Enten has just written a piece you should expect to see many variants of in the next 16 months, wondering if Texas could flip to the Democrats in 2020 for the first time since 1976. Significantly, his focus is not on the growing Latino vote (even though that will certainly continue to help the Democrats), it's on college-educated suburban voters. There isn't much polling data available, but as more and more folks arrive from elsewhere to take jobs in the state's growing tech sector (and in other expanding parts of its economy), and as moderate GOP voters who are disgusted with Trump leave the Party, it might just be enough to flip the state.

Somewhat instructive on this point is Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) narrow victory in 2018 (he won by just three points). That was generally understood as a product of Beto O'Rourke's skillful campaign, and Cruz's personal unpopularity. However, Beto has not exactly displayed any magic on the presidential campaign trail, so the close race may have been about demographics and not about him. Meanwhile, Trump is arguably even more unpopular in the Lone Star State than Cruz is. At the moment, Morning Consult has the Senator at 48% approval and 36% disapproval (net +12%), while the President is at 51% and 45% (net +6%).

For our part, we're a little skeptical that 2020 will be the Democrats' year statewide. Trump is still above water, and he won the state by over 800,000 votes out of 8.5 million cast, so he's got a pretty big margin of error to work with. That said, the trendlines are worrisome enough for the GOP that they will have to spend time and resources defending a big, expensive state that they would rather not defend. This is also a pretty good argument for O'Rourke or Julián Castro as the Democrats' VP candidate. We've pointed out that, generally speaking, the evidence suggests a VP cannot singlehandedly win his or her home state for their party. But if it's close, they just might be able to move the needle; Lyndon Johnson probably saved Texas for the blue team back in 1960. And, at very least, if a native Texan VP candidate spends all their time in the state plugging the Democratic ticket, it will increase the amount of time and energy the Republicans have to spend defending the state.

Meanwhile, even if Texas as a whole does not flip, it is more and more likely that the state's Congressional delegation is going to get a blue kick in the pants. Politico has a piece discussing how, between the four GOP retirements that have already been announced, and the blue-ing of the suburbs, the GOP is scared witless of the "drubbing" they suspect is in their future. Of the 23 Republican-held House seats in the state, as many as eight may be in play in 2020, along with Sen. John Cornyn's (R-TX) seat. And, of course, success begets more success; if Democratic voters conclude their votes and money are not wasted, and hopeful Democratic politicians conclude their time is not wasted tilting against a red wall, and the DNC concludes their resources are not going into a black hole, the Democratic Party of Texas, which was a viable counter-weight to the state's Republican Party as recently as the 1990s, could come roaring back to life. No wonder the Republicans are anxious. (Z)

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