Good Friday Morning! At the beginning of 2017, I made predictions on what I thought might happen politically over the course of the year. Since this is the last piece of the year, I wanted to revisit those predictions and go over what I got right, what I missed, and lessons learned. It’s a fun task to hold myself accountable and determine where I can improve. I think it’s helpful for readers as well, to see how the year changes your political outlook. Links will follow.
Before jumping into the retrospection, I wanted to highlight a recent spat/debate among conservative thinkers that I think is important. The public war of words, in this case, is between National Review editor Charles C. W. Cooke and Jennifer Rubin, the conservative columnist at the Washington Post. Cooke wrote a post attacking Rubin, who is prominently anti-Trump, for abandoning all of her conservative beliefs in opposition to Trump. The piece, entitled, “Jennifer Rubin is Everything She Hates about Trump Worshippers,” takes her to task for supporting a given principle or policy position if someone like Mitt Romney espouses them, but immediately abandoning it if Trump endorses the same.
Rubin never wrote a response to Cooke and instead falsely called Cooke a “Trump sycophant.” David Frum, another prominent conservative Trump critic, came to Rubin’s aid in a piece called, “Conservatism Can’t Survive Donald Trump Intact.” In my view, Frum never answered Cooke’s charges against Rubin and attacked strawmen. Cooke pointed out as much in his piece, “David Frum Proves My Point.” Frum’s response brought in Jonah Goldberg, “Refusing to Be Reflexively Anti-Trump Isn’t Selling Out,” and Kevin D. Williamson, “On Cooke-Frum-Rubin.” I recommend reading all the pieces.
I will, at some point, probably flesh out my thoughts to Frum in an essay. But for now, I want to point out the striking tribal divisions on the Right. National Review, the premier conservative publication in America (next to the Weekly Standard), has drawn clear lines. First dedicating an entire issue to Trump called: “Against Trump,” in the primaries. And since then, its writers have taken a variety of stances, most consistently they’ve aligned with Cooke: Calling Trump’s decisions and words as they see them, balls and strikes the whole way. Another section, the Rubin-Frum wing, has abandoned all sense of conservative or moral principles to oppose Trump. They see him as a generational threat to the Republic who should be resisted at all costs. Both of these positions are in opposition to the hard-core Trump supporters, and the anti-Trump-critics critics, a role filled by people like Mollie Hemingway at the Federalist (who don’t defend Trump, per se, but spend their time attacking his critics).
The divide is instructive to watch because it shows you the internal biases at play within conservatism and the Republican Party as a whole.
New this week at the Conservative Institute
In this piece, I lay out the mountain in front of Republicans on retaining control of the House and Senate. Simply put, the odds are stacked against Republicans, and nominating losers like Roy Moore in Alabama hurts their chances considerably. Unlike Democrats, Republicans don’t have much in the way of a margin of error, which makes candidate selection of paramount importance.
My Christmas column goes through three of the improbable events we celebrate during the Christmas season: The birth of Jesus Christ, the eight-day celebration of Hannakuh, and George Washington’s daring choice to cross the Delaware.
A Look Back at 2017 and a Year of Predictions
As I said at the outset, I wrote three newsletters with a variety of predictions in them (01/06/2017 – 01/19/2017). We’ll start off with the good news, what I believe I got right in my predictions.
Democrats pushing for impeachment on Russia
Before Trump ever took office, many on the left believed they could have him impeached by the end of the year through two methods: 1) Trump was violating the emoluments clause, or 2) Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. On the first one, I wrote that the emoluments clause argument would fail because no one suing would have legal standing. This month, a federal district judge dismissed an emoluments lawsuit against Trump on these exact grounds. And while you’ll see some liberal-leaning legal groups try to keep a suit on this point alive, they will fail for the reasons I outlined back in January.
If Trump is impeached, I said it would come from an investigation into the Russia question. Since then, we’ve gotten the Robert Mueller investigation in the wake of Jim Comey’s firing, and multiple arrests from Paul Manafort on down. The Russia probe remains the only viable path towards impeachment when it comes to Trump. What I think I’ve gotten wrong is the viability of that route, which I’ll go into later.
