Monday, June 19, 2017

Against Civic Division

In National Review, I dig into the implications of Bret Stephens's satirical proposal to deport poor Americans.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comey Questions

This New York Times story raises a host of questions.

The first, and likely most important, is did President Trump ask James Comey to stop the Flynn investigation?  If he did and if he fired Comey because Comey would not stop that investigation (two huge--absolutely HUGE--ifs), this situation rises above a political spat to being a Constitutional issue.  Of course, these are only ifs right now--not established facts.

But there are other questions, too.

If the president's request occurred and constitutes obstruction of justice (again, if), why did Director Comey not resign and announce this request when it was made?  Speaking purely hypothetically, if the president committed an impeachable offense, a government official would have an obligation to do all he could to ensure that this offense was known so that Congress could proceed with impeachment.

Have other government officials, including in the Obama administration, committed acts of obstruction of justice that Director Comey knows about but did not act on or announce to the world?  What else could be revealed by reading Comey's private memos?

What is the journalistic justification for the New York Times publishing a story about a non-classified report that it has not seen?  According to the story, sources only read portions of the memo over the phone.  If mainstream newspapers want to distinguish themselves from tabloids, they will need to think hard about sourcing policies.

As many have suggested, the first step to answering some of these questions is for Congress to subpoena the Comey memos.  That will help us distinguish facts from innuendo from lies.  In a time when institutional trust is under assault, the rigorous attention to facts grows even more important.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Groping Toward Fusion

The  current draft of the omnibus spending bill to keep the government open includes a provision that would expand the number of H-2B visas; these guest-worker visas target jobs that do not require a college degree.

For the project of making the GOP a party of broad-based opportunity, expanding guest-worker visas seems like a counterproductive effort.  Guest-worker programs make a mockery of the market and of civic belonging.  In an age of stagnating wages for many working-class Americans, increasing the number of guest workers is a confusing strategy.  Moreover, guest-worker expansion risks splitting the GOP by further aggravating populists, who already have complaints about other elements of the omnibus.

Unlike other elements of the omnibus bill, however, Democrats were not going to shut down the government to expand the H-2B program.  In fact, the top Republican and top Democrat in the Senate Judiciary Committee (Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, respectively) both slammed the inclusion of the H-2B expansion in the omnibus.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Imperfect Comparisons

Looking at (some of the very real) disruption in the retail sector has cause some in punditia to try to draw parallels between the evolution of the retail sector and changes in manufacturing over the past thirty years.  This New York Times story on the decline of malls exemplifies that trend.  This trend has caused some on the left to wonder whether identity politics explains why so much press attention has been given to manufacturing while the supposed decline of retail has been more ignored.  However, there might be a more quotidian reason why retail employment has gotten less attention than manufacturing: retail employment has grown over the past 15 years while manufacturing has shrunk. 

The New York Times piece on the decline of retail referenced the job losses in the "general merchandise" subsector.  However, looking at specific subsectors obscures the fact that retail jobs have been overall growing.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more people work in retail jobs than ever before in American history.  Nearly 14.5 million worked in retail in 2010, but almost 16 million work in retail now. About 400,000 more Americans work in retail now than worked in it in 2008, the last peak of employment in that sector.   Department stores might be declining, but employment in "health and personal care" stores is booming, as is employment at "nonstore retailers," which have added over 100,000 jobs since 2010.  While there has been a slight correction in retail employment after the holiday season (not exactly unusual), there is little evidence of a sustained decline in retail employment.  The retail market may be restructuring, and that restructuring may lead to dislocations and economic difficulties (things policy-makers should take seriously).  The phenomenon of zombie malls could exact social costs as well as provide opportunities for innovation.  And it is certainly possible that, in the future, ecommerce will destroy the retail sector.  (I'm not making any projections about the future here.)  But over the past fifteen years, retail employment has done relatively well in terms of job numbers.

