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Why Are There No Good Conservative Critiques of Trump’s Unified Government?

Mike Konczal
Mar 28, 2018 · 11 min read
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word vomit, or maybe the other kind

Obama Prelude

I had the “Obama in 2009” word vomit recently. I was talking with several people on the left involved in politics in the early Great Recession, and Larry Summers’ new paper on regional inequality came up. Someone joked that Summers should get the chance to direct hundreds of billions of dollars towards longer-term, widely dispersed infrastructure investments someday. Everyone laughed, because Summers was the one who blocked progressive attempts for making the composition of the 2009 stimulus focus more on longer-term infrastructure investments, rather than timely, temporary tax cuts created under the assumption of a rapid recovery.

And then it happened. Someone brought up how better off the health care situation would have been with a public option. Before I knew it, I was adding “they destroyed the lives of five million families, ripped out of their homes while they did nothing to fight foreclosures, and then wondered why nobody wanted to vote for them in the midterms.” You often see this with progressives who went through 2009. (There’s a version happening now over Obama’s refusal to investigate Bush’s torture regime, now that those tied to it are taking senior positions under Trump.)

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Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim wrote some of the best articles on the left-liberal fights in 2009–2010, here is one on the failure of the public option

I’m not bringing this up to litigate it (again). The point, instead, is that there was a critical conversation among left-liberals about what happening under united Democratic government. This wasn’t from some adolescent need to complain, or navel-gazing purity politics, as it is sometimes portrayed. Instead, it was the left trying to articulate the tradeoffs being made, the choices, decisions and potential consequences of how Obama and the Democrats were governing. It forced people to articulate what they were thinking and how they justified their answers in a public manner. It also gave those on the left a sense of how power worked, and how it didn’t, lessons they are incorporating now as Democrats look to 2020.

So…How’s Your Unified Conservative Governance?

We are now 14 months into united conservative governance. Conservatives came into power with a clear plan to rip out Obama’s achievements and overhaul the whole modern state. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell planned on running everything through reconciliation. They also had a President who would sign anything. So how is it going?

I’d like to know, because I can’t find any actual debate of what has gone right and wrong in their plans. I’m still thinking through this point, and since this could be misread I want to state it clearly. There’s a lot about how bad Trump is. There’s also a ton of bitching and moaning about Republicans messing things up. But I see very little among the network of conservative publications and institutions in terms of strategic discussions of how their conservative agenda is unfolding as it meets political power. This is notable as liberals usually think of the conservative infrastructure as disciplined and powerful. I think this lack of discussion has consequences, because the implosion of conservative policy is just as important of a story to our moment as anything Trump does.

It’s tough to prove something doesn’t exist. I only read so much, and maybe I’m missing it. Though as a quick example to what I’m getting at, if you read conservatives you might be surprised to learn that they control the entire federal government. Chris Hayes noted that if you turn on Fox News you’d have no clue that conservatives run anything, much less everything, since the coverage is just the rage-inducing culture war battle of the day. The Right seems far more focused on campus hecklers or teenagers demanding not to be shot rather than on evaluating their own exercise of political power.

Arm’s Length Coverage

One way I see this is with good coverage that describes what is happening, but doesn’t seem to engage with why events are unfolding the way they are and how power could be exercised otherwise. Peter Suderman had an interesting piece on how Trump and conservatives had started replacing Obamacare without repealing it. “For better and for worse, and with little coherent vision at work, they are making Obamacare their own. […] And it’s a dynamic that in the long run puts Republicans — and everyone who supports more market-driven health care — at a disadvantage relative to their more engaged Democratic opponents.” You’d be forgiven for not realizing Suderman has spent the last decade of his adult life fighting against President Obama’s expansion of health care by this for-better-or-worse nonchalant description.

Indeed, what even happened with health care repeal? Is anyone on the Right really trying to figure out what went wrong in a public venue? When the public option failed in 2010 left media covered the ins-and-outs of it in great detail. Joe Lieberman is not in good standing with liberals for his refusal to support a Medicare buy-in at 55, which is what he previously endorsed. Do conservatives blame John McCain for killing the “skinny repeal” in a last-minute thumbs down vote just as much? Did they even like skinny repeal?

