Monday, March 2, 2015

Jeb v. Walker: A Showdown for the Soul of the GOP

Coming out of CPAC we note that:

  1. Scott Walker is a first-tier candidate.
  2. Jeb Bush was very, very good.
To be sure, both of these statements (taken from headline articles today on RealClearPolitics) come with a ton of qualifiers. Walker is, without question, first-tier--but how much that means so early is still up in the air. The Jeb-love comes from the Washington Post so it's suspect in relation to a Republican primary that hasn't even officially started yet.

About the most we can definitively say is that both men hit their markers--they did what they needed to do and they are both certainly still contenders.

Who Will Win?
The Omnivore thinks that right now this primary comes down to Jeb vs. Walker for a single very clear reason: he unites the base without being a non-starter (like the 2012 crew of Anyone-But-Romneys such as Herman Cain). This is very powerful for the primary--but it also speaks well to the General Election.

To get past Walker on the right you would need (a) a pretty darn flawless record on conservative topics, (b) a reasonable list of accomplishments in office, and (c) no other major flaws. It would also help to be (d) seen as "electable" (as troubling as that term is to a lot of conservatives). Rick Perry fit in that category in 2012--and was poised to do very well until his campaign exploded on the launch-pad. Rested, ready, and without heavy medication for his back surgery he could give Walker a run for his money--if he weren't already damaged goods.

Rubio and Jindal both have a play to Walker's near left--but it's a limited one. Ultimately neither of them are as exciting (to the base GOP voters) as Walker and when guys like Cruz and Rand Paul incinerate on reentry into an actual national campaign Walker will still be standing.

Conversely there's no room at all on Jeb Bush's left as he's running the General Election during The Primary. This, by the orthodox tactical doctrine, ought to be fatal--but Bush might just pull it off. In script writing we call drawing attention to something you might otherwise want to hide (because you know you can't hide it) lampshading.

In this case, Jeb Bush is lampshading his RINO-hood. Who knows? It might just work for him.

This is why Jeb v. Bush really is a showdown for the soul of the Republican party. If Walker wins then the GOP is a conservative party. If Jeb wins, it's a RINO-infested party of squishy moderates. There probably just isn't room for anyone else unless one of the two self-destructs or Jeb is clobbered out of existence early on.

What Could Take Out Walker
While there is the possibility that Walker really isn't ready for prime-time, The Omnivore thinks that's unlikely. Gaffes are pretty common in politics and Walker has said a few things that play decently with the base but sound kind of ghastly out of context with people in general--that said, he hasn't said anything totally stupid yet (YMMV, of course--but The Omnivore knows a serious gaffe when he sees one and hasn't seen one yet).

Of course it may come out that he's not suitable for office and, hey, that's a problem (then again, Sarah Palin wasn't suitable for the presidency and she got pretty far and still has a fan base). Still, more likely, if anything takes out Walker it'll be:
  1. Union Busting - Not so Good In Some Crucial Swing-States: Walker makes union-busting a key piece of his appeal with conservatives. He did it with public-service unions--but there have been some complaints from, like, the NFL's player-union about him. Could that cripple him in the winner-takes-all Ohio? Maybe. Maybe not.
  2. Hit-Jobs and Stalking Horses: Walker is still relatively unknown to the populace at large. If other 2nd Tier candidates team up to take him down, maybe they could do some damage. Liberal elites calling him kind-of-a-dumbass because "He doesn't have college! Oh My!" are one thing--that could help him. Other GOP governors doing it might not. Of course Team Jeb will quietly encourage other candidates to go kamakazi at him on the debate stages. Does Jindal want Secretary of State? You Betcha.
  3. A Scandalishous Scandal:  People are digging. The Omnivore doesn't think they'll find much: the guy has been planning this since, like, first grade. But you never know. He's going to be vetted like your pets get vetted. Like 'taken to the vet every week until Nov 2016.' If there's anything bad, they'll find it.
  4. Lack Of Mockingjay (Doesn't Catch Fire): Walker gave a good speech in Iowa. He's done okay at CPAC. However, those are friendly crowds, his life's story plays to his strong points there. There's a possibility that as he gets more exposure he has to play it safer (doesn't seem like him though, does it?). If he can't turn on the charisma on the national stage it's possible he could get leapfrogged by someone like . . . Ted Cruz? Maybe Rubio? Perry's new glasses? Someone who has real charisma might have a shot. Again, though, the odds are against this. Walker is probably 'likable enough' when the chips are down.
What Could Take Out Bush?
It is fair to say that Jeb won't have problems raising money throughout the whole primary. He probably plans on getting beat up early and staying beat up for a good long while. He'd better be planning on that, anyway. However, there's only so long you can come out in the bottom (or 3rd) in a poll. If Jeb loses Super Tuesday (or equivalent) he might be out.

Basically the race is Walker's to lose and Jeb only wins by sticking it out through thin and thinner. He has a much harder job (he has to both sell enough of the base to maybe be competitive and has to convince mushy moderates that the Bush name isn't a total loser in the general).

The Omnivore thinks that the race, what we've seen of it thus far, is Walker's to lose and Jeb has to do well--to really, really execute--to win. That said, Bush ought to be able to run a polished campaign (it's in his blood, mang) and Walker has already had a few screw-ups. It's not clear what Walker's backing looks like now (will it be infinite Koch dollars? A zillion small donors? Or will he need to rely on some big name power brokers and have to struggle with Jeb for them?)--we should see that shake out.

We'll also have to watch these guys in the debates. The Omnivore bets that after 2012 the debates will get pretty good viewership and that may be the real introduction for a both candidates (Jeb as "not his brother" and Walker as a first-impression). 

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Obamacare Gambit

Queen's Gambit Opening (An Omnivore Favorite)
The Supreme Court is about to start hearing arguments in the King vs. Burwell case that could very well destroy Federal subsidies for ObamaCare in states that don't have their own exchange. If that happens there will be chaos! The link looks at what the GOP might do about it--but there's a new wrinkle: What  if the Obama administration does nothing about it?

The ObamaCare Gambit
A gambit is a strategy (usually in chess) where one party (usually White) sacrifices material to gain a stronger positional advantage (the White player gives away the bishop's pawn--if Black decides to take--in order to control the valuable center of the board). In politics it can mean losing a 'battle' to win the war.

