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The Weekend Reader: The Middle Class Grabs Its Pitchforks

Columns and commentary from the "New York" and Daily Intelligencer political teams, plus breaking news from New York and around the world.
The Weekend Reader: The Middle Class Grabs Its Pitchforks
Senator Tammy Duckworth and her new constituent. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
This Week’s Essential Political Writing
It’s almost impossible to keep your head above the flood of political news in Trump’s America. We’re throwing you a life vest: Here are the most indispensable politics stories from New York and beyond …
The Most Important Story of the Week: The GOP tax cut, a.k.a. Paul Ryan’s wet dream, is the crowning achievement of unified Republican government — but the American public isn’t sold on it, Eric Levitz writes. Republicans thought the unloved law would become better regarded as Democratic attacks wore off and voters saw a (modest) difference in their paychecks. Instead, the bill is still a loser in polls, earning a distinction as the only unpopular tax cut in modern history. For Republicans, this is not just another bump in the road amid an already challenging election climate. It’s an unmistakable sign, along with red-state teacher strikes, that the core of the Establishment Republican agenda isn’t enticing to the average American — that if “voters are forced to choose between maintaining entitlement benefits and keeping tax rates low — there’s never been less doubt about which they’ll choose.” In other words, it’s a looming existential crisis. (The Trump Tax Cuts Are Still Unpopular. That’s a Crisis for Conservatives.)
SAG Member of the Week: Make no mistake: Cynthia Nixon’s primary campaign against Andrew Cuomo remains a long shot. But Jessica Pressler writes that the acclaimed actress, who was inspired by the Trump nightmare to throw her hat in the ring, is no political novice, having advocated for equitable distribution of public-school funding and gay marriage in recent years. And she’s no slouch as a campaigner, either. On the stump, she has evolved into “a liberal fairy godmother radiating the warmth and empathy missing from the current political landscape, not to mention from the standoffish personality of her opponent.” She has clearly already rattled Cuomo, who has hastily tacked to his left. Now, Nixon and her backers are beginning to believe that they can actually beat the governor in September. (Cynthia Nixon Has Already Won)
Unbowed Blowhard of the Week: In a highly entertaining twist, Sean Hannity was revealed to be Michael Cohen’s mystery third client in open court this week. But the flagrant conflict of interest inherent in Hannity railing against an investigation while seeking representation from one of its key players will have zero effect on the Fox News gabber’s sway, Frank Rich writes, since “the notion that journalistic rules or ethics have any meaning at a Murdoch outfit, or that its audience wants them to apply, is a fantasy.” Instead, the power-hungry Hannity will continue to exert his poisonous influence on the air and at the White House, where he is said to have so much pull that he may as well have a desk in the building. No ethics, no problem. (Sean Hannity Will Remain Trump’s Shadow Chief of Staff)
Pointless Show of Force: It was clear soon after the U.S. air strikes on Syrian chemical-weapons facilities that they had barely had any effect — just witness Bashar al-Assad’s jovial mood two days later. Jonah Shepp writes that not only did the strikes accomplish almost nothing militarily, they produced two perverse effects: They emphasized (again) that Assad can continue to barrage his people with nonchemical weapons consequence-free, and they upped the odds of a wider conflict the next time Assad decides to douse rebel strongholds with chlorine gas. In the end, the strikes’ only real purpose, beyond making Trump feel better about himself amid scandal at home, was “to commit the U.S. to future involvement in a foreign quagmire the Obama administration was rightly hesitant to enter (and which Trump just weeks ago said we were about to leave).” (Syria Strikes Show, Once Again, That We Can’t Police the World by Bombing It)
Evolutionary Reality of the Week: In his review of Amy Chua’s new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Park MacDougald writes about her overarching idea that “people care very much about their group identity,” and “tribalism is a part of our evolved psychology that cannot be educated away.” Elite America’s blindness to these primal loyalties, Chua argues, has led to a misunderstanding of many of the aggrieved, culturally anxious white people who helped carry President Trump to victory. While she doesn’t excuse the racism and white nationalism that fueled his campaign, she allows that many of Trump’s voters were simply “doing what you would expect most groups in most places to do most of the time: hold on to whatever power they have.” (Can America’s Two Tribes Learn to Live Together?)
Incorrigible Partisans of the Week: Jonathan Chait writes that “a sequence of events like the transformation of a party into a cult of personality dedicated to the most unfit personality ever to occupy the Oval Office should have had a disruptive effect on the alignments of national politicians.” Instead, none of the prominent anti-Trump Republicans who grimace through every Trump scandal has actually done the reasonable thing and jumped ship to the Democratic Party. Instead, the David Brookses of the world still hold out unrealistic hope that a Republican Party that has long since abandoned reason for anger will magically snap itself back to relative sanity. But “there comes a time when trying to patch things up and hoping for better days ceases to be a responsible choice,” and that time is long since past. (A Democracy Disappears)
One Funny Thing: Ohio Representative and deep-state conspiracy theorist Jim Jordan went on CNN and said, with a straight face, that he could not recall a single instance in which President Trump has lied.

