No Eleven-Dimensional Chess Here

There’s a cliché for everything, even one for explaining Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. Early in his campaign, he blurted out that John McCain wasn’t a war hero at all. John McCain had been captured early in the Vietnam War. Sure, he survived years as a prisoner of war, perhaps heroically, but Trump said he preferred heroes that weren’t captured, and presumably, then just sat around. Everyone assumed that Trump was finished when he said that, but he wasn’t. Later he would mock those Gold Star parents whose son had died in combat, for his country. Everyone assumed that Trump was finished then too, but he wasn’t.

It was one thing after another, and then he won the presidency, and of course everyone had to rethink this. Maybe the guy wasn’t an impulsive jerk that said anything that came to mind, and then a day later said that he never said that at all. Maybe he was a sly bastard. Maybe he had a plan all along, which he was executing perfectly, leaving everyone else in the dust. Maybe he was playing eleven-dimensional chess when everyone else was playing checkers – and a cliché was born. Spock, on the old Star Trek show, played three-dimensional chess, against himself, because no one else on board the Enterprise could even begin to understand the complexities of that game. Trump was playing eleven-dimensional chess.

A month before the election, Josh Marshall offered a simpler explanation:

The need to assert dominance is at the root of all of Trump’s actions. His whole way of understanding the world is one made up of dominators and the dominated. There’s no infinite grey middle ground, where most of us live the vast majority of our human relationships. That’s why even those who are conspicuously loyal are routinely humiliated in public. In that schema, Trump simply had no choice but to lash out, to rebalance the equation of dominance in his favor. It’s an impulse that goes beyond reason or any deliberation. That’s what left so many would-be or maybe allies flabbergasted at how or why he would have walked straight into such a buzzsaw of outrage.

Ezra Klein seconded that:

Now think about that driving impulse to prove dominance in a context where Trump’s dominance is really being threatened – where he’s being challenge by Hillary Clinton, by Paul Ryan, by the New York Times, by the knuckleheads on CNN, by the polls. Imagine what that’s like. Imagine how that feels. Imagine how painful it is to watch the entire country come to view you as a loser.

You have to fight it. You have to. Your whole sense of self-worth hangs in the balance. And so you find the polls that show you actually won the debate. You swear to take your revenge on the Republican traitors who abandoned you. You promise to bankrupt the outlets that humiliated you. You rally your faithful and recede into a protective cocoon of sycophants, friendly crowds, internet surveys, and golden toilet seats.

That works too. That’s where we are now – but there’s an even simpler explanation for why Donald Trump is president. Just enough voters in just the right places liked a guy who just popped off and said anything that came to mind, no matter how absurd and how offensive – in fact, the more offensive the better. They were pissed off at everything – Mexicans and Muslims and gays and urban hipsters and fancy-pants experts and the French and the Chinese and all “politicians” in general. Donald Trump just sneered and mocked them all. Donald Trump said what they dare not say, in public. He was their surrogate. He was one of them. Eleven-dimensional chess had nothing to do with it.

America will have to live with that, but the Republicans do have a master of eleven-dimensional chess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That man can wrangle votes and get anything passed. He can dole out just the right goodies to just the right people. They’ll change their minds. They’ll vote for what he wants them to vote for while Donald Trump tweets again about Rosie O’Donnell or whatever. Trump keeps the base happy. McConnell gets the work done. He’s the master.

He also just lost his game of eleven-dimensional chess:

Senate Republican leaders bowed to pressure from within their own ranks Tuesday and postponed a vote to overhaul the Affordable Care Act until after the Fourth of July recess, raising new doubts about their ability to fulfill one of the GOP’s core promises.

The delay, which exposes lawmakers to a barrage of lobbying as they face their constituents over the holiday, has left a measure designed to pass swiftly this week teetering in the balance. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had little choice after the number of Senate Republicans who said they would not support a move to bring up the bill this week rose to five after a new budget analysis of the bill…

In an effort to bring reluctant Republicans along, President Trump convened a meeting of the Senate GOP Conference in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, where members aired grievances about what has been a secretive and contentious process. But even amid the newfound harmony, it was clear that the legislation would still need changes to secure enough votes.

McConnell won’t get what he wants this time, without big changes:

At least one senator who had publicly opposed the procedural vote McConnell had hoped to take Tuesday – Dean Heller (Nev.) – indicated that he was willing to reconsider his initial opposition, if the bill was going to be reworked.

