Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the Georgia special House election, tax reform, and Sean Spicer’s gaffes.
Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff won 48.1 percent of the vote in last night’s Georgia special election for Tom Price’s House seat — not enough to avoid a runoff, but a strong showing for the candidate who campaigned on “Make Trump Furious.” Will this strategy translate to 2018?
This little race was fun while it lasted, and may have been the most successful jobs program (albeit for journalists) of the Trump presidency. But even if Ossoff had actually won it’s hard to see how this contest was a bellwether for 2018 or much else. Georgia’s sixth district, we keep being reminded, is “ruby red” and hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House since the state’s native son Jimmy Carter was president. But it is also a wealthy suburban Atlanta district in which Trump beat Clinton by barely a single percentage point (as opposed to Mitt Romney crushing Obama by 23 points in 2012). With a war chest of $8.3 million and facing a divided field that included 11 Republicans, Ossoff performed a shade better than Clinton (who received 47 per cent of the vote to Trump’s 48) but couldn’t put it away. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t. If he had, one could imagine Democrats prematurely declaring Mission Accomplished and hailing Ossoff as potential presidential or vice-presidential timber — at least until everyone remembered that he will not have reached the constitutionally mandated age requirement of 35 by 2020.
Ossoff notwithstanding, the party remains in desperate need of a new generation of national leadership that might lead it past the Clinton-Obama era — MSNBC has a more fervent following among liberals than the party and its aging Establishment. The most hopeful signs for the Democrats are at its grass roots — as first exemplified by the Women’s March and most recently by the weekend’s tax protests, both of which have made Trump furious. How this energy can be maintained and organized to powerful effect in the 2018 midterms is a question that cannot be answered by special elections in quirky congressional districts. Almost six months after the 2016 election, many Democrats are still trying to get their minds around the autopsy: Witness the fact that the journalistic account Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, released as Georgians went to the polls yesterday, is the No. 1 Amazon best seller, a runaway phenomenon that caught even its publisher by surprise; Amazon now lists the print edition as out of stock for “one to two months.” There may be more meaning in that landslide than Ossoff’s 48.1 percent plurality.
Following another round of protests, Donald Trump once again refused to release his tax returns, potentially putting the next item on the GOP legislative agenda — tax reform — in jeopardy. Will we see Trump’s returns before we see House Republicans try to get a plan off the ground?
Of course not! (Nor, I suspect, will House Republicans get a tax bill off the ground.) Our best hope for seeing Trump’s tax returns will be that day when the Kremlin decides that his useful idiocy is no longer useful and leaks them for its own purposes, no doubt via WikiLeaks. There is zero chance that Trump would voluntarily release them to remove a huge political obstacle to his party’s grand plans for tax reform, even if Republicans in Congress try to nudge him (as a few already are). Trump has only one priority, and it’s not the GOP, let alone America; it’s the Trump family kleptocracy. Clearly, releasing the returns poses some existential threat to his bottom line. End of story. He isn’t losing any sleep worrying about Paul Ryan’s agenda to cut taxes for other billionaires.
Indeed, there’s still no evidence that Trump so much as peeked at the “how a bill becomes a law” diagram while cramming for the final in his ninth-grade civics class. His self-immolating effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare will remain the template for everything he does. Which is to say, it is quite likely there will be no legislative achievements in his presidency — not tax reform, not a federal infrastructure surge, not a great wall — merely an endless slew of grandiosely announced executive orders that will create a certain havoc (when not struck down by the courts) but advance no consistent or substantive program. Trump doesn’t even heed his own sporadic quasi-governmental decrees. This week’s executive order was devoted to the theme of “Buy American, Hire American,” and surely no one expects that it apply either to his own daughter’s product lines or the menial immigrant workers at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.
In the wake of his “Holocaust centers” Syria gaffe last week, Sean Spicer has argued for less White House transparency and was found to have been lying (or out of the loop) about cronyism at the Republican National Committee and U.S. tactics in North Korea. Are his days at the lectern numbered?
Sooner or later Spicer will be history, but I, for one, hope he keeps his job for a long time to come. He is the perfect spokesman for an administration whose daily bread is mendacity whether the lies are big or small. From the moment he insisted that Trump’s Inaugural drew record crowds — the very first moment of this presidency — his credibility has been kaput. As long as he remains front-and-center on camera daily, he will serve as a helpful reminder to Americans of limited attention span that everything the administration says is complete and utter bullshit. (Those of limited attention span include liberal talking heads who unaccountably hailed Trump as presidential after he bombed Syria.) I mean, really: This White House even claimed that warships — an “armada,” as our president dramatically described them — were “steaming” toward Korea as a deterrent to Kim Jong-un when in fact they were headed the other way, for joint exercises with the Australian Navy. (Granted, Australia is another American adversary in Trump’s eyes.) Spicer, who retailed that canard as avidly as he did those record Inaugural crowds, seems just as silly delivering his gravest pronouncements as he did reading How to Catch the Easter Bunny to a sparse collection of captive kiddies at Monday’s White House Easter Egg Roll.
If Goebbels had been as transparently incompetent as Spicer is, it’s a fair bet that Hitler would have sent him to one of those “Holocaust centers.” But what’s going to do Spicer in is not his egregious performance in his job so much as Melissa McCarthy’s recurrent performance of his egregious performance in his job. The casting of a woman as the man charged with selling the administration’s ostensibly macho image surely continues to eat away at Trump. Since he can’t grab McCarthy by the you-know-what to act on his anger, the day will come when he will grab Spicer by the you-know-what and release him for whatever cameo role awaits him on whatever freak show replaces Bill O’Reilly’s vacated spin zone at Fox News.