Sometimes, we laugh to keep from crying. (Republican Congressman Denies Trump Has Ever Lied a Single Time)
The Most-Overlooked Story of the Week: New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman wants to change New York law to allow the state to prosecute people who have been granted a presidential pardon. If he gets his way, this could have huge implications for President Trump and the Mueller investigation. (New York Attorney General Seeks Power to Bypass Presidential Pardons)
Scoop of the Week: The Washington Post reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over Easter weekend to pave the way for one-on-one talks between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. It was the highest-level meeting between the two adversaries since 2000. (CIA Director Pompeo Met With North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un Over Easter Weekend)
Postmortem of the Week: The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reports on the turbulent final days of Rex Tillerson’s odd and destructive State Department tenure. To the end, Tillerson was alienating staffers with his imperious management style, annoying President Trump with his alpha-male demeanor, and eagerly advocating for his own department’s marginalization. What a short, strange trip it was. (Inside Rex Tillerson’s Ouster)
Trump Has Always Been Trump Reminder: It’s no surprise that our fabulist president lied to get onto a list of the world’s richest people back in the ’80s. But Jonathan Greenberg’s chronicle of just how far Trump went to inflate his wealth, and what it meant for his burgeoning reputation, makes for fascinating and disturbing reading. And the audio tapes of Trump’s alter ego “John Barron” pleading his case are something to behold. (Trump Lied to Me About His Wealth to Get Onto the Forbes 400. Here Are the Tapes)
Quote of the Week: “With all due respect, I don't get confused.” —Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., taking issue with a White House adviser’s claim that she was at fault for jumping the gun on Russia sanctions.
Slack Chat:
“Upzoning the American Dream”
Daily Intelligencer politics editor Ezekiel Kweku grills two members of New York’s politics team — today it is Eric Levitz and Ed Kilgore — on what this week’s headlines actually mean.
Ezekiel:   S.B. 827, a bill to require local government to accept dense developments near transit hubs and thereby reduce housing costs, died in committee in California. What's the headline reason why?
Ed:   Is Jon not going to be in on this one, since he wrote the column that got all the attention?
Ezekiel:   He has a deadline. Plus, since he's not here we can talk about him behind his back.
Ed:   Haha. I think our next chat topic should be about Jon. Purely and simply.
Ezekiel:   “Fisking Chait.”
Ed:   I want to ask him again publicly about “Diary of a Dean-o-phobe.”
Eric:   These chats should all just be Maoist criticism sessions of the DI staff.
Ed:   Anyway — the reason is that it was opposed by nearly every local government in California, plus tenants’ advocates, plus Republicans. It was obviously a big idea that scared a lot of people.
Eric:   Also, millennial renters aren't as politically organized/motivated about zoning issues as boomer homeowners, and YIMBY yuppies aren't a big enough counterweight.
Ed:   Maybe, though the only visible supporters of the measure were Silicon Valley types, real estate developers, and some environmentalists. Renters’ groups tended to be as hostile as anyone else. I don’t think the politics on the ground in California quite matched the configuration of forces in the national debate it helped promote.
Eric:   In my (limited) experience covering similar issues in New York, low-income tenants’ associations often fiercely oppose upzoning out of an (often correct) belief that development in their neighborhoods will increase the value of real-estate in the area, and thus, in the long run, raise *their* rents, even as the new supply brings down rents in the metropolitan area as a whole. Does seem like new development would be in the material interests of middle/upper middle-class renters — especially those currently priced out of desirable urban centers and/or convenient locations within them. But that constituency doesn't seem all that mobilized.
Ezekiel:   I think the data agrees with you, Eric, that renters act like hyperlocalized NIMBYs.
Ed:   The chief sponsor of S.B. 827, State Senator Scott Wiener, made a late (too late) effort to bring not only tenants’ groups but minority housing advocates generally around with amendments that prohibited demolition of existing low-income housing and required construction of new low-income housing.
Ezekiel:   So is this a problem with no constituency for any particular solution?

Overall, Ezekiel, you may be right. “High-density housing” is an extremely popular idea with urban planners and some environmentalists. But it’s not popular with all that many voters. And the problem, of course, is that the impact on housing prices is debatable, as we’ve already mentioned. The more general idea of using the leverage of state government to overcome NIMBYism at the local level still has merit, even if this particular approach to it fails.