Manufacturing tells a very different story.  There are over 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs now than there were in 2000.  While manufacturing employment has grown somewhat since the Great Recession, there are close to 2 million fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2007.  Inflation-adjusted manufacturing production in 2016 was only a little above the production level of 2008.

Whether one believes that decline in manufacturing employment to be a positive or negative development, it seems clear that there has been a decline--unlike in the retail sector.  If manufacturers had added jobs over the past 15 years, I doubt that the loss of manufacturing jobs would be getting that many headlines.  Retail may indeed be headed for difficulties in the years to come, and changes in the field could cause some dislocations.  But, over the past 15 years, the employment patterns of manufacturing and retail have diverged.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Changing Contours of Young Adulthood

A recent report from the U.S. Census about changes in living patterns among young adults from 1975 to 2016 has some interesting findings.  It reports the delayed forming of families.  In 1975, 57 percent of adults 18 to 34 were living with a spouse; that number dropped to 27 percent in 2016.  Meanwhile, the percentage living with their parents climbed from 26 percent to 31 percent.

Part of this change might be because of increased college attendance and changes in sexual mores, but part of it might also be because of increased economic pressures.  In 1975, only 25 percent of men between 25 and 34 were making under $30,000 a year (in 2015 dollars); by 2016, 41 percent of men were making less than that.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Populist Triangulation

At NRO today, I outline one possible way forward for the Trump White House: populist triangulation.  This strategy would target areas where the interests of populists and conservatives (including perhaps some Democrats) overlap.  An infrastructure program, reforms of guest-worker policies, and changes to the health-care marketplace could all be opportunities for this mode of triangulation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dog That Didn't Bark--Or Did It?

In a special election in Kansas's Fourth Congressional District, Republican Ron Estes won by about 8 points the seat formerly held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.  This is a solidly Republican seat, so a GOP victory would be expected.  Pompeo won it by about 30 points in 2016, and Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in that district.  Is this relatively narrow 8-point victory margin a warning siren for the GOP nationally?  Maybe--but only maybe.

Overinterpreting special-election results is a bit of a DC parlor game, and we should be wary about reading too much into them.  Estes still won handily, and his Democratic opponent, James Thompson was a Republican until 2016.  Congressional elections are in part shaped by candidate quality and local circumstances, and Kansas's Republican governor Sam Brownback struggles with a low approval rating.  Moreover, a special election tends to be dominated by more motivated voters, and, with Democrats locked out of power in Congress, they certainly are more motivated.  So a slightly narrower GOP victory margin might be expected.

That said, certain national factors do suggest that the GOP could be facing some electoral headwinds going into the 2018 midterms.  The party of the incumbent president usually loses seats during midterm elections.  The approval rating of the congressional GOP could be higher, as could President Trump's rating.

None of those broader forces mean that Republicans will necessarily lose Congress next year.  But they do suggest the risks of policy deadlock on Capitol Hill.  Republicans would be wise to think of areas where they can pass popular reforms that live up to the campaign promises of the president and the Republican party overall.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Nuclear Detonation

Well, the nuclear option was invoked on Supreme Court nominees.  I'll get around to writing about something other than the filibuster shortly (really, there are other things to talk about?).  But a round-up of some filibuster-related links for now:

Fred Barnes on how Chuck Schumer tried to cut a deal to confirm Gorsuch and keep the filibuster.

61 Senators sign a letter to defend legislative filibuster.

Ed Whelan notes that we should not overstate the number of Republican filibusters of Obama nominees.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dr. Strangelove Cometh

Today, Democrats made clear that they had over 40 votes in order to sustain a filibuster of Gorsuch.

I'll have a piece coming out shortly that looks at how Republicans could try to avoid going nuclear over Gorsuch while still confirming him.  I'll post the link when it's live.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

More Gorsuch (Oh no!)

