Saturday, February 4, 2023

BTRTN: SpeakerRama, DocuDrama, National Trauma

Tom with the BTRTN January 2023 Month in Review.

January 2023

January may have set a post-Trump record for “breaking news” and 64-point headlines.  The month was chock full of eerie echoes of past disasters:  another precedent-shattering succession nightmare, begun on January 6, no less, this time involving the Speaker of the House election; another trove of classified documents discovered on unsuitable presidential (and vice presidential) premises; and more gruesome and dispicable acts of gun violence and police violence, both reprises of unspeakable and seemingly unstoppable tragedies.  The rapid pace of these events recalled the Trump Era, when Trump would manufacture one crisis simply to obliterate a prior one.  Given American attention spans, such strategies are revoltingly effective, whether intentional, in Trump’s case, or not, as in January.  Thus, even a month of review has an “oh, yes, I’d forgotten about that” quality to it.

“Twisting in the wind” was the woefully understated but oft-used phrase to describe Kevin McCarthy’s humiliation as he endured 14 votes rejecting him as Speaker, failing even to surpass Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in the voting in all but one of them.  This was, of course, the first time in a century the Speaker vote had gone beyond one ballot (since, after all, the majority party has all the votes it needs to elect its own Speaker candidate).  You’d have to go back another 63 years -- to 1860 -- to find more rounds of balloting.  It made for riveting theater – the “best season of C-SPAN, ever,” as Jon Stewart put it -- if not sickening in the most ways.

That is because the real story, ultimately, was neither McCarthy’s days-on-end endurance of GOP self-flagellation, nor the deals he cut to achieve his cherished goal, deals that eviscerated his position and revealed, once and for all, the shallowness of his aims, all personal, none institutional.  The real story was not McCarthy at all, but rather the revelation that our government is now in the hands of five performance artists, the worst of the worst in a profession that rarely attracts the best.  The five have been empowered beyond their wildest dreams, and the even sadder reality is they know not what they want with this newfound muscle,.  They have already achieved what they crave, the kind of perverse fame that is the real goal.  Unfortunately, their job title is “U.S. Representative” not “Social Influencer” and this is not an episode of "Lauren in Congress."

As epic as it was, the McCarthy fiasco was quickly submerged by the Biden DocuDrama, the seemingly endless discovery of classified documents in almost any abode that carried the sign “Joe Biden Slept Here.”  In a period of about a week, DocuDrama went through the full wash and spin cycle, from the shock of the first discoveries through the tortured White House communications “timeline” disaster, on to insta-analysis about what it meant for Trump – positive, despite the Grand Canyon-esque differences in the two cases – and for Biden – negative, potentially fatal (to his reelection).  This breathless reporting and non-sensical commentary was ultimately kyboshed not by the next cataclysm, but rather by the next chapter of this one – that Mike Pence also had whisked away classified documents out west to his home in Indiana.  At this point, one half expected Emily Litella to appear on a CNN panel to sweetly intone: “Never mind!”  

What more can possibly be said about gun violence in the wake of twin mass killings in California (Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay), days apart, that resulted in 19 deaths and 10 more wounded?   According to the Gun Violence Archive, those were just two of 52 mass shooting in the United States in January that resulted in 88 deaths and 211 wounded.  How can a nation with a mere 4% of the world’s population yet 31% of the world’s mass shootings (and 46% of civilian-held hand guns) continue to accept the status quo, or, perhaps the same thing, point to the feeble 2022 bipartisan legislation as a legitimate first step to sanity?  Perhaps that legislation indeed presages a better bill from better angels down the road, as the very weak Civil Rights Act of 1957 presaged the titanic 1964 law.  But if it takes seven years for the better bill to emerge, and countless more to enforce, how many more will die in the meantime at the hands of someone who has all too easily procured a semiautomatic weapon?

The Republican answers to all of these headlines – every one – are silly bromides and false equivalencies.  These are not offered for the purpose of persuasion, but rather to provide glib soundbites that are uttered by fools, broadcast by fools, for the viewing pleasure of fools.  The McCarthy standoff was “democracy in action"; Biden’s document folly “completely exonerates Trump”; there are “gang killings in Chicago every day.”  The absurdity of these claims is beyond the pale.  Can’t you see, with your own eyes, that GOP congressmen are being separated from nearly coming to blows on the House floor and that Kevin McCarthy is going nose-to-nose with Matt Gaetz, of all people?  Is the brain so soft that it cannot easily distinguish Trump’s stealing hundreds of documents, lying about their existence and not cooperating with their return, from Biden’s less-than-two-dozen documents that he immediately returned with complete cooperation?  Can’t you put it together that the Chicago gang killings don’t offset the California shootings, but rather are even more evidence of the shockingly obvious need to dramatically curtail the access to weapons of mass murder?

