The Theater of Pretending

Things are changing. For the two-thirds of the country that wants Donald Trump gone, now, there is hope. Democrats cleaned up in the oddball off-year elections that fell between the 2018 midterms and the 2020 big showdown for the presidency. The other third of the country is in despair. They claim to be the Real Americas. And they finally got their country back. There’d be no more tyranny of the secular and pro-science majority and of the unelected un-American Deep State, not to mention the tyranny of uppity black folks and gays and whatnot. And then it all started slipping away, and one night it was gone.

That may be overstating it, but The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne may be right with this assessment:

President Trump is in a whole lot of trouble. Andy Beshear, who has claimed victory in the Kentucky governor’s race, showed that Democrats prosper when they focus on what he called “kitchen-table issues.” In Virginia, voters demonstrated that support for gun control is now an asset, not a liability, in American politics.

More broadly: Railing against impeachment and attacking Democrats as “socialists” won’t get the job done for Republicans when the GOP finds itself on the wrong end of questions such as health care and education.

Tuesday’s elections were terrible for Republicans.

The one hope now is that the Republican legislature in Kentucky can seat their guy, the loser, shrugging off the final vote count as just kind of odd but not all that important – to the cheers of one third of the nation – but that’s a long shot. They have no authority to do that and changing the state’s constitution would take too much time, so Dionne sees this:

Beshear’s victory, assuming it holds, was both revealing and important because Trump and incumbent Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) chose to make the race a referendum on the president. Trump offered a sound bite for the ages when he declared at a Bevin rally on the eve of the election: “If you lose, they’re gonna say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me.”

It happened anyway, giving Democrats a formula for success:

The contours of Kentucky’s voting sent an important message to Democrats as they go into 2020. Mobilizing your natural constituency matters, but so does winning back restive voters who backed the president in 2016, and so does continuing to make inroads into the suburbs.

Beshear did all three.

He did the work:

Beshear flipped many rural counties and cut the Republicans’ margins in others. Typical was Carter County in eastern Kentucky. The county went for Beshear even though it backed Bevin four years ago and gave Trump 73.8 percent of its ballots in 2016. Breathitt County in Appalachia also flipped, having gone for Bevin and voted 69.6 percent for Trump.

“Andy focused a lot on education and especially health care, and that cut through a lot of the partisanship,” said Fred Yang, Beshear’s pollster, noting his candidate’s criticism of Bevin’s efforts to narrow the expansion of Medicaid and the incumbent’s fights with the state’s teachers.

“In a lot of these counties, the school systems or the hospitals – or both – are the biggest employers,” said Fred Cowan, a former Kentucky attorney general and a Democratic political veteran. “The Medicaid expansion helped a lot of people over there.”

Medicaid reimbursements keep rural hospitals afloat. Bevin didn’t mention that. Beshear did. But the suburbs mattered even more:

Beshear was buoyed by the suburban shift toward Democrats since Trump’s election, reflected in his success in taking two key northern Kentucky counties, Campbell and Kenton, in the Cincinnati suburbs that voted for Bevin in 2015 and for Trump a year later.

The flight of suburban voters from the GOP was also central to the Democrats’ success in seizing both houses of the Virginia legislature. In an effort likely to be a model for other states, supporters of gun safety rallied against a GOP that had blocked new regulations. Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, swamped the NRA in spending by about 8 to 1. Democrats also made historic gains in less-watched local contests in Bucks and Delaware counties in the Philadelphia suburbs – a warning sign for Trump, who carried the state narrowly in 2016.

So, what worked last time was never going to work this time:

Trump’s failure to rally Republicans with his anti-impeachment message in Kentucky – a state the president carried by 30 points and that is home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), up for reelection next year – should give Republicans pause about a Trump-centric approach to their own political futures.

For Democrats, the lesson is to continue their 2018 midterm successes in highlighting the kitchen-table issues Beshear touted in declaring victory. He called health care “a basic human right,” pledged to restore voting rights to some felons and promised to make public education his “central priority.”

That’s clear enough, and Dionne ends with this:

A majority is frustrated with Trump not only because of his obvious transgressions but also because his time in office has been marked by a wholesale retreat from public problem-solving. Voters want elections to be about them, not the narcissist in the White House.

And of course Matt Bevin was their narcissist in Frankfort. And even most Republicans thought he was a total jerk. Everyone was glad to be rid of that guy. Maybe this one election didn’t mean that much after all.

