Impeachment: A Survival Game

Erin Scott – Reuters

In September, former Arizona senator Jeff Flake said of the President Trump’s impeachment inquiry that if the Senate held a private vote, at least 35 Republican senators would vote to remove Trump from office. Most observers derided Flake’s assertion as NeverTrump nonsense, but the idea of it made me recall the state of Capitol Hill during Trump’s initial campaign for president.

Early in his campaign, Trump effectively had zero endorsements from major elected Republicans. His off-color, reckless, and obnoxious style didn’t sit well with the prim and proper WASPs that made up the Republican establishment. As Trump climbed in the polls, there were still zero major endorsements. It wasn’t until late February of 2016, when he had racked up primary wins in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, that he received a major endorsement from former opponent Chris Christie. It was revealed months later that Christie had been tempted with the possibility of being named as Vice President or Attorney General. A couple of days later, Senator Jeff Sessions also endorsed Trump. He too was tempted by the Attorney General job, an appointment he later received. Trump went on to accept a long string of endorsements from major Republicans during the general election season, many of them with a quid pro quo attached like with Christie and Sessions.

The reason why this is important is because it shows that Republican politicians had zero interest in Trump until he proved himself to be a major electoral force. Even when he was the clear frontrunner in the polls, Republicans didn’t buy his apparent strength until the first votes were cast. It then became clear to them that Trump’s massive popularity with the party’s base meant that their own job prospects were tied to his success.

These motivations were exposed when the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and the Republican Party was plunged into chaos. Trump, the party’s standard-bearer, had effectively been de-endorsed by House Speaker Paul Ryan as well as former presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The party became a free-for-all, and without any direction from party leaders, Republicans were forced to decide for themselves how far their support for Trump would go. Politico’s Tim Alberta wrote perhaps the best account of how Republican leaders reacted in the immediate aftermath of the tape’s release, which can be read here.

The Access Hollywood tape split Congressional Republicans into three camps. There was the morally pure camp, which dropped all support of Trump and demanded that he be replaced on the ticket. There was the ride-or-die camp, which was fully on the Trump train for better or worse. And then, perhaps most annoyingly, there were the fence sitters who spinelessly refused to take a position or pretended it wasn’t happening. These were the people who would normally deflect a question about it by talking about how interested they were in solving the problems going on in their own districts.

The reason why I bring up the fallout from the Access Hollywood tape is that it is the closest thing we’ve seen to what the impeachment process is going to look like. The Access Hollywood tape was the rare example of hard evidence against Trump that could not be simply dismissed as fake news. It was impossible to deny that Trump was the one who said the vulgar things on that tape. The Ukraine scandal, likewise, is based on a phone call that it is impossible to deny took place.

The exact same Republican camps that emerged after the tape are going to reappear during the impeachment proceedings. There will be the small group that admits that President Trump committed an impeachable offense by threatening to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless he received damaging information about his political opponent. There will also be the very large and vocal group that asserts the entire thing is a partisan witch-hunt. And finally, there will be those representing purple states or swing districts who try to stay out of it until the very last minute when it’s time to vote.

These will be the camps that the public sees. But there’s another camp that we can’t really see. It’s the one that the majority of Congressional Republicans are in. The one full of people who never stopped hating Trump’s guts from the day he came down that escalator four years ago. These are the conservatives who cut their teeth in the Reagan-Bush era of politics and never looked twice at the right-wing populism that Trump represents. They came on board when Trump had serious momentum, but never warmed to him the way that they pretended to. They never had any real reason to.

Your representatives probably didn’t grow up in a former coal town. They likely didn’t lose their jobs in a steel mill, or watch friends and family succumb to opioid abuse. Trump never represented a beacon of hope to them the way he did for everyday Americans because, truthfully, politicians have never needed one. No matter how folksy they try to appear, they’re almost always wealthier, better educated, and less grounded than the people they represent.

 Therefore, I believe Jeff Flake spoke truthfully. In a closed-door vote, at least 35 GOP senators would vote to convict. Their inner-conservatives are tantalized by the prospect of waving a magic wand to make Mike Pence president, but their survivalist nature precludes that possibility. So long as Trump represents the best electoral path forward for Republicans, impeachment is a pipe dream.