I hope you'll forgive my continued attention to the vote totals for Gorsuch.  But this vote-wrangling could set up a major confrontation in the Senate soon.

Two interesting announcements over the past few days:

The first is that Missouri's Claire McCaskill has announced that she will filibuster Gorsuch.  This is a significant change for the Missouri Democrat, who styled herself as a moderate when she first ran for the Senate and said in 2006 that she would not support a filibuster of Samuel Alito and would even vote to confirm John Roberts.  Now, Senator McCaskill will filibuster a nominee who doesn't seem any more out of the mainstream than Alito or Roberts.

What's interesting about this decision is that Senator McCaskill acknowledged earlier in March how counterproductive a Gorsuch filibuster would be.  In a leaked recording of her meeting with some major Democratic donors, Senator McCaskill made the following comments:
“The Gorsuch situation is really hard. There are going to be people in this room that are going to say, ‘No, no, no. You cannot vote for Gorsuch,’ ” McCaskill said in the recording. “Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that we turn down Gorsuch, that there are not eight Democrats that vote to confirm him and therefore there’s not enough to put him on the Supreme Court. What then?”

She pointed to the list of potential nominees that Trump released before the election to galvanize conservative support. “By the way, Gorsuch was one of the better ones,” McCaskill quipped.

“So they pick another one off the list and then they bring it over to the Senate and we say no, no, no, this one’s worse. And there’s not enough votes to confirm him. They’re not going to let us do that too long before they move it to 51 votes,” she said.
So why is McCaskill supporting a filibuster when she foresees these consequences?  (More on that in a second...)

The second announcement is that Joe Donnelly of Indiana will vote for Gorsuch.

This means that 3 Democrats--Donnelly, Manchin, and Heitkamp--have announced their support for Gorsuch.  One senator from a heavily Trump state remains publicly undecided (Montana's Jon Tester).  According to Decision Desk HQ's count, other unannounced votes include Michael Bennet (Colo.), Chris Coons (Del.), Pat Leahy (Vt.), Angus King (Maine), and Mark Warner (Va.). Some other folks report that Ben Cardin (Md.) and Dianne Feinstein as up in the air about filibustering Gorsuch.

So is a nuclear stand-off guaranteed?  Maybe--but only maybe.  Gorsuch needs 8 Democrats to agree to cloture, and he already has 3.  There are at least 6 Democrats outstanding.  One is from a solid Republican state (Tester), one presents himself as a postpartisan independent (King), and one is from Gorsuch's home state (Bennet).  So all 3  2 of these could vote for cloture.

That would leave Gorsuch in need of 2 3 more.  Many of the remaining undecided votes on filibustering Gorsuch are broadly popular in safely Democratic states.  "Progressive" institutions like Pat Leahy could likely weather a primary challenge.  Senators Feinstein and Cardin are up for reelection in 2018, but some observers think that they may decide to retire from the Senate rather than run for reelection.  Thus, the handful of unannounced senators on the left side of the Democratic caucus could decide to vote for cloture in order to spare some colleagues (like McCaskill) the risk of a primary challenge while also preventing a nuclear stand-off over Gorsuch.  (One reason for the delay in votes could be negotiations among these Democratic senators to see who has to risk the wrath of "resistance" activists by voting for Gorsuch.)

Thus, there's a chance--a chance--that enough Democrats could vote for Gorsuch in order to avoid a nuclear stand-off and to preserve some leverage for the minority party during Supreme Court nominations.