There’s a lot of other examples of what I’m trying to describe from the time period, such as this 2010 Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker on the failure of cap-and-trade. It made tough points (“But on climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own”) while also providing details on how the process failed in multiple ways, all grounded in the political agency of real people. I don’t see any conservatives talking about their agenda in this way.

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What was the point of scrubbing all those pans if you can’t do a number on Medicaid?

Or take Yuval Levin describing how there won’t be an ambitious reconciliation bill this year. “I think it becomes fairly likely that there will be no 2019 reconciliation bill and so no welfare-reform bill and no return to health care. […] I suspect that’s a better bet for Democrats than for Republicans, but it looks like we’ll find out.” The whole conservative movement was pushing for a hit in 2018 on social insurance through reconciliation. The tax bill removed the individual mandate, which would have taken away the negative headline on coverage loss from the CBO. Yet this chance is gone, and it is hard to understand why this is the case. Who failed, and how could they have done something differently? Again, maybe people are talking about this in venues I don’t know. But if they aren’t, why don’t conservatives care?

Deeper Examples — Omnibus and Essential Health Benefits

Let’s consider two detailed examples of how conservative arguments are detached from the realities of governing or just ignoring them. If these are too wonky just skip to the end, because there are reasons to debate this.

The National Review described the recent spending bill as a “disgrace.” But there seems to be very little to help understand how this happened in their writeup, or how things could have gone differently. Who failed, how? Were conservative spending goals never achievable? Is the tradeoff of more general spending for more defense spending a bad one, or one that was unnecessary for a military buildup? They do yell a lot about spending, but they yell in the same tone as they complain about anything. There’s little sense of tradeoffs, tensions, or exercises of power.

One thing that jumps out at me is this complaint: “On health care, the hope of deregulating the individual insurance market to counteract rising premiums has been dashed.” This critique is particularly telling, because it shows the National Review doesn’t understand or is intentionally ignoring how the Omnibus must work. Proposals to deregulate insurance coverage could only have passed as part of a reconciliation, and even then it wasn’t clear it could.

The idea that you could remove “essential health benefits” through reconciliation, only requiring 50 votes, was something floated by a handful of conservatives in 2017. Yuval Levin, in a widely circulated March 2017 piece on how conservatives would approach health care, note that the proposals “seem to be functions of a similar process of imaginary negotiation with an imaginary Senate parliamentarian” and imagined ways to remove benefits through the reconciliation process. The Senate parliamentarian later said “it’s possible” to Senator Mike Lee that this was an option (as if the parliamentarian could dismiss something out of hand without text or a bill), and it became a focal point for conservatives. McConnell didn’t proceed with this approach at the time, and it is absurd to think it would have passed through the Omnibus. Was that really a reasonable demand for conservatives to make here? To the extent that the National Review sets the debate agenda amongst conservatives, to me they are just complaining about anything, rather than discussing actual strategy.

Deeper Examples — Death of a Conservative Dodd-Frank Talking Point

Or sometimes their whole argument collapses and nobody seems to care. A major Treasury report recently concluded that Dodd-Frank’s new powers, which allow the FDIC to takeover and wind down a financial firm like Lehman Brothers (orderly liquidation authority, or OLA), should simply be tweaked instead of removed. This was a power that could have been destroyed in reconciliation since there’s a budgetary cost (for made-up reasons), and doing it through reconciliation was a strategy that conservatives had built towards over years.

Playing support, doing some tanking and healing, but for Dodd-Frank

I spent a lot of time and energy fighting a repeal of OLA. Here are public pieces in Vox and the New York Times I wrote saying we needed to be prepared for it, but a lot more work took place behind the scenes. I remember panicked calls after the election discussing the reconciliation process and how it would play out with Dodd-Frank, figuring out how to amplify bipartisan validators who could argue the power was important (here’s a Paul Volcker and Shelia Bair op-ed arguing not to end OLA, to show how many people were worried), and how to point out the weaknesses of conservative arguments and alternatives.

