On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner

Trump’s Tax Fraud. For months, we’ve been warning that you would pay the cost of Trump’s $1.9 trillion tax cuts. Well, here it is, the six-month anniversary of passage of the Tax Act, and the Republicans on the House Budget Committee just unveiled their plan: finance their increased deficit and balance the budget by cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid! 

Here’s the good news. The Tax Act, which was going to be a big political winner for Republicans, is turning out to be a huge loser for them. Republican candidates are running from it. The more that voters learn about it, the less they like it.

Democrats, some of whom defected to support the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, were united in opposition to this one, and are united in their efforts to turn it into a political winner—and a teachable moment about the fraud of supply-side economics, besides.

For the first time in our nearly 30 years of publication, the Prospecthas decided to devote and entire issue to a single topic—the Tax Act, as emblem and substance of all that is corrupt, opportunistic, and fraudulent of this period of Republican rule.

The print issue will be out next week. In the meantime, you can view some of the key pieces at Prospect.org, including the lead pieces by public opinion analysts Stan Greenberg and Guy Molyneux on how to make the Tax Act a winning issue for progressives.

Meyerson

The Three Kinds of Republican Officials. As Republican senators’, representatives’, and executive branch officials’ responses (ranging from deficient to depraved) to the separation of families at our southern border makes clear, there are three kinds of Republicans currently in office: the Failures, the Cowards, and the Bigots. There are overlaps among these categories, of course, but they’re typologically useful nonetheless.

The Failures are the self-proclaimed moderates who occasionally try to do the right thing but back off if it threatens Republican unity. The prime examples here are the Republicans who signed or thought about signing the discharge petition that would have forced the Republican House leadership to hold a vote on legalizing the Dreamers. This had been the marquee cause of a number of these moderates from swing congressional districts, including Florida’s Carlos Curbelo and California’s Jeff Denham, David Valadao, and Steve Knight. They vowed they had the 25 GOP votes that, combined with the votes of all 193 House Democrats, would come to 218—the majority that would have forced Paul Ryan to hold that vote. But they couldn’t get the total number of Republican signatories past 23—two votes short of 218. If Curbelo, Denham, and Co. were truly serious about legalizing the Dreamers, they’d recognize that that won’t happen until the Democrats control Congress, and stand aside to allow their Democratic opponents to win their swing districts this November—since, by the metrics they set for themselves, they’ve failed abjectly and completely.

The Cowards also don’t want to upset Republican unity or offend the GOP base, but though they object to a particular policy, they even don’t go as far as the Failures in proposing a plausible remedy. Exhibit A in this category is Maine Senator Susan Collins, who this weekend described the policy of family separation as being “traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and … contrary to our values in this country.” But Collins went on to say she opposed her Democratic colleague Dianne Feinstein’s bill to ban the policy, calling it “not the answer” because it was too broad. Susan Collins and her ilk don’t dare to eat a peach, lest it offend her pro-Trump voters.

That leaves the Bigots, who are either fine with the policy or call it distasteful but blame it on the Democrats or the cycles of the moon. The higher you go in the administration, the more bigots keep popping up, until you reach the president himself, who has referred to immigrants as “animals.” This is the language of bigots—indeed, it’s a justification for and rhetorical prelude to violence against those the bigot deems to be enemies. That doesn’t make the bigots animals, however. This kind of fear and loathing is peculiar to humans and, apparently, to a growing share of Republican officials. And Republicans generally: In a CNN Poll released Monday afternoon, Americans disapproved of the policy of family separation by a 67 percent to 28 percent margin—but Republicans approvedof it by a 58 percent to 34 percent margin. In fairness, that may be what comes of watching Fox News and believing its Goebbelsesque lies.

Which brings me to my own immigration policy. Why don’t we deport Rupert Murdoch? Is there any other immigrant who’s done more to destroy the fabric of American society and life than Old Rupe? And separate him from his kids: They can’t do a worse job of directing Fox News than the old man, and might just do better. 

Kuttner

Feeling Optimistic … or Pessimistic?Let’s try pessimistic first. Mueller is dragging out his investigation while Trump’s allies tighten the noose around him. And his report will only be a report. The impeachment process is hopelessly political, in any case.