The ObamaCare Gambit looks like this:
Some Republicans say they simply do not believe that the Obama administration isn’t developing a fallback plan in case the Supreme Court dismantles a piece of the healthcare law this summer.
Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), has repeatedly said there is no plan B if the high court rules that subsidies for insurance cannot be distributed through the federal exchange
. . .
"No credible person would believe that," Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told The Hill on Wednesday.
"It would be executive malpractice not to have a plan, a contingency plan, for what happens when that court ruling comes down, and I'm going to assume that this government doesn't practice executive malpractice,” he said.
The takeaway here is as follows:
  1. The lawsuit is poised to wreak havoc.
  2. Republicans have no easy fix for the chaos (they have several potentially good or at least decent healthcare alternatives but agreement doesn't exist and time-to-implement would be substantial).
  3. With the wave of destruction poised to strike (and strike hardest in Republican states for people using the Federal Exchanges) the administration's contingency plan is  . . . nothing?
Could that be true?

Option One: Of Course Not--They Have A Plan*
The sane money says that Team Obama is gonna do something. They must have some contingency plan in place should the court rule against them. This plan would likely (a) involve weakening ObamaCare substantially (making all kinds of concessions to Republicans to keep the Federal subsidies?) or (b) throwing themselves on their swords and admitting they were wrong and lying all along.

Either one would be good for Republicans--but, hey, Team Obama's back is to the wall here. Sometimes there are no good options. 

And above all, they have to save the Federal Subsidies! That's Obama's legacy. Don't think for a minute there isn't a plan!!

Why would they say they don't? To influence the Supreme Court, of course. Roberts doesn't want court-induced chaos on his watch, does he?
[ The chaos striking down O-Care would cause ]—and not the merits of the law—is the reason I have long thought that SCOTUS is likely to blink on this. On purely legal grounds, I believe the plaintiffs have a good case, but the consequences seem so potentially cataclysmic that SCOTUS will be reluctant to trigger them. Whether the justices should take that sort of thing under consideration, the reality is that they sometimes do, and they then figure out a way to justify their decision legally (there’s always a way to do that). That’s what I think Justice Roberts did when he “creatively” declared the Obamacare penalty a tax forone purpose and not for another (see this). It’s my opinion that his motive for turning himself into a mental pretzel was to avoid what he saw as too dramatic a result if the main basis of Obamacare coercion, the penalty, was declared unconstitutional.
Option Two: The ObamaCare Gambit
On the other hand, what if Obama just let it fail? See, if Obama has to act to step in then he has to make concessions--probably big ones. If he just says it fails, well, won't he get the blame? The answer--and this should be obvious if demoralizing to Republicans--is probably not. Why not? Well (a) because the Republicans are the Kill ObamaCare At All Cost party (remember the government shutdown, anyone?) and (b) they're seen as the ones bringing and championing the lawsuit. 

Yes, of course, the problem is of the Democrat's own making. Yes, the Democrats shoved ObamaCare down everyone's throats. Yes, yes--they passed it with reconciliation. Yes, there are zero Republican fingerprints on it anywhere (but there are knuckle-marks--and that's important). But also: YES, the Supreme Court upheld it--and it's a, let's face it, Republican majority Supreme Court. YES, maybe Obama had pictures of Justice John Roberts with a farm animal or something--but the fact is that's the way it went down.

So here's how the gambit strategy plays out: 
  1. SCOTUS strikes down the subsidies
  2. Team Obama throws up its hands: "We do NOT agree with this--and the Republican controlled Congress should simply amend the bill as it was intended from the beginning."
  3. The GOP demands Obama's contingency plan.
  4. Team Obama says "There isn't one. You guys fix it or show me an alternative."
At This Point: Predictable Chaos
We've seen this play out before. The hard-liners demand nothing by way of fixes until Obama agrees to a full rollback of the ACA. Other Republicans propose their fixes--from major to minor--but they can't get agreement or traction with each other. Intra-party finger-pointing begins. The Democrats stand back and say: "This is simple, my fellow Americans. The solution is one page. Maybe just 4 words. Fix it." The media shows endless stories of mothers with sick kids whose healthcare is in jeopardy while congress churns.

A cry--a small, tinny cry--echoes up from the Republican party: "It's Obama's fault. This is all his fault!!"

And they're right

No one listens. No one can even hear them over the noise.

Eventually McConnell caves. Then Boehner. The subsidies are reinstated and GOP favorability hovers as 5.3%.

Could This Happen?
The GOP strategy--at least for the base--has several blind spots and the big one is that they don't understand why people in general don't absolutely hate Obama as much as they do. Political polarization has replaced religious schisms. Inter-political marriage is the new taboo. It even trumps racism. This leads to miscalculations about what people in general will put up with. It led to the calculus that a government shutdown was more popular than ObamaCare. It's leading to the strategy that a DHS shutdown would be more popular than amnesty (here's a poll). 

It also wreaks havoc on the optics of how the GOP gets its job done. Wanting to clash with Obama sells well in red districts--but to people only halfway paying attention, it looks like a personal feud. Wanting to remove the ACA is fine--but you need to have a clear consistent message as to what to replace it with--especially now that millions of people have health insurance they, erm, kinda like.

In other words, the drivers for GOP strategy are consistently leading them into fights where they have both more to lose than to win and very risky down-sides they are not moving to mitigate. Until this condition changes, being in the majority in Congress is more damaging to them than being in the minority was.

This pattern is not only recurrent--but it is predictable. Obama gets a lot of nonsense credit for being a super-strategist: in this case just sitting on his ass is a winning strategy and even most partisan GOP Base voters think President Present is capable of that.

Edited to add: The GOP is interested in making sure subsidies continue flowing if SCOTUS strikes down the law.

* Battlestar Galactica fans will remember that, allegedly, the cylons 'had a plan' too. It turned out they didn't either. Coincidence??

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

DHS Endgame? Not Yet.

