Kevin Drum

September Is Here! Time for Republicans to Get ... Um ... Something About Donald Trump.

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 12:23 PM EDT

It's September! Hooray! The kids are back in school and Donald Trump's reign over the silly season will soon be coming to an end. Finally, we can start to get serious about choosing our next presi—

Wait. WTF? Trumpmentum's sagging fortunes have turned around? He's now even further in the lead? Well crap.

The Republican field really needs to get its act together. They can't go on being afraid of him because he's "tapping into something real," or whatever the latest excuse is. It's time for some nuclear-level attack ads. The problem, I assume, is that everybody in the race wants someone else to waste their money attacking Trump, so they're all left in a weird kind of prisoner's dilemma where no one is willing to go first. They better figure out soon that this is a losing strategy.

Oh well. The higher they go, the farther they fall. Amirite?

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The Average Family Pays a Federal Income Tax Rate of 5%

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

Ross Douthat writes today about the split on taxes between the Republican donor class and the average Republican voter:

The donorist vision, in my experience, has its own distinctives: It’s less interested in the specifics of the Laffer curve or any other economic theory, and more inclined to take a vaguely Randian view of high taxes as an unjust punishment for success....

Then the average Republican voter has a different perspective still....This prototypical Republican voter, who might be pulling in $45,000 working a trade or $95,000 running a small business (or vice versa), isn’t necessarily being soaked by the federal income tax, but he or she remains an anti-tax voter because even small tax fluctuations year to year feel like an immediate threats to the ability to save, to plan, to expand or preserve a business, to buy a home and put money away for college and think about retirement and generally preserve their peace of mind.

Douthat's post was inspired by Donald Trump's heresies on taxes, but I wouldn't read too much into that. As I noted yesterday, it looks to me as if Trump is slowly but steadily moving in the direction of Republican orthodoxy with only a few minor populist concessions.

But I was happy to see Douthat acknowledge that the average Republican voter is not exactly being soaked by taxes. As it happens, that's putting it mildly. The median family in America earns about $65,000. That family, on average, pays a federal income tax rate of about 5 percent.

In other words, for the average voter this isn't about money. Even the hardest core tea partiers can't possibly be outraged at the prospect of paying 5 percent of their income to Uncle Sam. The plain truth is that middle-class tax cuts are becoming all but impossible these days: the average family no longer pays enough in taxes to even notice a small change up or down. And the trend over the past few decades has been nothing but down anyway.

And yet, taxes continue to be a potent message. Why? It's not because of payroll taxes. Numerous polls have shown that most voters consider these fair because they pay for Social Security and Medicare benefits down the road. Nor do state income taxes change the overall picture much.

Republicans have been in this quandary for a while. Cutting taxes is pretty much all they've got on the economic front, but there's not a whole lot left to cut for the average Joe. And yet, the anti-tax message really does continue to resonate. Why? I'd suggest two things.

First, most people are bad at math. They may be paying about 5 percent of their income in federal taxes, but if you ask them, they'd probably guess it's more like 20 or 30 percent. Republicans have long complained that weekly withholding makes taxes invisible, and they have a point. But right now, that works in their favor.

Second, a lot of people are afraid that Democrats will raise their taxes. This prospect carries more punch than the prospect of a cut from Republicans.

In any case, even though Donald Trump is coming around to Republican orthodoxy on taxes, I do think he's highlighting a real dilemma for Republicans. Raising taxes on hedge fund managers is no big deal. They can be thrown under the bus if necessary. But the other half of Trump's message is about reducing taxes on average middle-class families. That may still be a potent message, but even now it's not as potent as it was 30 years ago. And going forward, Democrats are eventually going to figure out a way to make it clear that federal income taxes really aren't very onerous anymore.1 When that happens, it's bye bye tax cuts for the rich—because the only way you can sell tax cuts for the rich is to hide them behind tax cuts for the middle class. For simple mathematical reasons, that particular con is coming to an end.

1Of course, they haven't figured this out yet, so maybe I'm being too optimistic.

Lone Gay Marriage Holdout Acting "Under the Authority of God"

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 10:38 AM EDT

Sigh.

A county clerk in Kentucky who objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds denied licenses to gay couples on Tuesday, just hours after the Supreme Court refused to support her position.

