Calvin Coolidge was known as Silent Cal – “I have found out in the course of a long public life that the things I did not say never hurt me.” He didn’t say much, nor did Herbert Hoover after him. That was probably for the best. Franklin Roosevelt told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – and that was enough. Everyone remembers that. Harry Truman was “give ’em hell” Harry – “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”
Truman was a bit blunt, but following Truman, Dwight Eisenhower was avuncular. He said what needed to be said in the blandest possible way. No one remembers what he said and he liked it that way. The point was to keep the country safe. Words don’t do that.
Since then it’s been Kennedy telling us we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, and Lyndon Johnson being simultaneously crude and folksy, and slyly effective. Richard Nixon will be remembered for insisting that he wasn’t a crook. That didn’t work out of course. Gerald Ford was pleasant – a caretaker president – but Jimmy Carter really shouldn’t have talked of America’s “malaise” and was gone after one term. The first George Bush told everyone to read his lips – but there were new taxes. He was gone after one term too. He should have listened to Calvin Coolidge.
Bill Clinton just talked and talked and talked. He wore the country down, but the second George Bush talked in those Bushisms – “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
What? That wore the country down too. After eight years of trying to find the sense in such nonsense, even if that was always possible, Barack Obama was a relief. No one had to explain what Obama really meant to say. His speeches soared. He offered “hope” – not to millionaires and rednecks, but to most everyone else – and he mostly delivered. There were no scandals either. Along with being polite and courteous, he was careful. He measured his words. He didn’t say anything stupid if he could help it. He didn’t do anything stupid if he could help it. Perhaps he was too timid, but he was No-Drama Obama. Fix the economy. Set up some sort of actual healthcare system for the country – not perfect, but something. Don’t start new wars here and there to fix the world – that can’t be done – and stay out of wars that have been going on for centuries, more or less, and will never end anyway – and don’t pop off about everything that irritates you. There are more important things to do and no one really cares about your mood. Do the job. And don’t tweet.
As Garrison Keillor notes, that’s not Donald Trump:
Now here is a president who communicates in little specks and splats of twitters, leaving his minions to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. The country will weary of this, the dead eyes, the heavy scowl, the jutting chin. The man’s base will discover eventually that he is a carnival hoax, the Cardiff Giant, the Wild Man of Borneo who eats live chickens. You can’t fool 40 percent of the people 90 percent of the time.
Maybe they will discover that hoax and maybe they won’t, but things have changed, and Keillor also notes this:
The man is only trying to please the folks who voted for him. They want him to walk into church and moon the clergy. They’ve always wanted to do it themselves but didn’t dare offend their devout neighbors. So they went along, saying the appropriate things about Community and Cooperation and Tolerance and the Value of Education, which made them miserable because they didn’t believe in any of that stuff. They believed in Family Loyalty and outsiders can go to hell. Be a winner. Race to the buffet table and pick all the beef out of the stew and let the others have the celery and onions.
It’s a selfish worldview but so what? They never had a champion until this guy came along and spoke for them loud and clear, and they eked out a narrow win in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and now they’re making the most of it. That’s how it works.
That may be so, but Donald Trump’s minions still have to go out there and to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. That’s been Sean Spicer’s job, and the questions are endless. What is it with Putin and Russia? Why was James Comey really fired, and will Robert Mueller be fired? Is the point to shut down all investigation of the Russia stuff, or if not, what’s the point? Trump may want to do no more than walk into church and moon the clergy – or in his case, mooning all of any kind of establishment anything – but what comes next? Why do that?
Donald Trump’s minions are in a tight spot, caught between those little specks and splats of twitters, and the demand, from everyone but millionaires and rednecks, for an explanation of what the hell is going on.
That calls for a bit of calculated silence:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly refused to answer questions from senators Tuesday about his private conversations with President Trump, including whether he spoke to Trump about former FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.
In a number of testy exchanges with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said he would not answer many of their questions because of a long-standing Justice Department policy that he said protects private conversations between Cabinet secretaries and the president.
