If you follow American sports or consume even a little sports media, you probably know or have at least heard the name of Bill Simmons. Originally from the Boston area and known for a unique voice that blends the passions of a local sports fan with a deep appreciation for American popular culture, Simmons arose to national prominence working for ESPN as a writer, TV personality, and producer. ESPN sacked Simmons last year but then he got hired by HBO. He’s back to doing his very popular podcasts and will launch a show this year at his new network.
One of the hallmarks of Simmons’s podcasts is that he often brings on friends and family to discuss things about which they care or have special knowledge. Two of my favorite Simmons regular guests, Joe House and John O’Connell (JackO), are guys he met at college. Simmons, a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, calls up JackO (a diehard Yankees fan) whenever there’s baseball or Red Sox-Yankees rivalry stuff to discuss. Listeners have known for a while now that JackO, in addition to being a Yankees fan, is a dyed-in-the-wool northeastern Republican of the low taxes/limited regulations/strong military/socially liberal variety. JackO is apoplectic over Donald Trump’s rise so Simmons has turned to him a few times over the past several months to get JackO’s takes on campaign developments and to make sure his buddy’s head hasn’t yet exploded.
Normally I roll my eyes when JackO talks politics and stay tuned for the baseball stuff, but on Friday’s podcast he said a few things that I’d like to pivot off of in order to explain the current political moment.
Let’s start with the things JackO gets right. First, he believes a Trump candidacy will destroy the Republican Party’s chances at the presidency for at least a decade. While the polls show a worrying lack of separation at the moment between Hillary Clinton and Trump and Bernie Sanders and Trump, I agree with JackO that Trump is more likely to lose in an electoral college landslide come November than Trump is to make things close or win. Remember, most people vote for a party now that Republicans and Democrats are much more clearly sorted by ideology and policy preferences. A decently-informed voter knows with which party his or her politics generally align, and he or she votes accordingly. The Democratic Party enjoys a built-in advantage in the electoral college and it’s hard to see how Trump improves on his 56% unfavorable rating once the general election campaign begins in earnest. Hence the high likelihood of a landslide Trump defeat.
JackO believes that the recriminations among Republicans following a disastrous Trump campaign will lead the party into the political wilderness for a decade. I agree with him that the 2016 election is winnable for Republicans and that Marco Rubio would have a much better chance. This is why moderate northeastern Republicans of the JackO variety are pulling their hair out over the Trump candidacy. They’ve known Trump for decades and understand him to be the unqualified bully that he is. It exasperates them that their conservative compatriots in the Republican coalition don’t see this as well.
Now, let’s recognize that the Trump phenomenon has been a long time coming for the Republican Party. It has used culturally and racially divisive politics since the time of Richard Nixon in order to turn out its base of conservative and reactionary white people. The difference between now and then – or the 80s, 2000 and 2004 – is that these white people are not the overwhelming demographic and electoral force they once were.
In addition, much of the Republican base has woken up to the fact that the party establishment has never had much of an appetite for actually pursuing reactionary cultural and racial policy once in power. There is a real and deepening rift between voters like JackO and the base. Now, we’re treated to the spectacle of an openly white nationalist super PAC making phone calls on behalf of Trump, and the poor JackOs of the establishment wing are having massive sads. Who knew that the Republican base would finally come to realize that the establishment only really cares about low taxes and limited regulations?
Let’s put away our tiny violins and examine some of the other Republican establishment claims. Voters like JackO complain about the budget deficit in existential terms, like US debt is going to eat our children and grandchildren and we won’t have an economically viable country anymore. High levels of debt are not ideal, to be sure, but who’s responsible for US debt anyway? Republicans love to call themselves the fiscally responsible party, the party of balanced budgets. However, if we ignore the rhetoric and look at different presidents’ actual records, we see this is exactly the opposite of reality. You can call yourself fiscally responsible all you want, but when budget surpluses are wiped out on your watch and your party blows up the budget deficit, well, you’re full of it. Look at the different charts at the above links. It’s simply undeniable that Democrats have been the more fiscally responsible presidents. Even President Obama, who came into office during a recession that severely decreased tax receipts, has been steadily reducing the budget deficit since the economy started rebounding.
In the podcast, JackO also complains about the “confiscatory 90%” tax rates that will accompany a Democratic presidency. I guess he’s referring to Sanders speaking approvingly of a 90% income tax bracket for the nation’s wealthiest, which Sanders accurately says existed during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. While it’s unfortunate that Sanders has not yet released an income tax plan, he has also stated recently that he would not seek a 90% bracket as president. Hillary Clinton is on the record with a tax plan that will increase rates by 4% on people making over $5 million, hardly the stuff of JackO’s fever dreams.
In any case, Republicans argue that it’s self-evidently true that higher taxes hurt productivity and economic growth, but research shows that to not be the case. In fact, the highest rates of economic growth since World War II have been accompanied by higher levels of taxation. It could be true that there is a level of taxes that will cause capitalists and high-income workers to take their balls and go home, but if there is, we haven’t found it yet.
This is why it’s hard to take moderate northeastern Republicans seriously. They simply don’t know what they’re talking about or they make stuff up. If they took their own socially liberal and fiscally responsible poses seriously, they would vote for Democrats! Instead, they’re fond of insulting Democrats, like JackO thinks he does when he sneers about “socialism,” and they continue to make common cause with the reactionaries fueling the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. If they despise their own party’s base so much, why do they keep voting with them even when it’s clear they’ve lost control of the Republican Party? Why do they keep voting for the party that explodes the deficit every time it gets its hands on the presidency?
Honestly, I’m curious. How do these voters, who are often times smart and successful people, continue to vote for the party that does exactly the opposite of what they claim to want? If they were to enter the Democratic fold, they might actually have a voice within the country’s one fiscally responsible party, and they’d be voting their purported interests on abortion, guns, civil rights, the environment, and most other social and cultural issues. There is actually a lot of common cause to be made between Democrats and moderate northeastern Republicans. But the latter need to have some kind of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience regarding their cherished party. How do we facilitate that?
In the meantime, they should save us their grief over Trump. He’s the nominee the Republican Party deserves.