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“Republicans Take The Less Risky Path”: The Budget Passes! Has The GOP Congress Come To Its Senses?

The news that the House passed a budget that will fund the government through next fall, and the Senate quickly followed suit, is in and of itself a big deal. But the fact that the bill passed so easily — on a vote of 316-113 in the House, with Republicans voting in favor of it by a margin of 150-95 — may be the really interesting story here.

Is the GOP Congress not what we thought it was? Is the way liberal commentators (myself included) have characterized the Republican caucus in the House over the last couple of years, as a group dominated by extremists who are willing to burn down everything in their path, an oversimplification?

It just may be. But let’s look at some competing explanations for why this budget passed so easily:

Paul Ryan is a genius. Perhaps this is all Paul Ryan’s doing, so deftly did he work his members to corral support for this bill. There’s something to that — there were specific steps he took to make all his members feel like they had a voice in the process, and even some of the most conservative members have praised his openness to their input.

But there are a couple of reasons to think that this explanation is incomplete at best. First, it suggests that the crises and intra-Republican battles of the last few years occurred only because John Boehner was inept at managing the more restive parts of his caucus. While no one is going to suggest that Boehner was some kind of legislative sensei, the members who forced those crises weren’t doing it just because they disliked Boehner. They were acting out of their own ideological and electoral interests, many because they saw their political fortunes in their own districts tied to the idea that they would be uncompromising in fighting both Barack Obama and their party’s leadership.

Second, this bill really was a compromise. It doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood, it doesn’t reduce the size of government, and it gives Democrats plenty of other things they wanted as well. Republicans in the House weren’t going to go along with it for no reason other than the fact that they got to sit down with the new Speaker and voice their complaints. So while they may feel better about Ryan than they did about Boehner, that can’t be the whole story.

They realized that making a fuss only raises expectations. The key dynamic in Republican politics these days comes from voter dissatisfaction with the party’s leaders, who have repeatedly promised to fight President Obama to their dying breath but has been unable to deliver on any of their substantive goals, like repealing the Affordable Care Act. Smarter Republican members may realize that shutdown crises only serve to increase this dissatisfaction, because they inevitably end in defeat for the conservatives. Even the angriest tea partier could eventually face a primary challenger who points out that the congressman didn’t succeed in stopping the march of socialism, no matter how often he shook his fist at his party’s leadership. So the less risky path might be to let the bill pass, keep the government running, and hope that nobody takes much notice of it.

There’s a silent (or at least relatively quiet) majority of Republicans in the House. Let’s not forget that 95 Republicans did vote against the bill, including the most conservative ones. In the past, the conservatives (or the tea partiers, or the Freedom Caucus, or however you want to refer to them) were only able to create crises and shutdowns because they were able to bring slightly less crazy members along with them. So it isn’t that the extreme conservatives have gotten any less extreme; what made the difference this time is that the merely very conservative members were no longer willing to set fire to the Capitol.

Those members in the ideological middle of the caucus (which, to be clear, is a very conservative place) can sound like tea partiers when the situation demands, but they are also realistic enough to know that some battles aren’t worth fighting. They certainly feel pressure from their right, but they may have learned from the mistakes of the past. And right now, as we move into 2016, the calculation of which risks are worth taking has changed. Which leads us to the final explanation:

The presidential race has changed everything. As I’ve been arguing since the last midterm election, congressional Republicans didn’t really need to “show they can govern.” What they needed to do was avoid screwing things up for their eventual 2016 presidential nominee. The reason is simple: if a Republican wins the White House next year, 2017 will see a bacchanal of conservative legislating that will leave no Republican desire unfulfilled. Trying to extract a few concessions from Barack Obama today is spectacularly foolish if it makes Republicans look bad and thereby reduces the chances of electing a Republican president by even the tiniest amount. The best strategy for congressional Republicans is to do no harm, and be patient.

With the presidential primary campaign now in full swing, that reality may be hitting home for more and more members of Congress. So even the most conservatives ones aren’t going to try to force a shutdown. Instead, they’ll vote against the budget bill, and when a reporter asks they’ll say, yes, of course it’s a surrender to Obama and a betrayal of conservative values, blah blah blah. But in their hearts, they probably realize that at this particular moment, passing the budget is the smart move.