At the White House, Heller playfully but pointedly complained about a Trump-allied super PAC that was airing ads against him in Nevada. By Tuesday night, the group had decided to pull the ads, and Heller had signaled to McConnell that he would continue to engage – far from a “yes” vote, but open to discussing his concerns.

Mitch had lost control of this, but there’s trouble on the other side too:

Conservatives are blasting the plan for leaving in place too much of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, while a coalition of patient advocates, doctors and senior citizens’ groups have joined Democrats in decrying its proposed cuts to the Medicaid program and rollback of taxes on the wealthy.

On Tuesday, Club for Growth President David McIntosh, who has clashed with Republican Party leaders in the past, issued a statement saying the proposal “restores Obamacare.”

“Only in Washington does repeal translate to restore,” McIntosh said. “And while it’s hard to imagine, in some ways the Senate’s legislation would make our nation’s failing health-care system worse.”

Others disagree:

Progressive groups began laying the groundwork to attend senators’ public events, while medical providers and groups representing Americans with chronic illnesses predicted that the bill could leave millions without access to adequate medical care. The Congressional Budget Office concluded Monday that the measure would cause an estimated 22 million more Americans to be uninsured by the end of the coming decade while reducing federal spending by $321 billion.

Atul Grover, executive vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, told reporters that he and other doctors “take it personally” that the bill would lock people out of insurance for six months if they go for 63 days without a health plan and try to sign up for one the next year.

“We’re there at the bedside,” he said, adding that none of his members would be willing to tell a patient: “I’m sorry about your stage-four cancer. Come back in six months, when your insurance kicks in.”

And the impulsive guy shrugged:

At the White House, the president sat between two of the bill’s holdouts – Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) – and said Republicans are “getting very close” to securing the votes they need even as he acknowledged that they might fail.

“This will be great if we get it done,” he said. “And if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like – and that’s okay. I understand that very well.”

Obamacare stays? There’d be no repeal-and-replace? Whatever – that would be just fine. Mitch McConnell must have grimaced, but he’d lost control of this thing:

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that although “the fight is not over,” he is confident that Republicans will not succeed because their proposals remain unpopular with the public.

“The Republican bill is rotten at the core,” Schumer said. “We have a darn good chance of defeating it, a week from now, a month from now, a year from now.”

Mitch McConnell was having a bad day, and the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Sean Sullivan cover the interpersonal dynamics at play:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has occasionally remarked that he has an unusual relationship with President Trump: Unlike most congressional leaders, he has managed to escape Trump’s wrath.

“He’s never, as far as I can tell, gotten angry at me – in my presence, anyway,” McConnell said last month.

That fragile peace between a taciturn insider and a brash newcomer, which has helped both men pursue Republican priorities, faced a fresh and consequential test this week, when a major rewrite of the nation’s health-care legislation faltered in the Senate.

That taciturn insider is supposed to be a master at eleven-dimensional chess and that brash newcomer is an impulsive insult machine that keeps the base happy, so they’re complementary, or they’re not:

McConnell and Trump remain hungry for a win. But their understanding, built to score legislative victories, does neither of them any good if victories remain out of reach. With the health-care bill facing its latest setback, members of both parties are watching the dynamic between McConnell and Trump for a sign of what’s to come.

“Trump can be impatient,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in an interview. “He may well want to raise the heat on the institution of the Senate.”

But, he added, “The way our Constitution is written, he and Mitch will need each other in the end.”

That might work:

The Republican-led Congress has a daunting set of ambitions and challenges this summer that will demand a strong relationship between the two men: overhauling the tax code, confronting a debt ceiling and passing a federal budget. The increasingly fraught push in recent days to pass the health-care bill has come with those goals on the horizon, said multiple Republicans familiar with the discussions…

Trump associates are cautiously confident that McConnell will eventually secure the necessary votes when the Senate returns from its July 4 recess. He was central in shepherding Trump’s most notable victory – the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch – and that experience in particular, they said, forged their trust.

“Mitch understands Congress a lot better than Trump does,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “He’s a pro. It helps that McConnell has never said a bad thing about Trump publicly.”

That also might not work:

Since Trump’s inauguration, McConnell has not shied away from candid pronouncements about the president. He has urged him to focus on the agenda the GOP campaigned on in 2016, and he has repeatedly said he does not like the tweets Trump often uses to wage personal attacks.

