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The Orange Devil’s Theory of the Bully Pulpit

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This is a really smart point from Brian Beutler:

The canonical example of third rail politics is the GOP’s doomed 2005 push to privatize Social Security. After a reelection campaign of jingoism and fear mongering, George W. Bush claimed he’d won political capital and set about spending it on an unrelated plan that would’ve diverted significant payroll tax revenue into private investment accounts. Had he succeeded, many retirees would have become vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market, and the guaranteed-benefit pension aspect of Social Security likely would have disappeared.

Liberals take great solace in the fact that Bush failed, and will reprise their strategy of unwavering opposition and refusing to negotiate when Republicans introduce plans next year to repeal the Affordable Care Act and phase out Medicare. Their resistance may well succeed.

But before they embark upon it, they should consider the possibility that, like everything in the Trump era, things probably won’t go precisely according to plan. Past GOP attacks on entitlement programs have been fairly frontal. Trump and his agenda-setters on Capitol Hill are going to do their best to keep this one off of the front pages.

In the end, Bush’s Social Security privatization never got a vote in Congress. In the face of intense public and Democratic Party objections, Republicans shelved it and then tried to pretend it never happened. But that was not for lack of effort on the part of privatizers, including Bush himself, who barnstormed the country trying to secure popular support for the plan.

In other words, it was huge news.

Donald Trump, by contrast, is currently barnstorming the country congratulating himself on his victory. He campaigned against privatizing Medicare, and promised to replace Obamacare with “something terrific” that covered everyone. “You cannot let people die on the street, OK?” he famously said. It is unlikely, in other words, that he will make a big Medicare privatization sales pitch that commands daily media attention…

On a daily basis, Trump has proven able to divert media attention away from the plutocratic government he is assembling and on to a variety of shiny objects. His meetings with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio received far more coverage, for instance, than the fact that his designated Environmental Protection Agency director worked hand in glove with polluters as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He has not tweeted about Obamacare or turning Medicare over to private insurers, but he did appoint one of the most fiercely dedicated foes of both programs to run the Department of Health and Human Services.

The canonical bully pulpit story involves the president persuading the public to support his policy views through the force of rhetoric. Outside of foreign policy when the country is about to go to war, there is essentially no evidence that this power exists. And even in theory, it’s not clear how this would work, given that only a minority of the least persuadable voters pays any attention to the details of presidential speeches. A president can’t make proposed policies more popular on net by advocating for them no matter how well they communicate and no matter how good the messaging. No president is going to be able to make Paul Ryan’s agenda popular.

Trump, though, might be able to facilitate the passage of Ryan’s agenda simply by getting the press to focus on various shiny objects. One reason it’s absolutely ridiculous to assert that we should ignore the disastrous, nearly-policy free coverage of the 2016 campaign is that it’s not as if the press is suddenly about to start ignoring Trump’s reality show and start informing the public about what a Republican Congress is going to do to the country. As Democrats figure out how to stop as many of these initiatives as possible, this is something that needs to be kept in mind. Donald Trump is a unique problem in many ways and Democrats need to be prepared to deal with this environment.

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  • Marlowe

    I certainly don’t disagree with Scott, though I would add that the media will not be distracted merely by inane Drumpf tweets, but (assuming they do their jobs at all) by the many legitimately outrageous and terrible things the administration will be doing. (Sort of like the campaign, where none of the Drumpfian grotesque horribles gained expected traction in part–though just in part– because there were so many of them that it was a great illustration of the correct usage of plethora.) But I think the real test of hiding the ball will be in Congress. Ryan, with his trademark sad and sober mien, will tell how Medicare and Social Security are about to fail (better known as lying his ass off) and the Republicans are going to save the programs with “reforms” (better known as destroying the programs as we know it). Josh Marshall will certainly be holding their feet to the fire as in 2005. But if Ryan and his minions are able to control the framing of the debate–and this is quite possible–we are in a lot of trouble.

  • brewmn

    If we’re counting on the press to save us, we’re doomed. I am not seeing that any lessons were learned from their epic failure in the campaign (in fact, most of the post mortems I have read were more along the lines of they did their jobs just fine, so shut up).

    The press is now all into uncovering Trump “scandals” from his prior business dealings. This was appropriate coverage before the election, but there were e-mails to cover. Plus, guess what, news media: very few people (and absolutely none of his supporters) care about these conflicts, and it looks an awful lot like he’s merely exploiting existing loopholes in our existing laws, and probably doing nothing illegal.