However, when you hear your representatives speaking loudly and often about how much they love the president, remember the lessons from the 2016 campaign. They don’t love him, and they never will. They’re lying through their teeth and they’re doing it because they’re afraid of you.

The Electability Myth

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

By this point in the presidential cycle, everyone who keeps up to date with the writings and opinions of political journalists have no doubt seen at least half a dozen articles about the perceived electability of all the 2020 Democratic frontrunners. Electability, as the media sees it, is based on the logic of the Median Voter Theorem, which basically says that the majority of voters exist within the boundaries of the political center. The candidate whose message most closely aligns with these centrist voters would therefore win the election over a more ideologically extreme candidate.

The Median Voter Theorem has always existed as a way to encourage the nomination of moderate candidates and push aside those who are more ideologically pure. In 2019 terms, it favors nominating Biden over Sanders or Warren.

The problem with the Median Voter Theorem, though, is that it hasn’t been relevant in decades. Back during a time when the electorate was less diverse, the theorem was a nice and simple way of explaining the blowout presidential elections of 1964 and 1972. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were considered too far right and too far left, respectively, to defeat their more moderate opponents.

In the following decades, though, the voting population began to look far less homogenous and identity blocs began to form along lines of race, income, and education. These blocs all became loyal to one party or the other. By this point, both parties had built up such significant bases that moderate swing voters were no longer essential for winning elections.

There’s a phrase being used to describe Trump’s 2020 campaign strategy: all base, all the time. Trump and his new campaign manager Brad Parscale understand that the key to winning elections in the modern era is turning out your base of support on Election Day. Trump was considered too right wing to win in 2016, but he energized the Republican base far more than his predecessors did and pulled out a win against the odds.

To give you a clearer picture of how these bases work, I’ve included a Venn diagram on this page that shows how each major candidate’s base overlaps with each other. Trump, Biden, and Sanders all sport major popularity with the famous ‘white working class’ demographic. Warren overlaps with Sanders among the ‘very progressive’ demographic, while Buttigieg overlaps Warren with highly educated voters. I chose not to include Kamala Harris in this simply because her polling numbers have been in a nosedive for a few weeks. She still has roughly the same support as Buttigieg, but he’s been a little more consistent.

As I said before, the media believes that Biden has the best chance of beating Trump. It’s true that their bases overlap, which gives Biden the potential to ‘steal’ Trump votes. However, it’s hard to deny that the energy on the Democratic side is with Warren, whose support has been steadily rising since the day she announced and has the biggest rallies. Warren’s message clearly resonates with the Democratic base much in the same way that Trump’s did for the Republicans four years ago. So does this mean that Warren has the best chance to beat Trump?

There’s a little more to the story. Unlike Trump, Warren wasn’t the one who shifted the party’s Overton window of acceptable ideas. The wildly popular progressive platform originated with Sanders’ 2016 campaign that directly took on the party’s centrist establishment. Now, Warren and Sanders run on that exact same platform.

Based on the turnout theory, both Sanders and Warren could transform the party’s progressive energy into Election Day turnout. But here’s where the two theories converge. If you take a look back at the diagram, you’ll see that Warren’s base is nowhere close to overlapping Trump’s.  A hypothetical matchup between the two would be a turnout battle, and in that regard Trump has a more proven track record. Sanders, on the other hand, sits in a more advantageous position. His base overlaps with both Warren and Trump. On Election Day he can turn out progressives while also stealing some of the white working class votes that would have otherwise gone to Trump. If you’re a Democrat looking for the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump, Bernie Sanders is your guy.

Republicans’ Cloak and Dagger Electoral Plan


Amid the tumult of Donald Trump’s first year in office, Congressional Republicans quietly devised a method to enhance the party’s likelihood of victory in presidential elections long after Trump’s reign is over and his red-hot base cools off. This method involves a lesser-known aspect of the latest amendment to the tax code. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, often described as a tax cut on the 1%, contained within it a cap on the amount of money paid in state and local taxes (SALT) that could be deducted from an individual’s federal income tax. As it stands, individuals can only deduct up to $10,000 in SALT from their federal taxes, whereas previously the amount was unlimited.

It’s admittedly difficult for people to reach an income level where they actually pay more than $10,000 in SALT. There are certain areas of the country, however, that combine high incomes with very high tax rates and are thus greatly affected by the new law.

