A Democrat’s Guide to the Apocalypse

by Michael Liss

Apocalypse_sky_painting_by_kittydarklore-d85pp9kWe got our butts kicked, and kicked very hard. Adlai Stevenson, ruminating about the results of the 1952 Election, recalled Abraham Lincoln's reaction to an electoral loss: We are like the boy who stubbed his toe—it hurts too much to laugh, and we are too old to cry.

It's a few days later, and the damaged digit still aches, so let's take off the shoe and get a closer look. Nasty—swollen with punctured pride and inflated expectation. And, is that yellowish stuff pus?

There is no delicate way to describe why and how this wrenching event occurred. Nor is there any comfort in speculating just what our new leaders in Washington have planned for us. But we need to. If we don't dive in, take our medicine, and prepare for the future history will repeat itself.

We can begin the post mortem with the Clinton campaign's primary complaints: unfair coverage by the mainstream media, and James Comey's intercession. To that, I am going to add the dedicated Trump team at WikiLeaks.

Ah, the press, you can't live with them, you can't live without them. They loved Trump—even though he threatened and mistreated them, he was great copy, he made news constantly, which drew eyeballs and advertiser dollars. To balance out their reporting of Trump's excesses (all Trump had was excesses) they felt compelled to add an equal dollop of negative Hillary stories. To the Clinton's campaign's collective way of thinking, this constantly created a false equivalence of two sinners. Fair? Kind of. I give it 5 out of a possible 10 on the biased scale.

Comey? Very difficult to evaluate. I don't want to impugn his motives and I think he was genuinely conflicted. What we don't know is how many votes he moved because we don't have hard, reliable data. Even with that qualifier, we can't discount the impact of Comey's choices and the possibility that his decisions changed both the Presidential and down-ballot races. I think he is an honorable man—and, because he's an honorable man, he probably is losing sleep over this—and should. 8 out of 10, with the potential for an upward revision.

Assange's vigilantes? Yes, they played a role. What the hackers showed the voting public was something they suspected existed but didn't really want to see—the sausage of politics-as-usual being made. The content wasn't extraordinary—war gaming, opposition research, evaluation of vulnerabilities is exactly what campaigns are designed for, and in fact, must do. But we only got to look behind one curtain, not both, and when the contest is between the ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider, it takes its toll. Six out of ten, especially because the disclosures were the equivalent of regular small doses of poison.

Yet all these things had a common thread—the candidate herself. No emails, no Comey. No hacked private server, no WikiLeaks drip-drip of internal speculation and doubt. No forty years in public service and the public eye, for good and bad, no Clinton Foundation, no checkered past, no jaded press, no false equivalence.

And here is where it falls apart for me. I voted for Hillary Clinton. I believed that she was highly qualified, experienced, intelligent, and would have done a good job. And I believed that Donald Trump was uniquely unqualified, for any number of reasons. But I simply do not understand what the heck her campaign was thinking when they got into this, because, while Donald Trump was unpredictable, everything else above was.

The private server was obviously a terrible choice—but, for darn sakes, why not deal with it forthrightly, with a plausible reason and serious mea culpa? The Clinton Foundation? Go on the offense, with specificity— “Donald bought portraits of himself, but here's what we accomplished—we built schools, we built hospitals, we got pharmaceutical companies to donate lifesaving drugs.” Build a narrative of a committed public servant, maybe not the most likable, but someone who was dogged in her pursuit of good things for others. Remember you aren't trying to convince your enemies, but trying to give comfort to your friends. Make them proud, not defensive.

It never happened. Maybe it wasn't in her—or maybe there was too much scar tissue, but Hillary Clinton never connected, and never had a cohesive message that she could and would better people's lives. Trump did, in his own unique way. Bernie certainly did. But Hillary was unable to ignite a movement, to engender a loyalty to person and theme. You could see it in how she ended her campaign—trying to assemble a coalition of minorities and the coastal elites, two groups with virtually nothing in common, and holding rallies with pop stars. Trips to the Midwest, to Wisconsin and Michigan? Not so much. Joan Williams, in The Harvard Business Review, roughs up Hillary a bit too much, but she does make some acute observations about the white, working class voters who, in massive numbers, rejected her in favor of a crude macho mogul who began life on third base and spent most of his adult life on corporate welfare. From the pantsuits to the “deplorables” language, Hillary was the embodiment of elite condescension. So she lost this crucial group, taking down the Democratic Party with her.