    Meanwhile, while you think you are committing serious journalism, all the pieces are being put in place to destroy what’s left of the social safety net. That might cause even some diehard Trumpists some concern. But they probably won’t know it’s happening until the votes are being cast.

    • Tom Till

      ….all the pieces are being put in place to destroy what’s left of the social safety net. That might cause even some diehard Trumpists some concern. But they probably won’t know it’s happening until the votes are being cast.

      That’s why it’s absolutely incumbent upon Democrats (and their donors) to get out in front of vulnerable GOP senators and frame the debate as early as possible. You need to pick off three. Doing so will deal a major early political setback to Ryan, McConnell, et al and has the added benefit of being good policy. But the work needs to start right now, before Congress comes back and certainly before the inauguration.

  • steve Rodent

    I guess it’s a smart point from Beutler, but he’s far from the first to make it. Maybe he knows some journalists who can help out?

  • ThrottleJockey

    Trump’s will be the greatest kleptocracy the world has ever seen but I’m skeptical that he’ll try privatizing Medicare and Social Security. That wouldn’t be very ethno-nationalist of him. And before all else Trump is a fascist.

    • BigHank53

      Trump will happily give Paul Ryan the tow-headed little moppets of Medicare and Social Security if Paul Ryan turns a blind eye to Trump stuffing his pockets full of cash.

      eta: In my opinion, Trump isn’t a fascist. He’s just so lazy and uncurious that the fascist toolkit seemed like a perfectly good path to power.

      • N__B

        In my opinion, Trump isn’t a fascist. He’s just so lazy and uncurious that the fascist toolkit seemed like a perfectly good path to power.

        You say tomato, I say political philosophy that will destroy what’s left of the country.

        • BigHank53

          America being America, it is ironically appropriate that we’d be done in by a toddler that got his hands on a loaded gun.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      And before all else Trump is a fascist.

      Except of course that he’s not other than to the extent that “fascist” means anyone ideologically to the right of the DLC.

      • rea

        Except of course that he’s not other than to the extent that “fascist” means anyone ideologically to the right of the DLC.

        He qualifies as “Facist” due to inciting violence, racism, and bigotry, even though he might not be so far conventionally “right” as some of the other Republicans.

        • Tom in BK

          Additionally, the DLC doesn’t even exist anymore. I’m not sure what sort of glib point Just_Dropping_By is trying to make here.

        • gmack

          Generally speaking, I have very little interest in the question of whether “X is a fascist.” But I’ll give it a shot: traditional fascists of the early 20th century variety (and I suppose in the present too, though in different ways) were explicitly opposed to constitutional democracy. They either organized overthrows of constitutional regimes (Mussolini, Franco) or they used electoral processes to gain power and then destroy them (Hitler, most obviously). One of the ways they did this was through the use of more or less organized paramilitary groups. To date, Trump has not done this, nor has he called for the end of constitutional democracy as such.

          On the other hand, it’s still early in the process! More seriously, there are other threats that Trump might pose. In particular, he might very well hollow out the institutions of the constitutional democracy, such that they may formally be in place while practically offering no push-back to the executive. This is consistent with the strategy Scott identifies in this post. It might be possible to use our otherwise useless media either to distract or rationalize not just the implementation of this or that policy but also the suppression of practices of dissent.

          • ThrottleJockey

            How would you characterize Putin? Fascist no?

            • gmack

              I’m no Russia or Putin specialist, so my opinion is pretty uninformed. But I suppose I would answer yes, Putin is a fascist who has followed the strategy I sketched in the second paragraph of my initial comment. He had an easier job than an “American Putin” would have; our federal system (among other things) makes the kind of gutting of opposition harder to pull off. Not impossible, of course, but harder.

          • njorl

            One of the ways they did this was through the use of more or less organized paramilitary groups.

            I’d go a bit farther than that. A small but effective paramilitary (or military) group using violence to enhance its ability to gain power for the benefit of those the paramilitary group represents is the definition of fascism. It is the group that is definitive, not the leadership.

            If you don’t have a fascisti, you aren’t a fascist. I genuinely believe Trump would like to be a fascist, but he isn’t. Yet.

            • I’d tend to think this sounds correct, but a lot of people seem to think it means less than that.