The Sail Should Be Orange
McConnell seems poised to flip the Department of Homeland Security hot-potato back to John Boehner with a clean DHS funding bill that the House can either pass or reject. Boehner will have a number of options--none good.
  1. Refuse it and throw it back to the Senate. This is the safest for him personally (standing on principal)--but it will result in a shutdown of DHS with no clear path out (McConnell can go for the 5th attempt to break the Dem filibuster but there seems no reason that one will be the charm. He could go nuclear--but that seems almost worse).
  2. Try to convince House Republicans to pass it. This seems unlikely to succeed (see below: Trolling!).
  3. Try to pass the bill with some House Republicans and House Democrats (treason!).
None of these has a clear path out of the quagmire. The House Republicans, in real and serious danger of being primaried from the right probably will not cave. Throwing it back at McConnell just makes the party look divided when, to win the messaging war, it has to come together. Passing the bill in the House with Democrats would . . .  well, it would probably be the beginning of the end of Boehener as speaker and on the far tail end of probability . . . it might even break up the party.

Right now it looks like Boehner's hope is to go into a shutdown and try to win the public relations war with a reversal of fortune kicking in at some point.

That's not the worst of it though.

Obama--He Be Trollin'
In the putting out the fire with gasoline category we have Obama:
  1. Vetoing the Keystone-XL Pipeline bill. For no very good reason . . . and then . . . 
  2. Calling Illegal Immigrants "Americans In Waiting."
  3. McConnell has offered a clean bill--but the Senate Democrats aren't moving until he gets Boehner to agree to it. That's some bare-knuckle politics right there.
If The Omnivore didn't know better, The Omnivore would think that Obama was purposefully raising the heat levels with the GOP base. The question would be: "Why?"

The most likely outcome of an enraged base plus a DHS shutdown is that the public gets very grumpy at Republicans after a few weeks of the people not being paid (especially since every delay at an airport will now be blamed on the shutdown whether it is true or not). The Omnivore thinks that a shutdown can't go on more than 3 weeks before TSA people (and other DHS personnel) go to find other jobs . . .  so they can eat (which also turns out to be 'essential').

At that point either (a) McConnell uses the "Nuclear Option"--which would likely be a disaster for GOP Public Relations outside their base--and would lead to a certain amount of political chaos or (b) Boehner caves and passes whatever he can with moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Could Obama be trying to use this to break the back of the GOP? It's not impossible--when he won they 'hoped he would fail.' Now, perhaps, that they have taken over Congress, Obama is willing to apply pressure to see if they'll fail. 

Consider that Obama's stated reason for the veto was that Republicans were trying to get around the infrastructure process. Perhaps technically true (perhaps not--The Omnivore has no idea)--but certainly if things were warmer between him and congress--and he was not being hounded by the ecology activists over it--he certainly could have approved it. It's not like it was undoing Obamacare or anything. It was bi-partisan, reasonably popular, and the first piece of legislation the new congress passed (it was 'SB1'). 

The Ambush Scenario
While options 1-3 aren't good for Boehner, there's a 4th from McConnell-land that might be: The Ambush Scenario.
Once Democrats agree to get on the bill, the fate of the legislation is out of their hands. Fifty-one votes, all Republicans, will be all it takes to add new amendments to the bill. McConnell has promised Democrats a clean bill, but the minority is wary of what the rest of his conference will do. With conservative blogs railing at McConnell over the deal, Sessions overtly criticizing the leader's strategy and some of the conference's members planning to meet with the party's most vocal activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference later this week, Democrats worry that McConnell's resolve could crumble.
The Omnivore isn't sure exactly how this plays out. It looks like a clean bill comes out with Democrats approval--but then McConnell breaks 'his word' and allows a bunch of amendments which the Democrats then have to, as a bloc, refuse to allow. These would be directly against Obama's Amnesty (and probably the new Amnesty Executive Orders--which are more controversial and, by targeting only those, look more compromisey).

If the debate goes south (from the Democrats perspective) the messaging could shift to "The Dems got a GOOD DEAL and shut down DHS because they wouldn't compromise AT ALL." That's what can't happen--if it does, some Democrats might defect.

Of course this is all theoretical: McConnell, if he does ambush them like that, after giving his word not to, would burn both credibility and any shred of good will remaining. It seems unlikely unless he is effectively forced into it.

This is a rock and a hard-place for John Boehner if McConnell passes a clean bill in the Senate. Boehner knows better than most that the public's perception was never solid on this to begin with--and won't get better as a shutdown drags on unless something changes. Boehner doesn't have a lot of tools to force something to change so he's unlikely to want to go into that blind alley. In the land of no good options, the man with the shitty--but not utterly suicidal--option is king. That might be McConnell.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The GOP's Argument Strategy (DHS Shutdown)

The Omnivore promised to talk about the various lines of rhetoric around the pending DHS-Funding showdown. Right now Republicans (on line, in real life, and in various media outlets) are talking about why the Democrats should be blamed or why the Republicans should see this through. Let's take a look at some of these. We've got:

  • Harry Reid Won't Even Allow DISCUSSION!
  • Democrats Choose Illegal Aliens Over the Border Patrol!
  • The Dems Want A 'Clean Bill'--Since When?
  • We Have To De-Fund Amnesty Because It Is Illegal!
  • We've Been Given A Mandate! We've GOTTA FIGHT!!
  • Obama / Senate Dems NEVER EVEN TRIED To Compromise! Why Should We??

Harry Reid Won't Even Allow DISCUSSION!
This is quickly becoming a favorite in the conservative media. In this formulation the problem with the Democrats isn't that they don't like what's in the DHS funding bill--but that they won't even allow debate or amendments on it. They're just throwing a tantrum and locking everything down if they don't get 'their way.'

The battle cry is 'Let's at least have the debate!'

Relevant Facts: The apparent reason that Harry Reid / Senate Democrats won't "have a debate" about amendments in the bill is because they consider the amendment to de-fund amnesty "so toxic" that they don't even want it on the floor. Perhaps this is because they are afraid that the optics around illegal immigration could 'distract' from the optics around 'government shutdown.'

The truth is that bills passed by the House (as the DHS draft was) usually do get 'watered down' in the Senate. This process is pretty universal and would still allow for a filibuster if the watering down was not enough for the Democrats.

Probably the game-plan here is to prevent the somewhat more sober Senate Republicans from a 'compromise' where they remove Obama's latest Executive Order but allow the earlier one to stand (the first was the 'Dreamer' EO. The second is for their parents & illegal parents of legal children). This might break through the Democrat's blockade.

