Our Three-Party Government


Paul Ryan’s announcement today that he is not running for re-election is a sudden – though not entirely shocking – capstone to an eventful political career: vice presidential candidate, Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee chair, Speaker of the House.

The word is that Ryan is leaving out of a desire to spend more time with his family – he has three school age children – and out of a sense of accomplishment, particularly last fall’s massive tax cut. But it’s no secret that Ryan was never in love with being Speaker. He had to be coaxed into the role when his predecessor John Boehner stepped down in 2015 and Republicans couldn’t agree on anyone else to replace him.

Ryan’s tenure as Speaker will be remembered for his ability to garner respect (albeit grudging at times) from all wings of his fractious party. But his speakership, and that of Boehner, reveal another important truth: there are really three parties in Washington. And none of them have a working majority.

There are the Democrats, of course, who are unified by a loathing of Donald Trump and essentially nothing else.

There are the Republicans, the establishment party of Wall Street and Big Business, supporters of robust international engagement and free trade.

And then there is that third party: nationalist, nativist, pro-gun, anti-trade. And very, very angry.

Born from the ashes of the Republicans’ 2008 electoral collapse, it first took shape as the Tea Party, riding a wave of fury over Obamacare and the financial bailout. The Republican Party co-opted this group long enough to secure a House majority in 2010 and a Senate majority in 2014. But like a parasite that subsumes its host, the Angry Party has all but conquered the GOP.

Despite a membership that is estimated at around just 30 or 40 members, the House Freedom Caucus – the institutional home of the Angry Party – has wielded undue influence over the House Republican Caucus. On issue after issue they have stymied efforts by Boehner and then Ryan to strike deals with Democrats and even Senate Republicans. They are credited (or blamed) for driving Boehner from the Speaker’s chair, and have made Paul Ryan’s life miserable ever since.

Of course, the Angry Party’s greatest triumph came in 2016, when Donald Trump, who channels the anger of the Angry Party better than anyone, not only won the Republican nomination, but saw the GOP coalesce around him. Other than a manic desire to slash taxes, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are as different in temperament and style as two people could possibly be,. Yet it was Ryan’s ally and fellow Badger Stater, Reince Priebus who as Chair of the Republican National Committee gave Trump legitimacy by getting the party behind him once the nomination was locked up. Ever since Trump’s election, Ryan has chosen a path of gently rebuking Trump when it was absolutely necessary, but otherwise working hand-in-hand with him on major issues.

For Ryan, as with Boehner, the political calculus has been clear: pass legislation backed by the Freedom Caucus and watch it die in the Senate, or secure Democratic support and risk being overthrown.

In that sense, both Ryan and Boehner were less leaders of a majority party, and more akin to prime ministers, cobbling together a coalition government of two separate parties who don’t particularly trust each other, but need each other to succeed. As most nations with parliamentary systems can attest, coalition governments are very hard to maintain over a long period of time.

Paul Ryan tried to keep the coalition together. But it’s hard when all the passion is with one side. And as Ryan joins the ever-growing list of establishment House Republicans not seeking re-election, the uncivil civil war between the Reductions and the Angries will enter a new phase. Undoubtedly, the next Republican leader will need to have the support of the Freedom Caucus. It is not out of the question that the next House Republican leader will actually be a member of the Freedom Caucus, giving the Angry Party control over two of the three policy-making centers of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping they can keep their warring factions cohesive long enough to win back the House in November.

Either way, Paul Ryan’s greatest legacy might be being the last Republican Speaker of the House for a long time.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

With or Without Pruitt, Don’t Expect Environmental Protection from the EPA

pruitt photo

By the time you read this sentence, Scott Pruitt might be gone as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (or he might be Attorney General; stay tuned!).

The man who the New York Times’ Gail Collins anointed the Worst Member of the Trump Administration is now more famous for his ethically-challenged management of the Agency – from his sweetheart condo deal to his legally suspect staff pay raises to his lavish office furnishings to his abuse of his security detail in the service of grantinee a l’oignon  – than for the policies he’s tried to implement.

Should Pruitt get the axe, there’s no doubt the environmental community will rejoice. Pruitt made a name for himself as Oklahoma attorney general by suing the very agency he now leads. His fervent opposition to EPA’s core mission of protecting the environment was clear from the start. And in his time at the helm, he’s overseen the gutting of numerous rules designed to keep the air and water clean (not to mention his successful campaign to get President Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords).

The reality is that Scott Pruitt has been a remarkably effective political appointee – perhaps the most successful high-level Trump pick, measured by the extent to which he has fulfilled Trump’s campaign promises. Even as scandal has swirled around him, Pruitt is hard at work pulling back fuel mileage standards for cars and trucks, threatening Clean Water Act regulations, and rescinding Obama’s climate change-fighting Clean Power Plan.

No wonder that a lot of folks who oppose his policies would likely breathe a sigh of relief at his departure. But make no mistake: Scott Pruitt is not the reason the Trump administration has been a boon to polluters. It all starts at the top.

Remember that Donald Trump himself made antagonism towards the environment one of his core campaign features, from his longstanding belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax to his vow to revive the coal industry. Scott Pruitt may be a particularly effective foot soldier in Trump’s war on environmental protections, but he’s far from the only one.

