The IRS Targeting Scandal Was Hugely Important, and Not a Scandal

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The real scandal is this logo. By United States Department of the Treasury [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today we learned definitively that the “scandal” involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups was never really a partisan scandal at all. The IRS used similar methodology in establishing criteria that resulted in the flagging of both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning groups for extra scrutiny. It was poorly designed oversight policy applied equally to all groups. The policies should have been changed, and they were, and the people responsible for them should have been held accountable, and they were.

It sounds boring (it is), but if you haven’t been following this story closely it’s difficult to explain just how important this “scandal” has been in Republican politics. It has supplied much of the outrage energy necessary for a political coalition based on little but cultural and racial grievances.

Scandals that weren’t actual scandals were really all Republicans had during Barack Obama’s presidency. Republican framing of issues like “death panels,” “IRS-targeting,” and Benghazi were incoherent nonsense and transparently so. This should have been clear to anyone not irredeemably lost to the Fox News bubble, but Republicans were very effective at weaponizing their bullshit. By using these “scandals” to stoke the prejudices and grievances of its base of white people, the Republican Party was able to continue winning elections off this angry energy without developing a policy agenda (beyond taking away a woman’s right to choose her own health care).

I don’t know what we can do to prevent this stuff in the future. Maybe it’s a good first step to expose this nonsense and put reasonable people on notice that many of what Republicans push as “scandals”  are nothing more than lies, disingenuous interpretations of events, or the banality of complexity in government administration.

 

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Enabling Nazis, Klansmen, and White Supremacists Is No Way to Go Through Life, Son

Donald Trump’s presidency has been unsurprising. One of the least surprising aspects of it thus far is that Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists are marching through American streets and assaulting peaceful counter-protestors with impunity.

There is irony in the fact that a clear majority of white people, decrying what they perceive as Democrats’ “identity politics,” joined forces with bona fide Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists in 2016 to elect to the presidency a man who cannot perceive anything beyond the grievances generated by his own ego. If the term “identity politics” means anything, it means banding together with one’s racial and cultural group to assert the group’s racial and cultural preferences. Trump made his racial and cultural preferences abundantly clear – immigrants are violent criminals, foreigners cheat us, take our jobs, or are terrorists, women should find a new job if they don’t like being harassed at work, sexual assault by powerful men is fine, this is a Christian nation, African Americans’ lives and communities are hell, and so on. At the same time he was emphasizing these identity issues, Trump failed to develop any actual policies for the economy, international relations, the environment, criminal justice, etc. What is identity politics if it is not a clear majority of white people voting for a candidate who has no substantive policies but who speaks to their shared racial and cultural grievances?

If self-proclaimed nice, respectable Republican voters do not want to be associated with Donald Trump, Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists, then those voters need to stop voting to empower them. Maybe most Republican voters are generally good people in their personal lives – and I can attest that many are – but that is not enough anymore, not in the world’s most important democracy.

Voting is a moral duty with moral consequence. Many Republican voters take the duty seriously, but not the consequence. They love to tell us lefties how moral they are, how responsible they are, yet it is Republican voters who elected a know-nothing president in 2000 who then led the country into war on false pretenses. It was Republican voters who elected a man with a fondness for sexual assault to be president in 2016, a man who also was on the side of Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists, and knows nothing.

It is long past time for many otherwise decent people in this country to stare at the Republican Party, with clear minds about what it has become, and decide whether it is a mirror image of their own moral selves.

Republicans May Pass a “Health-Care” Bill As Soon As Next Week

 

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Is Trumpcare a health-care bill if it leaves tens of millions of people worse off in order to cut taxes for high earners and corporations? By Congressional Budget Office (https://www.cbo.gov/publication/52752) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Republicans in Congress are using reliable tactics to achieve quick results on their various “health-care”* bills. That is, Republicans have avoided public scrutiny, misled, obfuscated, tossed around word salads, pointed fingers, and even lied – all in service of passing unpopular “health-care” legislation that is mostly a vehicle for tax cuts. Since they ran against Obamacare for the last eight years Republicans might as well follow through on their threats to destroy it, end Obamacare’s higher payroll taxes on high earners and other taxes, and then get on with income and corporate tax cuts.