Take the Steele Dossier with many grains of salt
The now infamous Steele dossier broke out into the open at the beginning of the year when Buzzfeed released it. All the fallout from it and the stories where we’ve learned Republicans and Democrats had a hand in it made my initial analysis of it spot on:
The ultimate problem is this dossier deals exclusively in human reports and rumors. It’s impossible to prove or disprove. Only the CIA, FBI, or NSA could prove or disprove each claim. And they will never release their evidence out of concern for revealing assets in Russia and elsewhere. The evidence for anything in this report would be deeply classified. … Some of it likely is true. But you can’t pretend all of it is true. And in truth, I don’t buy this is the full list of things the Russians potentially have in their real dossier of Trump (which they absolutely have — going back into the 1980’s when Trump was traveling to Russia).
Now that we’ve learned the Clinton campaign had a hand in creating it, we know it also includes opposition research. In other words, it’s an opposition hit file with possible input from Russian actors. The impossibility for any media organization verifying it means we haven’t made much progress on that front. And that difficulty made it useless for Clinton’s campaign to use. There’s still likely some truth in it, but we will never know unless that information is declassified.
One more note on the dossier, it’s unlikely it was used as the basis for the FISA warrants issued relating to Trump’s campaign. The dossier is inadmissible hearsay evidence in a court. The only way the government could use the dossier is if it could prove allegations in it were true. Somewhat interestingly, Trump could solve the debate over this by declassifying the warrants and the evidence surrounding them. His legal team’s decision not to declassify is interesting – I’d like to know their reasoning.
Racial tensions explode in the form of Charlottesville
Something I said to keep an eye on would be how Trump responded to racial tensions when a news story inevitably forced the issue on his administration:
We’ve seen a resurgence in race tensions dominating the news. Trump will have to respond to these events, just as Obama had to respond. How Trump responds has the power to inflame or quell these tensions.
Little did I, or anyone, know that the result of those forces would lead to the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Those incidents prompted an essay: “America on Kindling: Where we’re headed in the aftermath of Charlottesville.” And I’d still agree with these sentiments:
America is on kindling. We are nearing an irreversible flashpoint between the evil animating forces in American politics. What’s even more troubling is that the white nationalists, alt-right, and Antifa movements shouldn’t be considered a part of either mainstream political party. These are fringe elements that are entirely antithetical to the entire American experiment.
Other news stories have taken over since these events. But I don’t believe these animating forces have gone away just yet. All it takes is another racial-focused news cycle to inflame passions again and bring everything to a head. And unfortunately, I’ve yet to see anything from the current administration that says its capable of an emotionally intelligent response.
What I got wrong in 2017
Failure is a far better teacher than success, and what I missed is far more interesting to me. Failures on predictions help point out blind spots.
The GOP’s failed legislative blitz
I think the biggest miss I had was in believing that Republicans would have a successful congressional blitz campaign, enacting and repealing a large number of laws quickly and keep Democrats on their heels all year. I even pointed to the rollout of the blitz campaign as a success.
I was wrong.
Not only did the legislative blitz, for nominees and legislation, fail, but it also bogged down to such an extent that the only real legislative accomplishments were Trump’s judicial nominations and the tax reform bill passed in the last few weeks. Republicans and Trump had multiple failed votes on healthcare and tax reform. And while the tax bill is nothing to sneeze at, it was nowhere near the swift victory many Republican lawmakers and strategists believed in 12 months ago.
Where I missed the analysis was taking into account four broad factors: 1) The narrowness of the GOP’s margin for error, they have to convince everyone to stay on board; 2) The number of factions within the GOP and the depth of those disagreements; 3) Trump’s indecisiveness hurting everyone’s ability to form a working coalition; and 4) the complete lack of pressure on any Democrat to work with Trump. Most of these seem obvious in hindsight, but I was blinded by the GOP’s optimistic plan.
The shrinking viability of the Trump-Russia impeachment path
While I think I correctly predicted the Russia probe reasonably accurately, something I believe I’ve overstated is the viability of the road of impeachment on this front. The more extended Robert Mueller’s examination runs, the less convinced I am that the probe will find evidence directly against the President. I suspect Trump’s legal team is telling him the same, which is why he’s going around saying he expects Mueller to treat him “fairly.”
There’s no evidence of a smoking gun at this time, and I’ve seen nothing to lead me to think there is one. There’s ample evidence Trump and his team are bumbling imbeciles, but nothing that says they’re remotely capable of running a large-scale collusion campaign. Barring some new evidence that Mueller’s team will unearth, I don’t believe there is evidence to impeach Trump on the Russian front.
