Designed to Fail

Life always gets the best of even the best of us, so do what’s right, even if it’s hopeless, or maybe because it is hopeless. Like Don Quixote, you’ll lose everything – everyone always does – but you’ll save your soul. Total losers become the real winners. All you need is a good lost cause.

That has kept many in the South feeling good about themselves for a hundred and fifty years or so. There’s something in the thick sweet air down there. Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious – but they want to be seen as noble losers in a good but righteous cause, in a tragic but romantically heroic way. The American South is filled with such people, flying their Confederate flags and weeping at the gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago. It’s that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing. They won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. That’s who they are, and it’s no coincidence that the Tea Party crowd was heavily white and Southern, even if they longed for the white-bread world of Ozzie and Harriet America in the fifties. They wanted their country back.

That too is a lost cause. The fifties are over. Martin Luther King marched. The laws changed. “Those people” no longer happily “know their place” – nor do women, nor do gays, nor do Asians and Hispanics. Muslims are next. Everyone eventually loved Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a fine fellow. Fareed Zakaria has one of the few shows on CNN that’s actually substantial – every major world figure shows up to talk to him. The Irish-Catholic guys – Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly – turned out to be scattershot bullshitters. They could seldom book “major players” and now O’Reilly is gone, because he had been a major jerk all along. That finally caught up with him, and week after week, the Muslim fellow on CNN continues to chat with people who actually matter. That’s where America might learn a thing or two. One day, maybe, an atheist may do what Fareed Zakaria does – not anytime soon, but one day that might happen. There’s no going back.

That changes politics. The Republican Party is often called the Party of the South. Some of that has to do with Lyndon Johnson aligning himself with Martin Luther King and pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and actually saying those three dangerous words – “We Shall Overcome” – in a joint address to Congress. Advisors told him he was giving the South to the Republicans for at a generation. All the Dixiecrats would become Republicans, and they did, but that lasted more than a generation. That seems permanent now, although the sense of white grievance has shifted. Now it’s resentment of Muslims and Mexicans (but not Cuban-Americans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and the Chinese, stealing our jobs. White grievance is, however, only one lost cause. The sixties, with easily available contraception and the legalization of abortion, should never have happened – and mandatory state-sponsored Christian prayer should be back in schools, not yoga classes. Gay marriage should have never been legalized either. God hates that. God also hates arugula.

The list goes on and on, but the sixties really are over. There’s no going back. These are all lost causes, and smart politicians know that – and they also know their constituency, in love with heroic lost causes. They’ll provide a dazzling array of those, all designed to fail – because they will fail – and that’s good thing. That generates even more grievance and resentment. That keeps things going. That gets them reelected again and again.

Amanda Marcotte reports on the latest example of this:

Thursday on the National Day of Prayer, Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” A leaked early draft of the order was largely focused on giving legal cover to government workers, hospitals, nonprofits and even private businesses that wanted to discriminate against LGBT people and women who use contraception or have abortions.

The final draft of the order, however, represented a drastic rewriting. All the LGBT-specific attacks had been taken out and abortion was not mentioned, though the new order does direct federal officials to consider changing health care regulations in order to stop insurance coverage of contraception for huge swaths of women. Instead, in a somewhat surprising move, the executive order largely focuses on undermining a law meant to discourage religious authorities from using their powers to influence elections.

That was the lost cause, the somewhat obscure Johnson Amendment that bars all tax-exempt churches and charities from participating in political campaigns, and that was enough, even if it was nothing much:

Trump’s executive order doesn’t change the law; that would take an act of Congress. But it officially discourages the IRS from auditing or fining religious organizations and churches that may be violating it.

As written, the executive order doesn’t seem especially radical. It simply says the IRS should not become involved when church leaders speak on “moral or political issues” in a way that has “not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention” when done by nonreligious leaders.

In other words, it’s a solution looking for a problem. There’s no evidence that churches are being treated especially harshly by the IRS. Churches are already allowed to speak out on a variety of social and political issues without losing their tax-exempt status, and even in cases where pastors openly break the law by endorsing candidates, the IRS tends to look the other direction.

In short, this was an order to the FBI to discourage them from doing what that hadn’t been doing anyway, but it had to be done, even if no one cares:

Trump is likely reacting to pressure from a handful of religious right groups, particularly the Alliance Defending Freedom, which have long tried to make hay over the supposed limitations of the Johnson Amendment. But polling data shows that most Americans think it’s a good idea to keep churches away from direct political campaigning. Additional Pew Research polling from 2016 showed that 66 percent of American respondents said they supported the Johnson Amendment. Even when it comes to white evangelicals, the group that Trump is trying to pander to, only 33 percent of those surveyed believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Other polls have shown even more support for the Johnson Amendment. National Association of Evangelicals research showed a whopping 90 percent of evangelical leaders surveyed did not think pastors should use their power to endorse candidates.

