Trump's North Korea Bluster Is Not Believable

[ Posted Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 – 16:59 PDT ]

President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, which was notable for the amount of bluster it contained. Now, blustering is a time-honored tradition at the U.N., but it is usually reserved for heads of state from countries that are insecure in their standing in the world and led by charismatic totalitarians. Think: Hugo Chávez, or Fidel Castro in his prime. So it was pretty unusual to hear such a speech from an American president, who at one point threatened to obliterate another country from the map. Bluster has long been a cornerstone of Trump's foreign policy (such as it is) -- a deep-seated belief that talking tough with lots of swagger will cause all foreign countries to see the error of their ways and thus do exactly what the United States (or Trump) wishes them to do. It hasn't been working in any noticeable way yet, but that didn't stop Trump from giving it another try yesterday on the world stage.

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Rocket Man?

[ Posted Tuesday, September 19th, 2017 – 17:18 PDT ]

I have to admit I don't have time today to write a proper column with lots of deep thought behind it, so instead I'm going to let President Trump's first United Nations speech percolate a bit before soberly commenting upon it. But rather than running just a "Program Note: No Column Today," I thought it'd be amusing to briefly comment on the newest Trumpism, one he used in his speech today: Trump's new "Rocket Man" nickname for North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Now, figuring out what goes on in the mind of Trump is an exercise best left to the professionals, so I won't even try to fathom why he latched onto this particular label. But he sure does seem to like it, using it in a tweet this weekend and then announcing it to the whole word at the U.N.

The problem with Trump's use of Rocket Man is that it isn't particularly insulting. It actually sounds pretty cool, in a retro 1950s-sci-fi kind of way. Elton John and Bernie Taupin didn't write the song until 1972, and Taupin admitted being influenced by a 1970 song of the same name by the band Pearls Before Swine. But both songs were inspired by a short story by Ray Bradbury ("The Rocket Man," from the book The Illustrated Man), which is about as retro 1950s-sci-fi as you can get.

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Focus On One Particular Loophole In GOP's New Tax-Cut Plan

[ Posted Monday, September 18th, 2017 – 17:26 PDT ]

The Republicans are getting ready to unveil their tax-cutting plan. Reportedly, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been meeting with congressional GOP leaders to come up with a plan both the White House and congressional Republicans can get behind. So far, they've been fairly secretive about this effort, because no matter what they decide they're bound to annoy at least one faction of their own party. To say nothing of Democrats, or the public at large.

The original effort was supposed to be a "once-in-a-generation reform of the entire tax code." It was supposed to be "revenue-neutral," which makes the entire exercise nothing more than redistribution of the tax burden. After all, if you make a whole lot of changes to the tax system but wind up collecting the exact same amount of money, then all you have done is to shift some of those taxes from one group to another. Republicans generally abhor "redistribution of wealth," but not in this particular case, because in practice it would almost certainly mean shifting a large part of the tax burden from businesses to individuals, and from the wealthy to the middle-class.

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Friday Talking Points [453] -- Deal? Or No Deal?

[ Posted Friday, September 15th, 2017 – 17:27 PDT ]

As is true during most weeks of the Trump administration, a whole lot happened in the political world last week. But most of it was completely overshadowed by the game of "Deal, or no deal?" that Trump was playing. For the second week in a row, President Donald Trump shocked the leadership of his own party by sitting down and (quite literally) breaking bread with Democrats. Yes, Donnie had Chuck and Nancy over for dinner, and Washington hasn't been quite the same since.

Much was reportedly discussed in this meeting, including areas where the Democratic agenda and the Trump agenda might overlap such as infrastructure spending. On taxes, Trump apparently agreed with Democrats that any tax cut bill should not lower taxes on the wealthy -- a rather stunning admission, if true. But none of that made much news. The headline item was a deal (a possible deal?... a framework of a deal?... a discussion about a deal?... a deal to make a deal?... nobody really knows, at this point) over what to do about two sticky subjects: the people covered under DACA, and border security.

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Trump Deals With Chuck And Nancy Again

[ Posted Thursday, September 14th, 2017 – 17:13 PDT ]

For the second time in two weeks, President Donald Trump may have cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, this time on protecting the DACA "dreamers." That isn't a definitive statement because, at this point, nobody's really even sure if a deal was actually agreed to, or what exactly will be in any such a deal. Trump is sending out some very mixed messages, perhaps in reaction to his base already condemning the idea as "amnesty." But the fact remains that Trump once again reached out to the Democratic congressional leaders, inviting them over to dinner to hammer out some sort of path forward on major legislation. Notable in their absence in this meeting were any Republican congressional leaders.

All of this adds up to a very muddled situation. Is Trump dealing with Democrats to the exclusion of Republicans? Perhaps, but then again perhaps nothing concrete will come of the negotiation. Has Trump agreed to put aside demands for money for his border wall in these negotiations? It sure sounds like it, but he could always change his mind. Will Trump's base revolt against the deal and turn against him? Well, a quick look at the pages of Breitbart already shows signs of this happening, but it remains to be seen whether this is a temporary thing or not. If Trump sells the idea, they may decide to continue to support him in the end. Or not. As I said, it's a very muddled situation right now.

