Toxic Popularity

“When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents in the construction of the state will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments, not the guides, of the people.” ~ Edmund Burke

“Popularity should be no scale for the election of politicians. If it would depend on popularity, Donald Duck and The Muppets would take seats in Senate.” ~ Orson Welles

Donald Duck and The Muppets didn’t take seats in the Senate, although the majority leader there, Mitch McConnell, does look a bit like a kindly cartoon turtle – that kindly cartoon turtle secretly planning something quite nefarious. As for Edmund Burke, many would say that politicians should be the instruments, not the guides, of the people. They were elected to carry out the will of the people – their constituents. If “the people” want them to vote for something really stupid, something quite popular at the moment, they should vote for that stupid thing – before “the people” change their minds and decide that what they really wanted, that was so popular, was really stupid after all. Mitch McConnell’s constituents really wanted him to repeal Obamacare – all of it. That was popular with all Republicans, until it wasn’t. The alternative was dire. Mitch McConnell was stuck.

In 1957, the future President Kennedy wrote a book about that – Profiles in Courage – about eight United States Senators who did the right thing, not the popular thing. That’s courage. That won a Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, actually wrote the book. Kennedy provided the theme and supervised its production. He was busy being that senator from Massachusetts at the time. He had no time for such things – but he got the idea right. When leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity they do stupid things. Sometimes they take credit for a book they didn’t write – but then they fess up and everything works out.

The problem, however, remains. Do the right thing, not the popular thing. Show some courage, or if that’s too troublesome, listen to the people. They change their minds. They know “stupid” when they finally see it:

President Donald Trump’s approval rating plummeted over the weekend as controversy continues to swirl around Senate Republican’s revised health care bill.

Just 38 percent of Americans now say they approve of the job the president is doing in office, a drop of four points in just three days, according to the latest Gallup survey released on Sunday.

Trump’s disapproval also increased by three points up to 57 percent

The good idea that had been so popular – get rid Obamacare, all of it – was no longer a good idea:

Not only has the bill faced harsh criticism from Democratic lawmakers, but top Republicans in the Senate including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee all revealed in a joint statement they were “not ready to vote for this bill.”

“There’s no way we should be voting on this next week. No way,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said on Sunday. “I have a hard time believing Wisconsin constituents or even myself will have enough time to properly evaluate this, for me to vote for a motion to proceed. So I’ve been encouraging leadership, the White House, anybody I can talk to for quite some time, let’s not rush this process. Let’s have the integrity to show the American people what it is, show them the truth.”

In short, show some courage, or not:

The president, however, says he remains confident health care reform will get done, and soon.

“I don’t think they’re that far off. Famous last words, right? But I think we’re going to get there,” Trump said in an interview Sunday on FOX News’ “Fox & Friends.”

That’s not where the people are now:

Donald Trump’s presidency has caused stress and anxiety in Americans across the country, many of whom have opted to offset their worries with an extra glass of wine or two or shots of whiskey from time to time. But as it turns out, the majority of citizens say they would quit drinking alcohol tomorrow if it meant the president would be impeached.

Nearly 73 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans said they would abstain from alcohol for the rest of their lives if they could see the official political process begin to remove Trump, according to a survey of 1,013 men and women nationwide. The latest data set showing support for Trump’s impeachment – an exhaustive political process that includes no definite promise of his removal – comes at a time when multiple Democratic lawmakers are drafting articles of impeachment and at some point could bring them to the floor of Congress.

Meanwhile, more than 30 percent of Republicans surveyed said they’d quit drinking in order to have the media stop writing negative articles about Trump, compared to 6.5 percent of Democrats.

Everyone’s had enough of this, but there’s more:

In the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, he admonished the 37% of Republican voters who said they approved of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” he said. Weeks later, a poll found – perhaps not surprisingly – that Putin was more popular with Donald Trump voters than Obama was.

Obama may feel a small amount of schadenfreude, then, at the fact that global confidence in Putin is now a full five points higher than in Trump, according to a Pew survey of more than 40,000 people in 37 countries. (The US and China were not among them). Just 39.5% of Americans approve of Trump, but around the world that number goes down to 22%, with 74% having no confidence in the US president. Putin has a 27% approval rating (he can boast a lofty 81% domestically).

Donald Trump seems to be obsessed with his “popularity” – the crowds bigger than anyone has ever seen and how he, and America, are now, finally, respected around the world.

That’s not quite so:

Obama himself also easily outstrips his successor in terms of global backing. When asked whether they were “confident in the US president to do the right thing in world affairs,” an average of 64% said yes when Obama was president, compared to 22% now under Trump. Of the 37 countries surveyed, only Israelis and Russians are more confident in Trump than they were in Obama. Meanwhile, countries like Sweden saw an enormous swing in their views on the US president; 93% were confident in Obama, as opposed to 10% in Trump.