(*I put “health-care” in quotes because the bill passed by the House and what we’ve heard about the Senate’s version so far are not really pieces of health-care legislation. They result in loss of coverage for over 20 million people and worse or less affordable coverage for millions more who had benefited from Obamacare. In addition, millions of Americans with employer-sponsored coverage will be worse off than they were in the pre-Obamacare status quo. Trumpcare dismantles government programs, regulations, and subsidies that make health insurance accessible, affordable, and useful to poor and working class Americans, all in the name of tax cuts for high earners and corporations. Really, a fairer way to describe what Republicans are up to is to say they are trying to offset tax cuts for the rich by stripping millions of poor and disabled Americans of their coverage and making insurance less affordable and useful to many other Americans. Some have referred to Republican plans as “wealthcare” but whatever we call it, the most important thing is to understand what it is.)

This is a good time to remind readers of a post I wrote describing a heuristic for understanding elected Republicans’ behavior. In “Why Trump Can Do Whatever He Wants,” I argued that the only way to make sense of their policy priorities is to realize that they are united in service of one goal: cutting taxes for the wealthiest. Why else are so many Republican members of the House and several senators marching to what many think is certain doom in their 2018 elections by taking health coverage away from their voters?

The answer is that you get elected to do stuff, even if that stuff may cost you your job. Republicans think they got elected to enact tax cuts financed by Obamacare repeal.

Back in 2009, Democrats thought they got elected in 2008 in part to make the health-care system work better for poor and working class Americans. They passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) and improved the system even though many of them knew Republicans would be able to demagogue the issue and beat them at the polls in 2010. Indeed, that came to pass and Democrats have been in the minority in the House since their 2010 wipeout. But some Democratic House members of the 111th Congress who lost their job consider their vote worth it. They got into office to make things work better for more American people. If the price of that decision was their seat in Congress, so it goes.

In a sense, that is what is going on with Republicans in Congress now. Except the constituency they are serving is not the poor and working class, but the highest 2% of American earners and corporate interests. This is an entirely reasonable thing to do. You get elected to do stuff, and most Republicans think they got elected to cut taxes on high earners and corporations. How they have been able to win elections while obscuring their overarching policy goal is interesting but beside the point. The fact is Republicans in Congress agree wholeheartedly on one main goal and want to achieve it. Funding that supports poor and working class Americans’ access to the health-care system stands in the way of tax cuts, so Republicans need to remove the obstacle.

Americans ought to debate these policy choices. But we kid ourselves and risk damage if we pretend these choices do not come with different sets of winners and losers. For example, one of the dumbest things any Democrat did during the ACA debate was when President Obama said people would be able to keep coverage and doctors they already had if they liked them. That line was meant to comfort a portion of the electorate that already had coverage and was nervous about potential negative effects of changes to the system. Unfortunately, as the ACA went into full effect some Americans had to find new carriers and provider networks, so Obama was either wrong or a liar. He and other Democrats avoided a full accounting of the ACA’s effects and one can argue they suffered accordingly at the ballot box.

Now, Republicans want to cut taxes for the wealthy, but they do not want to explain how that comes at the expense of the health of the poor and working class. What are they to do? Exactly what Republicans have been doing: rush legislation through with little analysis or public debate, and when challenged hedge or pretend the bills don’t do what they actually do.

For example, West Virginia’s Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito is saying she does not look favorably on the Medicaid cuts rumored to be in the Senate’s bill. But in the end she’ll vote for the bill because that’s what she thinks she was sent to the Senate to do: free up money for tax cuts by repealing Obamacare. In the meantime, Capito will pretend she’s “concerned” and “worried” and “troubled” and “uncomfortable” about the Medicaid cuts to deflect from her true intentions. If she actually cared about the Medicaid cuts, after all, she’s free to debate the bill’s details in public and vote against the bill if she does not like the final product.

In the real world where policies have consequences, Capito and other “concerned” Republicans have two choices: 1) maintain or tweak coverage for poorer and lower income Americans and the taxes that finance it, or 2) cut hundreds of billions of dollars out of the system, kick millions of people out of the system, and use the savings for tax cuts. Capito and her fellow travelers insist on a third option: express concern about people losing coverage, vote to take away that coverage, and pretend cutting hundreds of billions of dollars out of the system won’t make anyone worse off, somehow (because freedom maybe). That’s just not how this works in the real world, but Republicans will dismantle Obamacare because of – not in spite of – this kind of dissembling. It works all the time in American politics.

