Let Me Trash Paul Ryan Some More

On Friday, I pointed out that Paul Ryan is bad at his job. I thought I was done.

And then Devin Nunes kept happening.

Last week, Nunes inexplicably confirmed that the White House Transition team—of which he was part—was incidentally intercepted in FISA warrants. If true, this would amount to learning that we spied on people the Trump’s transition team communicated with. This is hardly surprising; the idea that any incoming administration makes no phone calls to people who are suspected of international criminal activity is laughable. The real scandal here is Nunes throwing out all protocol and decorum and making the information public. It is almost certainly a violation of law.

I figured that Paul Ryan had to feel pretty burned. This story broke on Wednesday, in the lead-up to what should have been his first major achievement of the Trump era. The media frenzy that followed detracted from making his case and likely further chilled the House. (For what its worth, Ryan’s own haste and incompetence doomed the bill either way.) But it also made sense that Ryan would put off dealing with it until after the vote. Disciplinary measures against a Committee chair in the middle of tough vote would be politically unsavvy. Fair enough.

But the bill was pulled on Friday. Further revelations show that Nunes is probably collaborating with the people he is supposed to be investigating. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan has an incentive to see the Trump investigation slow-walked, hidden, and generally set a high burden of proof. Paul Ryan is, lest we forget, a Republican. Nunes is rushing things, running to the press, and spouting half-baked theories. Nunes is a political liablity to Ryan and making it look like they are part of the coverup.

Still he has his chair. It is time for us to admit an uncomfortable truth: Ryan is just not that interested in being Speaker. I don’t mean that he doesn’t want the job, though he said as much. I mean that as Speaker he has been very choosy about which parts of his job he has actually done. It is the Speaker’s job to whip a coalition by negotiating amendments to tough bills; he passed that off to Trump. It is his job to craft a legislative strategy that will work; he’s been quite impotent. And it is his job to keep his coalition in line; Nunes keeps floundering very publically.

In fact, Ryan has only done things that fulfill two criteria: they must be easy and they must relate to entitlements. Nunes requires a politically hard action in the short term and has to do with international espionage. Ryan isn’t here for that.

And given that budget reform looks like it is going to be hard, I have to ask: what is Ryan here for?

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7 Years Should Have Been 8

Nothing highlights how haphazard, ill-conceived, and doomed the Obamacare repeal is quite like scheduling the repeal on the 7th anniversary of its passage.

I’m not knocking the symbolism, per se. Trashing Nancy Pelosi’s legacy on the Anniversary sends a powerful message about what the GOP is doing here. Make no mistake, I am opposed to that message. But I appreciate some good political theater, even from across the aisle. Taking advantage of the anniversary makes sense. My objection is to the sloppiness of this gambit.

It took the Democrats 14 months after Obama took office to craft the legislation and build a coalition around it. The drama of the House vote remains the anecdote I tell to show how formidable she is. After literal years of negotiations, the day of the vote she sat in the Speaker’s chair holding the gavel. As each moderate Democrat walked in, she surveyed them. The threat was both plain and opaque. Figuratively, she was going to beat them to death with that gavel; details of what they stood to lose if they scuttled the most ambitious bill in a generation never emerged. Whatever it was, it was enough. Pelosi watched her bill make it to the President’s desk. In a cruel irony, the bill is now informally named for him, but she was its architect, shepherd, and greatest proponent. If you hate Pelosi or her achievement, it is because she was one of the best Speakers we have ever had.

Paul Ryan looks like an amateur next to her.

Two months is not enough time to craft any kind of healthcare reform. The first embarrassment is that they have only been working on this for a few weeks. Oh, sure, they have been pretending to be repealing Obamacare for 7 years. But the fact of the matter is that those bills lacked substance. And why should they have been more than symbolic shells? Obama was going to veto them, if the Senate even passed them along. Never in those 7 years did the House prepare for the possibility that they might have more than a symbolic shot at the prize.

When Paul Ryan lead the House through divided government, he was hailed as a principled Wunderkind, a visionary, the future of the party. McConnell, after all, is less ideological and much more about the strategy of the game. McConnell is right wing, of course, but that’s not why he is Majority Leader of the Senate. McConnell knows when to make a deal, when to play a parliamentary trick, and when to let the Majority Leader light his caucus on fire. McConnell plays in the same league as Pelosi. Set next to Pelosi and McConnell it is worth asking: Is the hype overblown?