As global confidence in the US president has plummeted, so has the world’s views of the US as a whole. At the end of Obama’s presidency, an average of 64% of people across the 37 countries had a favorable view of the US; now that number is down at 49%.

There’s a reason for that:

When read a list of characteristics and asked whether they accurately described Trump, respondents found him arrogant, intolerant, unqualified and dangerous. There was some respite though: 55% think he’s a strong leader.

Okay, he’s a strong and stupid leader. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe they enhance each other.

Still, what are you going to do with this guy? Tracy Wilkinson explores that problem:

The State Department long has been the key to American diplomacy abroad, while leaders in foreign capitals used well-trodden channels at Foggy Bottom to contact their counterparts in Washington. But under President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, that has changed.

“There’s just no one to talk to at the State Department,” said one Southeast Asian ambassador, saying the department appears irrelevant for all but minor diplomatic issues. The diplomat asked not to be named expressing his frustration.

With only a handful of senior State Department positions filled after five months in office, and no regular media briefings there to explain Trump’s foreign policy, the challenge for foreign governments is exacerbated by a dearth of U.S. ambassadors.

President Trump’s approach to foreign policy calls for some workarounds:

Early on, Denmark tried using its national beauty pageant as a back-door channel to the White House. It asked its contestant if she had any high-level contacts, since Trump used to own the Miss Universe pageant. As far as is known, she didn’t.

Some embassies have staged high-profile receptions or rented suites at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, less than a mile from the White House, in what critics say is a conspicuous effort to gain Trump’s notice.

The government of Saudi Arabia, in particular, paid $270,000 to the hotel between November and February, according to filings with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

That has prompted several lawsuits alleging Trump is profiting off his presidency.

There is that, but this wasn’t Trump’s fault. The Saudis were desperate, and they’re not alone:

The Mexican government has tried another route to improve relations with the White House. Even as Trump railed during the campaign against Mexicans as rapists and criminals who sneaked across the border to attack Americans or steal their jobs, Mexico’s then-finance minister, Luis Videgaray, was in touch with one of Trump’s top advisors.

Videgaray, who is close to President Enrique Peña Nieto, established a friendship with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to diplomats and former U.S. officials.

That might work, or not:

Knowing how unpopular Trump was in Mexico, Videgaray didn’t tell the foreign minister at the time what he was doing, they said. It backfired when Videgaray engineered a Trump visit to Mexico City last August during the campaign. Trump again insisted Mexico would pay for a border wall, embarrassing Peña Nieto, who had said they hadn’t discussed it, and hijacked a news conference in the presidential palace by calling only on American reporters and ignoring the Mexicans.

Peña Nieto’s popularity ratings plummeted, and Videgaray was forced to resign.

Still, there’s always a workaround:

Videgaray continued meeting with Kushner, and in January he was named foreign minister, making his contacts more formal. The two countries have worked closely in recent months.

When Trump threatened to junk the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he had vowed on the campaign trail, Kushner and Videgaray hastily arranged for Peña Nieto to call him. Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, also telephoned, and Trump backed down.

Do whatever works:

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also turned to Kushner, who he had known for years. Their personal ties have helped propel the president’s son-in-law into the unlikely position of Middle East peace negotiator.

The two met this week in Jerusalem, a follow-up to Trump’s visit to the region last month.

And there’s this:

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman abruptly picked Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne this week, leapfrogging over the current crown prince in a twist to the kingdom’s dynastic politics that may be tied to Kushner’s role.

The two, both in their 30s, forged a friendship after the 2016 election, sharing dinners and exchanging phone calls. They played a key role in setting up Trump’s successful visit to Riyadh last month, where the royal family treated the Trumps like royalty and Trump offered gushing praise for the autocratic regime.

By then, the media had dubbed Kushner and MBS, as he is widely known, the “two princes.”

“MBS quickly latched on to Jared Kushner as a channel to the White House,” said F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University and long-time observer of Saudi politics.

Do whatever works. Jared Kushner says next to nothing in public. No one know if he’s strong, or stupid, or both, or neither. He’s a mystery, but he’s not toxically unpopular. That’ll do.

There is a price to pay for toxic unpopularity:

The Senate bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act was edging toward collapse on Monday after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it would increase the number of people without health insurance by 22 million by 2026.

Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky, said Monday that they would vote against even debating the health care bill, joining Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who made the same pledge on Friday. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin hinted that he, too, would probably oppose taking up the bill on a procedural vote expected as early as Tuesday, meaning a collapse could be imminent.

“It’s worse to pass a bad bill than pass no bill,” Mr. Paul told reporters.

Ms. Collins wrote on Twitter on Monday evening that she wanted to work with her colleagues from both parties to fix flaws in the Affordable Care Act, but that the budget office’s report showed that the “Senate bill won’t do it.”

