Noah Millman

Home News: “Public Speaking” Screening in NYC

Hijacking this space briefly for a bit of self-promotion: my short film, “Public Speaking,” which I directed last year, about two high school debaters in the 1980s, will premier next Tuesday, April 25th, at 9:45pm, as part of a shorts program at the Manhattan Film Festival.

Tickets can be purchased in advance here.

New York area friends who are free that evening, it would be great to have you in the audience.

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Trump’s Retreat From Populism

My latest column at The Week, meanwhile, is about the inevitability of Trump’s betrayal of his populist promises:

The Trump administration is in full retreat from its array of right-wing populist promises.

Instead of scrapping NAFTA, they are merely looking for minor adjustments. Instead of showing China who’s boss, they have retreated on Taiwan, and are promising a far more favorable stance on trade in exchange for whatever help China might offer on North Korea — while telegraphing that they know help is bound to be limited. Most dramatically, Trump reversed the overwhelming thrust of his campaign with respect to foreign policy, ordering an attack on Syria and welcoming Montenegro into NATO, saying that the Atlantic alliance is “no longer obsolete.” Even if advisor Steve Bannon doesn’t lose his job, evidence of his influence is at this point distinctly thin.

But why is Trump beating this retreat? It’s not because his new course is more popular. The effort to repeal ObamaCare failed spectacularly in large part because the proposed replacement was obviously inferior, and was wildly unpopular with virtually the entire public. But there is no popular movement clamoring for intervention in Syria, or for the defense of Montenegro. And while the politics of trade are exceedingly complex, with big losers inevitable even if there are also big winners, a committed administration could surely build a case and a constituency for a new trade paradigm. Instead, Trump is rapidly bargaining away his entire agenda.

Why is he doing this?

The simplest explanation is that it’s a matter of presidential character, or lack thereof. While Trump campaigned as a right-wing populist, he isn’t actually a conviction politician, but a vain, lazy celebrity. Faced with any difficult problem, he chooses the easiest way out, which in politics will mean appeasing whoever presents the most current threat. For those of us who pointed out Trump’s overwhelming character flaws during the campaign, there is the temptation to say we told you so, and leave it at that.

But we oughtn’t to leave it there. For while Washington’s national power does give us more latitude to make material policy adjustments than most states, within Washington the exercise of power is not so unconstrained as populists assume.

Presidents don’t make foreign policy alone, for example. They rely on the military and on the career diplomatic corps — as well as on policy advisors from the world of think tanks, academia, and the like. All of these people have career advancement to consider, which inevitably shapes their analyses of any given foreign policy problem. It takes considerable sophistication to override those considerations, and in the absence of a clear alternative policy direction, even that sophistication will likely prove inadequate.

Presidents also don’t make foreign policy in a global vacuum; other actors on the international stage are fully capable of making their own moves on the chess board in response to — or in anticipation of — our own. Rivals like China and Russia, as well as allies and clients like Japan and Saudi Arabia, will naturally try to manipulate us into situations where they are at an advantage — and they frequently start with an information advantage at a minimum to begin with.

And all of the above have access to the administration’s political opposition and the increasingly partisan press to further their particular agendas.

None of that means that policy can’t be changed. It means it can’t be changed easily, simply by changing leadership at the top. When President Obama sought a nuclear deal with Iran, he faced opposition from all quarters. Allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia were bitterly opposed. Much of the military brass was skeptical, as were a host of foreign policy professionals both outside the government and within his own administration. The deal did finally get done, after years of painstaking work, but it was a close thing, and the ugly compromises along the way that made it possible included supporting Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen.

An even larger reorientation of American foreign and trade policy in an “America First” direction would surely require even greater patience, skill, and determination. These are not character traits generally associated with President Trump. But they are also not the character traits generally associated with populist movements.

Trump’s rapid retreat to the path of least resistance does reflect his own callowness, insecurity, and sloth. But it may also reflect the objective correlation of forces. His strongest supporters don’t really have anywhere else to turn, because their political movement consisted largely of supporting him. So how will they hold him to account for any betrayal?

Read the whole thing there.