I don’t know where all this goes in the medium term. In the short term, I’d bet Republicans succeed in gutting Obamacare but I hope I’m wrong. If I’m right, then Republicans up for election in 2018 and then 2020 will be running on their support for Trumpcare. Democrats say that removing hundreds of billions of dollars and important consumer protections from the system will have broadly negative consequences, including coverage loss for millions; Republicans say no it won’t, that citizens will once again have the freedom to not plan for an adverse health circumstance. We’ll see who’s right and whose interests are best served, and then we’ll see what voters think about it.

(But again, I’d rather Republicans not dismantle Obamacare. It’d be much better if they stopped sabotaging Obamacare and in fact made some tweaks to improve it. That’s very unlikely to happen, but I should make my preferences clear.)

 

Meaningful Differences Between Democrats and Republicans, Part Infinity

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Just say no to rational drug policy. By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doubling down on some of the worst aspects of the War on Drugs. If people think Hillary Clinton’s attorney general would have done this I’ve got coveted spots at Trump University to sell them. Let me know in comments if you need a quote.

The stupidest votes in the 2016 presidential election are the votes that ignored meaningful differences between America’s two major political parties. The worst policies coming out of President Donald Trump’s administration so far are the same policies any generic Republican president would’ve pushed. The fact that Trump has also instigated a constitutional crisis four months into his presidency is actually beside the point.

I don’t blame at all the Trump voter who places high value on her pro-life/anti-choice stance above all else. I don’t blame at all the Trump voter who places high value on being able to purchase any kind of gun or ammunition he wants whenever he wants above all else. I don’t really even blame the white Trump voter whose sense of cultural or racial grievance motivated his vote. At least these people got what they voted for.

The real problem right now is we have a significant bloc of voters in this country who don’t want conservative policies but also don’t recognize differences between the agendas of the two major parties. As long as 10 to 15% of the electorate continues to not understand that the parties are different, we will always be at risk of electing presidents who enact agendas that a majority of the country doesn’t want.

To clarify, this 10-15% of the electorate includes Obama-Trump voters and third party voters for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, write-ins, etc. Some of these voters will defend themselves by insisting that Democrats should not have made them choose between Trump and Clinton, two equally loathsome candidates in their minds. Loathsome or not, this way of thinking about candidates is entirely divorced from policy considerations and is really a poor way to process one’s voting decision.

I don’t really know what we do about this as a country. Perhaps Trump’s presidency will be a wake-up call. But for now I don’t see any reason to believe that future elections will be different. As a polity I fear we are doomed to suffer the whims of a perpetually significant proportion of the electorate that looks at two candidates and says “sure, that one is an ignorant, moral monster and will destroy affordable healthcare for tens of millions of people, but the other one’s emails…” or in 2000 “sure, that one doesn’t know anything about anything and is lying about his tax cut proposal, but the other one sighed during the debates…”

Is It Irresponsible to Speculate? It Would Be Irresponsible Not to.

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I have always wanted to use the above title as a headline. I must confess, however, that it’s not my own original language. Peggy Noonan – a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan now near the end of a staggeringly long, well-compensated, yet puerile career – is the author. She is the savant who wrote speeches for a president despite reaching at least the age of 50 without knowing how to use a rhetorical question. Noonan wrote it in an evidence-free column for the The Wall Street Journal back in 2000 accusing President Bill Clinton of having nefarious motives for returning the six-year-old Cuban boy Elián González to Cuba. Elián’s mother had drowned while trying to flee with her son from Cuba to the United States. The boy’s father, who was still in Cuba, wanted Elián to return to Cuba. Noonan was speculating that perhaps  Cuban President Fidel Castro was blackmailing Clinton into making this decision. Yes, for anyone not alive or politically aware in the year 2000, this was a thing. And yes, it was as crazy as it sounds. Irresponsible not to speculate, indeed.

The point here, of course, is about President Donald Trump, Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the election that made Trump president, and the growing number of people in Trumpland who met or spoke with Russian officials. Several Trumpers at first conveniently forgot that they had met or had phone calls with Russian officials. Caught red-handed, they then conveniently recalled that they did not discuss the campaign or anything substantive during those undisclosed – and again, previously forgotten – contacts. Given just these facts, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to speculate about why Trumpers are not remembering contacts with Russian officials but then remembering that the contacts were not substantive after confronted with evidence that the contacts indeed took place?

