Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

The defeat was, of course, humiliating — for Donald Trump, for Paul Ryan, for every Republican who had ever promised to repeal Obamacare, meaning every Republican not named Lincoln.

It was, after all, a defeat that will launch a thousand is-Trump-tired-of-winning-yet tweets.

It was a defeat that punctuates, with an exclamation point, the long string of defeats, nearly all of them self-inflicted, that have marked Trump’s first two months in office — from the first week wasted in debating his inaugural crowd size to the last few weeks wasted in cajoling and threatening and Mar-a-Lagoing his way to a defeat on Trump/Ryancare.

But this was mostly a defeat for a party that had defined itself in opposition to Obamacare. For seven long years, Republicans had vowed to rid America of this scourge. For seven long years, they had campaigned against the plan, winning the House, the Senate and the presidency in the process. For seven long years, they contended they had something better to offer. The House voted more than 60 times to repeal Obamacare, and when they finally had a president who would sign repeal legislation, they had nothing. Actually, what they had was worse than nothing.

It was a given that Donald Trump would have no plan. He promised something beautiful that would cover everybody, but anyone paying attention knew that his secret health care plan was no more credible than his secret plan to defeat ISIS. Trump doesn’t do policy. He said, to his embarrassment, that no one (meaning him) had any idea that health care was so complicated. You could almost laugh if it weren’t for the millions of lives at stake.

But then there was Speaker Paul Ryan, the great right conservative hope whose ideas, we’ve been told, would reshape the nation. Trump punted to Ryan, and Ryan promptly fumbled.

Ryan didn’t just fail. Since he had never bothered, in seven long years, to prepare a viable real-world healthcare plan, he had to cobble one together in days. Trump wouldn’t wait. After all, the president had promised to repeal and replace Obamacare immediately after taking office. Ryan’s plan was was so poorly conceived that it was opposed by doctors, by hospitals, by think tanks, by left, by right, by virtually everyone.

Where to begin?  As the CBO scoring noted, the plan would rob 24 million Americans of coverage, and that was basically the game. But there’s more. And less. It would rob $880 billion from Medicaid, a program Trump had promised would go untouched. It would allow insurance companies not to provide essential health benefits in their plans, as in essential health benefits. It would literally, as the CBO also pointed out, take money from the poor and the elderly to give to the rich and the healthy. It would remove the hated mandate — and replace it with a 30 percent penalty for those whose insurance is discontinued, with that 30 percent going to, yes, insurance companies. No wonder no one liked it.

But even worse than the Trump/Ryancare plan and even worse than its defeat was the post-humiliation analysis from the leading parties themselves. Donald Trump, whose party has a 44-vote majority in the House, blamed the defeat on — wait for it — Democrats, who, shockingly, didn’t contribute a single vote to the cause of dismantling their most significant legislative achievement of the last decade.

This is what Trump told The Washington Post’s Bob Costa in his first interview after he pulled the bill: “Hey, we could have done this,” he said. “But we couldn’t get one Democrat vote, not one. So that means they own Obamacare and when that explodes, they will come to us wanting to save whatever is left, and we’ll make a real deal.”

It was strange enough that Trump’s first two phone calls after the debacle were to the enemies of the people, The Washington Post and to The New York Times. Stranger still was his position to walk away from healthcare altogether. “Enough already,” he said. Sean Spicer said Trump had “left it all out there on the field,” but Obamacare took many months to complete. Trump/Ryancare went down in weeks. Trump barely made it out of the locker room.

Where, you ask, was the self-described closer who won the presidency on the notion that he alone can make the deals that will fix our dysfunctional system? He, alone, did try for a while, but he couldn’t sell the plan to his own party because 1) factions of his party violently disagree; 2) he had no idea of the details of his own plan; 3) he threatened that it was this plan or nothing; 4) after conceding issue after issue to the right-wing Freedom Caucus, they still wouldn’t vote with him.