UPDATE: Jon Tester just announced that he would vote against cloture on Gorsuch.  The "Doomsday Clock" for the nuclear option gets closer to midnight.  There's still a path to avoid a nuclear stand-off, but it gets narrower.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tough Choices

In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan reflects on the challenges currently facing the Trump administration and lays out an interesting scenario:
2008 and the years just after (the crash and the weak recovery)...changed everything in America, and...the country [is] going to choose, in coming decades, one of two paths—a moderate populism or socialism—and...the former [is] vastly to be preferred, for reasons of the nation’s health. A gifted politician could make his party the leader toward that path, which includes being supportive and encouraging of business but willing to harness government to alleviate the distress of the abandoned working class and the anxious middle class; strong on defense but neither aggressive nor dreamy in world affairs; realistic and nonradical on social issues while unmistakably committed to protecting the freedoms of the greatest cohering force in America, its churches; and aware that our nation’s immigration reality was a scandal created by both parties, and must be redressed.
I'm not sure that "moderate populism" or socialism are the only two choices on the political menu in the years ahead.  But it does seem that, if you want to check the risk of a shift toward more radically socialistic policies, you have good reason to address some of the forces driving the populist insurgency.  Strained social networks, economic decline, identity politics, etc.--all these challenge the future of limited government in the United States.

Furthermore, due to the nature of the two-party system, there is a very real risk that the failure of a populist-conservative alliance will not lead to the return of Conservatism (TM), newly purified.  Instead, it could empower an aggressive and aggrieved "progressivism."

Many of the policy points that Noonan suggests for this "moderate populism" could indeed by part of a potentially successful governing vision.  We'll have to see if the GOP will try to implement it.

Manchin, Heitkamp Back Gorsuch

Democratic senators Joe Manchin (W.V.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) have come out in support of Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court.  Both offered praise of the nominee.

As Senator Heitkamp said in a statement, Gorsuch "has a record as a balanced, meticulous, and well respected jurist who understands the rule of law."

Senator Manchin was even more effusive:
During his time on the bench Judge Gorsuch has received praise from his colleagues who have been appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. He has been consistently rated as a well-qualified jurist, the highest rating a jurist can receive, and I have found him to be an honest and thoughtful man. I hold no illusions that I will agree with every decision Judge Gorsuch may issue in the future, but I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court Justice.
Some Senate Democrats have argued that Gorsuch is wildly out of the mainstream or somehow suspect.  But their colleagues from West Virginia and North Dakota don't seem to agree.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

More Gorsuch Vote-Grubbing

Today, a number of Democratic senators thought to be swing votes on a Gorsuch filibuster came out against him.  Jeanne Shaheen (N.H), Maggie Hassan (N.H), and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) all have announced their support for the latest talking point: a "60-vote threshold."  As Senator Shaheen's press release reads:
As Judge Gorsuch’s nomination comes to the floor, I will support a 60-vote threshold for approval, an appropriate high bar that has been met by seven of the eight current Supreme Court justices.
In fact, 6 of the current 8 Supreme Court justices were confirmed with fewer than 60 votes (Alito and Thomas), so 25 percent of the Supreme Court was approved with fewer than 60 votes.

In addition to being novel, the "60-vote threshold" is a bit ambiguous.  What does it even mean to support a 60-vote threshold?  Does it mean that one thinks a Supreme Court justice should ideally have 60 votes to be confirmed but that one won't do that much to stop the nomination of a justice who doesn't pass that threshold?  Or does it mean that one will not vote for cloture on this nomination and thereby keep that nominee from having an up-or-down vote?

I've reached out to the offices of Senators Shaheen, Hassan, and Klobuchar to ask them whether they will indeed vote against cloture and so far have not heard back from any of them.  This "60-vote threshold" could be mere messaging (in order to obscure the fact that these senators intend to block an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch), or it could be part of an effort to give themselves some maneuvering room.  (Incidentally, I wondered last night if Shaheen and Hassan would move as a pair on Gorsuch, and it seems as though they did.)

It seems as though there are still enough Democrats out there who have not announced their position on Gorsuch that he could still overcome a filibuster.  I draw your attention to this passage from Politico:
The five Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states where President Donald Trump won by single digits have all endorsed a filibuster of Gorsuch, while the five facing voters next year in states Trump won by double digits all remain undecided. Gorsuch would have to carry all five of those fence-sitters to overcome a Democratic filibuster — plus his home-state Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Maine independent Sen. Angus King, and another more surprising senator.
Senators Tester, McCaskill, Heitkamp, and Donnelly have not ruled out supporting cloture.  Delware's Chris Coons seems pretty wary of a nuclear stand-off, and Pat Leahy still seems open to voting for cloture.