Mitch McConnell’s constituents really wanted him to repeal Obamacare – all of it – which was popular with all Republicans, until it wasn’t, and now Mitch McConnell is stuck:

The report left Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, with the unenviable choices of changing senators’ stated positions, withdrawing the bill from consideration while he renegotiates, or letting it go down to defeat – a remarkable conclusion to the Republicans’ seven-year push to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

But the budget office put Republicans in an untenable position. It found that next year fifteen million more people would be uninsured compared with current law. Premiums and out-of-pocket expenses could shoot skyward for some low-income people and for people nearing retirement, it said…

Mr. McConnell, the chief author of the bill, wanted the Senate to approve it before a planned recess for the Fourth of July, but that looks increasingly doubtful. Misgivings in the Republican conference extend beyond just a few of the most moderate and conservative members and Mr. McConnell can lose only two Republicans.

At least some of Ms. Collins’s concerns could be shared by Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, whose rural states would face effects similar to those in Maine.

“The people” changed their minds and decided that what they had really wanted, that was so popular, had been really stupid after all:

“If you were on the fence, you were looking at this as a political vote, this CBO score didn’t help you,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “So I think it’s going to be harder to get to 50, not easier.”

He added, “I don’t know, if you delayed it for six weeks, if anything changes.”

Back in 1957, Jack Kennedy had been right. Do the right thing, not the popular thing, and this was very wrong:

Under the bill, the budget office said, subsidies to help people buy health insurance would be “substantially smaller than under current law.” And deductibles would, in many cases, be higher. Starting in 2020, the budget office said, premiums and deductibles would be so onerous that “few low-income people would purchase any plan.”

Moreover, the report said, premiums for older people would be much higher under the Senate bill than under current law. As an example, it said, for a typical 64-year-old with an annual income of $26,500, the net premium in 2026 for a midlevel silver plan, after subsidies, would average $6,500, compared with $1,700 under the Affordable Care Act. And the insurance would cover less of the consumer’s medical costs.

Likewise, the report said, for a 64-year-old with an annual income of $56,800, the premium in 2026 would average $20,500 a year, or three times the amount expected under the Affordable Care Act.

Do the right thing, not the popular thing, or what the hell, just do something:

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership, suggested that leaders would press forward with the Senate bill. He said that an argument could be made for delaying it “if you thought you were going to get a better policy,” but that that was not the case.

“This is the best we can do to try and satisfy all the different perspectives in our conference,” Mr. Thune said, adding that he did not think the politics would improve by waiting. “It’s time to fish or cut bait.”

Others disagree:

Before the budget office released its report, the American Medical Association had announced its opposition to the bill, and the National Governors Association had cautioned the Senate against moving too quickly.

The budget office’s findings immediately gave fodder to Democrats, who were already assailing the bill as cruel. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Senate Republicans had been saying for weeks that their bill would be an improvement over the House bill, which President Trump had described as “mean.”

Kevin Drum has the full details of how the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) is no improvement over the House bill and ends with this:

Reading the CBO report in its entirety, it’s hard to see that BCRA offers any improvements over Obamacare aside from cutting taxes for the rich. Net premiums go up for most people – quite massively in the case of older consumers; deductibles go up; out-of-pocket expenses go up; the working poor are virtually shut out of the insurance market; the quality of coverage gets worse; and 22 million people lose insurance.

The only plausible path for any improvement is the increased flexibility states would have to run their own health care programs. Historically, this has accomplished little except to allow conservative states to cut back on health services to the poor, so you’d need to be mighty starry-eyed to think that it will produce amazing innovations this time around. But that’s about it: believing in the power of states to innovate because they have less money is the only path for defenders of BCRA.

Jonathan Chait says that isn’t so:

There is one solid, coherent argument for the Senate health-care bill: If you believe the government redistributes too much money from the medically and financially fortunate to the unfortunate, then Trumpcare is a huge step forward. Its large regressive tax cuts and even larger cuts to low-income health-care subsidies would rebalance the tax-and-transfer system in a way that’s more fair, from a certain moral perspective.

But since that moral perspective is shared by very few people, Republicans have long ago internalized the need to find different public rationales. In the health-care case, what they have come up with is a simple, blunt-force denial that their plan to reduce health-care spending is anything of the sort. Fanning out on the media, Republican officials have spread word that nobody would lose any benefits at all.

That’s the plan:

“We would not have individuals lose coverage,” says Health and Human Services Director Tom Price. “No one loses coverage,” echoes Republican senator Pat Toomey. “These are not cuts to Medicaid,” insists Kellyanne Conway.

Even for those of us inured to the effects of right-wing propaganda, it is bizarre to watch a party attempt to carry out a major welfare-state rollback while fervently insisting the welfare state will not be rolled back a single inch.

What did Burke say? When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents in the construction of the state will be of no service? That seems to be the case here, but maybe they’ll do the right thing and drop it all and move on.

They won’t. Jack Kennedy’s 1957 book was a history book. There are no “profiles in courage” here – not now. Donald Duck and The Muppets, and that cartoon turtle, were elected to the Senate after all.

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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