Merits Assessment: The Senate Democrats are being obstructionist on this count--they could give ground, have the debate, and then, if no one moved, filibuster. On the other hand, McConnell could return to the bill to the House and ask for the prospective compromise to be built in after trying 3 (tonight 4) times to break the blockade. The fact that Boehner won't consider it (or, at least, says he won't) is about equally telling.

Optics Assessment: Hard-sell. While the line is good ("no debate! He won't even talk!!") the fact is that it relies on some sense of congressional maneuvering and has to kind of explain why Senate Democrats don't like the DHS bill (which opens the topic up to: "If DHS funding is so important, why do Amnesty-rollback at the same time?"). While that question has an answer, it may not sell everyone and can make it look like hostage taking. Finally, the line of attack does NOT pin-the-tail-on-Obama. Having people dislike Harry Reid is easy (just keep showing his picture with that horrible eye-injury)--but it doesn't move the dial an congressional approval or 2016.

Overall Assessment [ C ]. The 'So what?' question--the question about the net impact of the Senate Democrats refusing debate--has a less than stunning answer: The answer is that republicans would like to have the debate on the Senate floor so they could make their case to the American public about immigration instead of about funding DHS (which is, right now, at least in public, what we are talking about). They can, of course, do this anyway on talk shows and the like--but they can't do it in a way that forces the Democrats to engage on Obama's Amnesty. Right now if the R's talk about amnesty then they're giving up a huge part of their story (that they did not attach an amendment to the DHS funding bill that would make it toxic to the Democrats).

The Senate Democrats are under no particular obligation to give them the platform they want and there do not seem to be "rogue Democratic Senators" calling for the bill to move forward.

The Democrats Choose Illegal Aliens Over DHS / Border Patrol Agents!
This is close to an actual headline from The Daily Signal. In this case the line of argumentation is simple: the choice the Democrats (and Obama) have is simple: DHS or Illegal Aliens. They've made their choice: Aliens Uber Agents!

Merits Assessment: This is essentially true given that the House has told Senate Democrats to 'choose only one' and by failing to act they have effectively chosen 'amnesty.' On the other hand, they are eliding the fact that the House could have sent just the DHS funding and/or just the Amnesty-de-fund bill. Binding them together is a legitimate legislative maneuver but it is still a maneuver.

Optics Assessment: This would work better if the House Republicans (and Senate Republicans) didn't already have a rep for shutting things down over legislation they didn't like. They tried this with Obamacare and it blew up in their faces (commenters will tell people the GOP won the mid-term elections because of this--but the actual Congress-people know better). This essentially only sells to the base.

Overall Assessment [ D+ ]. The problem here is that it's the old "A guy has a gun to your daughter and your wife and says 'choose one or I'll shoot both'!" The correct answer is "I punch out the gunman." When the guy asking the question goes "You CAN'T DO THAT IN MY HYPOTHETICAL!" you answer "Mu," punch him out--and then deny any of it ever happened.

The Dems Want A Clean Bill?? Since When!??
A line of defense that comes up from time to time is that (a) the House is under no obligation whatsoever to present a 'clean bill,' that (b) the Democrats are the bill-rider champions so it's hypocrisy! and sometimes (c) that the bill, passed by the House, is clean by virtue of ... being passed by the House or something (not sure).

Merits Assessment: Leaving the question of whose bills have been more or less clean aside as irrelevant, the problem here is that while the House can send any bill it wants, the Democrats are not required to vote on it. It is also clear that (a) the bill is not 'clean' (there has to be a specific amendment preventing the use of funds for Obama's Amnesty--not just a lack of funds disbursed) and (b) it seems a pretty sure bet that an actually-clean bill would pass both houses easily.

Optics Assessment: Catastrophic. Trying to argue about whether the bill is clean or not plays directly into the Democrat's hands. It opens the door for asking if, in a hypothetical reverse scenario, a House controlled by Democrats sent a bill to the GOP congress that gave illegal aliens the amnesty Obama did, if the Senate would just be morally obligated to pass it.

Overall Assessment [ F ]. This is nonsensical as an objection. It treats any rider--especially one on a government agency funding bill--as identical to any other when everyone knows in this specific case these are very specific bills and amendments for our political moment.

We Have To De-Fund Amnesty Because It's ILLEGAL!
In this case the argument is that (a) Obama's Amnesty is illegal but that (b) HE WON'T STOP and (c) THE COURTS CAN'T STOP HIM! In this case it's necessary to cut the illegal and unconstitutional activity off at the source. This is sometimes backed up with "Obama saying 22 times" he couldn't "do what he did."

Merits Assessment: The Omnivore isn't a lawyer constitutional or otherwise but a Texas court has ruled the action illegal. For now, that's good enough for The Omnivore so far as that goes. However, as a requirement to de-fund the action, it doesn't make much sense: if the illegal actions are on hold (they are) and a stay may be hard to get (it probably will be, a judicial stay from a higher court is usually to maintain the status quo, so understands The Omnivore) then why not let the courts kill this thing? Why jeopardize DHS?

Optics Assessment: This would play better if people hadn't called everything Obama did illegal / unconstitutional and yet can't get impeachment or anything else going. If Obama shot a man just to watch him die (and did it on TV) he'd be arrested immediately (wouldn't he?). This must be some other kind of illegal--like the kind that isn't actually criminally illegal? This is the optical problem with this approach.

Overall Assessment [ D+ ]. There is a nuanced argument that if Obama gets his stay then the court case will take too long and the policy will be in effect and harder to reverse. Nuance, though, is for losers--so trying to make this argument in light of the court-case is harder than if there were no court case. It also makes it look like the speaker is actually afraid Obama will win the case.

We Have A Mandate! We Gotta Fight!
Here the argument is "Look, this is a fight we're right to have--so we're gonna have it. If DHS is the focal point? So be it." In this case the argument is that the 2014 elections gave the GOP a mandate against executive over-reach and so they are not just empowered to use DHS as a bargaining chip-they're required to.

Merits Assessment: The Democrats counter with "2014 was low-turnout so you do NOT have a mandate" or that "Obama won big in 2012 so he's got a mandate too, right?" but the fact remains that no matter what happens in an election the winners usually declare a mandate and the losers find some reason it's not so. Mandate-schmandate (expanded background checks for guns poll well too).

On the other hand, if you can sell it? Sell it. Amnesty doesn't poll well so, hey?