A good example is Orange County, California. Orange County was once a GOP stronghold where many residents enjoyed a great deal of wealth partly because the SALT deduction shielded these people from taking the full force of California’s 13.3% top marginal income tax rate. When the new tax law passed, it acted as a very significant tax increase on the wealthy in California and other highly taxed states like New York, Oregon, and New Jersey.

Orange County residents did not take this new development in stride. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats pulled off a clean sweep of the county’s six congressional districts, including four red-to-blue flips. It’s almost unheard of for an area to experience voting shifts of that magnitude in that short of a time span. Did Republicans realize the electoral impact that the new tax law could have? If so, why on Earth would they think it was worth it?

The answer is yes, they did know. At a critical time in determining America’s political future, Republicans are playing a high stakes game. Their plan, it seems, is to use the SALT deduction cap to incentivize the migration of high earners from blue states to red states. In particular, red states with little or no state income tax. It’s no coincidence that at the same as the GOP apocalypse in Orange County, the party was weathering the storm in statewide races in Florida, Texas, and Tennessee, states with a 0% income tax. It’s notable that even during a blue wave and despite a historically unpopular Republican president, the GOP was able to hold on to these states, despite being underdogs in both Tennessee and Florida.

It’s clear that in states with a favorable tax rate, Republicans have a winning economic message.  In the long term, the party will try to create major population growth in states like these while using the SALT deduction cap to foster an uninhabitable economic environment in the bluest states. When population leaves, so do congressional districts, and therefore electoral votes. The tax law made it clear that the Republican strategy isn’t so much to win new states in the Electoral College but to strengthen the states they already have and weaken the states that they don’t.

Want Gun Control? Let’s Get Rid of Primary Elections

Erin Schaff for The New York Times

When something tragic like a mass shooting occurs, people love to start placing blame wherever they can. Sometimes it’s because they passionately believe that they know what the root of the problem is. For most people, though, it’s just a matter of winning cheap political points. The post-shooting political punching bags include a vast array of things like violent video games, social media, and online radicalization. However, the number one most common target is the National Rifle Association.  

The narrative is that the NRA uses the vast amount of funds they receive from membership dues to contribute large sums to the re-election campaigns of incumbent Republicans.  Ignore the narrative. The NRA was ranked just 543rd in total campaign contributions during the 2018 cycle. Their spending is minimal, especially compared to other controversial organizations like Planned Parenthood, who spent over $7 million in 2018 campaign contributions alone.

So, is the narrative completely false or simply misleading? The truth is that the NRA does hold leverage over politicians, but they didn’t necessarily create it themselves. In fact, it comes from a completely democratic process. What the NRA does is assign politicians a letter grade based on their support of gun rights. Voters pay attention to these grades. If you’re elected to Congress, and you vote on bills pertaining to Second Amendment Rights or take public positions on gun issues, the NRA will formulate a grade for you on an A to F scale. Generally speaking, Democrats don’t want anyone with a rating higher than a D, and Republicans don’t want anyone below A.

There are exceptions of course, depending on the area that the member represents. But not many. And the reality is that the sort of gun control legislation that the general public would support is not in the range of possibility for A rated or D rated politicians. Things like universal background checks or a ban on high capacity magazines would seem like they sit somewhere in the middle. But if a politician makes an attempt to reach for a compromise like that on guns, their rating gets unfavorably changed and they begin to fear a primary challenge. If you happen to notice a lawmaker making a serious attempt at a gun control compromise, they either have strong bipartisan support in their district/state, like Sen. Joe Manchin, or they likely don’t plan on running for re-election, like Sen. Pat Toomey.

It’s the very existence of primary elections that puts the country in this position. The problem isn’t so much open field primaries, as those tend to favor electability in candidates. The issue is when a sitting politician is primaried for not being sufficiently far right or far left. This primary mechanism then leaves America with legislatures full of people who either primaried an incumbent or who are politically zealous enough to never have to worry about a primary challenge. These people are then the least likely to work for compromises in legislating since they have very little to gain and everything to lose.

The solution might sound anti-democratic. We need to get rid of legislative primary elections and go back to the smoke filled rooms where candidates are chosen by committees, rather than the party bases.  It’s ironic that more political freedom has actually made our country a worse place, but it’s the reality we live in. As long as our representatives fear the fringe elements of their parties, they will never have the courage to reach the compromises necessary to move our country forward.