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Bernie Moves The Overton Window On Single-Payer

[ Posted Wednesday, September 13th, 2017 – 17:50 PDT ]

Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled his single-payer "Medicare For All" plan today, and so far he's already got 15 Democratic co-sponsors. More may soon add their names to this list. The plan is -- as any such plan has to be, right now -- merely aspirational, since there is no way it will ever even get a Senate floor vote with Republicans controlling the chamber. Bernie's bill also punted completely on the crucial questions: "How much will it cost, and how will we pay for it?" -- something many will take him to task for (as indeed I already pre-emptively did). But even having said all of that, Bernie's Medicare For All bill sets a very important marker for the debate to come, whether that debate takes a few years or longer. Because Bernie has -- with his bill and also with his relentless championing of the issue both during the 2016 campaign and since -- successfully moved the "Overton window" on single-payer healthcare in the United States.

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Chuck And Nancy's Deal With Trump Was Worth It

[ Posted Tuesday, September 12th, 2017 – 17:12 PDT ]

Last week, the Democratic leaders in Congress cut a surprising deal with President Donald Trump. There were, of course, critics of this deal on the right -- which is perfectly natural, since they're the ones who were left out in the cold. But what was more surprising was the criticism directed at Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer from the left. But upon examination, such criticism has to be considered unreasonable.

The complaints from the right were predictable, because Trump essentially gave away the GOP store without even asking for a single concession in return. That's abysmal dealmaking, so it's understandable why Republicans were so annoyed. The complaints from the left, however, were twofold, neither one of which really holds much water. The first is that Pelosi and Schumer shouldn't "hand the president a political win," or indeed ever work with him to achieve anything. The second is that Democrats could have gotten even more in the deal (specifically, protection for those covered under DACA), since Trump obviously didn't care what was in it.

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Single-Payer Sea Change

[ Posted Monday, September 11th, 2017 – 16:47 PDT ]

In two days, Senator Bernie Sanders is going to introduce a single-payer healthcare bill in the Senate. This bill already has the support of some major Democratic senators, and it will move the single-payer debate further forward than any other legislative effort to date. But it will also move the debate from the abstract to the concrete, if Bernie's bill provides the proper level of detail. Because average Americans are going to be considering the concept through the filter of: "How is this going to affect my pocketbook?" Democratic supporters need to be ready with solid, easy-to-understand answers to this basic question. Hopefully, Sanders will provide these answers on Wednesday, so the public can truly begin to make an informed choice on the matter.

It is interesting to note how far the Democratic Party has come on this issue in a relatively short period of time. Eighteen months ago, during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary season, Bernie Sanders was building support for single-payer while Hillary Clinton heaped scorn on the idea and used scaremongering against it. To her, it was just one more "free pony" that Bernie was offering up that he (in her opinion) could never deliver for the American people.

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Friday Talking Points [452] -- The Art Of The Steal

[ Posted Friday, September 8th, 2017 – 17:20 PDT ]

We cannot claim originality for that subtitle. It's taken from Republican Senator Ben Sasse, from when he was speaking out against the deal President Donald Trump cut this week with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: "Yesterday we saw Washington's swamp continue to rise: Chuck Schumer wrote The Art Of The Steal by taking hurricane relief hostage to guarantee a December showdown that favors Democratic spending priorities." We thought it was the best description of the stunning events of this week in Washington, so we decided to use it (with attribution, of course). "The art of the steal" pretty much sums up how Trump and "Chuck and Nancy" brutally cut the legs out from under the entire Republican Party in Congress.

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Donnie, Chuck, And Nancy Strike A Big Deal

[ Posted Thursday, September 7th, 2017 – 16:34 PDT ]

President Donald Trump is on such good terms with Democrats that they're apparently now on a first-name basis. Trump repeatedly praised "Chuck and Nancy" yesterday, after striking a breathtakingly-comprehensive deal with Minority Leaders Schumer and Pelosi on a budget extension, a debt ceiling hike, and hurricane disaster relief funding. By doing so, Trump has finally fulfilled the basic theme of his campaign, which was to completely turn Washington upside-down. The master dealmaking artist finally did that by making his first big deal -- and, much to the surprise of Republicans everywhere, that deal was precisely what Chuck and Nancy wanted, while it contained none of what "Paul and Mitch" had in mind.

[I have to add a personal note here, as an aside. Yesterday, I sat down and wrote what I considered to be a pretty conventional article on how I saw the negotiations happening in Congress over the rest of this month. I even wondered if the article was even worth writing, because I considered it all pretty much conventional wisdom. But every so often, events advance so fast that an article is outdated the minute I click "Publish" -- and yesterday was one of those days. By the time anyone read it, it was already obsolete. My apologies, but those are the risks you run in this business. All I can say in my own defense is that nobody else saw this coming, either.]

Back to what really happened, though (as opposed to my incorrect conventional wisdom from yesterday). Yesterday's White House meeting with the leaders of Congress may become one of the most historically significant meetings Trump has ever had. From all accounts, what happened was that Trump took the Democrats' opening offer, and by doing so utterly rejected the Republican plan worked out by congressional leadership and supported by his own Treasury Secretary. That's a stunning slap in the face to the Republican establishment, and an unexpectedly generous gift to the Democrats. Washington is still collectively breathless over this development.

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