Greg Sargent doubts that:

President Trump recently told an interviewer that he doesn’t need to reach out to swing voters, because “my base is so strong.” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has said that all that matters is to “get people that believe in you to show up.”

In this narrative, reaching out to swing voters is itself a form of weakness – a kind of admission that there might not be enough people out there who unconditionally “believe in” Trump, that Trump’s America has its limits, that it’s dwindling, that it’s on the demographic defensive.

Yet the story of Tuesday’s elections is one in which the Trump base wasn’t nearly enough, precisely because swing voters in the diversifying suburbs are turning away from the Trump-era GOP…

That was bad news for Trump:

It’s true that we don’t know how deep Trump’s base runs, at least for the purposes of Trump’s reelection. Some Democrats do worry that Trump could still squeeze out an Electoral College victory by tapping even deeper wellsprings of support among non-college-educated whites in the Rust Belt.

But the big story that Trump and his propagandists are telling about this country right now is a lie. Their story is that the opposition is a shriveled minority that’s in the grip of crazed anti-Trump irrationality, embracing an impeachment push opposed by the pro-Trump majority.

The story holds that this opposition has been driven by hatred over Trump’s sensible “America First” agenda – which supposedly speaks to values held by a silent majority of Real Americans – to become the party of extremes (socialism) and of immigrants and elites who are contemptuous of that silent majority’s values (what Trump calls “the party of the Squad!”).

But this is dramatically removed from reality. What’s happening now is that anger at Trump really is continuing to energize the Democratic base, while Democratic candidates speak to the middle about issues that unite Democrats and independents – against Trump.

Someone didn’t think this through:

The idea that the Trump base is so vast and untapped that it can deliver him a victory with minimal swing-voter persuasion is not just spin. Trump puts it into practice daily. Trump’s spinners are valiantly claiming the latest results validate this approach. The opposite is far more likely.

In fact, the first results are in, but Ben Mathis-Lilley sees this on the other side:

Bernie Sanders gets worked up and wants to raise taxes to fund universal health care and free college; Elizabeth Warren believes the most important thing is to fight the power of lobbyists and corporate executives with a firm resolve; Pete Buttigieg has thrown out some relatively forward-looking goals but wants to be cheerful and nonconfrontational about reaching them; Joe Biden wants to fight, but the goal of the fight is to achieve a kind of nostalgic (and mythical) 1950s unity around the rejection of Donald Trump.

Each candidate and their supporters have theories as to why their approach is the most likely to motivate the most support, whether it’s by winning back the Rust Belt or appealing to alienated younger people who might not otherwise vote. The public is ready to get fully behind someone, they argue, if only the right someone can reach out in the right way.

The Monmouth University poll released Wednesday is a good reminder that all such plans will be equally ineffective.

That was a report on national favorability ratings and no Democrat is above water. Every candidate has higher unfavorable rating than favorable rating, just like Trump, and that’s a problem:

Warren does “best,” but Americans still, on the whole, don’t like her. Biden, the unity guy who purportedly commands the respect of the rural Pennsylvania muffler repair specialists who got Trump over the hump last time, is even less-well-liked. Bernie Sanders, the populist, is unpopular. Buttigieg has lower name recognition, but his negative split indicates that if he keeps on trucking he can someday be as despised as the rest of them.

And this is more than one poll, and points to a larger problem:

If you look at RealClearPolitics aggregates rather than just going by this single poll, the three leading Democrats, despite being about equally underwater, are less underwater than Trump. So it’s not that they can’t win, but they probably can’t win by a lot, in part because Trump put the finishing touch on the post-1960s realignment of the two major parties into coherent halves of the ideological spectrum by making anti-immigrant sentiment a more salient part of political identity and winning white-working-class onetime Democrats to the GOP.

Mathis-Lilley says that this means that now there is no single nation available to be unified:

A significant number of voters get their news from the alternate epistemological universe of Fox News and viral Facebook stories, and in that world the Democratic nominee, regardless of who it is, will be covered as someone who wants to dismantle American society because of their personal contempt for the kind of people who watch Fox. The nominee will also be rumored to have a loathsome and terminal disease, and will be connected to an international conspiracy laid out on a chart in which multiple arrows point to a picture of George Soros.