Now, that said, I do believe that if Democrats win the House, they will try to impeach Trump. The problem is that they don’t have the evidence or votes to be successful. I’m not even confident they could convince their entire caucus to vote yes on impeachment. It wouldn’t shock me to see Democrats overreach, cost themselves politically, and give Trump the space to win re-election in 2020 (basically a repeat of the 1990’s and Republicans attempts to impeach Clinton).
But again, barring some new evidence from Mueller’s team, there’s nothing to suggest anything in the investigation goes directly to Trump. The number of people arrested in his campaign is alarming, which is one reason I’m content to let Mueller’s team investigate absolutely everything and anyone. But I’m not seeing anything that says this is becoming a more viable impeachment path.
Lessons learned from 2017
Overall, lessons I learned watching the political world in 2017:
- Never presume political actors are competent. Incompetence and “fake-it-till-you-make-it” seem to explain just about everything in Washington D.C. right now. There’s no “House of Cards” masterplan happening behind the scenes.
- The only way to stay sane is to pursue truth, absolute truth as I argued in the first post here. Doing this allows you to say when Trump does something good or bad. If you can’t tell the difference, your biases are clouding your judgment.
- Trump will take risks other Presidents are terrified of making. Moving the US Embassy is probably the most prominent example. Nearly everyone in the Senate voted on a resolution a few years ago to do this very task, but the Obama administration refused to follow through. Trump did not. That is notable.
- I have no regrets voting against Trump in 2016. All of his character flaws continue to remain prominent in his governance and those flaws hurt America. I’ve seen nothing in the past year to make me change my vote. He’s done a lot of good, but that good could have been accomplished by any generic Republican in the field, except for John Kasich.
- I have some regrets on supporting Evan McMullin. He’s not been the firm voice of conservativism I would typically like in the media. Like David Frum and Jennifer Rubin, his criticism of Trump has harmed his ability to view with a principled moral core.
- We are in a watch-and-see mode on Robert Mueller and his investigation. I don’t know what to expect in the end, but as I pointed out above, the impeachment path appears to be shrinking. I don’t expect the #Resistance to accept this reality.
- Trump’s most significant accomplishments are: 1) Reshaping the judiciary, 2) The Tax Reform Bill, 3) Deregulation by rolling by Obama-era executive orders, and 4) Success against ISIS.
- Trump’s most significant failures: 1) Healthcare reform, 2) Not filling essential vacancies within the government outside the judiciary; 3) Rolling back Dodd-Frank, 4) The tweeting which affects his entire foreign and domestic policies, and 5) His pointless feuds with anyone over anything.
I’ll have a separate issue in the next week or so to make more predictions for the year ahead.
Best links of the week
Communism’s Bloody Century: In the 100 years since Lenin’s coup in Russia, the ideology devoted to abolishing markets and private property has left a long, murderous trail of destruction – Stephen Kotkin, The Wall Street Journal
Tax Bill Hysteria – Brett Stephens, The New York Times
The Death Rattle of Obama’s Reputation: Look in a mirror. – Noah C. Rothman, Commentary Magazine
The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’- I still need treatment for the burns on my arms, back and neck. But my heart is healed. – Kim Phuc Phan Thi, The Wall Street Journal
Spielberg’s ‘The Post’: Good Movie, Bad History: It has Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, and a rollicking great story, but the lawyer at the heart of the Pentagon Papers release says it just doesn’t have the facts on its side. – James C. Goodale, The Daily Beast
A Conservative Nonprofit That Seeks to Transform College Campuses Faces Allegations of Racial Bias and Illegal Campaign Activity – Jane Meyer, New Yorker Magazine
Fact Check: It Was Anti-Semitic Business as Usual at the U.N. Today – David French, National Review
Is The Liberal Media Giving Linda Sarsour A Pass On A Sexual Assault Cover-Up? – Bethany Mandel, Forward.com
Satire piece of the week
LAKE CHAMPLAIN, VT—After years of suffering oppression at the hands of the capitalist system in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced Wednesday that he would be quitting politics and retiring to the socialist paradise of Venezuela.
Senator Sanders held a press conference at his summer vacation home on Lake Champlain to announce the move.
“I simply have had enough of being exploited by billionaires and evil corporations,” the democratic socialist who owns three homes said. “I will be retiring from my Senate seat and its problematic $200,000 annual salary and going to live in the idyllic land of Venezuela.”
Thanks for reading!