So which one of these explanations is the right one? The answer may be different for different members, but I’m pretty sure they all played a role.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, December 18, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Budget, GOP Establishment, House Freedom Caucus, Senate | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Hillary Got The Debate Of Her Dreams”: Showed That She’s Well Armed For Any GOP Fight

If Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley could control the circumstances and terms of Saturday’s debate, the third of the Democratic primary, it would have been a very different evening. It’s easy to imagine an ideal Sanders debate: a focus on how inequality is destroying the middle class and why Sanders, unlike Clinton, is willing to stand-up to corporate plutocrats and Wall Street. Martin O’Malley’s perfect debate would be one where his expertise in progressive wonkery could shine, and he would emerge as a sleek, plausible alternative. But world events, the unfolding strangeness of the Republican field, and the sensation-loving mindset of the media all conspired to create a debate that allowed Hillary Clinton to dominate, highlighting the areas where she has the most experience and is most comfortable discussing. Unfortunately for both of Clinton’s rivals, the actual debate felt almost scripted to allow her to present her most persuasive self, the confident and experienced master of a broadly supported centrist foreign policy.

The foreign policy focus of the first half of the debate—the part that will get the highest ratings and linger longest in the memory—happened partially by happenstance. No one could have predicted that the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino would have happened when they did, and cast such a large shadow. But there’s also the fact that the Democratic debates aren’t taking place in a political vacuum: to a large degree the Democrats have let the Republicans set the terms of political argument, and are mainly counterpunching to the GOP. This is in large part because of the outsized personality of Donald Trump and the greater number of debates on the Republican side (combined with much more virulent language) simply dominate political discourse. Finally, the media itself plays a part, since questions about terrorism and war are much more attention grabbing than issues like inequality, taxation, and tuition.

Sanders was more comfortable talking about foreign policy than in the second debate, but he still suffers in part from a disconnect between his realist critique of Hillary’s foreign policy and his general profile as an idealistic socialist. Sanders’s approach to national security is fundamentally a nationalist and realist one. It’s the sort of argument one hears from the likes of George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. Strange as it may seem, Sanders’s major critique of Hillary came across as almost conservative: that her advocacy of regime change leads to destabilization. Sanders kept reminding the audience that (unlike Clinton) he voted against the Iraq war, which he blamed for the chaos now engulfing the Middle East. “I voted against the war in Iraq because I thought unilateral military action would not produce the results that were necessary and would lead to the kind of unraveling and instability that we saw in the Middle East,” Sanders said. The problem for Sanders is that this critique doesn’t fit neatly with his calls for a democratic socialism in America. After all, if democracy is the answer to America’s problems, isn’t it also something we should wish for the Syrians?

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, spoke in more traditional centrist liberal terms, advocating policies very similar to those already being carried out by President Obama, but with more vigor. In a tweet, Matt Bai of Yahoo News drew a sharp distinction between Sanders and Clinton: “Important exchange here: is the real enemy of world order repressive states, or is it the stateless threats they create? The answer matters.”

Clinton’s advantage is that the answer she provides—a dual focus on spreading liberty and counter-terrorism—is the one that has broad-based centrist appeal. Moreover, her years as Secretary of State give her a confidence in speaking of these matters that her rivals lack. As for Martin O’Malley, his wonkish attempts to interject himself into the debate—as in his suggestion that USAID be raised to a cabinet-level agency—merely made him look more desperate and out of place.

One striking fact about the argument between Sanders and Clinton was that both candidates were much more substantial and informed than the discussions of the same issues in recent Republican debates which have amounted to little more than competitive chest-thumping. The Republicans have made it clear that they plan to use national security and fears of terrorism to win back the White House next November. Perhaps one other advantage of tonight’s debate for Hillary Clinton is that it showed that she’s well armed for that fight.


By: Jeet Heer, The New Republic, December 19, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Democratic Presidential Primaries, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

“Reasons To Remain Skeptical”: The Case Against Trump Winning Remains Strong

Not one but two new polls give former reality TV star Donald Trump commanding national leads among Republican voters. So it must be time for another installment in my ongoing effort to document the reasons he won’t be the nominee.

The New York Times’ “The Upshot” blog provides the latest fodder, with the excellent Nate Cohn making a thorough and persuasive case today for Trump as long-shot (but, importantly, not an impossibility) for his party’s nod.

First, there’s recent history: “In nearly every election cycle, there are candidates who lead national polls and sometimes even win states, but don’t come close to winning the nomination,” he writes. Four years ago, it was Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, eight years ago it was Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, four years before that Howard Dean was the clear Democratic front-runner at this point.