Meanwhile, Trump succeeded in making his Korea talks look like a kind of breakthrough. Even his tariffs are rallying his base. His approval ratings are up slightly. And his immigration policy may be deeply inhumane, but it plays well in parts of the country that feel inundated with immigrants. Here’s the definitive piecefor pessimists, courtesy of our friends at Vox.

Feeling sick? Here’s the optimistic antidote. Of course the impeachment process is ultimately political—that’s how the Founders intended it. Quite apart from Mueller, the are plenty of impeachable offenses already on the public record: obstructing justice by firing Comey and using foreign policy to enrich himself, to name just two.

Dems are on the march to take back Congress. And then the impeachment process becomes a dynamic thing. As the public focuses more and more on it, Republican senators may well decide it’s time to dump Trump well before the 2020 election.

And schisms in the Republican Party are widening almost daily, over trade, immigration, and Trump’s corrupt China policy.

I’m with the optimists.

Kuttner

Inscrutable China Policy. Trump’s decision to move ahead with tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese exports prompted an immediate retaliation by Beijing. It’s a classic case of Trump using the wrong strategy to pursue a long-overdue revision of U.S. coddling of Beijing’s predatory state capitalism.

As an unnamed senior administration official, almost surely chief trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer or White House trade strategist Peter Navarro, told The New York Times:

China has a history of using state subsidies to build up excess capacity in a variety of industries that then pushes down prices and drives free-market competitors in the United States out of business. The United States cannot afford to allow China to carry out the same practices in emerging industries, including robotics, new energy vehicles and information technology.

Exactly right. But the right way to compel China to alter its model or to face economic sanctions is to work with the world’s other major trading bloc, the European Union, in a common China strategy. Trump, however, keeps going out of his way to insult and alienate the EU. Hello?

The hardening of the U.S. line makes Trump’s decision to allow the Chinese tech company ZTE back into U.S. markets all the more bizarre, and makes it even more likely that Trump’s real motive in this one-off favor to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping was to thank Xi for investing in a Trump enterprise in Indonesia and granting lucrative favors to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

Trump, with his tiny attention span and his penchant for lashing out, can’t manage to maintain a consistent policy from one day to the next. We do need a revisionist China strategy, but Trump’s version is a perfect marriage of the inept and the corrupt. 

Meyerson

Howard Schultz—Scourge of the Homeless—is a Republican. On Tuesday, in one of the most raw and callous displays of the power that major corporations can wield over cities, the Seattle City Council voted to repeal a business tax it had passed just four weeks ago to generate the funds the city needs to deal with its epidemic of homelessness. Seattle ranks third among all U.S. cities in the size of its homeless population, even though it is just the 18th-largest city in the land. (LA and New York rank first and second in both overall population and homeless population.)

Seattle doesn’t have a lot of options to fund increases in its spending. Under Washington state law, it can’t levy an income tax (it tried; a court struck it down). So it tried to capture a share of the city’s great wealth by imposing a tax on corporations with at least $20 million in yearly revenues. Each of those companies would pay a $275 tax for every worker it employed locally. The city’s largest employer—Amazon—has 45,000 employees within the city limits, which means it would have had to fork over $12 million annually. As Amazon’s revenues last year came to $178 billion, the tax would have been the proverbial drop in the bucket.

But Jeff Bezos, a committed libertarian, was made of sterner stuff. Rather than accept the tax, he teamed up with Howard Schultz at Starbucks and a group of other local CEOs to launch an initiative campaign to repeal the tax, and an accompanying propaganda campaign to ensure they’d get that initiative passed. That was enough to persuade the Council, by a 7-to-2 vote, to repeal the tax on Tuesday.

Unlike Bezos, the above-mentioned Mr. Schultz is not a libertarian. Indeed, he resigned as CEO of Starbucks—the company he founded—last week, encouraging speculation that he’s planning to run for president as a Democrat. In the past few weeks, he’s clearly made moves to bolster his Democratic bona fides by closing down 8,000 Starbucks so that its employees could grapple with racism. Then again, he’s also been giving interviews in which he’s said that Democrats need to reduce the nation’s spending on “entitlements”—that is, on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

But it’s the timing of his resignation—coming a couple weeks after he directed Starbucks’s assets into the campaign to gather signatures for the tax repeal initiative, but one week before that campaign compelled the Council to reverse course—that looks most interesting to me. Maybe, just maybe, he realized that if Starbucks was about to take away the last available funds with which Seattle could build and find shelters for its homeless, it might be a good idea if he were no longer the company’s CEO.