McConnell concluded early on that he was not going to change Trump’s combative ways and would have to work around them, associates said. McConnell told the Washington Post in a February interview that he has had “candid conversations” with Trump about his tweets, but they did not make a “bit of difference.”

Only one of them will be playing any kind of chess, but they have something in common:

Trump and McConnell have plowed forward, arguing to members that repeal is a signature GOP promise and the foundation for the reforms that Republicans want to enact.

But they have done so on parallel tracks, without many joint appearances or instances of a rapport, at least until Tuesday. Their antipathy for Democrats and desire to win, rather than ideology or a personal connection, is what unites them, those close to them say.

That’s nice, perhaps, but the Washington Post team also reports this:

In private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously. Some Republican lawmakers consider some of his promises – such as making Mexico pay for a new border wall – fantastical. They are exhausted and at times exasperated by his hopscotching from one subject to the next, chronicled in his pithy and provocative tweets. They are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy. And they have come to regard some of his threats as empty, concluding that crossing the president poses little danger.

“The House healthcare vote shows he does have juice, particularly with people on the right,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “The Senate health-care vote shows that people feel that health care is a defining issue, and that it’d be pretty hard for any politician to push a senator into taking a vote that’s going to have consequences for the rest of their life.”

Asked if he personally fears Trump, Graham chuckled before saying, “No.”

They’re onto him now, and there’s this:

John Weaver, a GOP consultant and frequent Trump critic, was more blunt in explaining why Trump has been unable to rule with a hammer. “When you have a 35 percent approval rating and you’re under FBI investigation, you don’t have a hammer,” he said, referring to the probe of possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

And there’s this:

Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a new history of White House chiefs of staff, said the tumult inside Trump’s White House – and the president’s lack of a coherent message or vision for his policy agenda – inhibits his ability to enforce party discipline in Congress.

“Nothing instills fear on Capitol Hill like success, and all this White House has been able to do is one failure after another,” Whipple said. “There are just zero points on the board so far. Who’s going to be afraid of that?”

This is not going well, and at Politico, Jennifer Haberkorn reports this:

Mitch McConnell is delivering an urgent warning to staffers, Republican senators and even the president himself: If Obamacare repeal fails this week, the GOP will lose all leverage and be forced to work with Chuck Schumer.

President Donald Trump continued to float the possibility on Monday that Congress and the White House would simply let Obamacare’s individual markets collapse if the GOP’s repeal effort goes down later this week. But McConnell called up Trump recently, according to people with knowledge of the call, to deliver a reality check.

Voters expect Republicans to deliver on their long-held promise to repeal the law, McConnell said, according to those people. And failing to repeal the law would mean the GOP would lose its opportunity to do a partisan rewrite of the law that could scale back Medicaid spending, cut Obamacare’s taxes and repeal a host of industry mandates.

Instead, Republicans would be forced to enter into bipartisan negotiations with Democrats to save failing insurance markets.

That’s the horror:

McConnell delivered a similar warning Monday to Republican senators at his leadership meeting and to top GOP staffers, warning that Democrats will want to retain as much of Obamacare as possible in a bipartisan negotiation, according to Republican aides.

“If we fail, we’re going to be negotiating with [Democratic Leader] Chuck Schumer,” said one Republican staffer.

And then it’s all over:

McConnell has told senators for weeks that he fears a failed repeal effort would be followed by a large bailout of the insurance industry that would be supported by moderate Republicans and Democrats, per people familiar with his thinking. And McConnell would be content to not touch Obamacare repeal again if this bill failed.

That means, that having lost all leverage, they would be forced to work with Chuck Schumer on something or other, and Jonathan Chait explores that:

Obviously, a bipartisan bill would have very different parameters. Democrats are not going to support a huge tax cut for the affluent or a plan to cut insurance subsidies by a trillion dollars. On the other hand, the thing Democrats would happily do also happens to offer enormous political benefits for the majority party.

This could be a good thing:

If Donald Trump’s candidacy has made nothing else clear, it’s that Republican voters have little attachment to right-wing economic doctrine. They hate “Obamacare,” but they favor many of its specific elements, especially Medicaid. What they want is a bigger plan, not a smaller one. Republicans have denounced high premiums and deductibles, and Trump ran promising to make sure everybody had better coverage than they get under Obamacare.

Republicans have no obviously safe option. Failing to pass any bill would demotivate conservative activists. Passing anything like the House or Senate bills would probably be worse, saddling the party with sole responsibility for a health-care system with massively unaffordable premiums and deductibles.

