An Act of Political Malpractice

Congress plays multiple games of chicken

“It’s not a good negotiating tactic to threaten to shoot yourself if you don’t get what you want.” — Me, remembering a certain scene from “Blazing Saddles.”

Perhaps you were under the impression that the political class was comprised of very serious people who recognize that we are facing multiple existential challenges: Coups, insurrections, disinformation, fraudits, violence, pandemics, and the very real prospect of a constitutional crisis.

And yet, Congress has chosen this moment to play multiple games of high-stakes political chicken, because, apparently, we do get the government we deserve.

In the classic version of the game of chicken, “two people drive two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends of a long straight road. If one of them swerves before the other, he is called a chicken. Of course, if neither swerves, they will crash.”

In the game, both sides imagine that they are seeking an advantage by seeming inflexible. They are egged on by supporters and fans who urge them not to blink. But if they get it wrong, everybody dies.

Which brings us to our political moment.

Republicans in the Senate are blocking the effort to raise the debt ceiling, risking a potential economic crisis; while Democrats are threatening one another with mutually-assured destruction over infrastructure and social spending bills.

Rational heads may eventually prevail, but the outcome in DC is far from certain. Mitch McConnell’s cynical and reckless decision to filibuster the debt ceiling assumes that the country will avoid a last minute shutdown and crash — and maybe it will. But how many times do we have to play this game with the nation’s full faith and credit, before someone miscalculates?

The stakes are different for the Democrats, but the long term implications of self-implosion aren’t pretty. (A second Trump term would be exponentially worse than the first, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Last night, Nancy Pelosi uncoupled the bipartisan infrastructure bill from the larger reconciliation package — which means the House will vote on the $1 trillion bill on Thursday, without waiting for a definitive senate deal on the bigger reconciliation package.

It’s not clear yet whether this will be acceptable to the progressive caucus, which is still threatening to torpedo the bipartisan bill (and with it the Biden presidency) if they don’t get what they want.

On Monday, three prog leaders, Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter and Ilhan Omar wrote an op-ed declaring that they “remain committed to voting for the infrastructure bill only after the Build Back Better Act is passed.” As we mentioned yesterday, Jayapal, told The Early 202 that 60 progressive Democrats who would vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill if their $3.5 trillion plan is not also adopted. As the Wapo reported: “Other left-leaning lawmakers independently issued their own threats on Monday. ‘Let’s be clear: there’s no passing the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act,’ tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), referring to the $3.5 trillion measure.”

So (ahem), I’m sorry we have to do this again:

Threatening to kill your own bill… a bill you favor... that includes much of your party’s agenda… and that represents your president’s premier legislative achievement… may merely be a negotiating tactic.

But actually voting against it … is nuts.

It’s a game of chicken where nobody swerves, and everybody dies in a fiery crash of endless punditry about failed presidencies.

Killing the bipartisan bill does not guarantee that the senate will ever pass the larger reconciliation bill. It would, however, mean that Democrats had decided to fumble the ball on the one yard line.

But, surely, someone will swerve at the last moment, right?

Because the alternative — both bills falling victim to intraparty squabbling, would be a supreme act of political malpractice.


House Republicans are more than happy to contribute to the chaos.



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The Fraudit Was Not Even a Speed Bump

My latest over at MSNBC Daily:

If we lived in an America where facts mattered, and shame was still a thing, the pratfall of the Cyber-Ninja “audit” in Arizona would dampen the momentum of the Trumpist “stop the steal” movement.

In an America where facts mattered, the finding of the GOP-backed “audit” that, yes, indeed, President Joe Biden won Arizona — by an even larger margin than originally reported — would be a colossal embarrassment for the grifters and scammers of the Trump world. It would an egg-on-their-faces moment for the ages.

But we don’t live in that America, because if facts mattered, we wouldn’t be where we are now. For the boosters of the "big lie," the Arizona audit flop was not even a speed bump. And that should tell us a great deal about this moment in U.S. politics.

Read the rest here.

How Worried Should We Be?

ICYMI, a robust debate has begun about the appropriate level of anxiety we should have about the 2024 elections. Over at Politico, Jack Shafer writes that the fears may be overblown, because the Trumpist moves are actually signs of political weakness.

Trump and his Republicans fear their own disintegration. That sense of threat gives them power over the voter base, but it has also made them politically desperate. Their lack of scruples doesn’t make them omnipotent: it makes them vulnerable to serious and determined opponents. The wildness of Trump’s last-ditch maneuver, whatever it turns out to be, will require much from us, but above all it will oblige us to keep our cool and just vote. You don’t beat a crazy card player by going crazier.

In the Wapo, Daniel Drezner also weighs the risks, asking: “How scared should we be about 2024?”

If anything, however, the waning of Trump’s electoral fortunes makes Kagan’s warning more and not less salient. As Shafer acknowledges, the less likely Trump is to win legitimately, the more he and his supporters will use any means necessary to try to get their way. Endgame strategies include a lot of risky hail-Mary gambits that look about as coherent and extralegal as a John Eastman memo. Or, to use the argot that Trumpists like, they will act as though they have already lost control of Flight 93 and storm the cockpit — even though they are the terrorists.