America being a land of opportunity, everyone, Howard Schultz included, has the right to run for president. But I think he’s running in the wrong party. Billionaires who say we’re spending too much on Americans’ retirement security and who invest their company’s dollars in campaigns to block aid to the homeless have a clear political home and it’s not the Democrats. Howard, boychik—you’re a Republican. 

Kuttner

The Moment of Truth for Republicans. For more than a decade, Republicans have decided that destroying the Democrats and the competence of government is more important than defending American democracy. We saw that under President Obama, when Republicans pursued a strategy of blocking whatever Obama attempted, sight unseen, and refused to compromise on anything other than keeping the government open. The roots of that policy date back to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s efforts to destroy Bill Clinton.

We also saw Republicans and their allies in the courts conniving in voter suppression and substituting money for speech, and blocking Obama’s judicial appointees to an unprecedented degree. That was bad enough.

Now, under Trump, Republican enabling of both autocracy and a sellout of the national interest has reached new lows. With a few heroic exceptions, most Republicans have concluded that standing idly by while Trump makes truly bizarre foreign policy decisions that weaken America’s influence with allies and help totalitarian adversaries such as China, Russia, and North Korea is an acceptable price to pay for staying in power. The fact that many of these policies are lubricated by Trump’s personal financial self-interest seems not to matter either.

If we lose our democracy, or if we narrowly miss losing it, or if the U.S. ends up sacrificing a great deal of global influence, history will blame the Republican Party. Trump is a lunatic and a megalomaniac. At least some Republicans know better, but most refuse to act on their knowledge.

Meyerson

California Republicans have just enough understanding of basic numbers—such as, percentage of registered California voters who are Democrats, 45; percentage of registered California voters who are Republicans, 25—to know they’re not about to win any statewide races this November. But in the wake of last week’s primary elections, in which one Democratic Orange County state senator was recalled after Republicans waged a campaign against him for voting for a gas tax increase during the most recent legislative session, they think they’ve found the formula to boosting their prospects in congressional and other races this November: Run against the gas tax increase.

The increase, strongly backed by Governor Jerry Brown and the required two-thirds of the legislature, would make $5 billion available each year for repairing and updating the state’s rickety infrastructure: roads and bridges, as well as building new intra- and intercity rail lines. It’s backed by both business and labor and by various enviros. Republicans look at this and remember the tax-slashing Proposition 13, which the state’s business, labor, and political establishments opposed 40 years ago. New Republican gubernatorial nominee John Cox, who would stand a better chance this November if he ran as a Trotskyist, has vowed to campaign largely on repealing the gas tax increase.

Can the Democrats overcome this? Are Republicans’ hopes well-founded? There are two recent precedents for Democrats prevailing over similar challenges. In 2008, promoted by then-LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LA County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for the next several years to fund the construction of a countywide rail system and a better bus system. Eight years later, they re-upped that commitment, making the sales tax increase permanent. 

Getting LA County—which is home to roughly a quarter of the state’s population—to "yes" required the campaign’s advocates, including Villaraigosa and a coalition called Move LA, to make clear to voters what specific rail and road construction would take place where, with what tangible benefits. It worked. Both the 2008 and the 2016 votes required a two-thirds majority to pass, and pass they did.

So California Democrats have two choices before them as they go into the November campaign. Do they refuse to defend the gas tax hike and let the Republicans make hay, or do they do what Villaraigosa, the LA establishment, and the LA left did when confronted with the opposition to the sales tax hike: Make a case for what badly needed improvements those additional revenues would create. To do that, they have to specify what roads will be improved, what rail lines built—that sort of thing. A debate on taxes that focuses only on the tax and not on what it enables is always one in which the tax will be voted down.

To be sure, the LA experience is hardly an exact parallel of the current situation. The sales tax came in smaller increments and was less visible, though for all I know it took more money from the average Californian than the higher tax at the pump does. And LA is more liberal, and home to a smaller share of Republicans, than the state at large.

But Californians in every part of the state know how bad their roads are and how hard it is to get around town. There’s a case to be made that can largely nullify the Republicans’ attacks. Democrats—and most particularly, Jerry Brown—need to realize that the only defense for their tax hike is an offense that spells out what it will accomplish.

