Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Coalition of the Willing

Let's step back and discuss where we are right now in terms of the principles that drive our politics.    
Winning is Everything. For Trump, the only way to assuage the emptiness of his soul is to win. But actual winning is not enough without the validation bestowed with the appearance of winning.  Thus the importance of (i) his inaugural crowds being higher than Obama's and the Women's March and (ii) winning the popular vote total. No policy goals matter toTrump  in any real sense, except that optics matter - he must always appear great and powerful.
Winning is Everything. For McConnell/Ryan, passing the legislation they want is all that matters. If the president signs their legislation, they are happy. Letting Trump maintain his business interests does not conflict with their goals. They just don't care. If the Trump family profits to the tune of, say, $50 billion over four years, why would that matter compared with $20,000 billion annual federal spending over four years.

So the ruling coalition is almost perfectly in sync. McConnell/Ryan and the Republican majority in Congress are poised to allow Trump to do anything and say anything he wants to avoid provoking him.  Republican leaders are counting on Trump's handlers to control his impulses.

Dilemma for Democrats. Democrats like Obama and Clinton have maintained that "we are all on the same team". In game theory terms, Democrats see the structure of the federal government as a cooperative game. The functioning of Congress depends on compromise between and among factions who disagree on policy, but agree on the ultimate goal of a functioning national government. But Republicans are playing a different game. At the Inauguration Day luncheon at the Capitol, Ryan described the difference between the House and the Senate as "We play rugby. They play golf.", but he might as well have been describing the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats are now considering adjusting their tactics in Congress and elections. Simultaneously, traditional journalists are adjusting their strategy, showing a willingness to call a lie "a lie". But this may be too little too late. Both the Democrats and the journalists are late to understand the reality of the sandbox they are each playing in.

Democrats have been treating government as a cooperative game, seeking compromise. Republicans have long played a more aggressive non-cooperative game. If Democrats continue to play a cooperative game, they simply lose. If they recognize they are in a non-cooperative game, they will discover it is too late to adapt now that Republicans hold all the cards, at least in the near term. Democrats in the Senate took away the filibuster on judgeships out of frustration with the extreme recalcitrance of Republican Senators, but left the filibuster on Supreme Court justices. Republicans now hold those cards, able to eliminate the filibuster if Democrats obstruct the choice of Trump. All this in the context of the Republican shutdown of Supreme Court nominees in the last year of the Obama presidency, making this issue extremely bitter. So for democrats, they lose if they cooperate, but if they retaliate, they can not win either. If the system of federal government breaks down, Republicans score a 'W" for themselves. More background here.
The Problem for Journalists
Traditional journalists have rigid standards of reporting news that requires viewing politicians as "all the same". "Both sides do it" is taken as a given. "All politicians lie" is a given. The durability of the system of representative government is taken as a given during an election race. Statements by politicians that threaten to undermine democracy - whether or not the politician wins or loses - as Trump has done, are treated tentatively as bad, but not as an existential threat.

Just as the Republican strategy to up the ante in order to win has blindsided Democrats in government and pushed them into a no-win position, the existence of Fox News as an accepted source of "real" news by many citizens and driver of the narrative, has pushed traditional journalists into a no-win position when reporting on politics. Reporting the behavior of the president accurately and fairly could appear biased. Fact checking instead of reporting in context was always a weak response by journalists which has now led to alternative facts.
Road to Confederation
The goal for Republicans is a federal government that operates more like a confederation than a federation, while maintaining a common currency and, unlike Europe, common fiscal authority. Republican proposals to tear apart the structure of the Affordable Care Act that allow states to adopt different versions of the ACA do just that. If we can not have an explicit confederation, then the back-up plan is a virtual confederation. After all, the U.S. was originally a confederation. And the core of the modern Republican party, the Southern states, originally organized as the Confederate States of America. Despite their agreement on many issues, those states chose a confederation, not a federation.

We are seeing a shift in the balance of power in the world consistent with these trends. Trump's strong affinity to Putin which is based on a fellowship of autocrats actually plays well with the traditional Republican affinity to shift the U.S. to a confederation model.

2015 World
1. U.S. is federation. Global leader of progressive democracies. Globalization is progressing.
2. China is emerging economic power and modest, but growing military power. China is major trading partner with U.S. U.S. is leader in Asia, projecting great economic and military power as builder of alliances.
3. Russia is autocratic regime that functions as a kleptocracy. Russian economy is relatively small and relies heavily on oil, but Russian leadership has expansionary goals.
4. Europe is united as a trading zone and currency zone with minor exceptions. Europe is allied with U.S. for defense in NATO.

2017 World Outlook
1. U.S. is federation that may morph into confederation. Together with trade and military alliance posture, the America First position means that NATO weakens as an alliance across the Atlantic and will revert to those European countries that remain united with Germany as the leader. French elections will determine where France stands. U.S. role and influence as a progressive democracy will diminish. U.S. may break away from NATO.
2. U.S. and England post-Brexit, post-Trump, could become an English speaking alliance of trading partners and former great powers. The global influence of these partners will be diminished, but U.S. and Britain may realign as a military alliance.
3. Russia will remain an autocratic, repressive kleptocracy. New "friendship" with U.S., though entirely opportunistic for Putin, will dictate policy. Russia will test the waters of expansionism, possibly by "invading" Latvia using "volunteer freedom fighters". Russia will deny these are Russian soldiers using the Crimean adventure tactic. Fact checkers will find physical evidence these are actually Russian soldiers. Some will be captured and admit they are Russian soldiers. Putin will deny they are Russian soldiers. Trump will support Putin.
4. Europe will reconstitute NATO as an alliance of the Continental powers.

The 2017 elections in France and Germany will be pivotal to the continuing alignment of European powers. Electoral victories by the far right would undermine the European project and atomize Europe.

Dilemma for Republicans. Sorry, but there is no dilemma for Republicans. The extreme tactics worked. Tactically, a President Trump is better than a Cruz or Rubio and much better than a Romney or Kasich because Republicans in Congress only need to reach an agreement among themselves. Those other presidents would have had a political agenda. As it stands now, the U.S. is incapable of holding free and fair democratic elections for president where an informed citizenry chooses between candidates with understanding of the implications of either candidate winning. Republican tactics in electoral campaigns accompanied by the "stall" in Congress when out of power, have been validated as successful. In 2017, Republicans learned that they had not carried those tactics far enough in the past. The message is clear. Find the weakness in your opponent and attack early and often. Repeat phrases hypnotically. And when you win, continue to treat your Democratic opponents as the enemy.


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