The Hill to Die On review: Trump, Ryan and a Republican dumpster fire

Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer deliver a deeply sourced tale of ineptitude, cowardice and other common political traits

Donald Trump is now going all in for Obamacare repeal. His latest picks for the Federal Reserve include Stephen Moore, a tax-dodging deadbeat dad, and Herman Cain, a guy with a track record of alleged sexual harassment. Apparently, the president has learned little from the Republicans’ 2018 shellacking at the hands of America’s soccer moms.

It was suburbia that pried the House of Representatives from the hands of the GOP. Driving these swing voters were what they did not want, namely: repeal of the Affordable Care Act, gutting mandatory insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions, and the death of Medicare. Last November, in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, voters demanded continuity and normalcy – not socialism, revolution or an end to the social safety net.

The Hill to Die On, co-authored by Politico’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, painstakingly chronicles the return to divided government and the restoration of an institutional check on a mercurial chief executive. Subtitled “the Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America”, the book depicts a foul-mouthed president in love with his own reflection, a House GOP encased in the amber of self-delusion, and Nancy Pelosi’s unblinking focus on twin prizes: recapturing the House and returning to the speaker’s chair.

Sherman and Palmer reward strong performances and political savvy. Mitch McConnell earns props for ramming Trump’s judicial picks through and keeping the Senate in Republican hands. As the authors make clear, for McConnell it is only and always about winning – which he does with unapologetic aplomb. Describing his role in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, the majority leader acknowledges that he emerged as an unlikely “rock star”.

By contrast, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, are far from self-aware. Kushner is quoted telling the late Senator John McCain, “without a hint of irony”, that “we’re going to change the way the entire government works”. McCain can only reply: “Good luck, son.”

Kushner and Mnuchin come across as Zelig-like creatures, always on camera but with little to show. As it waits for Godot and the Messiah, the world anticipates Jared’s much-heralded Middle East peace plan.

Paul Ryan, the former speaker and 2012 vice-presidential candidate, emerges as a cautionary tale who inadvertently reminds the reader he never had any business being on a national ticket. Ryan repeatedly criticizes Trump in private but wilts in public, a prisoner to his caucus, donors and self-image.

Ryan is bad at reading political tea leaves and gauging what comes next. He assured Trump he would be rewarded for scrapping Obamacare, yet they did not deliver. Likewise, Ryan failed to anticipate the rage of high-end voters in swing districts over the effective elimination of the deduction of state and local taxes, and the Trump tax cuts being seen as a sop to the ultra-rich.

Ryan handed the Democrats the weapons they used to oust the GOP from the House: healthcare and taxes. He got one very big thing right: Trump frightened swing voters.

The Hill to Die On records a shouting match between Ryan and Trump less than a week before the midterms. Ryan laced into Trump for opining that he could unilaterally eviscerate birthright citizenship in contravention of the constitution. As Ryan put it: “We are six days out from the election, and you are scaring the crap out of suburbanites …”

Pelosi emerges the hero of the book. She rebounds from defeat in 2016, stays two steps ahead of intra-party rivals and Republican brickbats, and internalizes that recapturing the House is about garnering the most votes. Fear works too.

A daughter and sister to mayors of Baltimore, Pelosi grew up in a world of coalition-building, name-taking and reciprocated favors. Indeed, Trump acknowledges that as a veteran of New York’s real estate world, he admires Pelosi. As the president frames things: “Look, she actually deserves it … She’s been there.” Trump even volunteered to assist Pelosi’s bid for the speaker’s gavel, an offer Pelosi wisely declined.

Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference on Capitol Hill. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

What lessons are drawn from 2018 remain to be seen. The president fantasizes that the GOP is the “party of healthcare” and Mar-a-Lago looks like a nest of spies. As for William Barr, Trump’s latest attorney general, he has managed to soil himself and the Department of Justice in a few short weeks in a slovenly attempt to shield Trump from further legal woes. At the end of the day, Barr will at least be able to brag that his son-in-law works in the White House counsel’s office.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will not vote in favor of the Green New Deal, even as they cannot disavow it. At the same time, the Democratic leadership has internalized the need to woo one-time Republicans and independents.

On that score, Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, the No4 House Democrat, throws shade at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who threatened to find a primary challenger to run against him: “Where exactly is the revolution beyond a particularly shocking result that occurred in a district anchored in Queens … I think that the Democratic party has to decide, do we want to be internet celebrities, or do we want to govern?”

In other words, Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the hinterlands of New York City should not be conflated with the rest of America. Like the president, Ocasio-Cortez’s numbers are underwater nationally and in her home state. Both are down by double digits with registered voters. Among New York suburbanites, Ocasio-Cortez suffers a 17-point deficit, in contrast to Trump’s 31-62 unfavourability rating.

For the moment, Jeffries’ question remains unanswered. The field of prospective Democratic presidential nominees swells almost daily. Early talk of Medicare for All has devolved into discussions of fundraising prowess and Bernie Sanders’ oft-repeated but as yet unkept promise to release his tax returns. Other than bashing the president, where the Democratic field stands is a work in progress. Eighteen months from now, The Hill to Die On will surely be ripe for an update.


Lloyd Green

The GuardianTramp

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