Friday, April 28, 2017

Unintended Consequences

Maybe we'll find out....

Texas government comes out of the populist fervor of the 19th century.  The Texas Constitution is a Rube Goldberg machine for governance:  every major state office, from governor to Lt. Gov. (chief officer of the Senate) to Agriculture Commissioner to Land Commissioner to Attorney General (and on and on) is elected.  The Governor has no power over any other elected official, including but not limited to district attorneys  and sheriffs (I mention that because Rick Perry tried to threaten the job of the Travis County DA, and Greg Abbott tried to threaten the job, later, of the Travis County Sheriff.  Both are elected officials (we practically elect the dog catcher), so they had no power over them at all).  The Governor is, constitutionally, the weakest gubernatorial office in the country.

Bob Bullock gained great fame in Texas politics, and left a lasting mark on it.  The highest office he achieved as Lt. Gov. ("Lite Guv," Molly Ivins dubbed it), but he knew Texas politics better than anybody, and wielded that knowledge like a latter-day LBJ in the Senate, although he combined the power of LBJ and Sam Rayburn into one person.  In some sense he WAS Texas government; and he left the impression the Lt. Gov. position was the REAL constitutional power in Texas.

His successors have not fared so well.  Texas Monthly bought into this myth when they declared Lite Guv. Dan Patrick was "in charge."  Nothing Patrick has championed has survived in the House overseen by Joe Strauss, and it isn't likely even the latest iteration of a "bathroom bill" will get a vote in the House, much less get to the Senate.  There is no inherent power in the Lt. Governor's office; it's up to the person holding the office.  And Dan Patrick has shown he's more Greg Abbott than Bob Bullock.

Rick Perry stayed in office so long he accrued some power:  he appointed a lot of people, he held office longer than anyone else in Texas history (largely because he took over when Bush went to the White House.  Perry was Lt. Gov. under Bush, and one of the first proofs the power was in the person, not in the office.  Perry is better remembered as Ag. Commissioner (he defeated Jim Hightower) than at Lt. Gov.  He was truly a "Lite Guv."  Greg Abbott, current governor of Texas, is turning into a Trumpian figure.  He doesn't bluster like Trump, but he clearly doesn't have any power, either.  He refused to take a stand on the bathroom bill until a House version came up; and his backing of that bill seems to be making no difference at all.  He promoted some of the loonier conspiracy theories when Jade Helm passed through the state; promoted them by giving them any credence at all.  Otherwise, he's largely a cipher.  He likes to rail about issues that appeal to hard-core conservative interests, but he really doesn't do anything about them.

He's Trump-lite because Trump himself is proving to be so useless he's actually weakening the "Imperial Presidency":

These last-minute caves are undermining not only his own dealmaker reputation as a dealmaker, but the limited political capital a president has to sway resistant lawmakers or rally the American public behind a piece of legislation. Trump’s all-bark, no-bite presidency is weakening the office itself.
It's really hard to see Trump recovering the power of the bully pulpit anytime in the next four years.  He complains to Reuters that the job is much harder than he thought; although he seems to spend hours watching cable news and tweeting about it, and every weekend he can in Florida and on the golf course.  His negotiating technique is pretty neatly summed up here:

 On critical issues from Obamacare repeal to NAFTA renegotiation, an identifiable pattern has emerged. Trump makes an outlandish ask late in the negotiating process; White House advisers and lawmakers struggling to adjust to this new reality release a wave of contradictory statements on where the administration stands; and, ultimately, the President backs down, issuing a vague promise to circle back to the issue or claiming he never intended to do what he initially said he wanted to do, anyway.
It doesn't work for him, but what else does he know?  To expect Trump to overcome these strategies and become an elder statesman or even a Barack Obama (who, despite not being LBJ, actually accomplished quite a bit) is to expect a 70 year old man to spin a cocoon around himself and emerge some time later as a new being, completely transformed.

It isn't, in other words, going to happen.

The office, it turns out, is really only as strong as the person holding it.  Trump has governed by executive order, but that's a very weak tool of governance.  His most egregious orders have been suspended by the courts; his other orders have turned out to be toothless paper tigers.  His approval ratings have been underwater since he took office, and he's shown no skill in maneuvering for his preferred outcomes.  He is weakening the office simply by his incompetence.  He has consistently presented himself as a "strong man," yet every foreign leader he has encountered has schooled him on his ignorance.  The President of China made him change his position on North Korea; Angela Merkel convinced him he couldn't use trade as leverage against Germany; the leaders of Mexico and Canada schooled him on NAFTA.  If he gets any weaker, he's going to have to turn the job over to Mike Pence.*

If you are a betting person, get in on a pool as to how long it is before Trump quits, or is forced from office.  His weakness as a leader is going to put blood in the water, and the stories about the corruption and graft, the blatant violation of the Constitution (taking money from foreign powers can be excused by Congress, but takes an explicit act to do so.  There is growing concern Trump benefits from state pension plan investors, an emolument the Constitution bans absolutely.).  There are so many ways to take down a king who is weak, that it is bound to happen to Trump.

The only question will be how long it takes.

*It's not just on the foreign front:

In the health care debate, Trump has been all over the map. He first warned Republican lawmakers that he would leave the Affordable Care Act in place and move on to other priorities unless they approved a bill to repeal and replace it. The ultimatum failed to sway skeptical conservatives in the House, and lawmakers bolted town for a two-week recess without voting on the measure. He and his aides then threatened to reach out to Democrats to resuscitate his stalled agenda, but that too went out the window. This week, the administration is once again pushing for a party-line vote on an Obamacare repeal bill.

As for that vote:

“We are not voting on health-care tomorrow,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday night, according to the Washington Post.

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