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Their Hands Have Lost Their Cunning, But Their Tongues Do Not Cleave To The Roofs Of Their Mouths

Tasha Lawrence, Jeremy Shamos, Maria Dizzia, Larry Bryggman, Kate Walsh, Gary Wilmes and Seth Steinberg in If I Forget at the Laura Pels Theater — photo by Joan Marcus

Last night I took in the Roundabout Theater’s production of If I Forget, the new play by Steven Levenson directed by Daniel Sullivan. It’s a play about a Jewish family in suburban D.C. dealing with the passing of the matriarch, the declining years of the patriarch, and their legacy — both narrowly, in the form of a store that was once the family retail business and which is now rented out to a Guatemalan family; and more broadly, in the form of Jewish heritage. The son, Michael (Jeremy Shamos), is a professor of Judaic studies who is also an atheist and a Norm Finkelstein-style vituperative critic of the normative American Jewish community. The youngest, Sharon (Maria Dizzia), is devoted to her aging father, to Jewish religion and the Jewish people, and as yet unmatched, her life a series of comic romantic fiascos. And the older daughter, Holly (Kate Walsh) is the “normal” one, an anxious and materialistic princess with few skills and fewer thoughts in her head. The group lacked only a wise son to complete the quartet from the Haggadah and make it a perfect choice for Passover.

Levenson has a fine ear for the way these people talk, and while each of the children is clearly intended to represent a type, and a “side” in a larger argument, they are first and foremost members of a believable and authentic family. I’ve met all of these people — I’ve seen all of them at kiddush many Saturday mornings — and their apparent contradictions (the radical who despises Jewish paranoia about persecution is also one terrified that his daughter, on a trip to Israel, will be killed by a terrorist; the conservative who cleaves to tradition is also the one having an affair with a married man) are actually signs of their solidity, evidence that all of these ideas that seem so important to them are merely intellectual responses to a deeper emotional truth that may be very much at variance with those ideas.

And for the first half of the play, the family dynamics firmly undergirded the surface ideological battle. Michael has a book coming out that calls for Jews to “forget” the Holocaust, by which he means to stop making of that calamity a kind of dark idol that centers their consciousness; his father, Lou (Larry Bryggman) has read the manuscript but has avoided talking to his son about how much it pained him (Sharon has no such scruples). The transparency of their struggle — the son’s need to assert his independence from his father playing out as an insistent demand that the entire Jewish people endorse his rebellion; the younger, less-accomplished child’s need to supplant the favored son’s place and win the father’s favor — is precisely what grounds it.

But in the second half, the mechanics of plot begin to creak. Levenson piles on reason after reason for every member of the family to be invested in to disposition of that store, reasons that are entirely self-interested and that do not pertain to its metaphoric status as a legacy. And in the end, they have nothing to pass on to their own children.

I must admit, I found that dissatisfying in its neatness, but in a sense it’s no less neat than The Cherry Orchard, which looms large behind any play about a family struggling with a symbolic piece of real estate. The deeper dissatisfaction was, I think, intended by the author. Lou at the end of act I sits his son down to talk to him about his book, but mostly he recounts to him his own memories of the liberation of Dachau. His son, he avers, cannot understand what it was like, cannot imagine — you had to be there. And when he recalls his fierce gladness that he and his fellow G.I.s gave the few surviving inmates an opportunity for revenge on the concentration camp guards, he is saying that feeling as well is one that Michael cannot understand because he wasn’t there.

Of course, Lou is right. But if Lou is right, then what does remembrance mean for a generation that wasn’t there? If Sharon’s second-hand nostalgia is wrong, and Michael’s furious rejection is wrong, and Holly’s blithe indifference is wrong, then what is right? The play seems to be saying that we can’t simply forget a trauma of the Holocaust’s magnitude, but neither can we actually remember it. The only legacy is the cutting family argument, one that can only end by liquidating the legacy itself.

One other thought in that regard. I saw the play accompanied by an actress friend who is half Palestinian, and I could see her flinch at the opening lines of the play — which are all about the collapse of Oslo peace process (the play is set in the year 2000). I looked around at the mostly older, mostly Jewish crowd, then leaned over to my friend, and whispered, “this play knows its audience — and you aren’t in it.” And she smiled. We talked afterwards about her reaction, and what she said is that it doesn’t so much bother her that the play wasn’t aimed at her or didn’t include her perspective, because why would it? She isn’t in that house, that room, that family. If she were included, it would be false and intrusive. But what bothered her was a feeling that an equivalent play about a Palestinian family could not be successfully mounted in New York.