So now Trump says he’ll wait for Democrats to come begging, which is apparently his entire Plan B. Meanwhile, he’ll do his best to sabotage Obamacare, which covers millions of citizens of the country he leads. You could almost call it a betrayal of the American people, but, fortunately for Trump, the FBI already has other possible betrayals to investigate.

Then there was a humbled Ryan, who said Obamacare was the law “for the foreseeable future.” He also conceded that Republicans were still learning how to govern. It was good of him to admit this, but it was a gift to Democrats, just as the failure to repeal Obamacare was a gift. Ask Mike Coffman, who supported the plan because he didn’t have the nerve to do anything else, and will now be facing ready-made attack ads in 2018 for his troubles.

When Ryan came to the Oval Office to tell the president they didn’t have the votes, Trump was, naturally, upset. He had assumed Republicans would fold before his deal-making prowess. When they didn’t, he told Ryan he wanted the vote to proceed anyway.  He wanted revenge against those who dared to oppose him. He wanted names named.

Over a lunch of chicken, brussels sprouts and twice-baked potatoes — as The New York Times reported — Ryan begged him to pull the plan, arguing that a vote would compound the GOP disaster. Trump finally relented — presumably it was the potatoes — telling Ryan he could pull the doomed bill.

Let it be noted: It was the closest either Trump or Ryan came to victory all day.

Flickr photo by alanagkelly.



Let’s call it Mr. Gorsuch goes to Washington. And in ordinary times, there would be no question how the movie ends. Jimmy Stewart gets the girl, golly-gee Neil Gorsuch gets the job and somehow mutton busting becomes a national craze.

But, as you know too well, these are not ordinary times. In ordinary times, John Hickenlooper wouldn’t be trying to give cover to Senate Democrats (see: Bennet, Michael) to delay or even derail the nomination of a fellow Coloradan. In ordinary times, revenge wouldn’t be the guiding principle in opposing a Supreme Court nominee.

In these times, Gorsuch has two substantial obstacles to overcome, and neither of them has anything to do with his very conservative record while judge on the 10th Circuit in Denver or even his improbable dissent in the case of the frozen trucker (more on that, and on the mutton, later).

The twin obstacles are Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, in that order. And when Trump is your second-biggest problem, you know the first has to be huge.

It was McConnell, of course, who blocked Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from getting so much as a hearing last year in his bid to replace the late Antonin Scalia. McConnell made the case, flimsy as it was, that since Barack Obama was in his last year of office — this was last March — that somehow time had run out on him and now it should be up to the people to decide.

You may remember that, for the people, it was a split decision. Hillary Clinton got more votes. Donald Trump got more electoral votes. And so the Merrick Garland gamble worked for McConnell, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham would say that he was relieved Trump nominated someone as qualified as Gorsuch. “Quite frankly,” Graham said, “I was worried about who he’d pick. Maybe someone on TV.” Graham got a knowing laugh.

Anyway, Democrats feel that the fifth liberal vote on the court was stolen from them, and, as Hickenlooper said of the GOP treatment of Garland, “actions, like elections, have consequences.”

“If someone commits an offense against you, generally, if there’s no consequence — if you just walk away and there’s no consequence — if you have another opportunity, you can be pretty much assured that he’ll do that same thing again,” Hickenlooper said at a press conference. For Hickenlooper, who didn’t take a personal stand on the vote, that’s the rough equivalent of calling on Democrats to man the barricades. And it offers Bennet a rationale for voting against the nomination.

And then there’s Trump. He followed Gorsuch’s gaffe-free day of testimony — in which the judge repeated his statement that he was “disheartened” by the criticisms, meaning Trump’s criticisms, of federal judges — by criticizing federal judges.

At a fundraiser, Trump said, “Somebody said I should not criticize judges. OK, I’ll criticize judges.” And then, knowing that the somebody was his Supreme Court nominee, went on to criticize the latest federal judge who had the nerve to question Trump’s judgment. That line, by the way, is now nearly as long as the buffet line at Mar-a-Lago.

As Trump embarrassments go, it was a minor one, unless you were Gorsuch, who must be shaking his head at the strange route he must take to get to the Supreme Court.