        • ThrottleJockey

          This. I also call him fascist because I think he’s orthogonal to the political spectrum: Right on white supremacy issues while left on free trade and entitlements. It’s a toxic stew primarily meant to feed an army of white supremacists. Hand outs to whites, death to blacks and browns.

          • random

            Right on white supremacy issues while left on free trade

            His position on trade is classic, definitive right-wing politics. FDR specifically campaigned against similar protectionist bullshit. The left position on trade has generally been that it’s good when it helps workers on both sides of the transaction and bad if it doesn’t.

            That’s not at all how Hitler/Trump/the right see it. International trade is always bad for them, because foreigners are involved.

            and entitlements

            Now you’re just trolling us. Trump’s position on entitlements is that he’s bitterly opposed to them and will slash them harder than any politician in living memory.

            • ThrottleJockey

              The left doesn’t support free trade. A certain class of liberals do like Lawrence Summers and Bob Rubin but they hardly speak for the left.

              And since when have conservatives opposed free trade? That’s about all they talk about.

              And when it comes to entitlements Trump campaigned on nothing of the kind. He flatly opposed entitlement cuts. What are you talking about? There was a whole post here about how Trumps secret to winning the primaries was keeping the white supremacy of the GOP and discarding the unpopular test like entitlement cuts and free trade.

              • jim, some guy in iowa

                there are a lot of contractors who took financial beatings from Trump because they believed he only screwed over “other” people, not *them*

              • There are plenty of leftists who support free trade in part because they expect it to benefit countries other than the US (which is a perfectly good reason to support it except for things like it causing other problems down the line, the way it tends to involve disaster capitalism, etc., which can get overlooked), and because people in other countries tend to expect the same.

                • Hogan

                  But at the elite level free trade is one of the few issues on which there’s anything like a consensus across the spectrum. Opposition tends to come from the (generally non-elite) owners of the recently gored oxen.

                • Right, but I was replying to TJ, who–along with a lot of people, I think–assume free trade is opposed by everyone to the left of Jamie Dimon. It seems that ameliorating the effects of free trade while lifting the boats of people across the globe (and dealing the lack of an alternative way of structuring the global economy, though some may say that lack is temporary) is a fairly widely held position among the left. “Many” among the left might be too strong, I guess.

                • MDrew

                  It’s amazing to watch the realignment happen in real time.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          You’re basically going even further toward proving the point that “fascist” as applied to Trump is just useless name calling given that political movements invoking “violence, racism, and bigotry” long pre-dated anything identified as “fascism.” Actual fascists, like, say, Benito Mussolini, railed against consumerism, private leisure, and apolitical entertainment, while promoting concepts of individual sacrifice for the glory of the state, the elimination or, at minimum, subjugation of private spheres of interest to the state, etc. Can you seriously imagine Trump thinking it would be desirable to declare, let alone declaring with a straight face, “The only person who is still a private individual in [America] is somebody who is asleep” or “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”?

    • random

      “Ethno-nationalists” predominantly hate the shit out of government social programs. They’ve been slavering to kick all the leeches and moochers off them for years, makers versus takers. According to them it’s just a giant act of theft from whites.

      Donald himself specifically has said he thinks a very big chunk of social security is being paid out to fraudsters and moochers.

      • BartletForGallifrey

        Donald himself specifically has said he thinks a very big chunk of social security is being paid out to fraudsters and moochers brown people.

        FTFY.

        • random

          Totally. These people have been conditioned for decades to see these programs as robbing hard-working white people and giving that money to lazy minorities.

      • ThrottleJockey

        As we discovered with the New Deal ethno-nationalists don’t hate hand outs they hate hand outs to browns.

        • witlesschum

          I think the majority of GOP voters are very much on this page, but the donor class don’t want handouts to anyone but them and I think there are a lot of Teahadis in the House who are somewhat principled along the lines of the people who run Kansas. They, after all, have been willing and ready to sacrifice services for white people at the altar of their free market god and I think Paul Ryan and his ilk are very much cut from that cloth.

          Trump having the ability and/or the give a fuck to fight to them doesn’t seem like a super safe bet.

  • Donald Trump, by contrast, is currently barnstorming the country congratulating himself on his victory.

    If Trump were deliberately running interference, I’d be more worried by this observation. But it’s pretty clear his only focus is whatever TV is saying about him, and if Social Security and Medicare are getting slashed, TV will be talking about it, which means Trump will be talking about it too.