Kuttner

Trump’s Korea Diplomacy: A Catastrophic Success? Basically, there are two possibilities for Donald Trump’s Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-Un. Either Trump gets annoyed at Little Rocket Man, and storms out. Or the two leaders pretend to have made real progress.

What is out of the question is genuine steps towards nuclear disarmament on the peninsula—first, because it’s not possible to get that done in a brief summit meeting, especially with a leader as cavalier about details as Trump; and secondly, because there is no good formula for getting what both sides profess to demand.

The grail for North Korea is ridding the entire peninsula of nuclear weapons and drastically cutting the U.S. troop presence in the South. In return, Kim has talked about dismantling his own arsenal. But of course the devil is in the details.

If Kim does agree to disarm—and that has to mean both weapons and delivery vehicles—in exchange for security guarantees, what on earth could those guarantees be? Remember, the United States is a great power that double-crossed both Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and the Iranians, after making solemn arms-control deals. 

And what nations would be responsible for enforcing the guarantees? The always-trustworthy Chinese? Maybe Trump’s pal, Putin? Surely not the European Union.

What is more likely is the simulation of a deal, with a declaration of broad principles, details to come later. That would serve the interests of both Trump and Kim, who have in common that they are world-class cynics.

Trump could claim a diplomatic breakthrough, burnishing his stature as a dealmaker who succeeds by breaking conventions and norms. Kim could enhance his stature as the North Korean leader whom the mighty United States agreed to treat as an equal.

The only problem is that any such breakthrough would be fake news at best, and dangerous capitulation at worst. How fitting for the Trump era. 

Kuttner

Race, Class, and Loyalty. Ayanna Pressley, 44, is a respected African American member of the Boston City Council. A one-time political director for John Kerry, she was the first black woman ever to be elected to the council, in 2010. And she won citywide, in an at-large district.

In January, Pressley, calling for new leadership, surprised many observers by challenging incumbent progressive U.S. Representative Mike Capuano, a 66-year-old white guy, in the upcoming Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s Seventh District. Capuano is popular and well-entrenched in this majority-white seat.

This week, the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Capuano over Pressley. Earlier, Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, went out of his way to back Capuano, calling him “a fierce advocate for those who have often been forgotten or left behind.”

Capuano has an exemplary record in supporting goals and policies important to African Americans. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as are most members of the Black Caucus.

But what’s the right principle here? Blacks and women have a long way to go in achieving proportional political representation. Shouldn’t blacks in positions of power be extending a hand to other blacks?

On the other hand, loyalty is a very big deal in politics. Should the Black Caucus abandon a loyal ally in order to promote a young black woman in what was always a long-shot campaign?

As much as I admire Pressley, I’m with the Black Caucus. Race matters a lot but it’s not the only factor that matters. That said, the Democratic political establishment could be doing a lot more to promote black and women candidates in open contests, or in challenges to incumbents a lot less progressive than Capuano.

Meyerson

The California Jungle

CONGRESS: At second glance, the numbers we have now from Tuesday’s primaries in California may look discouraging to Democrats. (At first glance, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief since they didn’t split their votes so badly in the swing congressional districts that they ran out of the money. In every one of those top-two races, a Democrat made it into the November runoff against a Republican.)

But at second glance, in six of the seven House districts represented by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the total vote for the Republican candidates exceeded that for the Democrats. (The only race in which the aggregate Democratic vote exceeded the Republicans’ came in the 49th District, which Republican Darrell Issa barely carried in 2016 and where he prudently chose not to stand for re-election this time around.)

Don’t those aggregate numbers look bad for the Democrats?

Well, that’s why we need a third glance. To begin, it always takes California about a week to tally all its votes; probably more than one-third remain uncounted. And historically, the votes counted late—late absentees, provisional ballots—tend to be disproportionately Democratic.

Moreover, in five of the six districts where the aggregate GOP vote exceeds the Democrats’, the Republican vote totals don’t exceed the Democrats’ by much—the Republican total ranges from 51 percent to 53 percent. Those numbers will shrink some as more votes are counted. Which means five of these six districts (and six of the seven, counting Issa’s) are very much in play in November. The only one in which the Republican total on Tuesday was so high it made clear that the district was out of reach was David Valadao’s district in the San Joaquin Valley.