Optics Assessment: This would be an easier sell if the GOP had not shutdown the government over Obamacare. Obamacare also did/does not poll well but the shutdown, it turned out, polled even worse. This isn't the same thing exactly--but it'll look the same to a lot of people and that's not entirely the media's fault. Declaring that you have to fight--and must therefore jeopardize Homeland Security--is a very, very risky road to traverse.

Overall Assessment [ C+ ]. The reason this gets a comparatively high score is that (a) The GOP certainly has a mandate from their voting base and (b) they might be able to sell that mandate to The People on its merits alone--also, it is completely honest. Obama very well may be overreaching (The Omnivore thinks so), the GOP wants the fight, and DHS is probably the only way to force it. On the other hand, runs a deadly risk of reducing damage-control options if it goes wrong.

Polling suggests . . . it will go wrong (and the GOP's messaging skills are likely not up to this either).

This is based on the fact that of 230,000 DHS employees, 200,000 will keep working under a "shutdown"--just without pay (until it is resolved). Sometimes this is augmented with "They're not keeping us safe anyway" (because amnesty) or "DHS is part of Big-Government Overreach so KILL IT!"

Merits Assessment: For a few days of shutdown, it's true this won't be instantly catastrophic in the same sense that just sending everyone home would be--but (a) even this maneuvering is sapping morale (The Omnivore knows someone who was threatened with furlough and said it was brutal on the employees even with just the threat) and (b) having people working, unpaid, is going to degrade things badly nearly instantly.

Also (c) the assumption is someone will cave instantly. In the case of the conservatives who aren't saying 'Let It Burn' they're assuming Obama will cave. What if he doesn't? Are they assuming the GOP will cave (probably yes--but cynically). If no one caves the 'fake shutdown' will quickly become 'real.' The Omnivore gives is less than 3 weeks.

Optics Assessment: Bad. The problem here is that people are going around saying "Don't DO This. It'll Be Bad." These are DHS people. These are Democrats. These are some Republicans. The minority saying "No big deal" look either deluded or just at-odds-with-other messaging. There's also the big question of: If it's no big deal, why will anyone cave? Why is it leverage?

The answer is: "Uh, well, Obama better cave--but the interim time period won't kill us."

That message--the real underlying statement--is a loser.

Overall Assessment [ F ]. Arguing that a DHS shutdown isn't important and/or isn't a shutdown by part of your team weakens the logic for the other half and just sounds like preemptive excuse making. It's a defense that actually weakens the defense.

Obama / Senate Democrats NEVER Tried To Compromise!
The argument that the House and Senate shouldn't try to cooperate with Senate Democrats or Obama because Obama rammed Obamacare down everyone's throat comes up from time to time. Usually it's used when people accuse the House of making "unreasonable demands" in their bill.

Merits Assessment: The Keystone-XL pipeline bill just passed with bi-partisan support (although Obama has said he will veto it). The make up of the Democratic voters wasn't all "Blue Dogs" either (the dogs are almost non-existent now, anyway). It shows that there can be bi-partisan support--even against Obama.

Of course the DHS-Amnesty plan isn't like that: it's a direct reversal of Obama's EO in return for, well, nothing any Democrat would want (unless they just dislike the Amnesty idea--which none of them seem to yet). Maybe if the House sweetened the bill with something?

Optics Assessment: The GOP Tea Party wing enjoyed the "Party of Hell No" title for a little while and took the government-shutdown plan through to completion. The optics of saying that the Democrats cannot be compromised with are a tough sell. Now, you can show a lot of stats that say different things (and these stats are not lies)--but the optics of this go against the GOP from the start because they owned the original shutdown.

Overall Assessment [ D-]. The real problem here is that there is no attempt 'to compromise' with Democrats on this. Saying "We don't have to because you never did" is fine if you can pass your legislation without compromise. If you can't? Well, then it turns out you do in fact need to compromise. As a reason why the Democrats should roll over, it doesn't make its case.

The Omnivore's Assessment
The truth is that the GOP probably thought that in the wake of a crushing defeat (the mid-terms) Obama would be chastened and the Democrats would be in disarray. That hasn't happened. As a result the conditions that called for the original Continuing Resolution are still in play--just not as powerfully (the Republicans now control the Senate as well--just not by enough).

In this event, though, that's even worse since it serves to highlight the rift between the House (which answers more to the party's base) and the Senate (which answers more to the entire Republican party--including its more moderate members). It also serves to highlight how important holding the Oval Office really is--something that with 2016 rolling towards us is going to be a big part of everyone's mental calculation on risk-mitigation and damage control.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The 'Nucular' Option

The Modern Humorist Councils Us On A Worst-Case Scenario
I’ve been radicalized. By Harry Reid and Barack Obama. Goodbye moderation and sweet reason. No more clinging to constitutional and procedural restraint. It’s time to go nuclear. 
. . . 
[ Democrats ] have filibustered the bill in the Senate, where it will die. And as the night follows day, Republicans, not the filibustering Democrats,will be blamed for shutting down DHS and jeopardizing the nation’s safety at a time of heightened international terrorism. 
A nice cul-de-sac. But there is a way out for the GOP. Go bold. Go nuclear. Abolish the filibuster. Pass the bill and send it to the president.
Charles Krauthammer: Abolish The Filibuster 
Krauthammer--and several other Republicans (in the House) have figured out a way past the Democratic bloc-voting that is killing their Fund-DHS-But-Not-Amnesty plan: all they have to do is change the Senate legislation procedure so that it takes a simple majority to pass a bill. Let democracy reign!

While one might legitimately ask why, if the filibuster was so bad, the Republicans call for when they were in the majority. This might be it:

Essentially, the Republicans from 2008 on (Obama's administration) have used the filibuster a fairly historic amount--they wouldn't, likely, speak against it when they were reliant on it. Of course now they're the majority in both chambers and would like to get around the Democrats to move their legislation forward--particularly on immigration where they are about to get blamed for a DHS shutdown (if the polling is to be believed).

Let's look at the Nuclear Scenario--its merits and optics . . .

The Nuclear War
This is what happens: The GOP controlled Senate calls for the vote and, by a majority, changes the rules so that they can pass legislation with a simply majority. They then pass the House DHS+Defund Amnesty bill and send it to the president. At this point we have several branches:
  1. Obama vetoes it and takes the blame. Under 20% likely.
  2. Obama vetoes it and doesn't get blamed. About 70% likely.
  3. Obama caves and signs it. Less than 10% likely.

