Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Sep 26, 2017

If it's lunchtime Tuesday, it's Fix politics time. What do you want to know?

It's been a massive freaking news day -- or, really, past few news days. And I'm not just talking about the NFL. 

We've learned that people from eight countries will soon be prohibited from coming to the United States. That Jared Kushner & other top White House aides used private email accounts to conduct White House business. We're relearning that Obamacare is tough to repeal. And in the middle of all this, North Korea thinks the U.S. declared war, which seems like a menacing thing to say. But at the same time, they've been reaching out to Republican strategists to figure out how to make sense of Trump's bellicosity. 

What are you curious about? 

I am not sure if this question fits here but I just have to ask someone. For months, CBS led me to believe the new Star Trek: Discovery series would be a regular network series. Now, I find out you have to pay for it online! The very first episode was excellent and had me hooked but I utilize public computers and cannot afford to watch online. Gene Roddenberry must be rolling over in his grave that they have made Star Trek unaffordable! Why would CBS pull such a dirty trick? If it was a network series, it would be a ratings bonanza! Apparently, according to many social media sites, many Trekkers feel hoodwinked!

Hey I welcome all nerd questions, as a card-carrying member myself.

I think CBS didn't pull a bait and switch so much as a "Now you're trapped!" on Trekkies. They had, to my knowledge, publicized that the new series would entirely be on their streaming service, but they wanted to hook us with the first episode by broadcasting it on their network. CBS sees where the media landscape is going and wants to firmly plant a foot on it first. 

Problem is, are you and I ready to cut all cords? The first episode of Discovery was good, but was it THAT good? These are running convos I have with myself ..

The uproar over athletes not standing for the national anthem is an example of valuing form over content. Standing for the national anthem is a ritual that signals acknowledgement of concrete rights and protections enjoyed by United States citizens - freedom of speech and religion, a free press, due process, equality, rule of law, etc. Trump and his administration fiercely defend the ritual, while beavering away at reducing the Constitution and our rights as citizens to rubble. If the actual rights themselves are under attack by those sworn to uphold and protect them, why should the ritual be sacred? What better protest of an attack on freedom than the ritual that signals it? But then again, the Trump administration is founded on style over substance, form over content.

Polling is scant on how many of Trump's supporters are supporters of standing for the national anthem no matter what, but I bet there's a pretty heavy overlay. And I bet these same people see the world exact opposite as you do: Trump is the one standing up for the flag and all it represents, even (or especially) if it's broadly unpopular with the NFL. I mean Jerry Jones -- Jerry freaking Jones! -- got boo'd last night in Arizona for kneeling before the anthem. 

Anyway, if that was too long  & you didn't read that answer, here's my bottom line: EVERYTHING Is political now. Everything. That's a reflection of the time we're in, and I think the Trump administration has exacerbated it. 

When does the House and Senate go on break again? I prefer them when they're not in season.

Normally my answer would be the holidays, but they have a massive budget AND debt ceiling deadline they have to deal with in early December. (That's a direct result of Trump taking Democrats up on their offer to just extend it all for three months.)

Really, really dead this time?

It's a zombie that's been severely weakened. I came close to saying it's really, really dead in July, when I talked to conservative activists who have staked their recent careers on Obamacare repeal and just said: Let's move on to tax reform.

So, never say never. But I don't see how Republicans set themselves up for failure again without a drastic change in policy that can win the votes of 50 GOP senators, or -- gasp -- a bipartisan approach that doesn't have the intent of repealing Obamacare but propping it up. 

Heck, if the North Koreans can find out what the Trump Administration is trying to say, I hope they tell the rest of us.

We are definitely in uncharted territory here with a U.S. president so willing, so ready to bare his teeth at one of the most hostile and unpredictable nuclear regimes in the world. 

any predicted fallout? implications for Mueller investigation?

I don't know about the implication for Mueller -- that's a good question. We don't know yet that their use of private emails to conduct personal business had anything to do with the Russia investigation. People familiar with Jared Kushner's emails said he was usually just getting links to news stories. 

But a GOP-led investigative committee in Congress is going to look into it, so this could fester. Right now, this seems to be a transparency/some hypocrisy issue.  