We now know of at least four prominent Trump advisors and officials who communicated with the Russian ambassador amidst denials by the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team, or the Trump Administration. Writing specifically about now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unprompted lie during his confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russian officials, veteran muckraker Josh Marshall poses some interesting questions:

Why are there so many unforced errors? Why conceal this meeting? Frankly, why lie about it? As I said, big, big scandals work like this. People who don’t even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

We’ve all heard the old saw: It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they’re in. We think the ‘cover up’ is worse than the crime because it’s actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn’t. So it’s a good bet.

Let’s put together a narrative:

  • During the 2016 campaign, Trump invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and make them public. Trump reveled in the hack of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails and used the steady drip of their release to constantly reinforce his main, yet extremely vague, critique of Clinton as corrupt.
  • The U.S. intelligence community (IC) came to the conclusion that Russia was interfering in the election to help Trump and/or sow chaos in our country. The IC was confident enough to warn the Obama Administration.
  • The Obama Administration was convinced enough to get the IC on the record with their conclusions and to protect evidence of Russia’s interference and potential Trumper collusion.
  • Candidate, then President-elect, then President Trump alternately dismissed and questioned the bases for the conclusion that Russia interfered in the election when asked about the issue. When he acknowledged Russia might have been involved, he also claimed it had no effect on the outcome of the election.
  • The campaign, the transition team, and the Trump Administration all denied contacts between its advisors and officials with Russian officials WHILE those contacts were taking place. ONLY when confronted with evidence that the contacts happened have Trumpers acknowledged them. When finally acknowledged, Trumpers proffered lame “nothing to see here”-style excuses.

Those last two points are key to understanding the Trump Administration. There is always – ALWAYS – another excuse to be made, even if it has no actual relationship to the matter at hand. Whether Russian interference mattered or not to the election outcome – and the evidence suggests it did – that’s not really even the point. A foreign country meddling in an election is a serious national security matter, period. Even if we grant that it didn’t affect the outcome, which we shouldn’t, we want to know how it happened, what its purpose was, and how to counter it.

A thought experiment: Imagine Trump and some other people are in the same room. Trump lets out a real nasty fart. How does this play out? People begin to gag and wonder aloud where the smell is coming from. Someone says somebody must have farted. Everyone denies it, but people next to Trump say, “Hey, I was standing right next to this guy. I heard him.” Trump first simply denies it. Then he continues to deny it, saying odd things like: “It wasn’t me, you must have heard something else.” Then: “How would you know, your ears weren’t pointed at me.” Then: “That was my sock squeaking against the sole of my shoe you heard and it happened at the exact same time that somebody, who wasn’t me, farted.” Then, without actually acknowledging that he farted, Trump says, “What’s the matter with you people anyway, haven’t you ever farted?” Then: “What’s the big deal? You can leave the room whenever you want.” But then someone sees a brown spot on the back of Trump’s pants. That someone points it out, and Trump says, “I was eating a Snickers bar before I got here. I must have gotten some chocolate on my fingers and then brushed my fingers against the back of my pants at the exact spot where my asshole is.” Someone says, “Oh come on dude, do you want us to test your pants for fecal matter? Just admit it.” If Trump breaks here, which he may not – he may just go on denying, ad infinitum – he now says, “It was the taco bowl I had for lunch. Not my fault. Someone ordered it for me. Why do I always fart when I eat taco bowls, anyway?” By this time, Trump may even believe that he never farted in the first place.

Would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for what we’re seeing now with the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the election? Or would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for the Trump Administration getting blackmailed into doing Russia’s bidding? Or would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for the Trump Administration simply returning favors for help during the election?

To be fair, we should also consider the story on the merits. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile what are known facts with innocent motives – innocent, at least, of deliberately harming one’s own country. Again, I point you to Talking Points Memo‘s Marshall, who has done a lot of reporting on the ties between Trump, Trumpworld, Russia, and Ukraine. Marshall weaves a narrative that fits the facts and absolves Trump (though not necessarily his circle) of any nefarious motives with regard to his own country. However, Marshall recognizes three acute problems with the theory: 1) there are still many facts that have less than compelling explanations, such as Sessions’ actions; 2) these facts are merely what we know now and there are reasons to expect a lot more will come out; and 3) it would almost certainly involve illegal or immoral acts unrelated to matters of betraying one’s country.