The attorney general confirmed elements of Comey’s dramatic testimony before the same panel last week while disputing others. Sessions said he was in an Oval Office meeting in February with Comey and Trump when the president said he wanted to speak to Comey privately – and he acknowledged that Comey came to talk to him the next day about the meeting.
At other times, though, Sessions frequently said he couldn’t recall specifics, particularly when asked about his meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
He was saying nothing really – that Calvin Coolidge thing – but he was also whining:
The attorney general seemed to understand the import of each of his words as the highest-ranking Trump administration official so far to testify publicly on the FBI investigation and Comey’s firing. During one line of questioning by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), he told her in a flash of anger not to rush his answers because “you’ll accuse me of lying” and said she was making him “nervous.”
Poor baby! But he held firm:
Sessions took particular aim at news reports about a possible meeting he had with a Russian official during an April 2016 event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump gave a pro-Russia speech. He acknowledged being at the event and said he had conversations with people there, but did not remember any conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
So cut him some slack:
When asked to explain why he wrongly claimed in his confirmation hearing that he never met with Russians, Sessions said he was flustered by the question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after many hours of testimony.
He seemed to be saying he was a tired old man, so lay off. There’s much more in this item – some very strange talk about the concept of preemptive executive privilege – but that was no more than strange talk. Jeff Sessions wasn’t talking. Well, he was talking, a lot, explaining that he wasn’t talking about any of this. It was like watching that Tom Stoppard play – “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
The problem was all those questions, but there’s always a solution to that problem:
Television reporters covering the Capitol were told midday Tuesday to stop recording interviews in Senate hallways, a dramatic and unexplained break with tradition that was soon reversed amid a wide rebuke from journalists, Democratic lawmakers and free-speech advocates.
The episode heightened concerns about reporters’ access to Washington leaders in an era when hostility toward the political media has increasingly become the norm. For some, the move to protect senators from impromptu on-camera interviews fell into a wider Trump-era pattern of efforts to roll back press freedoms, whether by barring reporters from interviewing officials or denying them access to briefings, trips and events.
“These are actions that are without precedent in the history of the White House and Congress,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
“Even if some of the violations are of norms rather than rights, the effect is to make the government less transparent at precisely the moment when congressional oversight has been at its weakest,” Wizner said.
That guy had a point, but this seemed to be no more than casual incompetence:
The controversy started Tuesday around noon, when staffers from the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, which operates workspace for networks in the Capitol, told reporters from major television networks, with no warning, to stop recording video in the hallways. Gallery staffers blamed the shift on the Senate Rules Committee, which has official jurisdiction over media access in the upper chamber, according to journalists who shared detailed accounts of the developments on Twitter.
The directive touched off a day of confusion as the Rules Committee denied issuing new restrictions and gallery staffers refused to explain their part in the drama.
“The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex,” the Rules Committee chairman, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), said in a statement. “The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.”
Okay, no one knew how this happened, and they fixed it, but some still smelled a rat:
The apparent change in practice came as the number of reporters on Capitol Hill has increased dramatically, reflecting the high stakes Republicans face as they respond to controversies involving Trump and work to advance their legislative agenda…
Several Democrats tied the move directly to the health-care legislation now being debated in the Senate. “Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.
What’s this about sneaking a bill through Congress? That’s another form of calculated silence that Paul Waldman explains here:
The fate of the American health-care system now rests with a group of allegedly “moderate” senators, who are getting ready to approve a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a repeal bill so monumental in its cruelty that they feel they have no choice but to draft it in secret, not let the public know what it does, hold not a single hearing or committee markup, slip it in a brown paper package to the Congressional Budget Office, then push it through to a vote before the July 4th recess before the inevitable backlash gets too loud.
“We aren’t stupid,” one GOP Senate aide told Caitlin Owens – they know what would happen if they made their bill public. Even Republican senators who aren’t part of the 13-member working group crafting the bill haven’t been told exactly what’s in it.
And that explains the brief try at shutting down the reporters in the Senate hallways:
Everyone assumes that it’s so those senators can avoid having to appear on camera being asked uncomfortable questions about a bill that is as likely to be as popular as Ebola. As Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News tweeted about the secrecy with which this bill is being advanced, “I have covered every major health bill in Congress since 1986. I have NEVER seen anything like this.”