That might explain the curious statement from ACLU executive director Anthony Romero – they had planned on suing the Trump administration over the order and then changed their mind, because “today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.” It came down to this – “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends, but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.”

Then Romero twisted the knife, saying Trump’s “prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.'”

That wasn’t very nice, but Romero was missing the point. Trump knows all this. This was a message to his constituency – “I’ve got your back, and at least I tried.” They’ll love him for that – “Damn, the guy really tried!”

The outcome will be the same of course. Nothing will change, but that’s the point. That generates even more grievance and resentment. That keeps things going. This was purposely designed to fail, and maybe the American Health Care Act of 2017 was designed to fail too. This revised-beyond-comprehension replacement for Obamacare now goes to the Senate, but the Republicans there say they’re not even going to look at it. They’ll write their own legislation – and then, if they pass that, that goes to conference. That’s the third step – the separate House and Senate legislation has to be reconciled into a single bill that both the House and Senate agree is what this stuff should be – so Trump now has one third of a victory, or maybe something that was also designed to fail.

Gregg Bloche, a professor of law at Georgetown, and a doctor too, who helped to develop Obama’s 2008 campaign health care reform plan, thinks that might be so:

By letting states opt out of federal requirements that insurers provide essential health benefits and cover pre-existing conditions, TrumpCare II brought the hard-right “Freedom Caucus” on board. But these opt-outs don’t stand a chance in the Senate. Republican moderates – the so-called “Tuesday Group” – know that. So they swallowed and signed on, giving their faltering party a briefly-famous victory – and counting on the Senate to deliver the kill.

There are reasons that this is a safe bet:

For starters, the language that won over the hard right – the essential-health-benefits and pre-existing-condition opt-outs – breaches the generally-accepted understanding of what Senators can do within budget-reconciliation constraints.

As my colleague Timothy Westmoreland, one of Washington’s wizards of legislative procedure, pointed out to me, Republicans have in the past proceeded on the premise that reconciliation rules don’t allow rollbacks of Obamacare’s essential-benefits or pre-existing-condition coverage requirements.

Expect the Senate parliamentarian to rule that any changes in spending or revenue ensuing from the hard right’s hard-won opt-outs are “merely incidental” to these opt-outs’ non-budgetary effects. The practical result: Republicans will need 60 votes to pass these opt-outs, an impossibly-high barrier, given unified Democratic opposition.

Senate Republicans could try to overrule the Parliamentarian via a “point of order” from the floor, but this would require the same 60 votes.

Forget that:

There’s a snowball’s chance in June (when all of this could play out) that the parliamentarian will take a dive for the cause of “freedom,” allowing the opt-outs to proceed under reconciliation rules. A more absurdist possibility is Sen. Ted Cruz’s proposal that Vice President Pence chair the proceedings and, as Westmoreland put it to me, “simply ignore the parliamentarian.” The optics of either route are beyond-ugly, to the point of implausibility.

But there’s more beyond the Senate rules:

Even if “repeal and replace” frenzy were to drive the Senate down one of these paths, prospects for anything resembling TrumpCare II would be grim. Not only are the opt-outs poison pills for enough Senate Republicans to kill the House bill; TrumpCare’s Medicaid cuts, higher premiums for older Americans, and paltry tax subsidies for the purchase of insurance continue to arouse alarm.

Add to this the health sector’s united opposition: never before have doctors and hospitals, insurers, consumer groups, advocates for the poor and so many others come together to block health care legislation. Expect this resistance to be heard loudly in the next few months – on the air and online and wherever else political muscle is flexed.

And then there’s the political calculation:

So why did House Republicans go out on such a long limb for TrumpCare II? More precisely, why did “Tuesday Group” moderates mostly sign on to a scheme that could send them home in November 2018?

The answer is that if the Senate kills the bill, their general-election risk is capped: voters tend not to get hot and bothered by things that didn’t happen. Sure, Democrats will try to hold the moderates’ feet to the fire, but the fire will burn cool. Conversely, had Tuesday-Group types abandoned TrumpCare II in the House, they would have felt white heat – from Team Trump, House leaders, and others poised to punish infidelity. Think hard-right primary opponents, campaign fund cut-offs, and other tools of internecine vengeance.

So the Republican moderates who put TrumpCare II over the top made a savvy calculation. Assuming the Senate acts as the “fence” against the House’s “fickleness and passion,” as James Madison envisioned, yesterday’s “historic” vote will soon be forgotten.

This will work out fine for everyone:

Count on this outcome – bad news for Democrats who’d love to see Republicans punished for their willingness to take meaningful medical coverage from tens of millions, but reassuring for all who’d face desperate circumstances without the health safety net the Affordable Care Act provides.