So, Democrats had a good night, but that may not matter:

If winning presidential elections were as easy as nominating the middle-of-the-road candidate with the longest résumé and promising to “protect Medicare and Social Security,” Hillary Clinton would be president. If there were enough untapped democratic socialist sentiment to swamp Washington in a landslide political revolution, Bernie Sanders would be doing better in the primary vis-à-vis Joe Biden.

Democrats can win the presidential election. Then the Democratic president will probably settle at a low approval rating that will either rise above 50 when he or she is reluctantly reelected in 2024, or never rise above 50 at all, in which case there will be a Donald Trump Jr. administration. And most people will hate him too.

But there is impeachment, and Jeremy Stahl sees this:

President Donald Trump has hitched a large part of his defense in the impeachment inquiry on the notion that there was never any “quid pro quo” in his dealings with Ukraine. (Even though there doesn’t have to have been a direct quid pro quo for Trump to have committed a crime or abused his power.) On Twitter, the president has made “no quid pro quo” a rallying cry, similar to previous incantations of “no obstruction” and “no collusion.” He has also repeatedly said publicly that there “is no quid pro quo” and – with one major exception – “no quid pro quo” has become the mantra of his defenders in the administration and in Congress. Testimony from the top U.S. diplomat to the Ukraine, Bill Taylor, was released on Wednesday that makes crystal clear just how untenable that defense is about to become.

Trump may have ended his presidency with this:

As recently as Sunday, the president was tweeting that there was “no quid pro quo” in response to a Washington Post report that some Republican senators were considering acknowledging a “quid pro quo” in the face of mounting evidence. The new plan would be to argue that there was a secret quid pro quo that had been denied for weeks, but that it was of the totally legitimate quid pro quo variety.

Trump was having none of it:

“False stories are being reported that a few Republican Senators are saying that President Trump may have done a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter, there is nothing wrong with that, it is not an impeachable event. Perhaps so, but read the transcript, there is no quid pro quo!”

And now that’s gone:

The top American diplomat in Ukraine identified Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, as the instigator behind the drive to get Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Mr. Trump’s political rivals, telling impeachment investigators last month that Mr. Giuliani was acting on behalf of the president.

House Democrats on Wednesday released a transcript of the private testimony by the diplomat, William B. Taylor Jr., as they named him as the first of several witnesses who will testify publicly next week in a slate of impeachment hearings. They will begin laying out a case that Mr. Trump abused his office to secure political favors from Ukraine.

Lawmakers plan to question Mr. Taylor and George P. Kent, a senior American diplomat who oversees policy in the region, during a televised joint session on Wednesday. Then on Friday, they will hear from Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine, about her abrupt recall to Washington this spring amid a campaign to smear her as disloyal.

They will be stating the obvious:

All three witnesses Democrats have called for public testimony have spoken privately with investigators, giving damning accounts of Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and of how Ms. Yovanovitch was treated. They have portrayed a president determined to enlist Ukraine in publicly undermining his political rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and to use as leverage a package of military assistance the country badly needed and a White House meeting its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, coveted.

While the transcript of Mr. Taylor’s testimony did not unearth substantial new information about the Ukraine affair, it made it clear why Democrats have settled on him – a military veteran and nonpartisan career public servant – as their first witness. In it, Mr. Taylor recounted in stark terms how he came to understand that United States policy in Ukraine was subject to a set of politically motivated preconditions that the president was demanding.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president committed to pursue the investigation,” Mr. Taylor said, according to the transcript.

That was the Quid Pro Quo. Taylor kept notes. This is over:

In his testimony, Mr. Taylor singled out Mr. Giuliani as the leader of the effort to get Mr. Zelensky to commit publicly to investigations that Mr. Trump wanted, including one of Burisma, an energy company that employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s younger son.

“I think the origin of the idea to get President Zelensky to say out loud he’s going to investigate Burisma and 2016 election, I think the originator, the person who came up with that, was Mr. Giuliani,” Mr. Taylor said, according to the transcript…

In an opening statement that became public at the time, Mr. Taylor laid out how he came to understand from others within the administration that the entire American relationship with Ukraine had become dependent on its leaders publicly discrediting Mr. Trump’s political rivals by committing to announcing they were opening investigations into Democrats.

The transcript released on Wednesday fleshed out that story…

And that left only this:

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered another line of defense to reporters in the Senate. Echoing an argument he used to try to insulate Mr. Trump’s campaign from allegations that it coordinated with Russia to tilt the 2016 election, Mr. Graham said Mr. Trump’s policy toward Ukraine was too “incoherent” to have involved intentional wrongdoing.