The way out of the vise is to share responsibility for the system with Democrats by passing a bipartisan bill. This would force Republicans to abandon their policy goals of cutting taxes and shrinking government. But it would spare them having to defend an indefensible healthcare system for the next several election cycles in a row.

They would win by losing:

Major legislation almost always needs some kind of patching up in the months and years after initial passage. Republicans have blocked any measures, however small or noncontroversial, to make the law work, and they have also sabotaged it at the state level. But healthcare wonks have a long list of easy fixes that could bear fruit if Republicans simply gave up their determination to make it fail. People like bipartisanship, and they also like government-provided insurance. A bipartisan plan to “replace” Obamacare with a bipartisan law very similar to Obamacare would have very high approval, however bitterly conservatives might complain about it.

That would also mean that the other side is playing eleven-dimensional chess now:

The most attractive thing about this option is that the Democratic minority is actually willing to play ball. From a pure political standpoint, the Democrats have a win-win choice. They’ll gain if Trumpcare fails in Congress, and they’ll gain even more if it is signed into law. The only way they won’t score political points off the issue is if they join with Republicans to patch up the system. And yet many and perhaps most Democrats are probably willing to make this sacrifice for the same reason they took the risk of voting for Obamacare in the first place: They care a lot about health-care policy outcomes, and are willing to sacrifice seats to pursue them.

When Democrats were writing the health-care law in 2009 and 2010, they spent months wooing Republicans in an attempt to get bipartisan support. Republicans formed a united front of opposition, because both their political and their ideological interests dictated withholding any bipartisan cover from the bill.

Republicans writing their own bill today have the option of working with the minority party, but are refusing to take it. In a way, it is admirable that they care more about policy outcomes than winning elections – but it also strange and uncharacteristic.

Still, that Washington Post item about McConnell and Trump did note that “antipathy for Democrats and hunger for victory, rather than ideology or a personal connection, is what unites them.”

If so, Chait says they’re doomed:

For McConnell to compromise with Democrats and patch up the system would be for him to surrender the anti-Obamacare crusade on which he embarked in 2009 and from which he has never wavered. He may simply have too much pride and anger invested in the fight to give it up now. But he and his party – especially colleagues in the House – are going to pay a dear price for his monomaniacal hatred of a now-popular law.

So, who’s playing eleven-dimensional chess now? Mitch McConnell, the taciturn insider, was supposed to be a master at eleven-dimensional chess, and he never was. Donald Trump, that brash newcomer, an impulsive insult machine that keeps the base happy, never could. There was only one person that every played that game – the guy who set these guys up to lose. That would be Barack Obama. They did call him Spock 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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2 Responses to No Eleven-Dimensional Chess Here

  1. Rick says:

    It’s hard to understand how we ever got to this place of battling healthcare plans.

    Try to remember back to when the two parties first offered up their proposals. Do you remember roughly what each contained?

    You may remember (as I do) that the need for some sort of plan was sparked mostly by recognition that not everybody in America had access to medical care, much less the quality of health care necessary to thrive. If you or your children weren’t healthy and didn’t have the money to see a doctor on a regular basis, or even to check into a hospital when needed, your only choice was to show up at an Emergency Room, waiting sometimes for hours in hopes of receiving some treatment that you could get for free.

    Hospitals, of course, might try to charge you for ER services, but usually couldn’t collect, and unless your life was at risk, they wouldn’t keep you overnight, so you would be asked to take your illness home where, without medical treatment, you could easily die. Eventually, we passed laws against hospitals kicking you to the curb. Still, any costs from your visit would be absorbed by the facility and passed either onto patients who could pay, or to their insurance companies.

    The Democrats, who saw this as a problem that needed to be solved, started working on a national program to take care of it, grounded in their belief that, if there’s something that society really needs and it’s something that the private sector either can’t handle well or at all, then we all need to look to the public sector to solve it, so during the election campaign of 2008, the Democrats struggled to come up with a plan to cover as many as possible.

    Meanwhile, what was the Republican approach?


    Republicans, by and large, didn’t see any of this as a problem, or at least not one that government should get itself involved with. Their idea was no idea at all — just let things be. Can’t afford health insurance? Get a job, and get coverage from your employer.