The survey we have suggests a 23% gap in blame between the GOP and Obama (no mention of Senate Democrats). This is a significant gap since the GOP is likely united in their blame meaning that the state-of-play is likely fairly solid at this point. We are also looking at Obama's approval and note that since late Sept 2014 he has increased in job approval by 3%. We also know that his personal favorability ratings seem to have had some improvement since the election and State of the Union (approximately 10% in Gallup). 

From these numbers, if we assume that a DHS shutdown reaches a conclusion in about 3 weeks (about how long The Omnivore estimates people will let DHS employees go unpaid before they start getting nervous) then we have to postulate that:

The Obama Caves Scenario (Less than 10%)
For this to happen something must change dramatically and fast. The Omnivore isn't sure what this could be except a terrorist attack is foiled the day before the de-fund goes into effect and polling shows the public WANTS DHS ONLINE AT ANY COST!! Since it seems that DHS has yet to foil a terrorist attack, this appears unlikely. 

The Obama Gets Blamed Scenario (Less than 30%)
For this to happen we have a Nuclear-Scenario, a passed bill, an Obama-veto, and . . . a winning argument that Obama should be blamed. The optics have to be that Obama is standing in the way of defending the country and not that the GOP is playing-politics with their de-fund amnesty amendments. There are several arguments the GOP could try to make--but they will (a) have to actually make them as a unit with message-discipline and (b) they will need to be made convincingly. We will look at these below.

The limiting factors here are:
  1. The Mainstream Media. Let's face it, the general media will not be kind to the GOP for whichever reason you prefer ('reality' if you are a liberal, that the MSM is bought off / hopelessly liberal if you are a conservative). Either way, (a) everyone could see that coming and (b) it's always the case so it should be factored in to any planning.
  2. GOP Message Discipline. It's famously bad. Right now we are seeing two messages that (a) a DHS shutdown isn't that bad (most personnel will keep working) and (b) it will provide leverage to undo Obama's illegal amnesty. If a DHS shutdown isn't that bad, why will it provide leverage over Obama? This is better than normal: a little while ago Boehner was saying there wouldn't be a shutdown.
  3. Branding. The GOP is the party that owns shutdowns and some of the House members adopted the identity as the 'Party of Hell No.' That's well and good until you own the space and it gets used against you. The GOP may be absorbing blame for this from people who have no idea what's at stake or why this is happening. That should scare everyone reading this--but it should especially scare the GOP which has already speculated that a lot of the country is totally checked out anyway.
  4. The Sound-Bite Rule. When a situation can be summed up quickly and in a way that 'checks out' (10 min on Google) and goes against you, you have a problem. In this case the idea that the House put a 'poison-pill' amendment in the funding bill and a clean-bill would sail through Congress is both quick and easy to say (and easily enough understood) and will be confirmed by Google searches. To absorb the idea that Obama's Amnesty is illegal and that shutting down DHS was all that could be done involves some fairly nuanced discussions about why the pending court case in inadequate (i.e. that it will not stop things fast enough--not that it's a bad case). Requiring nuance means you're losing. Worse, the GOP is selling the idea that their bill was clean all along as it funded everything but this "one tiny piece" of DHS. That's true in a kind of absolute sennse--but anyone who checks into it will discover that the piece they didn't fund (a) was a specific piece of Obama's platform and that (b) as it was fee-driven the bill had to have special amendments in it to make sure fees couldn't be used for Obama's amnesty. If you hate the amnesty already, okay. But if you just kind of dislike it and think it's playing politics 'America's security'? That's going to be harder un-sell.
The Obama Vetoes and Doesn't Get Blamed Scenario (70+% Likely)
The Omnivore thinks that the way this plays out is that the Senate goes Nuclear, the bill goes to Obama, Obama vetoes it, and three weeks later, the House caves and passes a clean bill with Democratic support. This passes the Senate and Obama signs it.

Why is The Omnivore so defeatist? Well, here's why:

The Bill Would Be 'Radioactive:' The way you stick 'stick the president' with the responsibility for a veto is by passing a bill with bi-partisan support. That's how Keystone-XL was passed and Obama will entirely own the veto for it (if he does it). A bill passed by one party in the wake of a major rule change will automatically be 'radioactive.' After such a passage, any bill sent to the president will seen in a substantially different light by more neutral parties and will be suspect on the face of it. It will be 'radioactive'--partially poisoned by the conditions of its approval which will be a significant change the historical process (last change was 1975--but minority protection has been in place since at least 1917)

But The Democrats Did It: The fact that the Democrats changed the thresholds for nominations in 2013 might give the GOP some air-cover but the The Omnivore doesn't think it will be much. This is predominantly because nominations and legislation are two very different things and while ordinary folks may not get that, the media and more importantly, some factions of the GOP, will probably being reacting that way. Removing minority protections from the Senate will be a big deal and people will get that.

The Governance Problem: The final problem for the GOP is that, fundamentally, changing the rules to pass bills without bi-partisan support doesn't look like 'governance' to most people. It looks like throwing up your hands and saying "we can't make a deal with these people--so we're going to cut them out." Notably, the Democrats said the first part for several years but not the last bit. If the GOP had its house in order and was cranking out popular legislation with some tinge of bi-partisan appeal they might be able to say this was a unique roadblock but so far they haven't. The pipeline is small-ball (especially with ~2.00/gas--it may not make economic sense right now) and the GOP's face-plant on the 20wk abortion bill is a data-point against public perception that they are a lean-mean-governing-machine.

In other words, it looks like giving up.

The Real Problem: Hillary 2016
Of course the real problem with the Nuclear Option is that no one knows how strong Hillary is going to be in 2016. She might tank badly--not raising funds--and collapse electorally (or physically) before reaching the Convention. She might also be rested, ready, heavily funded and with her party nearly unified behind her. She might kick some ass in debates and hit her policy markers. She might be facing an eviscerated Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker with Chris Christie's bite-marks still fresh and infected on his calves.