Thus, the success of a partisan filibuster against Gorsuch is not yet guaranteed--at least according to public accounts.  (My guess is that some Democrats might hold off on announcing whether or not they will vote for cloture on Gorsuch for a little while.)

Some parting thoughts via Jason Willick:
A successful filibuster of Gorsuch would set a different precedent altogether: Namely, that a President can’t fill a Supreme Court vacancy even with a thoroughly mainstream nominee unless his party controls a 60-seat Senate supermajority. In other words, that new justices can only be seated during truly anomalous periods of one-party dominance that sometimes don’t come around for decades. Needless to say, this scenario is impossible to sanction: the Court would wither and its credibility would crumble.

Unwanted Advice

Tilting at windmills is one of my favorite hobbies, so I just can't keep myself from commenting on Democratic plans to filibuster Neil Gorsuch.  Sustaining a filibuster against Gorsuch would, of course, be tactically futile and strategically counterproductive for Democrats.  While rallying the "progressive" base, it would ultimately not stop Gorsuch's ascension to the Supreme Court; many Republican senators seem to be making the (not unreasonable calculation) that, if Democrats will filibuster the Gorsuch nominee, they'll filibuster any Trump nominee who is not David Souter II.  Moreover, the detonation of the "nuclear option" against this filibuster would destroy the (slight but still perceptible) leverage the minority party in the Senate has over a Supreme Court nominee.  Proponents of stacking the Supreme Court with right-leaning ideologues would not doubt celebrate this futile effort by Democrats, but a sustained Gorsuch filibuster might worry those who think that the Senate should protect the voice of the minority and the prerogatives of individual senators.

It seems as though at least a few Senate Democrats are aware of the fact that indulging in the calls of the "resistance" to sustain a filibuster against Gorsuch would mean actually weakening the powers of Senate Democrats.  There are reasons why Pat Leahy, a staunch leftist, is hesitant about filibustering Gorsuch.  He knows the political costs and the damage this could do to the Senate's culture.  It would further politicize the nomination process and further polarize the chamber.  In this divided time, it would seem important to protect the institutions of compromise and moderation, and the filibuster might be one of those institutions.

But how could Democrats not goad the GOP into nuking the filibuster while also not suffering too much of a backlash from the "resistance"?

Allahpundit has suggested that Leahy's announcement could be part of an effort by Senate Democrats to thread that needle:
A filibuster now would be the purest strategic idiocy and Schumer knows it. Solution, then: Endorse the filibuster in his role as minority leader while nudging Leahy, a Senate institution and Judiciary Committee veteran who almost certainly can’t be defeated in Vermont, to lead the rebellion instead. Now, when Manchin and Bennet and McCaskill et al. need to justify their votes in favor of cloture, they can point to Leahy and say, “Sen. Leahy’s judgment carries such heavy weight with me, especially in terms of getting politics out of judicial nominations, that I feel obliged to join him in this vote.” Leahy then becomes the lightning rod. But so what? He’s immune from this sort of political lightning. He’ll be just fine, and so will all of the red-state Dems who vote for cloture along with him once the left realizes that they’re in no positional electorally to further weaken their chances in 2018 by primarying any of them over their Gorsuch votes.
One could extend this strategy: A coalition of far-left Democrats from safe seats and Democrats who are up for reelection in lean-Republican states could vote for cloture on Gorsuch. The first set could have enough "progressive" credentials to ward off a primary challenge, and the second could be protected by the demands of electability.