“They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” he said.

That’s it? That’s music to Democrats’ ears, but Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick says there’s more to this:

For some time now, legal commentators have been trying to remind us that impeachment is not entirely a legal process but rather a political process dressed up in legal garb. Yes, there are facts to be gathered, and yes, there are impeachable offenses to be probed and proved, but in the final analysis, impeachment is a largely political enterprise, conducted by the political branches, for political ends. Sure, there is plenty of legal jargon and legal-sounding terms, and the White House is sputtering about “due process” as if this were a robbery trial and decrying the entire impeachment process as “the fruit from the poisonous tree,” as if Rep. Adam Schiff had searched Donald Trump’s glove compartment without a warrant. But to the extent Republicans are trying to dismiss the entire probe as unlawful, they are doing so by distorting relevant legal questions into political theater.

They know this. That’s why they’re doing it.

And now they will make this all theater and only theater:

Confusing and conflating the legal facts of impeachment with the political facts of impeachment is only the first step in the GOP effort to distort the impeachment process. The follow-up strategy is slowly emerging, and it’s as nihilistic as it is terrifying: The White House and Trump’s Republican defenders seem to understand that this is, at its heart, a messaging war.

This is politics in the form of who dominates the airwaves. As such, the thrust of the new impeachment defiance will be to simply deny that any of it is happening in the first place.

This isn’t an elaborate attempt to push back or to reframe or to counter the impeachment investigation; it’s a media tactic designed solely to deny its very existence.

Wednesday’s revelation that Bill Taylor knew he was dealing with a quid pro quo should be the last nail in the bribery/abuse-of-power coffin. But it won’t be, because none of those concepts even figure in the Republican defense strategy.

They have different ideas:

The Watergate hearings changed public opinion because Americans across the political and ideological divide came together to listen to the testimony and came to believe the truth of what they were hearing and seeing… There will be no analogue in 2019. Fox News will not be showing gavel-to-gavel coverage of impeachment testimony; it often cannot be bothered to report basic headlines. Sean Hannity isn’t covering the quid pro quo testimony. He’s putting Hunter Biden in the imaginary docks for an imaginary criminal trial. For Americans who live inside the Benghazi Bubble, the twists and turns of Gordon Sondland and Bill Taylor will be irrelevant. And Rudy Giuliani is less the prime mover and Typhoid Mary of the dirt-for-aid Ukraine scandal than he is a jolly talking head, to be relied upon for hilarity and good sound bites.

And that seems to be a small part of a larger problem:

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Republican National Committee was paying to generate thousands of calls to the congressional offices of nearly three dozen House Democrats, effectively blocking the phone lines and jamming access to Democratic offices. This isn’t a defense strategy. It’s a commandeering of communications and messaging to create an illusion about what’s happening on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Roll Call reported that most House Republicans aren’t even bothering to show up at closed-door impeachment-related hearings in the three committees holding them. While close Trump allies like Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows try to use the hearings to put the so-called deep state on trial, and some Senate Republicans are planning to use the process to tarnish Joe and Hunter Biden. Sen. John Cornyn called such strategies “a sideshow” and warned the Senate not to “make this any more of a reality show than it’s likely to become.”

It’s too late for that:

Lindsey Graham, the lion of the Senate, told CBS News that he won’t even be reading the revised Sondland testimony transcripts House that impeachment investigators released Tuesday, because, in his view, “I’ve written the whole process off… I think this is a bunch of BS” Nothing to see here, if I refuse to see anything at all.

That won’t do:

This is no longer a series of process arguments, or a deflection attempting to argue that the whistleblower ought to be named. This is a juror in an impeachment trial denying the legitimacy of the entire process and refusing to even read any evidence adverse to his president’s interests. This is not about “fairness” or about “due process” or the fruit of the poisonous tree. This is Sen. Graham saying that he will not participate in a constitutional inquiry because he has made the decision that it is illegitimate. If an actual juror announced before trial that he would not be listening to any evidence, he would not be seated. But this is neither a real juror nor a real trial and so the theater of pretending it’s not happening is allowed…

This is becoming a war in which one side will be holding a sustained and focused set of hearings and the other will be pinning all its hopes in an America’s willingness to change the channel.

This is neither law nor politics. This is WrestleMania where whoever wins gets to decide the future of democratic self-governance.

And then everyone is pretending. Things really are changing.

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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