And in The Week, Damon Linker writes about “The Unimportance of Trump’s Incompetence.”

It wouldn't take any kind of governing competence at all for Trump to sow chaos after the 2024 vote, which is really all that Kagan predicts, including "weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power."

Where would such chaos end? I have no idea, but it's nowhere good. And Donald Trump has more than enough talent to pull it off.

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The Conservatives Who’d Rather Die Than Not Own the Libs

Make sure you read this piece by Conor Friedersdorf over at the Atlantic.

Perhaps [John] Nolte’s dark, paranoid claims simply show that he has lost touch with reality after looking at everything through a culture-war lens for too long. Or maybe, as some on Twitter have speculated, Nolte is engaging in his own attempt at reverse psychology, calculating that his best chance of persuading the still-unvaccinated among Breitbart’s audience of manipulable, leftist-hating, negatively polarized culture warriors is to tell them that the left doesn’t want them to get the jab and that staying alive is the real way to own the libs. (I requested comment from Nolte but have not yet heard back.)

Either way, a Breitbart polemicist deeply familiar with hard-core Trumpists thinks many of them will make life-and-death decisions not to protect their families but to avoid feeling humiliated by Democratic politicians and liberal celebrities. That’s an extraordinary conclusion.


And now a word from one of our readers/listeners.

Hello Charlie,

As a lifelong centrist Democrat and Bulwark+ member, you and your team have my unending respect and support. 

As you and Amanda discussed on your last podcast together; that Democrats think that you are being "partisan" when you criticize Joe Biden; I wanted to strongly agree with you and Amanda (as I usually do) on this. Having listened to most all of your podcasts, there is no one more honest, principled than you and your Bulwark guests. To be critical of you (by Democrats) is showing a small, narrow view of the danger our democracy is currently in. 

The loose alliance that has emerged over the past 4-5 years between democrats and principled republicans (Bulwark, Lincoln Project, RAP) in order to help save democracy is the last attempt at a firewall, against the dangerous, disingenuous, cancerous republican movement overtaking not just our congress and senate, but our state houses, schools boards and county seats.

We are at a perilous moment for our democracy, and (my) party does not display the urgency and attention to that very danger our republic faces. Immigration, infrastructure, climate change do not matter, when compared to the danger our Democracy faces by most of the current Republican enablers that sit back and damage and assault our very constitutional core. 

If and when the Republicans take control, it will be the end of majority rule. Unless real and substantive voting reform occurs NOW, a small, authoritarian minority could (and would) permanently disable our American democracy. 

So shameful and disheartening to see moderate, principled Republicans soil themselves and their reputations, while doing serious and irreparable harm to our Republic, out of fear for the reptilian buffoon they enabled and supported. 

It is the alliance forged between Democrats and principled republicans that is our only shot to save our democracy. And it is organizations like the Bulwark, that we need to flourish and thrive to help energize this message. 

Thank you Charlie, Tim, Amanda, Bill and the rest of the Bulwark team for your integrity, honesty and character. Please remain strong!!

Yours truly, 

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Quick Hits

1. Lying for Power: A Wyoming Parable in Two Parts

Tim Miller writes in today’s Bulwark that Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed candidate to unseat Liz Cheney, tried desperately to stop Donald Trump—until she needed to worship him to gain power for herself

Harriet Hageman knows that Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot. We know that she knows this because, like many MAGAs before her, she said so herself, calling him “racist and xenophobic.”

Not only did Hageman recognize Trump’s personal flaws in 2016, but she understood that they presented such a threat to the party and the republic that extraordinary measures were needed to stop him from becoming the GOP presidential nominee.

2. What Went Wrong with Conservatism?

Genuinely excellent piece by Shay Khatiri. What went wrong? Two important pieces of the puzzle: mindless anti-leftism and hackish popularizers.

These popularizers did their jobs. Conservatism went from the pages of National Review to a governing majority in about two generations. But along the way, conservatism was dumbed down considerably. Perhaps this dumbing down was an inevitable concomitant of conservatism’s growing popularity; surely it was also linked, as Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin and Neil Postman suggested, to our technology-induced shift away from a culture accustomed to written complexities to a culture that prefers the vapidities of pictures and sound bites. And so America’s hegemonic responsibility became justified purely on the basis of the Soviet, and later Islamist, threat. The importance of free markets and low taxes was once the sort of thing explained in middlebrow TV shows and books by Milton and Rose Friedman; in the hands of their popularizing successors, free-market rhetoric became little more than a reflexive accusation that anyone wanting to raise taxes for any reason was a socialist. As for the arguments for traditionalism, the less said about these never-ending culture fights—the “war on Christmas,” kneeling at football games, yelping about Dr. Seuss—the better.

And all the while, conservative elites—conservative-tending media moguls, wealthy donors to conservative causes, established Republican politicians, wonks in think tanks—were largely at peace with these popularizers. Certainly, they rolled their eyes at the excesses of the talk-radio crowd. They sniggered at how unsophisticated the barons of direct mail were. They grumbled about the prime-time demagogues on Fox News. But they largely kept such thoughts to themselves. After all: They were all on the same team.

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