Otherwise, Democrats have little to work with. There’s no scandal. There are a few questionable cases, of course, including the for-profit-corporations-have-constitutionally-protected religious-rights-too Hobby Lobby case. There’s the frozen trucker who broke the rules by leaving his broken down trailer behind while driving away in freezing weather and was fired for trying to save his life. The rule said you can’t be fired for refusing to drive an unsafe truck, but can be fired for refusing to stay by your trailer. Gorsuch, who went literal, conceded how sorry he felt for the driver, but that the law was the law. Al Franken, who questioned him about it, said his life’s work had been identifying the “absurd,”and that he knew absurd when he saw it.

Gorsuch’s testimony got a little testy as the day dragged on and as Democrats hit him with tougher questions, but, in general, this was a case study in how not to say anything that can be used against you, now or forever, but to do it affably.

Much of the testimony from Gorsuch — a reliably conservative judge who would no doubt become a reliably conservative justice, a Scalia-style thinker but with a folksy disposition — was about how the law is everything to him, about how there are no Democratic judges or Republican judges, only judges, about how if Trump had asked him to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, he would have walked out of the office. Gorsuch insisted he was an independent judge, and Democrats, who get another try today to get Gorsuch to say anything controversial, are still looking for anything that will stick.

The stakes are absurdly high in that Gorsuch, just 49, could be on the court for three or four decades. But to recap: Republicans have 52 Senate votes, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have 48. If Democrats filibuster, Republicans need eight Democrats to defect. If Democrats filibuster and there aren’t eight defectors, Republicans have to decide whether to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees (as Harry Reid did in a similar situation for other federal judge nominations.)

If Democrats lose the filibuster, they wouldn’t have it to use if Trump gets the chance to replace one of the older liberal justices on the court. Worse, McConnell could conceivably end the filibuster altogether. Although I doubt seriously he’d do it, I don’t doubt that he’d threaten it. And while I’m generally anti-filibuster, I make one exception for any and all years in which Donald Trump is president.

The Democratic base wants a fight no matter what the stakes, and I’ve already written that, on most days, I believe that fighting spirit should be honored. But meanwhile, Michael Bennet is in a lose-lose situation. The Denver legal and business establishment wants him to vote for Gorsuch. The Democrats, if they filibuster, will need him to vote against. Bennet is not saying anything except that Gorsuch should get a fair hearing, which, he noted, was more than Garland received.

If Gorsuch makes it to the Supreme Court, he would be the second Coloradan. The legendary Whizzer White, Gorsuch’s idol, was the first and only. Much has been made of Gorsuch’s not-so-humble Western roots. The drinking game for Tuesday’s hearing was to raise up every time Gorsuch referred to Colorado — as in his story of his kids riding sheep, mutton busting, at the National Western Stock Show. But for Michael Bennet, each reference meant another pull at the Pepto Bismol bottle. It may be of little consolation to Bennet, but I’m guessing a lot of Democratic senators can relate.

Photo by James Bowe via Flickr:Creative Commons



And so, another day in TrumpWorld comes to a close. And like many of you, I find myself wondering how many more we can possibly take.

It’s not just the non-stop, every-damned-day madness of it. It’s the day-after-day-after-day accumulation of that madness. It’s knowing that we’re only two months in and that, according to my calendar, there are many more maddening months of Donald Trump yet to come.

And there’s this idea that keeps coming back to me — that those of us living in TrumpWorld are already suffering from the political version of PTSD and that the symptoms will only grow worse. It’s all going too fast, and yet not nearly fast enough. What’s that line about the center not holding? We can’t even find the center any more.

On this day, the head of the FBI basically called the president a liar before a congressional committee. In modern terms, and maybe in any terms, that is unprecedented. Of course, Trump is a liar. Everyone knows he’s a liar, his hapless defenders most of all. But knowing it and hearing James Comey very publicly confirm it are two different things.