As The Fix's Aaron Blake explains, based on what we know about their "sporadic" email use, it pales in comparison to what Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state using her private email server exclusively for government work and being "extremely careless" on sharing and receiving classified info on it. 

Trump was front and center for Republican-controlled Texas and Florida in the wake of Harvey and Irma. But based on his public comments the last few days, he apparently is much more concerned about the NFL/national anthem controversy than Maria's terrible devastation of Puerto Rico. Is Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, Trump's Katrina?

It certainly feels that way, given how much attention Trump gave over the weekend to igniting a culture war vs. Puerto Rico, where government officials are literally crying in media interviews, saying people are "dying" before aid can get there. 

Not to be ghoulish, but is the GOP plan on health care to outlast John McCain and hope Gov. Ducey appoints a successor who is more amenable to repeal?

I don't know if they have a plan like that -- if so, it'd be pretty far-fetched based on a lot of "ifs". But yes, an open Senate seat in Arizona, where a governor who was supported of the Cassidy-Graham repeal bill, could change things for Republicans. So could  Sen. Bob Menendez's corruption trial in New Jersey. 

Other than "scoring a win" and keeping ill-conceived campaign promises of repealing the ACA, it seems that conservatives are deeply committed to the idea of getting the federal government out of healthcare (hence the block grant for a few years concept). But I think others like Collins and Murkowski look at the numbers and realized that A LOT of people in their home states will ultimately lose coverage and so they can't pull the trigger. Is that about right?

Yup, that's about right. I think everyone in the Republican Party -- moderates, conservatives, leaders -- underestimated how hard it would be to undo a social program that 20 million people have used to get health insurance. 

Maybe I'm mistaken, but my memory of GWB's tax cut is that it didn't pay for itself. Is there a concrete example of "tax cuts pay for themselves by leading to higher economic growth"? Not speculation. Not economic theory. Is there an actual example of this occurring in reality? If there is such an instance, are any Republicans citing it to support their support for tax cuts?

Yeah, as Tony Newmyer, author of The Washington Post's Finance 202 newsletter, said, economists are skeptical of trickle-down economics:

Trump relied on some bank-shot logic — some might called it trickle-down — that easing the tax burden on businesses of all sizes will encourage them to invest more in their operations, including their workers, who’d see wages rise faster. The economics of that argument are questionable -- most economists say a company's shareholders would benefit from a lower corporate tax rate.

What do you make of the apparent polling strength of Roy Moore, who in his two previous runs for governor he finished with 33% and 19%?

GOP strategists in 'Bama say this is just the right candidate for the state at the right time. In some ways, it feels like the conservative populism that Trump himself helped fuel has now taken on a life of its own. GOP strategists also caution that a Roy Moore-type can't work everywhere, so perhaps GOP fears of primary challengers across the nation are overblown. 

Okay, so September 30th is the deadline for repealing Obamacare under reconciliation? Unless they include reconciliation instructions in the FY 2018 budget resolution? But that prevents them from using reconciliation for tax reform/tax cuts? Or can they do it for both? Or can they do it for one, then pass a revised budget resolution with instructions on the other?

Well, whatever bill they pass under reconciliation (explainer here) has to reduce the deficit by whatever amount is in their budget resolution. And it's really hard to pass a potentially expensive tax bill AND a health-care bill that doesn't entirely undo federal government's role in health care all at once and have it match up perfectly with the deficit reduction. 

So, in effect, they have to choose one or the other. 

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says that Hillary focused on identity politics at the expense of the middle class. Do you agree?

I don't know if they are mutually exclusive. But  Democrats in Michigan and Wisconsin will tell you that, yes, she could have paid much more attention to them and their concerns. 

Should I expect to see the same level of coverage on 6 Trump people using personal email for gov work as we did with Clinton?

See here: It's not the same situation (at least, what we know now.)

Also, it's not the media's job to be outraged! It's the voters.

I liked your article on the reasons behind the failure of Graham-Cassidy. If the GOP is going to get anything done, Congressional leadership is going to have to step back in order to step up. Is there any evidence that Ryan and McConnell, or anyone else on the Hill, has both the stature and inclination to lead a less frantic approach? Or is the real problem the essentially ungovernable Freedom Caucus?