We just don't know--but since we don't know, we have to assume that she will be a contender. If she is a contender then she may have coat-tails (if she wins women--not 'women of color' or 'unmarried women'--but 'women' in general, and they come out to vote for her? Her candidates might do well). If Hillary does well in 2016--a good Senate map for the Democrats--and they take back the Senate, removing the filibuster for 2 years of Obama-vetoes will look like the Seahawks throwing a football into heavy coverage three yards from the in zone: Worst. Strategy. Ever.

This is not nonsense and should not be discounted. In the new world the Democrats wouldn't restore minority protection: they'd leverage the hell out of it. The House majority would still be a bulwark of sorts--but relying on that would be a worst case scenario.

The Omnivore thinks that if the D's are looking weak next year we may see a revision of the filibuster rules--but right now? Way too early. It'd be crazy.

What If ISIS IS The Reformation?

Obama recently had his summit on Countering 'Violent Extremism'--the administration euphemism for Islamic Terror (okay, Islamist?). There are a lot of people talking about what Obama / the administration should / should-not be doing as well as (perhaps more interestingly) what Islam itself ought to be doing. Let's take a look:

Advice for America:
The Omnivore isn't especially impressed with most of this (for example the geo-politics of Egypt vs. Turkey ignore all kinds of things such as strategic locations--Turkey is the landing-point for people getting into ISIS and the fact that while secular, the current Egyptian government is the result of a coup) but this doesn't mean all the suggestions are bad though (figuring out where individuals stand on extremism in American communities is probably next to impossible, for example--we are probably empowering people we ought not to).

Advice for Islam:
What The Omnivore Thinks
One of the more interesting articles The Omnivore ever read (this was about health care--but bear with me here) pointed out that in America, unlike (presumably) England, there were actually three different health care systems (the insured system--best outcomes, the medicare system--okay outcomes, and the uninsured system: bad). The fact that these were all mushed together in statistics (at least most of them) led to confusing (the article suggested that the insured health care system had better outcomes than the UK's single payer).

The point here is that not only isn't there 'one Islam'--which is a point everyone keeps making, but still makes talking about Islam conceptually difficult--there also isn't 'one America.' For instance, there is Obama, the GOP, and the State Department at least. Things that Obama may or may not say are very differently understood than how the State Department (or the military) may act. There are different concerns (fears of Islamophobia-driven attacks in the US vs. perception of the US abroad).

One policy to solve everything would require a big chunk of gold and . . . Mt. Doom. 

On the other hand, a few things seem to be clear, important, and under-served.

American Islam vs. The Rest of The World
A 2011 Pew study of American Muslims makes a strong case that they are (a) pretty American in general (a little more likely to be more religious) and (b) equally concerned about Islamic violence around the world (7 points less at home). They also (c) view largely disavow violence (not 100% but close).

In contrast the Pew study of the rest of the world wasn't as rosy. Whatever the case elsewhere, though, while there may be problematic Mosques in America and there have been some recruits to ISIS there are not nearly as many as from Europe. America doesn't make one immune to ISIS's charms--but it seems to help.

The Omnivore suspects that as Muslims come to the US by choice rather than as refugees--and as they generally must assimilate into a work culture rather than government housing and aid (as in Europe)--there is probably a more liberal selection bias at work.

When Obama refuses to use the term Islam to refer to ISIS he is, at least partially, speaking to the American Muslim population for which, very very largely, this is true. Their Islam does not invoke the harsher versions of Sharia law, does not make it okay to commit honor killings (yes, some have happened--but they are not condoned at all by the vast majority of American Muslims), and so on. American Islam, The Omnivore thinks--from looking at the stats--is a lot more like a modern western religion than Islam in many other countries around the world (and a lot of the Muslim populations in Europe).

The Allure of a Harsh Religion
The ability of ISIS to radicalize and recruit is something that everyone is grappling with. It has a number of different dimensions we understand:
  • They have a not-crazy theological argument.
  • They appeal to a sense of adventure and even 'romance.' Add in brothers-in-arms and being part of something important and you have a draw.
  • They speak to a sense of victim-hood many Muslims feel (and it appears there is a correlation between feeling victimized and going to fight).
  • They have a "cool brand." They're winners (kinda). They're too-Xtream-for-The-West.
The Omnivore thinks we're missing something else: that harsh religions (very judgmental religions) have a more powerful draw to those in harsh conditions or who have been traumatized (such as in a natural disaster). The Omnivore also thinks a kind of take-no-prisoners back-to-basics position has an appeal (apparently Opus Dei has increased its membership). The Omnivore suspects that the very harshness of ISIS may make it more appealing to those who feel rudderless than less judgmental strains of Islam.

Horrible Governments
A key point of ISIS's leverage is that a lot of Middle Eastern governments are seen as both corrupt (by their own people) and oppressive when they are trying to establish more westernized codes. The Omnivore thinks it's unlikely that the rulers of Saudi Arabia would sentence a blogger to 1000 lashes for blogging if they had much of a choice--but they don't. Their people demand that kind of sentence be levied (if not fully carried out: high profile cases such as his usually get a pardon . . . eventually).

Governmental corruption is one of the enablers for Islamic extremism--it plays in Lebanon and Palestine. It played in Egypt (until it kind of didn't). An absolute theocracy can be pretty oppressive and if they aren't on the take (exactly) a lot of people will see that as preferable.

ISIS's government, right now, is probably as corrupt as it can be when in a state of total war--but that probably isn't "very corrupt." Right now they are likely seen as stand-up guys by people who long for ultra-fundamentalist Sharia Law and horrible atrocities to avenge various perceived humiliations.

In other words, for a lot of people who want an unflinching theocracy over their semi-secular, vaguely westernized government ISIS probably delivers. This brings us to . . .

What If ISIS IS The 'Reformation'?
While it's clear that ISIS isn't anything approximating either global (closer) or American (much further) Islam, we should consider that its appeal is way, way higher than it ought to be. If it turns out that ISIS's gestalt (an uncompromising hard-line, the semi-viable claim to being a caliphate, and a brand as a 'winner') is enough to establish it, then if not destroyed, we should consider the possibility that its real threat is that over time, so long as ISIS exists, Islam may slowly become more like it than like American Islam (or, well, American Muslims--there probably isn't such an actual thing as 'American Islam').

In other words, what if ISIS really is the 'Reformation?' What if it's selling something people somehow want--even when they really, really shouldn't?

Here are 6 people who went to fight for ISIS who don't "fit the profile."

Here is a writer who thinks that what is happening with ISIS right now DOES look like the 'Reformation.'