In any other time, it would have been shocking to hear Comey’s testimony. But what was truly shocking was how unremarkable it all seemed. There were no gasps. There was no one—outside of combative Sean Spicer anyway—rushing to Trump’s defense. This is exactly what everyone expected Comey to say.

And yet. And yet.

When Comey wasn’t putting the absurdity of Trump’s wiretap accusation to rest, he was confirming the news that the FBI was, in fact, investigating whether anyone in the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians to, well, undermine American democracy.

And when Comey wasn’t deflecting questions about the investigation, Rep. Adam Schiff, a rare bright Democratic light, was making the circumstantial case for why the FBI should be investigating, finally asking this: “Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”

And when Schiff wasn’t hitting the Flynn-Sessions-Manafort-Stone-Page-Russia connection, we were hearing that, of course, the British were no more likely than Obama to have planted a bug in Trump Tower.

It’s hard to imagine a worse day for a president. But what we can safely predict is that worse days are coming and that the pace, if the first two months are any indication, will only quicken.

The last time there was a day like this at the White House, Nixon was president, and, in Woodward and Bernstein’s telling, he was roaming the halls late at night talking to the portraits of presidents past. You may remember the famous SNL sketch in which Dan Aykroyd, playing Nixon, approached Lincoln’s portrait and said, “Abe, you were lucky. They shot you.”

You know the joke told in liberal circles that the best five seconds of the day come just after you wake up and before you remember Trump is still president. But, as it happens, long before that magical five seconds, Trump is already up getting his tweet on.

Here’s the text of one Trump sent early Monday in an effort to undercut Comey: “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!”

While Comey made short work of that tweet, Trump wasn’t done. Trump — or, more likely, someone on his staff — was live tweeting the Comey hearing and making this claim:  “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.” And so we watched — and this was shocking — as Comey was asked live about the live tweet and said, of course, that he hadn’t said any such thing. The live tweet was dead on arrival.

And so we have a tweeted Trump lie to launch the hearing, a tweeted Trump lie to set the stage for the hearing, and a tweeted Trump lie during the hearing. This, my friends, is the real March madness.

A couple of weeks ago, in maybe the most cogent tweet of the Trump era, one-time Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett had said, “Take Nixon in the deepest days of his Watergate paranoia, subtract 50 IQ points, add Twitter, and you have Trump today.”

If Trump today had never accused Obama of wiretapping, this day could have been quite different. The headlines would have gone to Neil Gorsuch, who was in his first day of hearings as Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. This was the easy day, a day of opening statements, handshakes, smiles and Gorsuch scoring a bipartisan introduction from Michael Bennet, who isn’t saying whether or not he’ll vote to confirm Gorsuch, and Cory Gardner, who is a definite yes.

Instead, the headlines included the fact that, despite the evidence, Trump wasn’t backing down from the wiretap claim, which originated, Trump has admitted, when he read something on Breitbart. Instead of asking his intelligence team to look into it, he sent out a tweet accusing his predecessor of a felony. And when his intelligence team calls him out on the lie — we’re still waiting for the new evidence — Trump says he still believe it’s true because, well, he believes it’s true.

That’s TrumpWorld today and counting. God only knows what it will be tomorrow.

Caricature by DonkeyHotey via Flickr: Creative Commons

Despite what you may have heard about the so-called devastating CBO report on the Trump/Ryan answer to Obamacare, the report is actually quite encouraging.

What I mean is, the report is so bad, so incredibly and incriminatingly bad, that no one in his right mind could still think this bill would ever become law. How much more encouragement could you ask for?

The CBO report reveals many things, but, for our purposes, we’ll go with the two most revealing and most damning.

First, we go to the numbers. In 10 years, the CBO report projects that 24 million fewer people would be insured under Trumpcare. You’ve no doubt seen that number, but stop and consider what 24 million actually means. Those are living, breathing (for now, anyway) people. Many of them are voters. Most of them are low-income voters. Many of them are Trump voters. Most of them are among the most financially vulnerable American voters.