This is how a party acts when it is ashamed of what it is about to do to the American people. Yet all it would take to stop this abomination is for three Republicans to stand up to their party’s leaders and say, “No – I won’t do this to my constituents.” With only a 52-48 majority in the Senate, that would kill the bill.
Waldman doesn’t see that happening:
To understand the magnitude of what they’re doing, let’s focus on Medicaid, because it was supposed to be a sticking point on which some senators wouldn’t budge, particularly those whose states accepted the ACA’s expansion of the program. But according to various reports, the moderates have already caved.
Take Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a state where more than 175,000 people have gotten insurance thanks to the Medicaid expansion. For a while, Capito made noises about she wanted to preserve the expansion to protect her constituents. “I mean, we can’t just drop them off and wish them good luck,” she said. But no more.
Last week The Hill reported that Capito now supports eliminating the expansion after all – just doing it over seven years instead of the three years that the House bill required. The Charleston Gazette-Mail in Capito’s home state noted that Capito had said she didn’t want to drop all those West Virginians off a cliff, but “Instead, she would drop them off a cliff on the installment plan – around 25,000 per year for seven years.”
She’s not the only one, as there’s Ohio’s Rob Portman:
In his state, 700,000 people gained insurance as a result of the Medicaid expansion. He drafted a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stating his opposition to the House bill because it didn’t protect those who gained insurance from the expansion. Now Portman also wants to phase out the expansion over seven years.
What about Sen. Susan Collins, supposedly the most moderate Republican in the Senate? While Maine hasn’t accepted the expansion due to the resistance of America’s Worst Governor™, Paul LePage, Collins has said that she would like to see her state accept the expansion (with some provisions that make it more uncomfortable for recipients, just so those poors don’t get the idea that they should accept it without shame). But we’ve been through this dance with Collins before – Democrats hope she’ll be a vote for moderation; she talks about how she wants to find a compromise; and in the end she votes with the GOP on every important bill.
But wait, there’s more:
It’s important to know that the Medicaid question isn’t just about the millions who would lose coverage if the expansion is eliminated. Paige Winfield Cunningham reports today that Senate Republicans are considering even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the $880 billion the House bill slashed out of the program. They’d pay for the slower elimination of the expansion by cutting money out of the existing program, so they could get rid of all of the ACA’s tax increases – which mostly affected the wealthy. In other words, they want to cut Medicaid to give a tax break to rich people.
Just as critical, they want to end Medicaid’s status as an entitlement, meaning that the program wouldn’t cover everyone who’s eligible. States would get a chunk of money to spend, and if more people turned out to need coverage, tough luck for them. The states would be offered “flexibility,” which in practice would mean permission to kick people off the program and cut back on benefits. And don’t think this is just about poor people – over half of Medicaid dollars go to the elderly and disabled. That means that they aren’t just undoing the ACA; they’re making things substantially worse for tens of millions of America’s most vulnerable citizens than they were even before the ACA passed.
This really is calculated silence:
Their efforts to hide what they’re doing show that they are still capable of feeling some measure of shame. But it might not be enough to stop them.
Kevin Drum notes this is also a press strategy:
As long as Republicans keep everything tightly under wraps, there’s nothing new for reporters to write about. And if there’s nothing new to write about, it won’t get covered.
This is the same strategy that Donald Trump followed with his tax returns. What are reporters going to do? Write a story every day that tells us Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns? Of course not. So the whole topic disappeared during the campaign except on the rare occasions when something happened to leak out about Trump’s taxes.
And that’s that:
The Senate health care bill will take away insurance from millions. It will slash Medicaid. It will wipe out Obamacare’s promise of coverage for essential benefits. It will gut protections for pre-existing conditions. It will reduce subsidies for the poor and working class. And it will give millionaires a big tax break.
How do I know this? Technically, I don’t. I haven’t seen a draft of the bill. I haven’t watched any hearings. I haven’t read a CBO score. I haven’t heard from the Senate parliamentarian about what she plans to allow under reconciliation rules.