What's next? Now that we have handed over our government to a cranky, imperious 70-year-old used to having his way, and a tight band of ideologues chomping at the bit to exercise power, what can we expect?

It is going to be bad, and it's going to be bad right away. The core constituencies of the GOP have been clamoring for their priorities, and will not tolerate legislative roadblocks. There is plenty of low-lying fruit, starting with the Supreme Court. We Democrats are going to have to grit our teeth on this one, as good-old Mitch McConnell gives us his turtle smirk and uses the nuclear option, while John Cornyn lectures us on the need for a prompt confirmation, and on how “the country has chosen.” Expect someone hard-right with a Messianic zeal for activism—conservative activism. We will live with it because we have no choice, whispering to ourselves “and the horse you came in on” and dreaming of a time when we can return the favor.

That's one Supreme Court Justice, which takes us back to Scalia. But now comes the hard part—the social conservative agenda: guns, gays, and fetuses. Abortion, first up. Look for top-down Federally preemptive legislation modeled on bills such as Oklahoma passed, except even more severe. The real debates amongst Republicans (Democrats will be shut out of committees and gagged) will be just at the edges—either a complete abortion ban, a ban with an exception for the life of the mother, or a ban with exceptions for life, rape, or incest. Criminalization will also be discussed—of both the mother and the provider, with a “humane” compromise of just criminalizing the provider (watch out Planned Parenthood). Congress will pass this on party lines, McConnell will use reconciliation and/or the nuclear option if needed, and Trump will sign it, because he said he would. It will then move through the court system, with conservatives fervently praying that Justice Ginsburg gets just a little closer to God in the interim.

Gays are next—the GOP will revisit the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, revitalize it and expand it—legalizing discrimination in both the public and private sector based on religious belief. This will go well beyond wedding cakes and flowers and apply more broadly to healthcare, hiring, and benefits. The language will be broad enough to eliminate restrictions as they relate to previously protected classes including race, religion, and gender. The extent of the final legislation will be debated, and my guess is that there will be some pressure to moderate from some otherwise GOP-aligned business interests, but in the end, it will be passed. Trump will sign this one as well, perhaps after some negotiations in which Pence (who championed similar measures in Indiana) will play a key role. Watch this area very carefully—it's a place where the Alt-right might have a serious dog in the fight, as “conscience exemptions” could finally provide them with the safe-harbor for open discrimination they have been hoping for.

Guns— NRA legislative priorities will be Congress's. More pre-emptive legislation prohibiting states from enacting restrictions on gun sales, gun ownership, registrations and information databases. Universal reciprocity on the issuing of gun permits—so, a concealed-carry permit issued in Texas would have to be honored by New York. This is all going to get done—Trump is in favor of it, and it's a trap for Democrats. The simple fact on guns is that the people who believe in unlimited Second Amendment rights are infinitely more organized and passionate that the larger group who favor regulation. The Democrats know it…it's a complete loser for any (remaining) Democrat from any area with a gun culture. Soon, we will all have guns.

On to money and mayhem. The Establishment GOP has three priorities, with which Trump is irregularly aligned. First, both favor steep tax cuts for business and the wealthy—these can't be done immediately (you need to give the lobbyists time to bid) but they will happen by mid-year. The Democrats have absolutely no chance of stopping this, and they shouldn't even try. Second, both Trump and the GOP favor substantially more military spending, although they have different military ambitions. This, too, will happen, but most of it will be on weapons, and less on personnel and readiness. The GOP has an unacknowledged policy problem here. It takes a lot of money and a lot of manpower to soothe the fevered brow of the armchair warriors, and, realistically, that can only come from two unpopular sources—taxes and a draft. Republicans think they can return to the Bush era—use borrowed money (and blame the Democrats for deficits) and purely volunteer armed forces. That won't be enough because the world has changed and threats are broader, although this problem will not be publicly acknowledged for some time.