And here’s an even more startling number: The bill that would completely wipe out the insurance-coverage gains made by Obamacare would also mean 14 million more people without insurance in the first year. Yes, in the very first year.

These numbers reveal, of course, the lie in everything Donald Trump has ever said about Trumpcare. He said the plan would be “terrific.” He said “everybody” would be covered. He said (actually, Tom Price, Trump’s health secretary, said it) that no one should lose coverage under Trumpcare, a prediction that seems to be off by around 24 million. Trump said he wouldn’t mess with Medicaid, which, it turns out, would be cut by an astonishing $880 billion.

In other words, the bill was revealed to be both monstrously cruel and, surprise, politically untenable. Who thought up this thing?

Oh yeah. We know who thought it up. Which brings us to the second big reveal. Paul Ryan, who takes ownership of the bill, insists that he loves the CBO report. The speaker said he found it “encouraging.” He insisted that it “exceeded” his expectations. He said that of course the report would show huge increases in the uninsured because “government is not going to force people to buy something they don’t want to buy.”

Paul Ryan is at least being honest when he says he loves a bill that cuts Medicaid by a quarter. He loves a bill that reduces the deficit over the next decade by $300 billion, and especially because the rest of the $880 billion saved on Medicaid goes to tax cuts for the rich. He doesn’t seem at all fazed by this unalternative fact that you’ll see again and again and again: When we reach the 10-year mark under this plan, a 64-year-old who makes a $26,500 salary would pay nearly $13,000 more in annual premiums. You can do the math here. Anyone can do the math. Even Donald Trump can do the math.

The rich benefit from this plan. The poor and near-poor do not. The young and healthy benefit from this plan. The older and sicker do not. It is, as several pundits have noted, a giant wealth-redistribution plan, with the redistributing going in exactly the wrong direction and on an unprecedented scale.

What the report makes clear  — and what Ryan doesn’t even bother to deny — is Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian view of freedom. Yes, Americans would have the freedom to keep their own doctors. They just wouldn’t have  the money with which to pay them.

So, what happens now?

I’m imagining that Cory Gardner must be much relieved by this report. He had warned that he couldn’t support a bill that jeopardizes those 400,000 Coloradans getting their coverage from the expansion of Medicaid. Well, if that’s the case, he definitely can’t support this bill. Nor could he possibly support a bill that weighs so heavily on white working-class voters — you know, the Republican base. There’s a reason it took seven years to find a bill to adequately replace Obamacare that also meets Republican standards. Because there is no such bill that does both things.

Gardner is off the hook. And if Gardner is off the hook, so are a bunch of other Republicans who were already wary of the bill. Six GOP senators, including Gardner, had criticized the bill before the CBO report. Add 24 million uninsured, and voting for the bill becomes a political suicide mission. Do not expect Gardner to volunteer.

The big question, though, is what Trump does. If he sticks with the bill and it loses — possibly even in the House — then you’ve got that winning-so-much-you’ll-be-tired-of-winning issue. If he sticks with the bill and it loses, it also breaks one of Trump’s primary campaign promises, which was to repeal and replace Obamacare. He is already underwater with his promise that Mexico would pay for the border wall, and it’s not even certain that his big beautiful wall will ever be built.

Now Trump did say — and many of us are still chuckling — that no one had any idea that health care reform could be so complicated. It was nearly as absurd as Trump’s claim that Obama was wiretapping him, but, absurd as it was, the health care claim might give the president a way out.

All it would take is for Trump to throw Ryan under the bus. Trump, who as of this writing has said nothing about the CBO report, could say that he was shocked by its findings, that Ryan assured him that the bill would do everything that Trump had promised instead of, well, none of the things he had promised.

Trump could say that Ryan betrayed him. It might even be true. And here’s the bonus: If Trump throws the plan over, he could actually take credit for the millions of Americans who wouldn’t be betrayed.


Illustration by DonkeyHotey

Let’s give Paul Ryan and his Trumpcare team a little credit. Sure, they’re trying to pull a fast one on us with the jury-rigged, sure-to-fail replacement for Obamacare.