Why thank you. 

And it's not just the conservative HFC. the real problem is they don't have a way to repeal Obamacare that can get 50 votes in the Senate.

Hi, Amber: I'm intrigued about Menendez's corruption trial in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in the McDonnell case (and based on that rulling, federal judges have recently thrown out corruptionb convictions of two NYS politicians). It seems that the standard now is that prosecutors must present iron-clad proof of a declared intent to provide quid pro quo (I will do this for you if you do this for me). Otherwise, it's just "elected officials are supposed to help their constituents." So even if Menendez is convicted, it seems to me that the courts would throw it out, right?

You're right that it's a very high standard to prove corruption, and the Supreme Court, in throwing out former VA gov Bob McDonnell's conviction, recently raised the bar.

I don't know what will happen if Menendez is convicted. Presumably, the jury is informed of this new, higher standard. 

Hi, Amber: I know the arcane rules about using reconciliation to pass a bill are complex (it can only be used on issues specific to the federal budget, right?), but I'm confused by what's been done and reported about the Senate. I thought ACA repeal was done for the year after the last go-round, but then was revived with Graham-Cassidy. Now, apparently it's done for this fiscal year, but can't they begin again in the new fiscal year (October 1st)?

So, lawmakers have always had until the end of this fiscal year to try to repeal Obamacare with a majority in the Senate (rather than a 60-vote filibuster proof majority). ACA repeal got revived in September, partly because the fiscal year wasn't over, and partly because lawmakers were panicked after going home in August and facing constituents who were mad they didn't deliver on their central campaign promise despite controlling all of Washington. 

See above for a more detailed explainer, but lawmakers will have to decide this next fiscal year whether they focus on health care or tax reform. 

Are there any serious implications for the future if Alabama proves that the president has no coattails? Or has he hedged himself enough that it doesn't matter. I presume that if Mr. Strange does win, that will be hugely important at least in states similar to Alabama since he is the underdog.

For the future of what? Of Trump?

Operatives and analysts I've spoken to about the impact of a Moore win on Trump are conflicted. On one hand, Moore is a unique candidate with an unapologetic, evangelical reputation that seems able to overcome a lack of a presidential endorsement. Plus, Trump also went to rally for Strange and literally said he might have made a mistake and would campaign for Moore if he won. 

Alabama voters can love Trump and still pick Moore, one strategist told me. 

But there's also the inescapable fact that if Moore wins, Trump will have picked the wrong side -- reluctantly or not, he was on the losing side of a populist election. 

If Moore takes the primary, does the Democrat have a chance in the General Election?

If Moore wins, Doug Jones probably has MOORE of a chance in December's general election than he would against a traditional Republican. But this is Alabama we're talking about. A Democratic win here post civil-rights realignment would be a historic moment. 

Who is hurt more in the latest healthcare debacle: Trump or Congress?

Easy. Congress. Trump stayed out of the health-care debate, largely, I believe, to avoid situations like this. He can blame Congress for not acting, and he has a point. They had seven years to come up with something. 

But behind closed doors, Congress will also tell you that Trump shares a large part of the blame. He barely helped win over hesitant lawmakers, he was totally uninterested in policy and inconsistent about what he wanted to see in a bill .

So, a lot has been made of the damage to the "brand" of Trump if his pick doesn't win the Ala. special election. Is that really a thing? I think internal consistency ("I like Trump, therefore if Trump does not support my guy, I should rethink one of these two positions") is not a trait I would attribute to most American voters, say nothing of Trump voters in particular. Is there really anything significant at stake here other than maybe a few bitter tweets and/or a quick Trump flip to "always liking Moore", assuming a Moore win?

See my answer above. Maybe, maybe not for Trump. One race doesn't make or break a reputation. And, as you point out, before Friday's rally, the extent of Trump's support for Strange consisted almost entirely of a couple tweets. And not super enthusiastic tweets either -- his tweets about the size and power of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma carried more enthusiasm than some of his ones for Strange.

CBS did the same thing before with it's "The Good Wife" spin-off. The pilot was excellent, but I have enough sales resistance to avoid getting sucked into their nefarious plot to recruit new subscribers.