If I had to bet based on the numbers we’ve seen so far and one additional factor (my gut), I’d say the Democrats will take Issa’s, Dana Rohrabacher’s, and Steve Knight’s districts. Jeff Denham’s, Ed Royce’s, and Mimi Walters's are possible but more difficult.

 

STATEWIDE: By finishing a distant third in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, Antonio Villaraigosa appears to have reached the end of his road in electoral politics. That road is worthy of contemplation.

As a young man, Villaraigosa first entered politics as a member of a Los Angeles-based Latino organization on the quasi-Marxist left. Always a man on the make, he soon became an organizer for the teachers union and a board member of the Southern California ACLU (which has always been a major political player in Los Angeles). Elected to the State Assembly in the early ‘90s, he became an unusually adept Speaker, then an LA City Councilman, then a two-term mayor. It was his drive and ambition that fueled the successful initiative campaign in which LA County residents voted to raise their sales taxes to build a major rail system in the auto-capital of the world. (It required a two-thirds vote, which, absent Villaraigosa’s fundraising and campaigning, never would have happened.)

But Villaraigosa also went to war with his old employer, the teachers union, becoming the chief advocate for expanding charter schools across Los Angeles. He became a darling of the charter school billionaires, who spent $22 million on his behalf in the current gubernatorial campaign. In recent years, these charter school backers—led by Netflix’s Reed Hastings and developer Eli Broad—have funded a generation of centrist Democrats in the state legislature; Tuesday marks their first major electoral defeat. Villaraigosa’s reliance on the charter billionaires was one of a number of pivots he’s made to the right in recent years, in some instances to secure campaign donations (from, for instance, the bail bond industry), in other instances, to win more conservative votes he theoretically could gain given the bipartisan nature of the jungle primary. Villaraigosa spent a lot of time and resources campaigning in the state’s most Republican region, the San Joaquin Valley. On Tuesday, the Valley voted for Republicans John Cox and Travis Allen.

Kevin de León is another Democrat who began his political life on the left, and unlike Villaraigosa, he’s largely stayed there—in recent years, as president of the state Senate, authoring and steering to passing pioneering environmental and labor legislation. The paradox of de León’s Senate campaign against incumbent Dianne Feinstein is that he was more ideologically attuned to California’s Democrats than the more conservative Feinstein and he won most of the institutional endorsements that normally matter—yet he raised hardly any money. He won majority (but not the required super-majority) backing of delegates at the Democrats’ state convention, and the endorsement of virtually every union in the state. As Lenin said of Bukharin, he was “the rightful favorite of the entire party.” But it didn’t translate into money or votes—and in California, money is the indispensable prerequisite for votes.

Why no dough? First, some progressive individuals and institutions assumed (rightly) that he’d make the run-off, and they could, if so moved, give then. Second, unions were hoarding their money in case Villaraigosa made it into the finals, in which case, they would have had to spend a ton of money to make sure that Gavin Newsom, with whom they had better relations, defeated him. Now that Republican John Cox will be the one waging a doomed campaign against Newsom in November, unions will have more money available for other races. Whether they invest in de León or spend it all on the congressional races remains to be seen.

De León has already had a significant impact, however, in driving Feinstein to the left, much as Cynthia Nixon has done with Andrew Cuomo in New York. Twenty-eight years after Feinstein first appeared before a state Democratic convention to defiantly announce her support for the death penalty, DiFi abruptly changed her stance two weeks ago. She also has taken a far tougher line with President Trump since de León began running.

Given the electoral travails of Villaraigosa and de León, it’s easy to overlook how well the third of the three most prominent Latino pols in the state—Attorney General Xavier Becerra—did in Tuesday’s primary. Becerra ran 20 points ahead of his nearest rival (Republican Steven Bailey) and is assured of an easy re-election come November.

In 2001, Becerra, then a member of Congress, ran for mayor of Los Angeles, but proved to be a non-electrifying candidate, particularly when stacked up against the indefatigable Villaraigosa. This year, Becerra didn’t really have to campaign: Ever since Jerry Brown appointed him attorney general to succeed Kamala Harris (who’d moved on to the Senate), Becerra has been suing Donald Trump for one outrage after another. That, it’s clear, is all the campaigning he needs to do.

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