But at least they’re being honest about it. In their way.

I mean, when you don’t have public hearings. And when the committee hearings you do have take place in the middle of the night. And when you write up the bill before the Ryan-appointed head of the Congressional Budget Office can even deliver a score on it — what it costs, what it will mean for the deficit and, most important, how many people will lose their insurance because of it — it’s all pretty clear.

They’re being as honest as possible about their dishonesty. They’re telling you up front that they have every intention of getting this thing out of the way before people even know why they should object to it. And so, when you have very conservative Sen. Tom Cotton telling the House to slow down and start over — tweeting: “Get it right, don’t get it fast” — the game is over, if you don’t count the fact that we’re still being played.

Look, there are many reasons to oppose Trumpcare. But there are even more reasons not to trust anything its supporters tell you about it.

We begin with the Trumpian promises, which you can always discount, or maybe you still think Mexico will pay for the border wall. (Did you see Cory Gardner go roguish and say the wall was a bad idea? Maybe, just maybe, he will have the nerve to oppose Trumpcare.) Anyway, Trump said his replacement plan would be terrific, and he said it would cover everyone, and he promised more coverage for less. That’s when he wasn’t tweeting that Obama was wiretapping his phone.

No one believed any of that anyway — not least because much of it is impossible — but when it turns out that the bill cuts taxes for the rich and makes insurance less affordable for the poor, you’d think (anyone would think) they must have gotten something backwards.

They didn’t. They put together a bill, as Ezra Klein points out, that has no idea what it’s trying to accomplish other than to be a bill that wouldn’t be Obamacare.

It’s a bill, as experts from all parts of the health-care world point out, that keeps the much-maligned Obamacare structure in place but weakens it at every critical point.

It’s a bill that gets rid of the punishing mandate (which was never punishing enough to really work) and replaces it with tax credits in such a way that the Brookings Institution, for one, says will cost 15 million people their health care coverage. Other estimates run as high as 20 million. The CBO should weigh in next week.

The bill’s supporters tell you they believe in choice, but they neglect to say that the choice can be between health care and, you know, food. The plan hits hardest those who will lose their Medicaid and the working poor in the years before they’re eligible for Medicare. That’s why the AMA opposes it and the AARP opposes it and hospital groups oppose it and basically anyone that has anything to do with healthcare opposes it.

But then there’s another reason you should be skeptical of the bill — besides the one about defunding Planned Parenthood, which is in there because, as one pundit noted, apparently all GOP-sponsored  bills must defund Planned Parenthood — and that’s because at least two congressmen have slipped and told their version of the truth. Warning: It may not match yours.

We’ll go with the less offensive one first. That’s from Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who made the infamous iPhone analogy, apparently an updated reworking of Cadillacs and welfare queens. Chaffetz said, as you might guess, that the Trumpcare plan is all about choice and the choice that some low-income people must make is between “getting that new iPhone that they just love” or investing in healthcare. Over at the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, they broke that down.

Something like 50 percent of us get a new smart phone every two years. Wonkblog used the most expensive iPhone for comparison, which checks it at about $800. Two years of no-bells-or-whistles, individual health-care runs you somewhere over $9,000, and that’s if you don’t have to worry about deductibles, which, on this kind of plan, run about $4,000 a year. In other words, we’re talking a lot of iPhones and not a real choice.

But Chaffetz can’t compare to Kansas congressman Roger Marshall, who is a doctor and a bonafide member of the GOP Doctors Caucus. When asked by a healthcare website called STAT about Medicaid and its Obamacare expansion, he had this to say: “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

When STAT pressed him on that, he said, “Just, like, homeless people … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, (some people) just don’t want health care.”

Marshall would later release a statement saying that his comments had been misinterpreted. But I think we know exactly what he meant. He doesn’t understand why we should go out of our way to provide healthcare to poor people when, he says, they don’t even want it. Honestly, do you wonder why he supports Trumpcare?


Photo by Tony Alter via Flickr: Creative Common