    This is very cold, small comfort, but that Trump would be usefully distracting to Congress relies on the “Trump: Evil Mastermind” theory, which doesn’t hold much water anymore. It’s gonna be a wild ride, and I’m by no means convinced the Social Security or Medicare or anything else is safe, but Trump’s distractions aren’t an unalloyed good for Ryan and his legislative goons.

    • random

      We repeatedly saw the Clinton campaign successfully bait him into launching personal jihads on sympathetic figures that dominated headlines for days. The GOP Congress wants to produce several millions of those.

      The real problem as I see it continues to be that Republicans have now consolidated control over the election process itself and for the most part they don’t really have to worry about normal considerations of unpopularity.

      • ploeg

        When your party counts on the votes of the aging and elderly, it’s a tricky thing to go after the benefits of current retirees. I grant that the Republicans are fortunate to be structurally favored, but it can all come apart in a hurry if they start crapping on the people who vote for them, and 2006 isn’t that long ago.

        • random

          Their plans are mostly phase-ins, they don’t go after current retirees so much as pull up the ladder on future ones.

          And 10 years is a very, very long time ago when we’re talking about the elderly. Much/most of the elderly from 2006 is dead now and have been replaced by a generation who are less loyal to the New Deal programs.

          They aren’t just ‘structurally favored’. They have actually rigged the system to structurally favor them and are just going to do that even harder now that nobody can stop them. If they do almost the worst-possible things on these programs, they are just as likely to gain seats in 2018 as not.

          • L2P

            So were their plans for social security privatization: no changes at all for anyone 55 or older. And it caused a big shitstorm. People like to think they’re fair minded, and that was an obvious transfer from the youngs to the olds. Even my in-laws, 24/7 Fox watchers, couldn’t stomach it, it made them feel like the moochers they want to attack.

            And every medicare and social security recipient is a “New Deal program loyalist.” (Note: Medicare passed in 1966, not 1936). This will be a shitstorm if they attempt it.

            • random

              It may or may not be a shitstorm. Recipients may or may not blame the Republicans but not the Democrats for the shitstorm. That shit storm may or may not have an impact on an actual election contest. Way too many unknowns here.

              If they openly slash these programs with almost no regard for public opinion, it would not be the least bit surprising if they then go on to gain net seats in both the House and Senate in 2018.

              • Schadenboner

                The ’18 Senate map is apparently dogshit for us.

                2020 controls the 2021-2031 redistricting and 2030 isn’t a Presidential year so it’s bad for us.

                Smart money might be finding strong 2020 candidates.

            • Donna Gratehouse

              I think seniors, or people close to the age, hear “Social Security and Medicare cuts!” and freak out, regardless of the specifics of the plan (and they are right to, as even phased-in plans threaten the funding stream to current or soon-to-be retirees). And AARP (whatever you think of it as an organization) is a motherfucker about getting its members to call their Congresscritters.

      • Dennis Orphen

        The real problem as I see it continues to be that Republicans have now consolidated control over the election process itself and for the most part they don’t really have to worry about normal considerations of unpopularity.

        Exactly this, and for longer than you think.

    • ploeg

      Right. It is a distinct possibility that Paul Ryan and Trump’s minders can convince Trump to divert the Social Security trust fund to the Donald J. Trump Memorial Gambling Casino for the Insane. It is a distinct possibility that Trump would do so even if word got out and the sorts of people who attend Trump’s rallies started lighting effigies. As Trump craves popularity and lacks moral courage, it would be a tough get (though still possible if there isn’t pushback).

    • sleepyirv

      Agreed. If your theory involves Trump having a plan, your theory is incorrect.

      • tonycpsu

        That doesn’t mean that members of his inner circle don’t have a plan. He’s not quite an empty vessel, but as the approval ratings tank even further and he has a few high-profile cock-ups, he may start leaning on them more not just for tactics, but strategy. At that point all bets are off.

  • King Goat

    Could someone with obviously better Google search skills than I have, help me out? There was a LGM post recently dismantling the idea that the electoral college is fair because it’s just like the World Series. Can anyone track down that link for me? I have a friend making that argument and would like to show it to them. Thanks

  • DrDick

    All things work for you when you have a compliant press, as the GOP has had for decades. Only Democrats ever get seriously and continuously attacked, especially if there is nothing there to attack, because both sides do it!

  • Donald Trump is a unique problem in many ways and Democrats need to be prepared to deal with this environment.