Environmental regulations. Prepare for a lunar landscape. Trump is going to tear up the Paris Agreement. The GOP has long craved drilling and mining everywhere, while shielding the extractive industries from liability or a responsibility to clean up. This is a layup for Trump—he will frame it as a job-creator for his blue-collar fans, but, in the end, it's a gigantic boondoggle for industry, and they will pay handsomely for it. Legislation and Executive Orders will move very quickly here, and there is absolutely nothing the Democrats can do about this one—they just don't have the votes anywhere. I plan to invest in Hazmat suit-makers and air-conditioning equipment manufacturers.

That Wall and “Those” People. Trump will have his wall—what kind of wall will be open to interpretation, but it will be a wall, and a great one. This was a key promise he made to his backers. He will swiftly eliminate DACA, again, winning cheers from his supporters. On mass deportations and flying squads headed to minority neighborhoods to root out six-year-olds taking American jobs, he will hold back, looking for the political cover of a committee. But take note that Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a fierce critic of immigration, now has a key role on Trump's team. These two are going the play a game of Bad Cop, Worse Cop.

Obamacare: The surest repeal on the planet. Hating Obamacare is part of the catechism of being a Republican. Replace? Not so much. The GOP has some ideas for “patient-centered reforms” which largely revolve around liability shields for medical providers, drug companies and medical-device makers. But even they know they don't actually have any way to improve medical care—it's not the purpose of their plans anyway. Trump has expressed some interest in retaining preexisting condition coverage and coverage for children until they are 26, and expect the GOP to use those as fig-leafs as they look to expand by millions the numbers of uninsured. Democrats have a tough road on this—ACA is broadly unpopular, so the best they can do tactically is to allow the GOP to indulge themselves and hopefully take some responsibility (and blame).

Entitlements: This one is trickier. Programs for the poor will be cut back or eliminated in the name of deficit reduction—look at SNAP and Medicaid as deep pockets. As to Social Security and Medicare, the GOP fantasizes about curtailing these and using the savings for more tax cuts and military spending, but has electoral concerns. The problem Democrats have with this is that it's just as much as a loser for them. For decades they have failed to understand something basic—many people who work resent every dollar that goes to people who don't. This is absolutely critical for Democrats to accept and adapt to—if entitlement reform leads them to only defend the poor, they lose. They need a comprehensive response, which includes input from the healthcare providers who will not be able to provide care if Medicaid doesn't pay them.

So, my fellow Democrats, where are we? My friends are upset, my children frightened, and I haven't slept more than 3 consecutive hours for over a week. I have been inundated with texts and emails from people I know and care about, who are similarly suffering. There is an overwhelming feeling of profound personal vulnerability that may be unprecedented in the history of the greatest nation the world has ever known.

But all is not lost. We can beat this. First, we will need to indulge ourselves in breast-beating and self-recriminations. It's a normal reaction—and we have time for it given the fact that we will play no role in governance for the foreseeable future. Second, a moment of reality. We are down, but not entirely out. Hillary actually won the popular vote, meaning that there are plenty of Americans who are willing to listen to us, if we can only come up with a coherent message. Third, Republicans have now become the party of Trump, and Trump is now a Republican. Before Election Day, neither of these things were true. Now, as they exercise power together, it will be. They will both overreach. Fourth, we have the luxury of picking our fights—and we have 48 Senators, the Senate rules (and Chuck Schumer) to use. Choose them wisely, don't get suckered into things on which we look out of touch, and we can highlight differences that matter to the American people. Fifth, the hard-right program that GOP is about to impose will not be universally admired, and some of their Senators and Congressmen are going to have to pay for their votes at the ballot box. Am I overly optimistic on this? Perhaps, but the least popular Governor in America is Sam Brownback, whose vision of a conservative utopia is too extreme even for conservative Kansas.

Finally, let's try to become a national party again, a party of growth, of optimism. In a democracy, when it does something government should seek the most good for the maximum number of people. The Republicans won't—their model is built around reward and punishment. We can be better than that. It doesn't matter so much whether we move a little more to the left, or a little more to the center. Rather, we need to show that we are more than a collection of special-interest groups, that we have a broader vision. We haven't done that well, and we need to.

I leave you with one final thought, not my own, but from a neighbor with whom I rode up in the elevator. He's a naturalized citizen married to a Canadian, and we talked about that for a bit. When we reached his floor, the door open, he walked out, turned on his heel, and pointed his finger at me. “You leave, he wins twice.”

Kind of sums it up. I'll have to stay.