Eric:   I think there are alternatives that would likely garner more popular support, but developer resistance, like creating community land trusts that preserve affordability by converting public land into cooperatively owned housing and/or expanding public/social housing.
Ed:   Yeah, there are other ways to increase the affordable housing stock than killing height restrictions. But they may not have the environmental benefits of upzoning. As a resident of the central coast of California, I can vouch for the fact that development restrictions are really pervasive.
Eric:   True.
Ezekiel:   I can just imagine the anti–social housing ads. “Obamatowns.”
Ed:   Any sort of significant development plan usually requires a ballot initiative, and the impulse of homeowners is to vote “no” on everything. In this context, the fact that California Republicans are so powerless is a good thing. One of the two GOP candidates for governor of California opposes the whole idea of multi-family housing, saying Californians want a backyard. That’s really constructive, eh?
Eric:   Yeah, social housing would be heavy lift. But if current trends persist, the ranks of the housing insecure are going to grow so massive, the boundaries of political possibility just might move, at least in blue states. Alternatively, there might be some way for policymakers to redirect economic activity away from the handful of metropolitan areas where it's currently concentrating. That's not a subject I've thought much about, but the regional inequalities created by current trends seem to create a whole host of political and social problems.
Ezekiel:   I do think that's part of the problem, Ed — having a house is part of the middle-class American dream.
Ed:   Yes, I understand. But it’s also why we have sprawl. I’m originally from Atlanta, where minimum lot sizes and weak development planning has created a monster of a metropolitan area, covering 29 counties.
Ezekiel:   Absolutely. Jumping off of that point, Eric, about regional inequality — Kevin Drum suggested (in a column that I found mostly incoherent other than this point) that we should focus on building denser housing in midsize cities rather than urban metropolises like San Francisco that seems to me to be a recipe, in theory, at least, for reducing regional inequality.
Ed:   That’s tough in a state the size and complexity of California. You could argue that by insisting on building a high-speed rail stretch connecting Fresno and Bakersfield that probably won’t be built anywhere else, the state is trying to address regional inequality. But it won’t go far, literally. [That was an Inside California joke, Ezekiel!]
Ezekiel:   Haha.
Eric:   It does seem like employers are favoring big cities over midsize ones, due to various network effects (like the abundance and thus affordability of flights into NYC, relative to Cincinnati; and of course, the concentration of skilled and unskilled labor in the big metros) I feel like the regional inequality problem is more about jobs than housing (which follows from the former).
Ed:   I agree with Eric that housing is sometimes overemphasized in these discussions. In the end, it’s all about money. But the disparities in housing costs between, say, L.A. and Houston are pretty shocking to people. I feel like the environmental aspects of this issue aren’t getting quite the attention they deserve.
Ezekiel:   Ha, that could apply to any topic in 2018.
Eric:   Very true.
Ed:   A combination of housing prices, the abandonment of national fuel efficiency standards, and very limited public transit mean that more sprawl could be really devastating environmentally. People want their single-family housing with a big back yard, and their big-ass SUV, and cleaner air.
Ezekiel:   Good thing the environment is in very good shape and can take a hit!
Eric:   Every man a king. Every fall a thousand-year storm.
We want your opinion on this new
weekend edition of the Daily Intelligencer newsletter.
Please tell us what you think.
Meme of the week:
Ted Cruz’s Groveling Tribute to Trump
The Texas senator wrote a fawning appreciation of the president in Time magazine, conveniently choosing to leave out the many times Trump cruelly tormented him and his family during the GOP primary in 2016.
The Most Interesting Thing I Read This Week
I wanted to hate it, but the most interesting thing I read this week was James Comey's A Higher Loyalty. Based on his promotional interviews, I figured the former FBI director's book would be narrowly focused on Donald Trump and his obvious shortcomings. I also assumed the book would mirror the petty tone Comey often adopted when discussing the president, focusing on cheap shots like his peculiar skin color (yawn) and the small white rings around his eyes that he believes are due to tanning goggles (a gripping observation ... in 2015). As it turns out, Comey did himself a disservice during his media tour, though I can't blame him — it's difficult to say what you mean when you're on a TV set, and it seems he got comfortable, early on, talking about his more gossipy impressions of Trump. Everything gossipy that Comey said was amplified on cable chyrons and in tabloid-style headlines, creating an almost saturating effect that the Onion sent up with the headline, “Comey: 'What Can I Say, I'm Just a Catty Bitch From New Jersey and I Live for Drama'” (same!). In fact, the book doesn't focus on the topic of the current president until one of the final chapters. It's a fascinating and self-aware autobiography, and that self-awareness makes Comey's tendency to come across as a Boy Scout much more palatable. What I initially found grating and phony became almost endearing as I finished the text. Comey is a terrific storyteller, which first sold me in an early chapter about a home invasion he and his brother were victim to when he was a teenager in New Jersey. Throughout the book, he does a masterful job of painting miniature portraits of each of the characters he writes about, from his boss at his after-school job stocking shelves at a grocery store to Barack Obama. —Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent, New York Magazine

There has been an internecine discussion bubbling in the Democratic Party (and the left at large) about the utility of identity politics. A recent broadside in this debate came from James Traub, who wrote that the Democratic Party laid the groundwork for white backlash when the DNC put civil rights on their platform in 1948. In Vox, political scientist Eric Schickler argues that the Democratic embrace of identity politics predates the ’40s, and instead traces back to the immediate aftermath of the New Deal. The pursuit of racial justice, rather than undercutting the New Deal’s economic populism, buttressed it. Identity politics energized the Democratic Party and strengthened the liberal project. Which is to say: The lesson of history is that identity politics are good. —Ezekiel Kweku, politics editor, Daily Intelligencer
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