In a raucous scene in the little town of Morehead, two-same-sex couples walked into the Rowan County Courthouse, trailed by television cameras and chanting protesters on both sides of the issue, only to be told by the county clerk, Kim Davis, that she was denying them marriage licenses “under the authority of God.”

The optimist in me says that if the biggest backlash to the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision is one clerk in a tiny town in Kentucky, then we've gotten off pretty easy. And really, the more I think about it, that really does seem like the main takeaway from this.

But it's obvious that the endgame here is for Kim Davis to be fired, or tossed in jail for contempt. The Supreme Court itself has ordered her to issue licenses, so she has no further legal recourse. Only recourse to God.

I'm now curious to see what the Republican field will make of this. On the one hand, most of them are treating the primary contest as a zero-sum race to see who can move furthest to the right. On the other hand, do they really want to get on the wrong side of gay marriage and immigration? On the third hand, there's the whole rule of law thing. And on the fourth hand, Donald Trump is not an anti-gay warrior. He's the guy everyone is responding to, so maybe that means this will stay low key.

The Huckabees and Carsons of the world will surely support Davis. The rest of the field....probably not. That's my guess. Then again, if video of Davis being hauled off to the county pen ends up on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, who knows? Defying the will of a small group of pissed off base voters is not something the Republican field is exactly famous for.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent confirms my sense that holdouts like Davis are very rare. "In the seven southern states where the backlash might have been expected to be fiercest, only one — Alabama — still has multiple counties that are holding out. One other — Kentucky — has only two remaining counties holding out." The national campaign director for Freedom to Marry says that, all things considered, "things are going exceedingly smoothly."

54% of Republicans Think Obama Is a Muslim

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 9:34 PM EDT

You know, I thought this nonsense had stopped. I don't know why I thought it had stopped—out of sight, out of mind?—but apparently it hasn't. Crikey.

Sovereign Citizens Leapfrog Islamic Extremists as America's Top Terrorist Threat

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 6:39 PM EDT

Who do actual law enforcement officers see as the biggest terrorist threats in America? Surprise! It's not Islamic radicals:

Approximately 39 percent of respondents agreed and 28 percent strongly agreed that Islamic extremists were a serious terrorist threat. In comparison, 52 percent of respondents agreed and 34 percent strongly agreed that sovereign citizens were a serious terrorist threat.

....There was significant concern about the resurgence of the radical far right [following the election of President Obama], but it appears as though law enforcement is, at present, less concerned about these groups.

That's odd. The authors of this report apparently don't consider the sovereign citizens part of the radical right. But their roots are in the Posse Comitatus movement, and they identify strongly with both the white supremacist Christian Identity movement and the anti-tax movement. That's always sounded like the right-wing on steroids to me.

I'm not trying to foist responsibility for these crazies on the Republican Party, any more than I'd say Democrats are responsible for animal rights extremists. Still, their complaints seem like preposterous caricatures of right-wing thought, in the same way that animal rights extremism bears a distant but recognizable ancestry to lefty principles.

In any case, this comes via Zack Beauchamp, who explains the sovereign citizens movement in more detail for the uninitiated.

It's Not the Economy, Stupid. The Spanish Language Is the Ur-Motive of Anti-Immigration Sentiment.

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore on the conservative hostility toward illegal immigration:

This very weekend I was reading an advance copy of an upcoming book that includes the results of some intensive focus group work with what might be called the "angry wing" of the GOP base. The author notes that one thing that simply enrages grass-roots conservatives is the use of non-English languages by immigrants.

Yep. You can read all about it from one of Kilgore's predecessors, who wrote about it during our last big try at immigration reform in 2006. It's based on an excellent piece by Chris Hayes, written before he sold out to the bright lights and big paychecks of cable television.

I agree that language is probably the key original driver of anti-immigrant sentiment, though it's long since inspired further animus based around crime, gangs, social services, and other culture-related issues. The odd thing is that this is one of the few areas where I think the anti-immigrationists have a bit of a point. It's not a very big point, since (a) Spanish occupies no official role in the United States, and (b) Latin American immigrants all end up speaking English by the second and third generations anyway. Hell, the third-generation Latino who speaks lousy Spanish is practically a cliche.

That said, I've long believed that having multiple official languages makes it very hard to sustain a united polity. The Swiss manage, but the whole reason they're famous for it is because it's so unusual. Even the Belgians and Canadians have trouble with it, and they're pretty tolerant people.