And I politely but firmly disputed that. The equivalent play would be about a Palestinian family in suburban Detroit, with three kids, one of whom has married up, one of whom is a firebrand, and one of whom has turned politically apostate, lambasting his siblings and his father for their casual antisemitism and for their willful blindness to the civilizational psychotic break afflicting the Arab world. Could such a play be mounted? I don’t see why it couldn’t. Would it be understood rightly by the audience? That’s a tougher question. There’s a real privilege in being able to air one’s dirty laundry in public — and it’s a measure of communal security for one to be able to do so easily. I’m not sure the Arab American community is at the point of feeling that sort of security, that kind of privilege. I hope one of their playwrights decides to find out.

If I Forget runs through April 30th at the Laura Pels Theater.

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Syria: What We Know, What We Will Yet Learn

That President Trump completely reversed his entire ostensible foreign policy outlook comes as no surprise to those of us who argued from the first that he had no convictions on any topic, but merely had an instinct for his opponents’ vulnerabilities. The incoherence of his current posture is entirely of a piece with a more general incoherence that was manifest throughout the campaign, and for which further evidence emerges daily from the behavior of the administration.

That he could be easily coopted by an establishment consensus should similarly be no surprise. There was ample evidence, from the way he staffed his administration through to his legislative strategy (such as it has been) to prove that he had no particular intentions of implementing a serious break with prior Republican priorities, nor any idea of how to do so if he should have so intended.

Least of all should it be a surprise that President Trump cares even less than his predecessors for the norms and legal constraints on military action. Trump hasn’t the slightest legal warrant whatsoever in domestic or international law for his attack on Syria. In this he has extended the precedents set by Barack Obama (who prosecuted war well beyond the warrant approved by either Congress or the United Nations), George W. Bush (who made war with Congressional approval, but based on deceptive marketing, and who conducted that war in a manner that violated international and domestic law), and Bill Clinton (who made war without international warrant but with the clear and solid support of our NATO treaty allies). But this time there is barely a fig leaf of legality, and no public attempt whatever to justify the action as based on anything but Presidential whim.

No, the only surprise is that what motivated this new violence was the tender concern for children and for the treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. That I did not expect.

What have we yet to learn?

Mostly whether President Trump will prove to be easily led into an ever-expanding conflict with no purpose and no end-game — or whether he will prove to be easily intimidated into abandoning the fight as soon as it proves more difficult or unpopular than anticipated. Or — what I suspect is most likely — a combination of both, alternating between striking out blindly in anger and pulling out sulkily based on the news cycle of the week.

I’m sure Xi Jinping will have a grand old time either way.

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The Gorsuch Filibuster

A couple of months ago, when the Gorsuch nomination was announced, I argued that, intentionally or not, Trump and the GOP had put Democrats in a difficult position. They could either solidly oppose a plainly qualified nominee, and risk irritating voters in key red states they need to win in 2018 — or they could respond in a less-partisan manner, see him confirmed by an Alito-like margin, and risk the wrath of a base justifiably enraged by the success of the GOP’s stonewall of the equally-qualified Merrick Garland.

The Democrats have plainly decided on the more confrontational option. But I’m not convinced this is simply because they are more scared of their base than they are interested in positioning for 2018. Rather, I think the calculation is something like the following:

  • Gorsuch is going to be confirmed no matter what, because if they filibuster him then the GOP will eliminate the filibuster. There is no way the GOP will risk losing the Senate in 2018 after not having filled the seat, and they won’t consider backing down from an obviously qualified, uncorrupt nominee with an excellent judicial temperament.
  • Therefore, the nomination is not going to be an issue in 2018 no matter what, so they don’t need to worry about the politics. Rather, the issue is whether the filibuster survives. And on the merits, there’s no reason to think the filibuster helps the Democrats more than the GOP. So let it die.
  • Finally, the GOP can only put Democrats in a difficult position if they are in a position to capitalize on that difficulty. But that is decreasingly the case. The failure of the AHCA, and its wild unpopularity before it failed, has exposed the weakness of the GOP’s political position.

None of that means that filibustering Gorsuch is going to actually help the Democrats in any particular way. But failing to sustain a filibuster might well hurt them, and fighting tooth and nail looks like it has less downside than it might have, so here we are.

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You Think China Is Bluffing?

Eamonn Fingleton wants Trump to call China’s bluff and demand they “swat” the North Korean “gnat”:

At the heart of the North Korean controversy is a Chinese double game. On the one hand, Chinese leaders pretend to be as eager as their American counterparts to shut down the North Korean nuclear program. On the other hand, they never seem to use their influence in Pyongyang to clinch the deal.