Mr. Trump shares a lot in common with strong factional candidates who have ultimately fallen short in recent cycles: He does not have broad appeal throughout the party; he is unacceptable to the party’s establishment; and there are reasons to believe that his high numbers may be driven by unsustainable factors — like voters who are less likely to turn out or who are responding to pollsters with “Trump” because they haven’t heard any other name for four months.

Second, Cohn notes the important fact that the tyrant of Trump Tower does worse in polls that screen for likely voters (a point, to his credit, he’s been making since August). That’s ground Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur also covers today in what the headline of his piece calls the “Trump uncertainty principle.” In brief, Trump’s “leads tend to be higher in surveys of Americans who say they plan to vote than those whom pollsters traditionally consider more likely to vote as they have voted in recent elections.” The question, Kapur notes, is whether Trump can build a world-class organization that will produce yuuuuge turn-out (the answer is that either he is or he’s doing a great job of convincing the media that he is), a la Barack Obama eight years ago.

A third important – and related – point that Cohn makes is that Trump’s “dominance of media coverage may be harder to sustain once the field narrows, or actual voting results roll in.” The surest way to puncture the Trump media bubble is to beat him; if, for example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has moved to the front of Iowa polls, beats the real estate developer in the Buckeye State, he’ll enjoy an incredible media boomlet. Cohn even envisions scenarios with an early Trump win followed by a quick fizzle (think 1996 Pat Buchanan) as the field winnows, and the not-Trump vote coalesces around a single opponent.

Cohn’s whole piece is worth a read because he gives important caveats explaining why he isn’t dismissing Trump entirely.

The Washington Post’s Steven Ginsberg mentioned in a recent interview with Trump that his opponents’ campaigns assume that one way or another he’ll disappear from the race. They no doubt have many of the aforementioned factors in mind. One gauge as to whether that thinking still holds will be this evening’s debate: If there’s stepped-up ferocity in the attacks on Trump, it could be a sign that they’re starting to take the alternative seriously.


By: Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion, U. S. News and World Report, December 15, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Establishment Republicans, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Great Fracturing Of The Republican Party”: Appears To Believe In Anything, Which Is The Same As Believing In Nothing

It is no longer possible to think of “the Republican Party” as a coherent political force. It is nothing of the sort — and the Donald Trump insurgency should be seen as a symptom, not the cause, of the party’s disintegration.

I realize this may seem an odd assessment of a party that controls both houses of Congress, 32 governorships and two-thirds of state legislative chambers. The desire to win and hold power is one thing the party’s hopelessly disparate factions agree on; staunch and sometimes blind opposition to President Obama and the Democrats is another. After those, it’s hard to think of much else.

It makes no sense anymore to speak of “the GOP” without specifying which one. The party that celebrates immigration as central to the American experiment or the one that wants to round up 11 million people living here without papers and kick them out? The party that believes in U.S. military intervention and seeding the world with democratic values or the one that believes strife-torn nations should have to depose their own dictators and resolve their own civil wars? The party that represents the economic interests of business owners or the one that voices the anxieties of workers?

All of these conflicts were evident Tuesday night at the presidential candidates’ debate in Las Vegas. It was compelling theater — Trump mugging and shrugging for the cameras, Jeb Bush gamely steeling himself to go on the attack, Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) waging a one-on-one battle, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vowing to shoot down Russian jets over Syria, Ben Carson turning “boots on the ground” into a mantra without actually saying what he thinks about deploying them.

A Republican optimist might praise the candidates for airing “serious” and “important” policy debates. A realist would say this is a party that appears to believe in anything, which is the same as believing in nothing.

One of the more telling exchanges came when Trump was asked whether the United States was safer with dictators running the troubled nations of the Middle East. Trump replied, “In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would have been a lot better off, I can tell you that right now.”

Carly Fiorina was aghast. “That is exactly what President Obama said,” she declared. “I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate.”

Indeed, there once was broad consensus within the party about the advisability and legitimacy of forcing “regime change” in pursuit of U.S. interests. But toppling even such a monster as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is opposed by Trump, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — who combined have the support of 51 percent of Republican voters, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. So apparently there isn’t a “Republican view” about foreign intervention anymore.