But even the GOP had no answer for the final tidal wave of January, 2023, which pushed gun violence back to the backburner, returning police violence to the front.  How can it possibly be, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd just three years ago, and the wildly publicized aftermath of protest and reform, that yet another Black man, Tyre NIchols, was killed – horrendously, with zero justification, by a murderous mob of crazed police officers?  Where were they when George Floyd went down?  Were they the only five people in America who did not see the killing video, watch the protests, follow the trial, hear the guilty verdict, and the subsequent scrambling of seemingly every police force in the country to insure that they would not be the next to needlessly kill a Black man?  The mind simply reels.

The month ended (or rather, February began) with a meeting between Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy on the debt ceiling, with each rather amiably staking out positions without any Venn in the diagram.  None.  Biden said he would refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling, which is precisely what McCarthy wants to do – or rather, must do if he is to maintain his Speakership.  You see, removing McCarthy as Speaker is rather easy now by virtue of the terms of the deal he cut to get the job way back….well, not quite four weeks ago.  (Thanks to Treasury tricks, McCarthy just might keep his job beyond the Liz Truss standard of 45 days.)

Biden has both the best strategy and the best articulation of that strategy when he said “show me your Budget and I’ll show you mine.”  This is clever, because the GOP performance artists do not know what they want, the GOP caucus cannot agree on what it wants, have no Budget plan, and therefore are negotiating without the standard tools such as an opening position and a desired endgame (what you’ll settle for at the 11th hour).  Ultimately, this will lose them the war of public opinion.  You will recall that the majority of the country supports Democratic positions on abortion, gun control, climate change and a host of other policies – including no changes to Medicare and Social Security and continued support for Ukraine.  Either the GOP will show an unpopular hand in this process -- or they will have to fold.  Or both.

The 2024 Election

As stated, the silliest analyses of the month were by those pundits who somehow saw the Biden Docudrama as the death knell of his 2024 reelection effort.  How could presumably astute Washington observers not have foreseen that the Next Breaking News was bound to bounce the DocuDrama off the front pages, and soon?  And that the news was ebbing well before PenceGate, when Merrick Garland appointed a conservative special counsel to investigate the Biden case in parallel to Trump’s own special counsel?  (This paragraph was the lead theme of the initial draft of this article, penned pre-Pence, pre-mass killings and pre-Tyre and, obviously, altogether prematurely…come to think of it, what was I thinking writing such an early draft?)  For what it’s worth, Biden’s approval rating was unchanged in January, and the likelihood that he will run remains very high.

By this time four years ago -- by the end of January, 2019 -- no fewer than 10 candidates had formally announced their candidacies for president (for the record, in order, John Delaney, Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillebrand, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Marianne Williamson and Cory Booker) -- all Democrats, all vying to challenge Donald Trump.  Now it is the GOP’s turn to challenge the incumbent, Joe Biden (presumably) and to say they have been slow off the mark would be an obvious understatement.  Trump alone has announced, and his campaign has wallowed in the mire ever since.  It appears that Nikki Haley will be the first to challenge Trump (and break her promise not to) with a mid-February formal announcement.  Many others, including Ron DeSantis, did not show their face before or on Groundhog Day, which may mean six more weeks of silence. 

How many GOP candidates actually jump in to the race is a matter of crucial importance, if one is to believe the earliest polls.  They show that DeSantis, easily the top potential challenger to Trump, fares well against Trump in head-to-head polling, leading Trump 46% to 43% (in a Suffolk poll).  But in that same poll, when presented not head-to-head but with a full field of GOP candidates…not so much.  Trump roughly maintains his support level, at 41%, while DeSantis drops down to 23%, his support more than halved by the rest of the newly-included potential candidates.  

The irony here is, of course, that Trump made it a loyalty test that no one in the GOP should challenge him.  But what he may need to actually win the nomination is….a large GOP field.  As for DeSantis, if he wants to make this a pas-de-deux, (or at least a pas-de-moins-de-cinq) he’d better get out there soon, to preempt more announcements, and hope that he can then ice the field. 

Stay tuned.


As noted, Biden’s approval rating held at 43% in January, despite the DocuDrama.  His issue ratings bounced around on the margins, tending to be down, indicating he did not escape totally unscathed.

The “Bidenometer,” our BTRTN aggregate record of economic performance, took a hit down from +47 to +43, largely due to an underreported rise in gas prices. 


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +43 for January, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 43% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated.  With a Bidenometer of +43, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +43 under Biden. 

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


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