According to CNN, two Democrats have already said they will vote for cloture on Gorsuch: Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp (more or less).  That means 6 more will have to vote for cloture to break a Gorsuch filibuster.  Could those 6 votes be found?  Quite possibly.

If Democrats are worried about primary challenges, it would make the most sense to have senators reelected in 2016 vote for cloture on Gorsuch.  They have almost 6 years before they have to face voters.  Senator Leahy was reelected in 2016.  Michael Bennet, from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, was also reelected in 2016 and has also been noncommittal about whether he will filibuster Gorsuch.  New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan is new to the Senate.  But she has a solid Democratic infrastructure in the Granite State (which could help her with primary challenges), and New Hampshire is a swing state.  Senator Hassan's fellow New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has sent mixed messages on a Gorsuch filibuster, stating that he kinda sorta deserves an "up-or-down vote."  Perhaps she and Hassan will vote as a block either for or against cloture.  Chris Coons, a solid lefty from Delaware, was reelected in 2014 and has warned about the risks of filibustering Gorsuch. Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar is rumored to be a swing vote on cloture; up for reelection in 2018, she represents a state (Minnesota) that Trump almost won in 2016.

That's 6 votes possible on the left right there.

There are also senators from swing states or lean-Republican states who have not yet expressed a position on cloture for Gorsuch: Angus King (I-Maine), Missouri's Claire McCaskill (who said she opposed the Alito filibuster), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), and Jon Tester (Mont.).

It seems possible that a center-left coalition could vote for cloture on Gorsuch with minimal risk of political backlash.  That outcome would probably be in the best interests of the Senate and of Democrats over the long term.

However, it's also possible that the Democratic caucus could hold hands and take the plunge on sustaining a filibuster against Gorsuch.  In an era when indulging the id has increasingly become a political priority, this outcome would not be at all surprising. But it still would be somewhat dismal.

Monday, March 27, 2017

RIP Linda Bridges

Linda Bridges died on Saturday night.  She was an institution at National Review.  Here are a couple paragraphs from her obituary that give a sketch of her relationship with NR:

While a junior in college, she dared write to National Review to point out and quibble with what she considered to be a grammatical error that had been used repeatedly in the magazine. Her letter intrigued none other than William F. Buckley himself, who responded to her letter, requesting that she send additional samples of her writing. She did, and was offered a position as a summer assistant. He so approved of her style, her extensive vocabulary and inveterate skill at word-smithing, and her content (Linda was a life-long conservative) that he quickly offered her a job at the magazine upon her graduation. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Linda moved to New York City immediately upon graduation from USC, and entered the employ of National Review as a contributing writer/journalist. Over the years, she rose through the ranks to Senior Editor, and finally to Editor-at-Large at the magazine. She also served as a personal editor for her mentor and father-figure, William F. Buckley, from 2004 until his death in 2008, organizing and preparing for publication his many writings and memoirs. Among the books she authored over the years were The Art of Persuasion: A National Review Rhetoric for Writers; Strictly Right: William F. Buckley and the American Conservative Movement; and Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations — A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus.
Read the rest to learn even more about the adventure that was her life.

I didn't know Linda very well, but I was lucky enough to have her edit some of my pieces for NRO over the years.  She edited my very first piece for NRO, and some of my favorites, including pieces on enlightened populism, the limitations of Herbert Marcuse, the importance of defending liberty and union, and how to create an opportunity-oriented immigration system.

With an almost Houdini-like ability to get the knots out of prose, Linda had a wonderful ear for language and an amazing empathy as an editor.  She treated your work respectfully, and part of that respect was trying to help you make your points as eloquently as possible.  Her love of words shone through in her work.  I was--and am--grateful for her own efforts to improve my work.

Because Linda was a writer as well as an editor, I thought I'd include a link here to the last piece she wrote for NRO, a substantive reflection on World War I, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Linda's faith was incredibly important to her, and I hope that she knows the comfort of the Lord who watches over us all.