Yet it is hard to exaggerate the extent of Beijing’s influence. If the CIA Factbook is to be believed, at last count the Chinese supplied more than 76 percent of all North Korea’s imports and bought more than 75 percent of its exports. The North Koreans are heavily dependent on China for, among other vital supplies, their oil. Their moribund industrial sector would grind to a halt without copious supplies of spare parts and indeed entire machines sourced through China.

Then there are North Korea’s external air links. The vast majority of foreign visitors reach Pyongyang via four Chinese airports: Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong, Shenyang, and Dandong.

Trump seems to be offering Beijing a choice: either apply effective pressure on Pyongyang or stand aside while the United States takes a hands-on approach. That latter option would appear—at least for negotiating purposes—to include the threat of American military action.

The chances are, however, that it won’t come to that. If Trump holds tight, Beijing will blink first. After all, Pyongyang’s antics have long since ceased to be a joke. If press reports are to be believed, the North Korean missile program has lately made such strides that the Kim Jong-un regime may be able to deliver a nuclear strike to the U.S. mainland by 2020. While more thoughtful analysts may question that timeline, the reality is that North Korea’s repeated boasting of its intention to build missiles with such a capability leaves Beijing with little room for maneuver.

Once Beijing’s cooperation is secured, Pyongyang would surely have to comply, not only dismantling its program but opening up to United Nations inspections.

It’s all so simple. Talk tough to the Chinese, and they’ll surely do what we want to prevent us from using military action against North Korea. And then they’ll surely force North Korea to do whatever we want them to. What could possibly have prevented Obama, or Bush II, or Clinton, or Bush I, from pursuing such a course?

Oh, I dunno:

  • Of course America has a credible plan for military action against North Korea that would reliably eliminate its nuclear program, because we have perfect intelligence about not only where all the key facilities are located but also how many weapons they’ve already built and where they are stored.
  • Naturally, we have the support of Japan and South Korea in carrying out any mission to preemptively strike North Korea targets. Neither country is worried at all about North Korean retaliation, neither conventional nor nuclear. Nor should we have any concerns about the 28,000+ American troops stationed in South Korea.
  • To convince the Chinese that we really mean to use force if they don’t act by a certain date, we’re going to clue them in to the details of our planned surprise attack. This will absolutely not leak.
  • Or we’re just going to assume that the Chinese couldn’t possibly believe we’re the ones bluffing about taking unilateral military action. They would never just assure us that they will take action, and then sit on their hands and dare us to follow through on our threats.
  • If China cuts off North Korea’s oil, North Korea will just fold. Because countries never respond with irrational belligerence to having their oil cut off. And definitely nobody is worried about North Korea getting oil instead from some other country that is hostile to America.
  • Also, North Korea can fold easily to foreign pressure, because the legitimacy of their government is not at all tied to having freed Korea from foreign invaders.
  • And if they are wrong about that, and North Korea collapses, neither China nor South Korea are going to have any concerns about the flood of refugees that will pour over the border. Their priority, like ours, is going to be North Korea’s nuclear program, not preserving stability on the peninsula.
  • Threats to cut off Chinese exports to America if they don’t “take care of” North Korea will be totally credible, because the American economy is not at all dependent on China, and they would totally be hurt way more than we are.
  • Also the politics of such a move would be great for us and terrible for them, because the Chinese people would never rally around their government in response to American bullying, while American voters would happily suffer a steep recession in order to prove that we’re still Top Nation.
  • Beyond all these details, the important thing to realize is that history is full of examples of great powers successfully bullying each other with threats of economic warfare, and presents even more examples of disarmament efforts achieved by unilateral military action.

I’m so glad we have nothing to worry about, and I look forward to the conclusion of a successful summit in Mar-a-Lago.

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Pro-Wall Street Populism

My latest column at The Week is about the apparent paradox of an increasingly populist GOP that is also salivatingly eager to relieve Wall Street of the burden of government regulation:

While it’s tempting to call this simply another case of bait-and-switch, the real answer is a little more complicated than that — and sheds light on why Democrats have a hard time “getting” populism.