I didn't know that! Eventually, we will have no choice but to be subscribers to individual channel streams. 

With the failure of Graham-Cassidy, is there any chance there could be a bipartisan coalition to make some fixes to the ACA in a way that would actually be helpful?

There's already one under way! Though the bipartisan talks led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) got sidelined by this whole G-C hail mary. I do think a bipartisan effort picks up now, though, because Republicans have realized (again) that they don't have the votes to change health care on their own. 

The Democratic Party, the GOP, and then the Trump Party, who really wins with a Moore Victory in Alabama?

A faction of the Trump Party -- the Bannonites, who embraced him at the last minute. 

There was plenty of noisy confrontation over the summer from PROPONENTS of Obamacare who packed town halls. Why, then were Republicans more frightened of the OPPONENTS? Has anyone asked them why this arguably smaller group was even more frightening?

Because that group votes for them! 

If Susan Collins should run for (and win) the Governorship in Maine, how likely would she be to appoint out-going Governor Paul LePage to fill her Senate seat (assuming he doesn't defeat Angus King)? Please, please, please say "Not at all"!!!


They don't like each other at all. 

Just announced that he will be speaking at event in Iowa in November, this is his second trip there this year. Reasonable to say he's laying the groundwork to primary Trump in 2020?

It's not unreasonable. IF (and I have no inside knowledge on this), he were to primary Trump, he can point to the fact that he was one of the Senate's original Never Trump-ers.

But Trump still has a 80% approval rating among Republicans,  according to a new Post-ABC News poll, so any primary challenger would have a big hill to climb. 

How did you become interested in politics?

It was Plan B after trying to become British Royalty. 

Who publically said they would vote "no" on Graham-Cassidy first? McCain or Paul?

This is such a false choice. First, there are plenty of women, racial minorities, LBGT, etc in the middle class or the working class or whatever class category you want to focus on. So for them it's not an either/or at all. And, more importantly, what most people mean when they say to ignore identity politics and focus on economics IS ITSELF A FORM OF IDENTITY POLITICS! If you have the privilege of ignoring race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc so that you can focus solely on economics, you are almost definitely a white straight cis-gender citizen and are therefore pursuing things that are of interest to people with that identity.

^ I think your broader point is a fair one, that you don't have to speak to someone's race or gender or sexual orientation to connect with them. 

What laws should they be worried about being charged with violating?

Nothing, yet. We know Mueller's investigation is looking at Kushner, and at all of Trump's top aides related to Comey firing. But his investigation will have to develop before we have any sense of whether Jared and Ivanka are in any kind of legal trouble. It's waaaay too soon to surmise. 

What 'red meat' cultural issue do you predict Trump will next employ to distract the media and keep his followers happy?

So, yes, Trump has been known to say controversial things when the news cycle isn't going well for him. But I think this NFL rant was just a gut-driven moment, which he doubled down on, because that's what Trump does. 

Also, while that was going on, here's what the rest of The Washington Post team reported on:


We've learned that people from eight countries will soon be prohibited from coming to the United States. That Jared Kushner used a private email account to conduct White House business. We're relearning that Obamacare is tough to repeal. And in the middle of all this, North Korea thinks the U.S. declared war, which seems like a menacing thing to say. And North Korea has reached out to Republican operatives to get a read on Trump. 

"Trump stayed out of the health-care debate, largely, I believe, to avoid situations like this..." Wait a sec, didn't Trump promise the voters that he had a plan, a plan that would cost less, cover more people and be tremendously better than the ACA? Of course he did...and he'll tell us the plan immediately after he gets the check from Mexico for the Wall, Hillary is going to be prosecuted and he'll show us his taxes...Has anybody in the media asked him where his healthcare plan is? Didn't think so...

I don't think it was entirely unfair for him to let Congress to take the lead on repealing Obamacare, given many of them have been voting on how to do that for years and Trump is a newcomer to Washington. But Trump definitely could have helped out more, say GOP aides. 

I guess we'll just have to talk about that next time. Thanks, as always, for your fantastic questions, and see y'all next week! 

In This Chat
Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.
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