Nor is the party able to agree on immigration policy. Even if you somehow manage to look past Trump’s outrageous call for mass deportation, there is no consensus for the course of action favored by what’s left of the party establishment, which would be to give undocumented migrants some kind of legal status. The only point of concord is the allegation that Obama has failed to “secure the border,” which is actually far more secure than it was under George W. Bush.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party’s position on a given issue usually dovetailed nicely with the views of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the chamber supports giving the undocumented a path to legal status. It also waxes rhapsodic about the benefits of free trade for U.S. firms and shareholders. Now, since Trump opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact (as does Mike Huckabee), other candidates have had to mumble about waiting to see the details before deciding pro or con.

The GOP electorate has changed; it’s whiter, older, less educated and more blue -collar than it used to be. Many of today’s Republicans don’t see globalization as an investment opportunity; they see it as a malevolent force that has dimmed their prospects. They don’t see the shrinking of the white majority as natural demographic evolution; they see it as a threat.

One of our two major political parties is factionalized and out of control. That should worry us all.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 17, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP, GOP Establishment | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Foreign-Policy Party No More”: On Foreign Policy, The GOP’s Candidates For President Are Either Ignorant Or Insane

Fairly early on in this week’s Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz was reminded about his recent quote in which he vowed to “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion,” testing whether “sand can glow in the dark.” Asked whether he’s prepared to decimate a populated city like Raqqa, informally known as the ISIS capital in Syria, the Texas senator hedged.

“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” Cruz said, adding, “[T]he object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.”

This plainly didn’t make any sense. It’s as if Cruz referenced carpet bombing – indiscriminate bombing of large areas, without regard for collateral damage – without having any idea what it means. To hear the Texas Republican tell it, there’s such a thing as precision, “directed” carpet bombing, which is a contradiction in terms.

The gibberish, however, was par for the course. Writing in the Washington Post, Dan Drezner, a center-right scholar, said yesterday, “When it comes to foreign policy, the GOP’s candidates for president in 2016 are either ignorant or insane.”

The overwhelming bulk of what the GOP candidates had to say last night was pure, unadulterated horses***. […]

When I came of political age, the Republican Party had a surfeit of smart, tough-minded foreign policy folk: Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, James Baker, Bob Zoellick, Richard Haass, and Lawrence Eagleburger. I pity these people having to listen to what was said on the GOP main stage last night.

Keep in mind, this isn’t so much about subjective questions. Knowing what we know now, was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a good idea or a bad idea? Marco Rubio says it was a good idea; most people who’ve been conscious for the last 12 years say the opposite; and it can be a topic of spirited conversation.

When a center-right observer like Drezner talks about Republican presidential candidates being “either ignorant or insane,” he’s not referring to debatable judgment calls. He’s referring to an entire field of GOP candidates who at times seemed lost as to what foreign policies actually are.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted the debate was “devoted to national security and terrorism, about which most of the nine major candidates proved they knew nothing, a fact that some tried to conceal by making stuff up.”

How did the party that used to dominate on foreign policy fall to such cringe-worthy depths?

Part of the problem is likely the result of the demise of the Republican Party’s elder statesmen. In the not-too-distant past, the GOP was guided on foreign policy by responsible, learned hands – experienced officials like Dick Lugar, John Warner, and Brent Scowcroft – who approached international affairs with degree of maturity. Those Republicans now tend to agree with President Obama.

Which leads to another potential explanation: the more Obama represents some kind of “sensible center” on matters of foreign policy, the more his radicalized Republican critics feel the need to move even further to the right.

I also wouldn’t discount the role of post-policy thinking of the broader debate: the national GOP candidates are speaking to (and for) a party that has no patience for substantive details, historical lessons, nuance, or diplomacy. Heck, we’re talking about a party that has convinced itself that the key to defeating terrorists is literally using the phrase “radical Islam,” as if the words have magical national-security implications. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s emblematic of a party that approaches foreign policy itself with all the maturity of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Finally, some context is probably in order. At the end of the Bush/Cheney era, the GOP’s entire approach to international affairs was discredited and in tatters. It needed to be rebuilt, reconsidered, and molded anew into something coherent. That never happened – the intra-party debate never really occurred, except to the extent that Republicans agreed that Obama is always wrong, even when he’s right, and those who agree with him must always be rejected, even when they’re Republicans in good standing.

Taken together, there’s something genuinely pathetic about the Republican Party’s once-great credibility on these issues. As Rachel put it on the show last night, “We really need two parties who are good at this issue in order to have good policy on this issue. We need good debate because this stuff is hard and our best decisions will come out of good, robust debate. Can the Republican Party hold up its end of the debate?”

It’s hard to be optimistic, isn’t it?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 17, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP Presidential Candidates, Middle East, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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