Trump may well know people in the real estate business who have had to deal with such lenders, and, as someone who knows a thing or two about being turned away by banks, been sympathetic to their complaints. Whether Dodd-Frank is actually to blame for their relative caution, the banks have every incentive to blame an odious regulation if given the opportunity.

Of course, carrying water for real estate developers sounds just as traditionally Republican as carrying water for banks. How can it be described as populist? Because these kinds of complaints by business dovetail well with a broader populist complaint with progressive regulation. If regulation of the banks reduces lending or makes it more expensive, then the burden of that regulation appears to fall not on bankers but on business — and particularly on small- and mid-sized businesses that depend on bank loans because they don’t have access to the capital markets. These certainly aren’t poor people, but they are more Main Street than Wall Street.

Moreover, with bank profits and Wall Street bonuses up, and hedge funds splitting their “political investments” between the two parties, it’s easy for an observer to conclude that financial regulation is more a sophisticated way to protect incumbents than a means to curb the power of financial interests in any serious way.

If that were true, of course, those interests would not be so keen to weaken regulatory restraint. But the advocates of strong financial regulation frequently and mistakenly assume public confidence in the honor of their intentions and the efficacy of their actions that isn’t assured — and is especially unwarranted when it comes to voters inclined to a populist perspective.

Consider in this regard the conservative complaints about the concept of “too big to fail.” Dodd-Frank regulates especially large financial institutions more heavily precisely because they pose a systemic threat that creates a moral hazard: Confident that the government couldn’t afford not to bail them out, these institutions have an incentive to run more risk than would otherwise be sensible, because if the risks pay off they keep the profits but if they don’t the government is left holding the bag. Moreover, the legislation also gives the FDIC Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) to unwind failed firms in a controlled manner.

But from a populist perspective, giving special treatment to some firms because they are “too big to fail” looks like a way of institutionalizing the problem rather than solving it. Even if that special treatment is described as greater oversight, the mere fact that such a status exists implies that finance and government are formally enmeshed in a way that a populist is bound to see as leading to favoritism — which is precisely what the Tea Party types argued when they said that OLA was a kind of “permanent bailout” and that banks that take big risks that go bad should simply be allowed to fail.

Good progressive technocrats know that’s not realistic. But it’s also not realistic to expect “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” to suddenly become a consistently winning message.

Populists don’t like bureaucrats any more than they like bankers. So if the problem of Wall Street malfeasance is framed as “give the government more power to restrain the evil banksters” — which is the standard progressive framing — it’s not completely surprising that the government will lose about as often as the banksters. You saw a somewhat similar dynamic with health care, where Obamacare was vilified as a big-government sell-out to insurers. I have little doubt that, in the fulness of time, taking Wall Street off the leash will prove exceedingly unpopular, just as taking away people’s health insurance has proven to be. But in the short term, I understand why plenty of people may be more inclined to say a plague on both your houses, and financial interests know perfectly well how to take advantage of that attitude.

The populist alternative to growing government power to counterbalance big finance is to structurally reduce the power of big finance and enable individuals and communities to have more control over their economic circumstances. The question genuine populists need to answer is how they propose to do that without impoverishing the country. “Break up the banks” may or may not be a necessary part of the answer, but it is surely not sufficient.

Read the whole thing there.

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Trumping the Yellow Brick Road

Ross Douthat’s most recent column got me thinking: as long as we’re asking the Wizard for a miracle on Trump’s behalf, is a brain really what the man needs most?

Douthat is perfectly correct that Trump has no idea what his policies should be, neither in the sense of what will be efficacious nor in the sense of what is politically doable nor even in the broadest sense of what his goals should be. His profound ignorance and incuriosity is one reason why nobody will seriously negotiate with him: they don’t think he knows what he wants nor why he could trade for it.

But it’s far from the only reason. Trump also lacks a heart, and by that I don’t just mean that he has no compassion, an accusation often leveled at right-wing politicians, sometimes quite fairly and sometimes very much not so. So far as I can tell, Trump doesn’t care about anybody with the exception of his elder daughter, and so far as I can tell everybody around him knows it. If he cares about nothing and nobody, then what amorphous goals are the brain trust supposed to elaborate into policy?

Trump also lacks courage. He folds quickly in the face of serious opposition, cannot bear criticism, takes no responsibility for anything, and desperately wants the feeling of being loved without daring to take the slightest emotional risk to get it. What kind of brain trust would actually work for a man so lacking in character? If Trump asked Douthat himself to run an in-house think tank, would he take the gig? If he asked a friend of his, would he recommend he take the job?