Attacking OLA has been a central obsession of the institutional Right over the past eight years, and this feature centered their criticism of Dodd-Frank as a regime of permanent bailouts. Let’s give you a quick taste of the rhetoric around OLA from the conservative infrastructure. House Committee on Financial Services: “a recipe for more bailouts.” John Taylor: “by definition, be a bailout.” Manhattan Institute: “Dodd-Frank enshrined too big to fail” and “is still a bailout.” American Enterprise Institute: “OLA as a bailout vehicle.” Competitive Enterprise Institute: “[OLA is] unprecedented and unconstitutional.”

But now that’s over, and OLA will remain. Can anyone explain what happened? The handful of reactions I can find are largely the same talking old points regurgitated, with little analysis of how they got there. Don’t blame President Trump, either — not removing OLA is from Mnuchin and Treasury, well outside the President’s chaos window, and I sincerely believe this would have happened under any Republican President. Were their ideas actually unworkable, which is what I thought, and they just refuse to admit it in public? Do they even care about policy specifics, or was the point always to multiply the ways to attack Dodd-Frank and complain about President Obama?

Left-liberal policy disagreements in the Obama-era, especially around Secretary Geithner and the financial sector as well as the macroeconomy, were loud and clear. In 2009 to 2010, during united Democratic governance, you could tune into websites from the Baseline Scenario to Paul Krugman’s blog to see the policy debates and plans get hammered out in real-time. You could read coverage from journalists about how there were real stakes to these battles. I see little equivalent on the Right now. The policy debates that do happen on the Right seem to occur in a vacuum, people spitballing about their bugaboos, detached from what is actually happening.

What Actually Passed and What is Actually Imploding

Yes, I know there’s been a ton written by conservatives about Trump himself. That is just a conservative spin on the freak show that disgusts and captivates everyone. Yet the strategy for Ryan and the rest of the conservative movement was to simply to go around the President. As Grover Norquist said in 2012, “We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. […] Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” Trump was ready to sign a bill hitting income support, subsidy cuts for the ACA, and Medicaid. Why couldn’t Ryan and McConnell pull it off?

Indeed, Trump’s recent “taking charge” (as Ross Douthat puts it) communicates that Trump gave Ryan a year to do his agenda, and now Trump can move on trade, immigration and foreign policy on his own. Trump is different than the elite Republican positions on all three, holding ones more in line with their base, and Trump is building a new team to carry out his vision. The DC take on this is that Trump now feels comfortable in the job. But stepping back, it seems to me that part of the change is that Ryan failed to accomplish his big agenda, and it is time to move to new things.

Beyond Trump, there are two reasons this lack of conversation matters. First, we aren’t just seeing the chaos of the Trump administration to date. We are also seeing that the Republicans ultimately don’t have the ability to pass the agenda that they spent the past eight years, and really the past several decades, arguing for. This is a different implosion that is no less consequential. If they can’t ultimately move their ideas to the point where their own intellectuals can find interesting things to say about their failures, that means we should understand their whole project to be far weaker than they admit.

Second, an agenda has clearly passed — tax cuts for the rich, stuffing the judiciary and administration with deregulators, and actions against civil rights and towards more punitive immigration enforcement. Put another way, what we’ve seen from the first 14 months is that the actors who matter are the business interests and the base, and that the mediating conservative infrastructure simply doesn’t matter much, either as actors or chroniclers. For all the talk about brilliant policy minds on the Right who want to reform the state, the real brilliance and energy in their agenda is in not investigating Equifax, giving corporations tax cuts for fissuring their workforce, unleashing ICE and dismantling the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

At best, the Right’s policy voices are all ideas and no consequences. More likely, they form a kind of entertainment industry that only is consequential to the extent it channels business interests or mass resentment. My understanding is that some of the analysis of what has gone wrong is being done in quiet rooms, led by the money people and the lobbyists. But if all the real analysis is done in private, and its goals are only to boost a balance sheet or channel talk radio, why should we read conservatives?

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