Would a congressional declaration that English is the official language of the United States do anything to calm anti-immigrant fervor? At this point, probably not. But if it were written narrowly and carefully, I'd probably support it. I figure that if God considered a single common language such a boon that it threatened his dominion, it must be pretty powerful stuff.

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The Conservative Tax Borg Has Finally Absorbed Donald Trump

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that Republican leaders are alarmed at one particular aspect of Donald Trump's popularity:

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on American companies that put their factories in other countries. He has threatened to increase taxes on the compensation of hedge fund managers. And he has vowed to change laws that allow American companies to benefit from cheaper tax rates by using mergers to base their operations outside the United States.

Alarmed that those ideas might catch on with some of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals — as his immigration policies have — the Club for Growth, an anti-tax think tank, is pulling together a team of economists to scrutinize his proposals and calculate the economic impact if he is elected.

First things first: Trump and the Club for Growth have been feuding ever since Trump entered the race. The Club says it's because Trump had previously supported universal health care and a one-time tax on individuals worth more than $10 million. Trump says it's because the Club tried to shake him down for a $1 million donation and he refused to give it to them. The truth is—oh, who cares what the truth is? It's just another Trump feud.

Anyway, Trump repudiated his wealth tax idea a long time ago, but he has supported (a) a progressive income tax, (b) closing loopholes for hedge fund managers, (c) tariffs on companies that move factories to Mexico, and (d) corporate inversions. But wait! In his interview with Sarah Palin, Trump inched closer to Republican orthodoxy on taxes:

We have to simplify our tax code. You have hedge fund guys that are paying virtually no tax and they're making a fortune....Now you can go to a fair tax or a flat tax, but the easiest way and the quickest way, at least on a temporary basis, is simplification of the code: get rid of deductions, reduce taxes.

OK. So Trump definitely wants to eliminate the carried-interest loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay very little in federal income tax. But he's no longer opposed to a flat tax. It's just that on a "temporary" basis he wants to broaden the base and reduce rates. This is as orthodox as it gets.

As for the tariffs on companies that move to Mexico, that's just bluster not to be taken seriously. And reining in corporate inversions is a pretty bipartisan goal. It would presumably be part of a corporate tax overhaul that would end up being revenue neutral.

On taxes, then, Trump has all but caved in. The only serious part of his schtick that's no longer garden-variety Republican dogma is his desire to close the carried-interest loophole. And even this is small potatoes: it would raise one or two billion dollars per year, which could easily be offset by a tiny tax cut somewhere else. There's really nothing left for even Grover Norquist to dislike.

So no worries! Trump is becoming fully absorbed by the Republican borg on taxes. Aside from the Mexico stuff, which is just campaign trail bombast, there's nothing left that would raise net taxes or offend conservative sensibilities in any way. Whew.

This Week's Great Showdown: Denali vs. McKinley

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

So the big news this weekend was President Obama's decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley back to Denali. As near as I can tell, the only people who truly care about this are:

  • Alaskans
  • Ohioans
  • Mountain climbers
  • Trivia buffs

Of these, Alaskans are pro-Denali; Ohioans are proudly pro-McKinley; mountain climbers have been calling it Denali for years already; and trivia buffs are almost certainly pro-Denali since they love it whenever something changes that allows them to pedantically correct other people.

So far—to my pleasant surprise, I admit—there's been very little complaining about how Obama is—again!—bending to the forces of political correctness and identity politics by kowtowing to the icy cold branch of the native American community. But the week is young and the easily outraged are probably still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. Give them time.

For the time being, though, the pro-McKinley side has only the Ohioans, who have been battling Alaskans over this for decades. Ohioans are mighty defenders of William McKinley, proud son of Niles, Ohio. So proud, in fact, that one of their own renamed Denali to Mt. McKinley in 1896 merely because McKinley had just been nominated for president. Alaskans probably had no idea this was even happening, and in any case they weren't yet a state and could do little about it. They finally tried to officially reverse this power grab in the 70s, but sneaky Ohioans took advantage of a loophole to prevent the US Board on Geographic Names from acting. That ended yesterday when Obama decided to rename America's highest peak himself.

The obvious solution to all this is to rename Ohio's tallest mountain. Unfortunately, Ohio is flat and has no mountains at all. Its highest point is Campbell Hill, topping out at a pedestrian 1,550 feet. They could rename it McKinley Hill—unless, of course, that would outrage the descendants of Charles D. Campbell—but that's quite a comedown from the majesty of Denali, as the pictures on the right show.