And Trump does have some clever people working for him. Steve Bannon is certainly not stupid, and neither is Michael Anton or Stephen Miller. The reason they haven’t applied their intelligence to crafting policy isn’t just a lack of experience; it’s that they are fundamentally motivated by what they hate and wish to destroy rather than what they wish to build or preserve. Peter Thiel is anything but an idiot; if Trump wants to put together a techno-libertarian policy shop, he could get it done in a heartbeat — and could probably actually execute a bunch of their ideas without legislation simply by tweaking the staff and policies of key regulatory agencies. In the foreign policy world, Trump has hired some real intellectual stars: James Mattis and H. R. McMaster are not only sharp but have thought deeply about the challenges of America’s troubled interventions. The evidence so far suggests that Trump has little interest in actually listening to them or even letting them staff their own departments. What would it avail him were he to add an advocate of restraint like our own Andrew Bacevich to the mix?

Wouldn’t it save us all a lot of trouble if instead we just asked the Wizard to send him home?

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Sanders:Trump::Reagan:Carter?

My latest column at The Week is all about an analogy (originating with Corey Robin’s essay from back in January) that’s getting some renewed play in the wake of the AHCA fiasco:

Carter was what Robin calls a “disjunctive president,” someone who leads a coalition that was once dominant but is now in the late stages of fragmentation. The disjunctive leader’s aim is to reorient that coalition around the novel challenges of that political moment, and thereby to restore their coalition to primacy. But he’s unable to herd the necessary cats, and is therefore succeeded by a “reconstructive” president, someone who is capable of articulating that response and following through with action, in part because he needs a new coalition more naturally built around that response.

At the time the article was written, there were already potent reasons to find this Trump-Carter analogy plausible, in spite of the wild differences in personality and ideology between the two presidents. Both Carter and Trump ran as outsiders to the established power structure of their parties, and faced fierce resistance from the old guard. Both ran on heterodox programs and scrambled what had been traditional electoral coalitions, and both won very narrowly. The increasing friction between the White House and the GOP congressional leadership further confirms the analogy, as does the planned shift to “easy victories” over taxes. As Robin wrote back in January:

One of the signature promises of the Trump campaign is already turning into a curse.

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation. At moments of articulation, holding fast to the regime’s orthodoxies can be intoxicating sources of power, as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush learned. At moments of disjunction, that kind of steadfastness can lead to disaster. [Corey Robin]

But there’s a problem with the analogy: Plenty of observers at the time thought the 2008 election ushered in a “reconstructive” presidency and a new dispensation. Those hopes were bitterly disappointed — beginning with disappointment that the best health-care bill the Democrats could pass was the insurer-friendly Affordable Care Act. And today, the possibilities that Robin articulates depend on a factor that at least in 2008 was present but now — so far, at least — is absent. That is a “reconstructive” figure poised for triumph on the Democratic side.

Well, actually, there’s one obvious possibility:

As Douthat points out, Sanders ran an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton much as Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976. And Sanders represents a throwback to an earlier form of unapologetic big-government liberalism that had been largely repudiated after the Mondale debacle in 1984, just as Reagan represented a throwback to an earlier form of anti-government conservatism that had been largely repudiated after the Goldwater debacle in 1964.

Other observers have noted Sanders’ ability to speak successfully to Trump voters and their concerns, and asked why the Democrats aren’t embracing a populist politics of their own, redeeming the very promises on which Trump himself will be unable to deliver.

There are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of the analogy — but my focus is on how the progressive response to the AHCA debacle shows that they haven’t actually grasped the nettle of what drove Trump, and what it will take to “reconstruct” politics in the wake of a catastrophic Trump presidency:

In the wake of the AHCA’s failure, there has been an increase in support for a single-payer system, largely in safe Democratic areas. But Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because he promised a better deal than ObamaCare, and single-payer — even if it’s a good idea — isn’t going to be the banner under which the Democrats can plausibly bring a new coalition to dominance, because ultimately it would be just that: a good idea. The Democrats have never lacked for individual ideas that poll well or have serious policy work behind them. That’s not their most fundamental problem.

Disjunctive presidents have a genuine grasp of some essential aspects of the crisis the nation faced and how it threatened their governing coalition. They ask some of the most important and correct questions in their campaigns, which is why they are able to win, and their only hope of success is in addressing those questions correctly.