But let’s get serious. I know the bill is going to do these things because it’s a Republican bill. This is what they’ve been promising to do for years. If they had undergone a change of heart, they wouldn’t be keeping their deliberations secret, would they? They’re keeping their bill secret because they know it’s both heartless and massively unpopular, and they want liberals to have as little time as possible to generate any outrage about it. So they’re going to finish the bill, get it on the floor, and vote fast before the working-class public has a chance to realize how badly they’re getting screwed for the benefit of the rich.
Everyone knows this. It’s shameless. But it’s also working. As long as what Republicans are doing stays off the front page and the nightly news, it’s a win.
Drum also notes how things have changed:
This is yet another example of the corrosive effect that Donald Trump is having on Washington culture – which, let’s face it, was not exactly a shining beacon to begin with. Last year Trump taught Republicans that you can keep your tax returns secret with no real explanation, and pay no price. After all, it won Trump the presidency, didn’t it? The lesson here is pretty simple: If secrecy is better than exposure, then keep things secret, and don’t let media pressure sway you into backing down or even bothering to explain yourself.
Greg Gianforte is another example. He assaulted a reporter, and later events (like pleading guilty to assaulting a reporter) made it clear that he knew exactly what he’d done. But on the day before his special election, he released a comically belligerent statement not only denying everything, but blaming the reporter for the whole thing. It was pure Trump. It was a flat lie, he knew it was a lie, and he didn’t care. It helped him win the election, and that’s all that matters…
Keep things secret. Tell whatever lies you need. Flatly misrepresent reality for folks who don’t follow the news and won’t know any better. Don’t waste time with even laughably preposterous policy analysis. Just do what you want to do and say what you need to say.
No good will come of this:
The only silver lining is that, so far, this hasn’t actually worked very well. Obviously it got Trump elected, but it hasn’t passed any bills or produced any major policy impacts. But it might. And if it turns out that it does work, Democrats will fall right in line whether they want to or not. Then we’ll have a country that’s literally run like a game show, not an actual place with the fate of actual human beings involved.
This is why everyone who cares about reality needs to make sure it doesn’t work.
That’s easier said than done, and Josh Marshall has some advice for those who care about reality:
This is awful. But, really, stop saying it’s awful.
There is a perhaps understandable but entirely wrongheaded reflex to shout from the rooftops how this is simply wrong, how it’s not the way to legislate in any way in the public interest, how it willfully breaks all the norms of legitimate legislative behavior. But seriously, stop.
Think about how you look:
This kind of griping operates on the premise that broadcasting a situation in which you have zero power and acting as though your attempted shaming will produce any positive effect will have some positive effect. It won’t. Broadcasting weakness is never an effective strategy. Always choose to fight on a different ground. It looks hapless to try to shame people with acts they are carrying out openly, eagerly and happily. You look stupid. This kind of shaming operates on the unstated premise that the targets of the shaming care or are in some sense failing to grasp the extremity and inappropriateness of what they’re doing. Stated as such, this is obviously not true. It’s a feature not a bug. Pretending otherwise makes you look stupid, weak and hapless. Those are never qualities that political victories are made of.
There is an alternative:
Rhetorically, politically and in the simplest terms of reality, Republicans know there is no justifying this legislation. The public has already spoken. It is overwhelmingly unpopular. They are trying to do it in the dead of night because they know that. They convict themselves by their actions. Not because those actions violate norms but because they are evidence of knowledge of the underlying wrong. They are trying to slip it past everyone, do it by stealth and keep all the details secret until it’s too late.
That’s a political crime, a corrupt bargain. That’s the message, with all the rhetorical color that can be added to it. Don’t say that Republicans shouldn’t feel the license to act this way. They can do it if they want and it is entirely in character. Accept their freedom do it and label it for what it is. Adjudicate it at the next election. Make that clear.
Okay. They know what they’re doing. They choose to do what they’re doing. Forget process. The public has already spoken. Nail them for their choice, not for their calculated and calculating silence. That’s a minor matter, but of course they had no choice. They were caught between Trump’s little specks and splats of twitters, and the demand, from everyone but millionaires and rednecks, for an explanation of what the hell is going on. They chose silence. Calvin Coolidge said the things he did not say never hurt him, and look what happened to him. He became a joke.