This will also work out fine for Donald Trump. The whole thing failed, but he’s the man who tried, the gallant Flower of the South who fought the losing fight well, the hero. That generates even more grievance and resentment. That keeps things going for him. Everyone wins, but Mark Joseph Stern and Perry Grossman add that other factor:

Although the United States lacks a constitutional right to health care – unlike more than half of the world’s countries – seven years of Obamacare have established, in most Americans’ minds, a basic right to affordable medical treatment. Republicans might be able to repeal Obamacare, but they can’t reverse that sea change. And any attempt to do so will likely wreak political devastation.

They should have known that from the marriage equality battles:

For many years in the United States, marriage was viewed as a kind of privilege – a biblical sacrament that states choose to honor through legal recognition. But marriage isn’t a sacrament for everyone, and not everyone who wanted to get married could do it: Many states restricted marital privileges on the basis of irrational classifications like race.

Civil rights attorneys successfully challenged this vision of marriage as a benefit rooted in religion that states can revoke for some individuals. The target was Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. A trial judge upheld the law, explaining, “Almighty God created the races” and “placed them on separate continents” because “he did not intend for the races to mix.” But in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that marriage is a constitutionally protected fundamental right that “cannot be infringed by the state.”

Thanks to Loving and its progeny, Americans now tend to discuss marriage as a right guaranteed to all, not a privilege available to some. Our discussion of marriage as a “right” has transformed the biblical notion of marriage into a legal one. That’s why, by 2015, marriage equality seemed so inevitable. If the government cannot limit marriage rights on the basis of race, why should it be able to limit them on the basis of sex?

It’s the same with health care:

Republicans have long characterized access to quality health care in terms of an economic good, available to those who can afford it, with those unable to afford it at the mercy of private charitable organizations – frequently, religious organizations. This is consistent with the vision of a party that has worked hard to devolve core portions of the social safety net to faith-based groups for decades. For Republicans, the inability to afford health insurance isn’t merely a matter of economic misfortunate; it’s a moral failing. Alabama Republican and Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mo Brooks captured this sentiment precisely when he said in an interview with Jake Tapper that “people who live good lives” don’t develop pre-existing conditions and are thus entitled to pay less for health care, while others might find themselves priced out of the health insurance market altogether.

Mo Brooks was ridiculed, but there’s this:

Republican attitudes on this topic were perhaps best summarized by Mark Green, Republican Tennessee state senator and Trump’s former nominee for secretary of the Army, who in 2015 called government involvement in making health care broadly available to poor people an “injustice” because “the person who’s in need … they look to the government for the answer, not God.”

And on the other side:

Democrats have been pushing for universal health care since the New Deal. In 1978, Sen. Ted Kennedy captured his party’s sentiment by declaring that health care is “a basic right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.” But the massive expansion of health insurance coverage brought about by Obamacare gave that language popular traction on an unprecedented scale. Most Americans now expect the government to establish some minimum standard of care. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that “60% of Americans say the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all” and, most strikingly, that Republicans with family incomes of less than $75,000 per year are increasingly a part of that group. Those numbers may continue to grow as tens of millions of people find their health care coverage jeopardized by Trumpcare.

Trump knows this, and Philip Bump has the quotes:

It was one thing for Donald Trump to pledge on the campaign trail that his plan for health care would assure that every American had coverage. He did so repeatedly, including during a town hall event in February 2016 at which he said his promise to “take care” of everyone might sound as if he was talking about a single-payer system, but he wasn’t. “That’s not single-payer,” he said. “That’s not anything. That’s just human decency.”

There’s much more of that sort of thing. If the American Health Care Act of 2017 was designed to fail he gets the best of both worlds. Human decency prevails – he’s not a bad guy – and he’s still the new hero of lost causes – he did his best to undo what our black Kenyan socialist president had done.

Jim Newell isn’t so sure of that:

Anyone who assumes that this effort will die as most bills do – with a regal, dismissive tut-tutting from the Senate – did you see what’s just happened in the House? The wildly irreconcilable, slapstick House Republican Conference was able to pass a bill that more than a few of them thought was not just bad but a political existential threat. They chose to keep it moving, anyway, because they felt they had to. Why wouldn’t the Senate – whose Republican leader possesses far more competence than the House leadership combined – do the same?

This is a matter of momentum:

Republicans found a way to pass this, because they believed they didn’t have a choice. If they didn’t do something, it would be a ratification of Obamacare, which they’ve spent nearly a decade promising to get rid of. So they did something. And so can the Senate.

That would be the worst of all possible outcomes for Donald Trump. The American Health Care Act of 2017 was designed to fail. It’s so cruel and so nasty, and is hated by all but seventeen percent of Americans – and that number is dropping – that this must be the case. If Trump signs it into law he’s toast – and he must know that. He was supposed to be the perpetual hero of lost causes, for the party of the South. Signing this mess into law would ruin everything – except that the rest of America isn’t into lost causes. The Civil War is over. The sixties are over. We’d just as soon move on. There’s no going back now.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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