What to do? Nothing much, I suppose, except for Ohio's congressional delegation to rant and rave about Obama's unilateral power grab etc. That's fine. Hometown pride demands no less. Even at that, though, I have to give props to Rep. Bob Gibbs for this masterpiece of outrage:

I hope my colleagues will join with me in stopping this constitutional overreach. President Obama has decided to ignore an act of Congress in unilaterally renaming Mt. McKinley in order to promote his job-killing war on energy.

Constitutional overreach? Sure, whatever. That's garden variety stuff by now. But how does removing the name of America's 25th president advance Obama's job-killing war on energy? Inquiring minds want to know.

As for the political implications, all you need to know is this: Alaska has three electoral votes. Ohio has 18 and is routinely a critical swing state. You may draw your own conclusions from this.

Waiting For Number 34

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:34 AM EDT

President Obama has the support of 31 Democratic senators for his Iran nuclear deal. So naturally we're now beginning to ponder the truly important stuff:

It looks increasingly likely that the nuclear agreement will survive its congressional trial — even opponents are starting to accept that seeming inevitability.

Which leaves just one question: Who will be the deal-clinching senator No. 34?

Quite so. Who will be the history maker? Or, if you prefer, the final nail in the coffin of treachery? This is what truly matters.

Robert Kagan Thinks America's Problem Is Too Little War

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:00 AM EDT

Over the weekend1 Robert Kagan wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict." That seemed....wrong, somehow, so I read it. Mostly it turned out to be a tedious history lesson about the run-up to World War II, basically a long version of the "Munich!" argument that conservatives make every time we fail to go to war with somebody. But there was also this:

President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, sent half a million American troops to fight thousands of miles away for no other reason than to thwart aggression and restore a desert kingdom that had been invaded by its tyrant neighbor.

....A little more than a decade later, however, the U.S. is a changed country. Because of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest sending even a few thousand troops to fight anywhere for any reason is almost unthinkable. The most hawkish members of Congress don't think it safe to argue for a ground attack on the Islamic State or for a NATO troop presence in Ukraine. There is no serious discussion of reversing the cuts in the defense budget, even though the strategic requirements of defending U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have rarely been more manifest while America's ability to do so has rarely been more in doubt.

This is one of the tropes that conservative hawks haul out with tiresome predictability, but it's flat wrong. Even now, when Americans have every reason to be skeptical of military action in the Mideast, poll after poll shows a surprising acceptance of it. Whether the subject is Iran, Syria, or ISIS, it's plain that many Americans are already primed for military action, and many more can be talked into it pretty easily. The United States has fought half a dozen major wars in the past quarter century, and the surprising thing isn't that we've gotten war weary. Quite the contrary: the surprising thing is that we're plainly ready to keep it up given the right incentive.

Kagan's argument is also dishonest in a couple of common ways. First, he argues that sending "even a few thousand troops" anywhere is now unthinkable. This is nonsense. Over the past few months we've already sent a few thousand troops to fight ISIS, and this has barely raised a peep even from liberals. There is an aversion to sending a hundred thousand ground troops to fight ISIS and starting up another full-scale war and occupation of Iraq. If Kagan objects to that, fine. But that's what we're talking about, and Kagan should own up to it.

Second, after spending several paragraphs singing the praises of our military response during the Cold War, Kagan bemoans our unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine. But again, that's nonsense. During the Cold War, we fought plenty of proxy wars but never, never, never sent troops to fight the Soviets directly. Not in Hungary. Not in Czechoslovakia. Not in Afghanistan. If Kagan wants us to be more belligerent toward Russia than we ever were toward the old Soviet Union, that's fine too. But he needs to say so, rather than subtly rewriting history.

Kagan, like so many other hawks, is intent on pretending that the threats we face today are as dangerous as any in the past century. But that's simply not true. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were almost unimaginably greater threats to the world than a few minor territorial grabs by Vladimir Putin, a civil war in Syria, and the takeover of a chunk of Iraq by a ragtag group of delusional jihadists. Pretending otherwise does Kagan's reputation no favors.

1Actually, Kagan wrote this over a weekend in 2014. I'm not really sure why it popped up during my perusal of the Journal last night. But I suppose it doesn't matter: Kagan would likely say the same thing today that he did a year ago.