(Take all this with a grain of salt--but it's interesting reading)

Monday, February 16, 2015

ISIS is Very, Very Islamic

This is a hugely important article--and you should read the whole thing (it's long). The article is titled What ISIS Wants and it makes the case that ISIS is moving with intent and even erudition towards a 7th-Century vision of Islam that is both consistent and theological sound within its doctrine. As noted in this blog before, ISIS bases its behavior on the precepts that:
  1. How the founders of Islam (who are revered--and including Mohammad himself) acted is at least as important as what they wrote.
  2. That their forming of the caliphate specifically gives them special circumstances that, for example, Al Qaeda did not have (this is, apparently, true under Islamic tradition if, in fact, you hold land that could be considered a caliphate--which they do).
  3. That their leader is of the right lineage to be the next caliph (he is, apparently).
  4. That, therefore, their behavior is in keeping with Islamic tradition. This gives them the right to declare other Muslims apostates in a way that can't be return-fire'd back at them (since the other Imams don't have a caliphate and ISIS's claim looks pretty legit to a lot of people).
The Omnivore believes this is true--not from his non-existent background as a scholar of Islam, but from a variety of readings on the subject and, specifically, some points around Bin Ladin's behavior (for example, that Bin Laden had to make the case he was waging a defensive war--because Islam only allows a Caliph to wage an offensive war--and Osama wasn't claiming to be one). 

In other words, ISIS is not just Islamic--they are very, very Islamic. They are traditionally back-to-basics Islamic and have tapped into a very powerful apocalyptic vein of thought (hence a major push to take a strategically insignificant piece of land)--and, hence, their extreme appeal to the potentially radicalized. To whit:
  1. They represent a view of pure Islam that is both arguably legitimate (they can practice the only 'true' Sharia).
  2. It can offer 'glorious' hardship and an important death. This sort of appeal is stronger than you would think. Something similar has led young men into battles such as WWI and WWII in the west. Don't discount it.
  3. Its message can reach where other forms of radicalization fail. It is making a claim to being a player in the end-times. If you can catch "apocalypse fever" (which, let's be frank, a good number of American Christians have)--and are Muslim--they have a unique sales pitch.
The Omnivore had not put all this together the way the article does--but it is absolutely eye opening when it comes to clearing up his understanding of how ISIS is able to recruit anyone. Remember, as noted previously, the atrocities are presented in Islamic reading (fundamentalist Islamic reading) as a merciful form of warfare since while the victims suffer massively, the terror campaign makes the battles quicker in the end.

The author of the piece--a credible Islamic scholar himself--says that if you sit with one of these guys and ague about whether they are Islamic or not, you will lose. That argument--the argument American liberals and, probably, some western Muslims want to have with ISIS? It's the same argument ISIS wants to have with the west . . .  Because ISIS will win.

That's chilling in a way nothing The Omnivore has read so far has been. Yes, they do not represent Modern Islam (they use 'Modern's as a term of derision for what they see as apostates deserving of death). They represent a very legitimate and culturally resonant 7th century Islam--which is not just a made up cult with the name 'Islam' stamped across it.

The author, Graeme Wood, makes the case that another form of fundamentalist Islam could be an antidote (it's not touchy-feely at all, but it's super introverted and has you start your jihad with yourself ... and never finish--even as it embraces the older visions--so ISIS hates those guys specifically)--but The Omnivore thinks that a counter-meme isn't something amenable to western weaponization.

No, keys to beating ISIS appear to be:
  1. Use their built-in weaknesses. Graeme goes into detail about this (they must take and hold strategic pieces of land to fulfill their destinies), they can't make real peace-treaties with their neighbors (no treaty can last more than 10 years under Islamic doctrine), and they can't stop conquering things. This gives them a "burn rate" that is probably very, very high.
  2. The Omnivore thinks we should facilitate immigration to ISIS. Yes, swelling their ranks has costs--but (a) would be ISISans trapped here are likely to lone wolf (Graeme, again discusses this) and (b) ISIS does want to destroy the west--but they are also for-real serious about setting up their caliphate in the desert: they will be locally occupied for quite some time. Giving them generally untrained western soldiers which removes them from the west (under no condition let them come back) is probably a fair trade down the road.
  3. Attack with intent to humiliate. ISIS is no push-over. They aren't elite--but they do have game. Their attack on a green-zone area got them slaughtered by US Marines, yes--but they also penetrated a highly defended perimeter with suicide bombers. What the coalition needs is some battles that highly discredit their claim to end-times glory. There's risk here--but if the aim is kept in mind, then some ground war scenarios should be feasible.
  4. Damage infrastructure. This one is the most controversial since it will cause 'ISIS civilians' hardship and maybe death (and these 'civilians' are probably equally captives to a large degree in some areas)--but ISIS is also a state and not just a terrorist army like in Afghanistan. They need infrastructure and society and we can make that hard for them. We are at war with them and we should deny them what we can.
The Presidential AUMF
Obama is asking Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS. There have been a lot of reactions to this--from thinking it went too far to not far enough (or not using the term 'radical Islam' enough). The Omnivore is no expert but thinks that this blog (lawfare) has the right set of points (It doesn't limit Obama--it expands on the already existing AUMF that would allow pretty much anything and doesn't limit his existing generic presidential powers).

What this appears to be is good strategy. Firstly, by asking Congress for this they can't give him the powers then critique him for over-reach. If they vote it down because it doesn't say "Radical Islam" or something, it's an obvious own-goal. If it works--and everyone votes for it (or almost everyone) then, hey: bi-partisan. ISIS is evil enough it should be sufficient to bring everyone together.

On the other hand, the timing is . . .  too perfect. Voting for a rare 9/11-style AUMF on the eve of playing politics with defunding DHS is going to make even the most cynical Republican operator think twice. If ISIS is really a threat to the US then do we really need DHS being un-paid for some period of time because of immigration? (Sure, you can split the difference and says ISIS threatens our national interests--but not the homeland specifically right now--and that'd be more or less right as far as today goes . . .  but if you're explaining, you're losing).

It's also worth noting that ISIS wants a war with America--they do want and need one to satisfy their dreams of a confrontation in the desert man-to-man. They're likely going to get one from this. The Omnivore says the smart money is that it doesn't play out the way they want it to.