Ryan, it turns out, was a glorified babysitter, good at making his petulant caucus feel like they were taking turns taking shots at Obama. That’s right, Representative Meadows, you are a big boy! Now, let the Moderates have a turn proposing a reform. Here is a cookie. What principles, exactly does that embody? What strategy should we glean from that? Which future does that portend?

Ryan’s sole stroke of genius has been to hand this toxic mess off to Trump. By letting Trump handle the Freedom Caucus (and bad mouth him in the press!), by letting Trump put his name on Ryan’s signature legislation, Ryan is absolving himself of serious political consequences. But again, I ask: What kind of principle is that? It shows good instincts, to be sure. I’m suggesting I expected Ryan to go down with the ship. But poisoning your relationship with the White House only works once. And Trump is especially petty and vindictive; he will not come home quickly or for a small price. That’s the pinnacle of the much-hyped Paul Ryan’s political savvy. He talked Donald Trump into jumping in front of a bus to save him.

It is hard not to wonder: Is Ryan jamming this through because he knows that a once-in-a-generation political scandal is about to swallow the White House? That is certainly consistent with what we’re seeing. But the alternative is that Ryan is a hack who can’t pass legislation with more than symbolic content. That’s possible, too. Whatever his reasons, yesterday drove home just how incompetent he is. Sure, you can hastily call a bill to the floor. But by skipping 12 months of hard work, you are just going to get trashed by your caucus.

You know who knew that?

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Three Paths for the Russia Scandal

With the news that Paul Manafort had a longstanding campaign to advance Russia’s position, it is worth stopping to ask what the endgame looks like. The crass partisanship in parsing the evidence is to be expected, and, I think this is definitely a case where both sides are jumping to conclusions.(“Calm down” is something I am writing a lot in the Trump era.) The fact is that there is a lot we don’t know. So what are the three paths this scandal can take?

  1. Unwitting Agents: The most favorable outcome for the GOP at this point is that the Kremlin manipulated a number of people close to Trump (and perhaps Trump himself) into believing that Russian and American interests aligned. Being duped is not criminal, though it would not be a small scandal either. People posting #ImpeachTrump should square themselves with the fact that a coordinated campaign by the Russians to soften up people around Trump looks an awful lot like a more sinister example of espionage. This will likely be the line of anyone facing legal repercussions from this, but because it is a plausible one. It is hard to imagine that there was no collaboration from Manafort, but that is not the legal standard here.
  2. The Cabinet Goes: One thing that is not getting considered as thoroughly as I think it should is that some fraction of Trump’s White House committed crimes related to Espionage during the campaign, but not Trump himself. The reason its being under-considered is because it is an unsatisfying resolution for both sides; it would be a major, party damaging scandal for the GOP, but short of getting the President. But being politically inconvenient is not the same as being unlikely. I think based on the evidence available today, this is the most likely truth, never mind that it will be easier to prove. Its worth noting this is almost how Watergate turned out before the Smoking Gun tapes were released and that President Park Geun-hye of South Korea tried for this outcome by firing her cabinet. Iran-Contra and the Scooter Libby Scandals both took out a large fraction of their President’s cabinet, but their respective Presidents were never directly implicated. Because of the way power flows through the Executive Branch, it is fairly common for the President to survive scandals that it seems he or she ought to have known about by claiming ignorance.
  3. The President is Impeached and Removed: The evidence here is a lot thinner than a lot of liberals seem to think. It is definitely eyebrow raising that the President is surrounded by people who are on the payroll of Putin and his oligarch buddies. It is definitely eyebrow raising that Trump has some shady financial ties to them. But half the House would be wrong to impeach Trump on such shady evidence, and it would be a scandal in its own right if the Senate found 67 votes to convict on such flimsy grounds.

As we learn more, these options will narrow. Looking at the range here, we have “major scandal borne of gross incompetence” to “Largest scandal in US history”. While there is a lot we don’t know, the fact is that the White House is in a lot of trouble.