Even if Pruitt goes, the others remain, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is determined to bail out the coal industry at any cost; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is a one-man natural resources wrecking crew. And let’s be honest: it’s not likely that Donald Trump would select a committed environmentalist as his next EPA head should Pruitt go. There are plenty of mini-Scotts ready to take the battle to the planet.

True, a less skilled politico than Scott Pruitt may have a harder time in getting his or her way on rolling back environmental policies. But those skills simply aren’t as necessary anymore, as the President purges his inner circle of anyone who tries to moderate his policy whims. Consider that when Scott Pruitt was lobbying Trump to exit the Paris accords, he was going up against, among others, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Both are now gone, and it’s a safe bet to say that their respective successors, Mike Pompeo and Larry Kudlow, would be more likely to agree with Pruitt. In fact, most of the policy guardrails are gone, leaving an administration of appointees who’ve learned that catering to Trump’s extreme whims is the fastest ticket to job security. Should Pruitt leave, the next EPA Administrator will likely find that accelerating Pruitt’s work is the best way to stay on Donald Trump’s good side.

In fact, the newt EPA administrator will face a pretty low bar on a host of fronts. So long as he or she doesn’t turn on the sirens every time they get a craving for escargot and opts for slightly less expensive office decor, they will come off as an improvement over Pruitt, giving them more leeway to pursue Trump’s agenda out of the spotlight.

Ultimately, that is the biggest reason why Pruitt’s possible departure won’t mean a brighter future for environmental protection: so long as the chaos emanating from the administration on everything from Russia to Stormy Daniels to the border wall sucks up attention, the real work of dismantling the environmental safety net that took half a century to build can move ahead in the dark.

Scott Pruitt may soon be gone, but his legacy will live on.

Photo: Gage Skidmore


The Incredibly Racist Reason You’ll Be Hearing a Lot More About the Caravan

border wall protoDonald Trump’s Easter weekend Tweetfest introduced many Americans to the “caravan.”

As he exclaimed on Sunday morning (immediately after offering a “HAPPY EASTER!”):

Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!

He subsequently tweeted that “Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large ‘Caravans’ of people enter their country” and that “These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!”

The “caravan” to which he is referring is an annual event in which aid groups help migrants heading north travel as a group to protect them from drug cartels, pirates and other dangers. This year, a group of about 1000 people, mostly Honduran, are travelling together towards the United States, where many will attempt to seek political asylum.

Put aside for a moment that the caravan has nothing to do with DACA, as the migrants are not eligible for the Dreamers program, or that very few migrants who apply for asylum actually achieve it. Expect to hear a lot more about the caravan in the coming days. Why? Because it is the perfect symbol of Donald Trump’s white nationalist world view: an armada of dark-skinned foreigners marching inexorably towards the civilized (i.e., Western) world to take it over. In fact, to many of Trump’s supporters it is life imitating art.

The “art” in question is The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail that envisions an armada of refugees from the Indian subcontinent overwhelming France, causing Western civilization to collapse.

The book is profoundly racist, presenting the Indian refugees as subhumans who literally eat their own feces and engage in the most disgusting forms of depravity on their ships: “Everywhere, rivers of sperm… streaming over bodies, oozing between breasts, and buttocks, and thighs, and lips, and fingers.”

The book is not some sick escapist fantasy: it was intended as a warning. In Raspail’s story, France is split between leftists who want to welcome the refugees with open arms – and are ultimately massacred by the invading barbarians – and those who believe in “scorn of people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest.”  In the end, the West’s division and weakness allows the rampaging horde to take over, leading to such atrocities as the Queen of England being forced to marry her daughter to a Pakistani.

The book has become a cult favorite of white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. It includes among its adherents the Intellectual Godfather of Trumpism, Steve Bannon, who during the 2016 campaign frequently compared the Syrian refugee crisis to the book. “It’s been almost a Camp of the Saints-type invasion into Central and then Western and Northern Europe,” he said during a Breitbart interview with then-Senator Jeff Sessions in 2015.

Those who adhere to this world view  no doubt believe that the flow of people from Central and South America towards the U.S. is exactly the same as what France experiences in the book – and that America faces the same existentialist threat if it fails to stop the invading horde. That’s why Trump’s border wall has such resonance: it is, in the mind of some of his supporters a last-ditch effort to stop the destruction of a country that once was (and soon will be) great.

At a time when Trump’s efforts to build his “big, beautiful wall” have hit roadblocks from a recalcitrant Congress (not to mention that Mexico seems less than willing to pay for it), expect the President to ratchet up the urgency factor by citing the caravan as proof that America’s days are numbered.

None of this is to say that the immigration issue is not complex, and that those who advocate for stronger border protections are automatically racist. Remember that the Obama administration took steps to stem the flow of refugees from Latin America in 2014.

But when Donald Trump tweets about the “caravan” of people heading towards our shores, it is a not-too-subtle dog whistle for those who truly believe that America faces the same fate as the France of Raspail’s book.

In other words, the racist rantings of the white nationalist movement have, for all intents and purposes, found a welcome home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will soon get a Twitter shout-out.