    If, on the other hand, government runs some program that makes sure everyone can see a doctor even if they can’t afford it, that means the people with money will be paying for the medical care of people without, and maybe that’s the way it’s done in other countries, but it’s not done that way here. All that sort of thing does is encourage people to be lazy, it was argued, and what kind of country would we be if we allowed everyone to be lazy?

    In short, the Democrats came up with a plan, and the Republicans refused to, and once the Democrats took over and passed their plan into law one year later, the Republicans started promising to repeal it. In fact, they made fifty-something attempts, but couldn’t get the Democratic president to sign them.

    But as the years went by, voters started asking the Republicans what plan they would replace the Democratic plan with, and they were too embarrassed to admit that, since their real objection to the Democratic program was that it was a program at all, they had nothing to offer in its place.

    But after a while, some Republican who lacked the ability to foresee what problems this would cause down the road, started claiming, “Of course we wouldn’t just repeal the law without replacing it with something better! Our idea would be to, first, repeal the old law, but then to replace it!”

    And when people, once again, asked what they’d replace it with, they started saying, “Oh, don’t worry! We’re working on lots of good ideas! And our ideas are much better than that Democrat idea! Just you wait and see!”

    And that brings us up to date, when Democrats howl at how many millions of poor people the CBO says will lose insurance under the most recent Republican bill, smiling Republicans come back with the incredible argument that, because of their newly-granted “freedom of choice”, they are not being thrown out of the healthcare system, those 22-millions would now just be choosing not to purchase it!

    (And how is this new Republican-granted “freedom of choice” different from the freedom to not own health insurance that existed before Obamacare came along to “enslave” those millions of poor people, you may ask? Not at all, it turns out, and that should tell you something.)

    It’s hard to predict whether they might have been better off just sticking with their original idea — of being the party without a plan, because they don’t believe in plans — but the damage is already done, and there’s no going back.

    By now, they’ve got not only Republicans on the right who come close to being “originalists” — those who would prefer to just “repeal” the damn thing, and take their chances — but also some “moderates”, who don’t want anyone to be hurt by repeal — who somewhat naively bought into the idea that you can somehow have a healthcare system that has no requirement for everyone to own insurance, and still be able to pay for patients with pre-existing conditions!

    All this new-found magical thinking on the part of Republicans seems to lead both sides to have faith that the two concentric circles of belief can still somewhere overlap, but I’m betting that this probably won’t happen, and furthermore, if it does, the overlap will be minimal.

    And I’d go further in saying there’s also a certain amount of magical thinking behind this as well:

    Trump associates are cautiously confident that McConnell will eventually secure the necessary votes when the Senate returns from its July 4 recess. He was central in shepherding Trump’s most notable victory – the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch – and that experience in particular, they said, forged their trust.

    The confirmation of Supreme Court Gorsuch is being hailed as “Trump’s most notable victory”?

    Big Whoop! Such an accomplishment! Who did he triumph over, the Democrats? They had no power to stop it! Take my word for it, if we coulda, we woulda.

    But how about now that the McConnell railroad seems to have derailed? Is this now our chance to offer the Democratic idea — that is, neither “repeal” nor “replace”, but “repair”?

    It’s hard to imagine how that would work, in that for Obamacare to function, it has to stay in existence (something that would be a deal-killer for at least the conservatives, whose whole idea is to transition it into nothingness) and would have to retain the mandate (everyone needs to sign up, to make it pay for itself — an idea that no Republican of any stripe seems to like.) We Democrats would likely just become a third non-concentric circle that, like the other two, overlaps with nothing.

    But how about the idea of all the Democratic senators joining with a few moderate Republicans, overpowering the rest of the Republican conference? Not sure how that even gets started, but even if we got a Senate bill sent to the House, it would probably die there — and if not, it’s hard to see it getting enough votes to ever override a Trump veto.

    Maybe the only way out of this is to get ourselves re-elected, not just to the White House but to Congress too.

    But while we’re thinking big, we might as well take advantage of recently-improved public opinions about the whole national healthcare concept and start making the case for single-payer — or even better, an actual taxpayer-supported “National Healthcare System” — the real thing, just like the one they have in Britain!

    Why not? It would be less complicated than our system, and much cheaper, and with better outcomes, and it would cover everyone, which is exactly what a government-run healthcare system should be.


  2. I tried in my imperfect way to take a stab at this in a just-published blog: I do like Alan’s last sentence. Barack Obama and his crew are a savvy bunch. Of course, twitter is preferred over thoughtful analysis any day. We’ll pay the price.

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