There’s an NBC News timeline of relevant events here and a Sessions-specific one here from The Washington Post. For another timeline and some interpretation, I suggest Matt Yglesias’ post from today here

Incompetent Through and Through

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Betsy DeVos’ first hire at the Department of Education. This is one of many great such pictures found at http://activerain.com/blogsview/1949327/get-a-brain–morans-

The Republican Party apparatus is having a really difficult day today. First, someone in charge of the Twitter account for the Republican National Committee tweeted out a spurious quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Not long after that, someone else (probably?) at the US Department of Education misspelled the name of W.E.B. Du Bois in a tweet quoting the man about education. In a subsequent tweet apologizing for the misspelling, the tweeter wrote “apologizes” when he or she meant “apologies” and that was then corrected in yet another tweet.

This may seem nitpicky, but it’s symptomatic of a group of people who pay little or no attention to the importance of getting things right. The concepts of fact-checking and context seem utterly foreign to the people staffing our current government. I suppose that’s what happens when few people with a 5th grade education or better seem willing to work for the official Republican Party organization or its president.

It is just inexcusable in 2017 to produce work like that. Do these people not understand that in about ten minutes you can do a fairly thorough source check of a quote, or in literally 0.59 seconds you can get search results about W.E.B. Du Bois and quickly figure out the correct spelling of his name? Do these people not understand that if they are on Twitter, they also have access to fine internet search engines, free of charge, from companies like Google?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, that’s G-O-O-G-L-E Google.

That the US Department of Education is misspelling names and words as if that were its job, and the “Party of Lincoln” is attributing an asinine AND spurious quote to Lincoln – perhaps our greatest political orator – on the man’s birthday are ironies so delicious they almost distract from the real stakes here.

For any conservatives out there, “irony” is the word you use when you actually mean “coincidence” and that’s your free SAT word lesson of the day.

Mistakes like these are actually not mistakes. They are the deliberate work products of people who have no respect whatsoever for the hard work that goes into understanding a topic or a policy. This is how Republicans in Congress spent the last eight years railing against a health care policy that they never understood even at its most basic level. This is how Betsy DeVos becomes Secretary of Education despite her manifest ignorance of public education policy.

Anyway, please find the offending tweets below. And below that, find a Lincoln quote I like that is real.

Du Bois misspelling:

Misspelling in apology for misspelling Du Bois:

Spurious Lincoln quote:

I know why Republicans don’t like this quote, but let me propose a real Lincoln quote in the false one’s stead:

“This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.”

Friday Links

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Live footage from the Trump White House.

There are two reported articles and an opinion piece that, read in combination, really help illustrate the behavior and dysfunction of President Donald Trump’s administration. Heartland whites wanted a government as stupid and ignorant as they are and so far Trump is delivering.

  • This piece in Politico is just amazing. One of many incredible quotes: “In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.” Read this story and tell decent people everywhere we were wrong about this guy.
  • This article in The Washington Post shows how Trump can’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag if threatening to sue is not an option. Trump insisted that the “One China” policy was up for negotiation, and China’s President Xi Jinping basically said “nice try assface I’m not some lowly cabinet-maker you can bully around.” And yes, Trump has bullied cabinet-makers and hundreds of others out of money owed for services rendered.
  • Josh Marshall, who is essential reading along with his reporters over at TalkingPointsMemo, wrote yesterday about Trump: “Even when legislation is there for the passing, he lacks the focus, interest or skills to get it passed. He is low attention and low energy. Hastily drawn up executive orders, some inconsequential and some unconstitutional, are likely to be the order of the day, only with the Oval Office photo ops with toadies and CEO supplicants thrown in. In other words, it is not a poor man’s but a lazy man’s authoritarianism.” I recommend reading Marshall’s piece in full to also get a sense of how Democrats in Congress are helping to expose the idiocy of our current government.

Keep protesting, calling your representatives and senators, and showing up to their town halls. It’s putting pressure on exactly the right spots. If Trump and his Republican Party can’t get around to considering significant legislation that a clear majority of the country hates until 2018, the midterm elections could be even more interesting.