Carter paved the way for Reagan when he ran in opposition to school busing and courted the newly awakened white evangelical vote; when he championed deregulation of finance and the airlines; when he appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed; and when he responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan did not win the presidency by saying Goldwater’s libertarian, fiercely anti-communist conservatism was the eternal truth (which, to be fair, is pretty much what he did say when he supported Goldwater in 1964). Rather, he said that in the “present crisis” government was the problem rather than the solution.

The “present crisis” in America, domestically speaking, is not that the ACA is a kludgy solution to distributing health care. Even the alarming rise in American mortality is not due to the persistent limitations and failures of our health-care system. Though the pharmaceutical companies bear more than their share of the blame for the opioid crisis, the deeper roots of the rise in mortality are economic, the collapse in expectations for prosperity in swathes of rural and working-class America.

The populist explanation for that crisis is the devouring of the public weal by special interests — and left- and right-wing populists mostly disagree on which interests to blame. But the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity is what got Trump elected. The Democrats need a champion who can redeem that promise — which there is every reason to expect Trump cannot deliver on.

There may or may not be a place for championing single-payer health care as part of that message. The last thing the Democrats need is to be scared of their own shadow when it comes to big, apparently unlikely initiatives, and under a big umbrella there will be room for dozens if not hundreds of policy ideas, some of which will barely cohere. But the big idea under which all those policies cohere must be a response to that central crisis, that explains why we no longer have a broadly shared prosperity and how to restore it.

When the Democrats have found their “reconstructive” Reagan — whether it’s Sanders or someone who inherits his banner — it’ll be obvious, because he or she will talk as he did, and articulate how in the present crisis their philosophy will be responsive.

Read the whole thing there.

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Will We Always Have Been At War With Obamacare?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I’m going to be boarding a plane shortly, and I’ll likely be in the air when the AHCA vote happens. So it’s possible that this post will look pointless in a couple of hours.

But assuming the vote fails, as it currently looks likely to do, we’re about to learn just how Orwellian the GOP electorate is.

A failure of the AHCA isn’t necessarily the end of the road for GOP attempts to reform President Obama’s healthcare reform. They could start again pretty quickly in the Senate, which was unlikely ever to pass the House’s bill in the first place. They could also move on to other business, hope to expand their majority in 2018, and then try again. They could even campaign on a particular vision of reform in 2018, and then claim a mandate if they did expand their majority.

But of course, to do that they’d need to have an intra-party debate about what that policy agenda should be. Which would require somebody — and that somebody is probably President Trump — to stand up and say: the House Freedom Caucus’s vision is wrong, and here’s my alternative, whether that’s Medicaid for all or some as-yet undescribed alternative to both Obamacare and the status-quo ante circa 2008.

It’s possible that’s a fight Trump doesn’t want, because he doesn’t care much about healthcare except as a way of bashing Obama and the Democratic Party. Indeed, it’s possible that much of the Republican party sees the matter in precisely the same way: that there wasn’t anything in particular they objected to about Obamacare (other than the tax hikes to pay for it); they just hated that it was a Democratic initiative. It may be that Paul Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus folks are the only ones who actually want to have this fight on the merits. If that’s the case, then if the bill fails that will be the end of any action on health care, and Obamacare will remain the law of the land.

The question then is: how will the party membership react?

If the reaction is fury and renewed attempts to unseat Republicans deemed insufficiently determined to repeal the ACA, and to expand the ranks of the ultras whose demands made any plausible compromise impossible, then we’ll know that what we’re dealing with is a real ideological conflict. Our political system might have a particularly hard time negotiating it, but a substantial irredentist faction would pose a real challenge to any political system.

If the reaction is a mix of soul-searching and teeth-gnashing, and a concerted attempt to find whatever formula delivers a more durable majority, then we’ll know that at the end of the day the GOP is a normal party after all, one that, when it loses, tries to figure out how to win. It wouldn’t be as encouraging as an open fight about policy and principles, but it would be far more encouraging than continued irredentism.

But I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the whole debate just dropped down the memory hole, and the party leadership acted like repealing Obamacare was never that big a deal — and the rank-and-file mostly went along as the party moved on to whatever they are told was always really the priority. Which would be the most depressing — indeed, alarming — possibility.

The vote’s in half an hour. We’ll find out pretty soon whether my whole premise is fallacious.

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