    Donald Trump is unique in our politics because he’s the first (to my knowledge) honest-to-god, actual sociopath to become president of the United States. One of the painful lessons I learned when dealing with a family member who was bipolar is that there is absolutely no reasoning with someone who is mentally unstable. The most dangerous mistake in dealing with Trump is that people will believe they are dealing with a person who can listen to reason and can be reasoned with. He cannot. He is a sociopath and needs to be treated like one, from day one.

    • XTPD

      Aren’t you forgetting Nixon? Because where Trump beats him is in both a) the narcissism and b) the complete lack of qualifications.

      • random

        You absolutely could reason with Nixon and convince him by weight of evidence to believe some things. He was stubborn, but not totally unreachable.

        With Donald, the best way to convince him of things is to be the last person he talked to and to compliment him during that conversation.

        • XTPD

          That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a sociopath, hence my added qualifiers.

          • I’m not sure that Nixon qualified as a textbook sociopath. The danger with Trump is denial. People are in deep denial about thinking Trump can be reasoned with or managed. We have turned the country and the nuclear keys over to someone who, in actuality, should be institutionalized for the sake of society. I’m not sure how we are going to get out of this in one piece.

            • random

              Yeah, Nixon was a huge Machiavellian asshole but I don’t see good evidence that he was actually mentally ill in the strict clinical sense.

              Donald on the other hand is certifiably completely nuts.

    • Trump isn’t a sociopath, just a typical Hollywood producer, apparently: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/12/donald-trump-is-the-michael-bay-of-politics/510284/.

    • Dennis Orphen

      You’re describing Trump supporters and voters perfectly and in my opinion they are the ultimate cause of our problems.

      Sociopathy is the new humanism.

      • guthrie

        Sociopathy as the best way to organise society has been encouraged by everything from game theory to ideals of unfettered market capitalism over the last 40 years. Leading to the current results.

        • Latverian Diplomat

          Game theory libelz!

          Seriously, game theory explanations for altruism and other social interactions that don’t reduce to a single iteration of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, has been a very productive area in the last few decades.

  • sleepyirv

    The relatively simple solution is Democrats messaging stick to Social Security and Medicare. You want to ask about SNL? We want to talk about Social Security. Donald Trump insulted some reporter? We want to talk about Social Security. Trump tweeted about blowing up Canada? We want to talk about Social Security.

    Don’t let the bastards get off the mat.

  • CrunchyFrog

    President-as-distraction. The Zaphod Beeblebrox theory of government.

    • timb

      This theory is finally getting the credit it deserves. Adams was a genius

    • El Guapo

      Yes!!

      Now someone tell Trump he needs to steal the Heart of Gold.

      • sibusisodan

        I think we'd have to rename it so Trump would be interested in it

    • Schadenboner

      Donald, he’s just some guy, you know?

  • Yankee

    I’m hoping The Press can find new locutions for “shiny objects” …. maybe “party lights” or “blood on the highway”. Just for the variety.

    Well, also because my NPR-informed daughter in law referred to news about Russian hacks as a “shiny object” distracting front m the Real action in Congress. I said before, mobilizing theanxieties of the folks is key tothe Trumpian transformation of Amerika. Amazing T can do that from a position of opposition but face it, the man has his skills.

    • I feel like all abstractions are most likely going to be repurposed according to the preferences of those with the most power. I don’t know what to do about that, except be aware of it, and make sure our meaning is clear.

      But I agree “shiny objects” is seeming repetitive. I would offer a better one but can’t think of one at the moment.

      • Hogan

        Ball of yarn? Squirrel?

      • MidwestVillager

        Squirrels?
        Edit: A minute too slow.

  • Gareth

    After a reelection campaign of jingoism and fear mongering, George W. Bush claimed he’d won political capital and set about spending it on an unrelated plan that would’ve diverted significant payroll tax revenue into private investment accounts.

    There’s no such thing as political capital. People want what they want, and being popular doesn’t make it any easier to convince them. Bush’s Social Security failure is a good example. An even better example is the New Zealand flag referendum. The current flag looks like someone misheard a description of the Australian flag, and the very popular Prime Minister sweated blood trying to change it. No dice.

  • bratschewurst

    What will matter in attempt to change Social Security or Medicare is not the press; it’s all the people who the AARP riles up who call their Congressperson or Senator to tell them to “keep the damn government’s hands off my Medicare.” It’d be hard to claim that the NRA has gotten either lots of support or coverage in the national press, but they’re pretty effective in getting their way nonetheless.

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