Sunday, July 2, 2023

BTRTN: The Oldest and Greatest Political Sin

Tom is back with the June, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.

JUNE 2023

No, the oldest and greatest political sin is not corruption, nor stealing elections, nor lying through one’s teeth as easily as breathing.  All of those have been endemic across the centuries, readily committed by both the mightiest of rulers roaming the continents and small town pols trying to extend the tiniest bit of turf, and all levels in between. 

No, the greatest sin of them all, for a politician or a ruler, is this:  overreach.  It is the greatest sin because it is self-inflicted.  Global history is rife with examples, from Alexander to the Romans to Hitler, and in the United States, from Theodore Bilbo to Huey Long to Joe McCarthy.  This sin is not confined to the mighty.  It afflicts almost anyone who wields power and believes they are untouchable -- whether in a kingdom, dictatorship or democracy -- and dares to test the limits of their power, time and again, either consciously or reflexively.

While any politician may fall under the sway of their own power, and succumb to overreach, demagogues and dictators are particularly vulnerable to such impulses.  They are utterly convinced of their own invincibility, utterly assured of the justness of their cause, and utterly contemptuous of advice, preferring to surround themselves with sycophants.  They have no self-discipline and no sense of potential mortal danger. Like the shark endlessly seeking its next prey, they move in one direction, relentlessly, and at only one pace, recklessly.  There are only two possible outcomes for such a beast:  death or overreach.  As long as they are breathing they march on inexorably until they finally push the overreach button and self-destruct.

We are now watching epic events unfold on the world stage featuring two of the most powerful figures the 21st century.  Not the two most powerful at this moment, for they are Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.  Rather, we mean Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  One is a demagogue, the other a brutal dictator, and both are beginning to suffer from their excesses.  Both are being challenged by noteworthy opponents with a power base of their own, and, at this juncture, their ultimate fate is unclear.  But both Trump and Putin are damaged, to be sure, and, on some level, teetering.  They may emerge from their troubles stronger than ever, and achieve new heights of power – both face elections in 2024 -- or they may finally fall victim to overreach, like so many before them.  

It was less than two years ago when Putin began amassing Russian forces along the Ukraine border, and U.S. intelligence concluded that this show of force, while not the first of its kind, was not likely another bluff.  Putin, the KGB strongman who watched the Gorbachev era and the demise of the Soviet Union with deep dismay and disdain, seemed bent on restoring some semblance of the USSR.  Having found the West’s resolve to be wanting in facing down Russian aggression in both Georgia and Crimea in the last decade, Putin set his sights on Ukraine, which at various times was part of the Russian state (in various incarnations, including the USSR), but freed in 1991.  Putin’s legacy was secure at the time, as the man who had restored Russian pride, the Russian economy, and firmly held power for more than two decades with no end in sight.  At age 69 (at the time of the buildup), he might have enjoyed at least another decade of power or more, had he not pushed a whole stack of chips on the table and crossed the Ukraine border. 

Within days of the attack, it was clear that Putin had badly miscalculated, underestimating, at first, the strength of Ukrainian firepower and fortitude, embodied by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and then, the degree of unified Western military support and resolve, embodied by President Biden.  Far from overrunning Kyiv within a week, the war, 16 months hence, has become one of attrition, the Russians at this point trying to hold on to Russian-occupied territory in the east.  Putin has continually tried to convince his people of the righteousness of Russia’s “special military operation,” the strength of its battle plan, and the capability of its military to execute that plan.  But while he has an ironclad grip on state media and a brutal track record in dealing with dissenters, he is finding that he is still subject to forces beyond even his control.  When, a month ago, drones started inflicting life-threatening damage to tony Moscow suburbs, the oligarchs, perhaps privately long skeptical about the Ukraine effort, began to grumble a bit more loudly.

Finally, the dam broke in June.  It could have been pierced in any number of ways – perhaps by a move by the oligarchs, or the Russian generals, or an uprising of the people – but instead it came in a particularly dramatic form, in the person of Wagner Group military entrepreneur Yevgeny Prighozin, who founded and heads the most effective fighting troops at Putin’s disposal.  Prighozin’s method was not subtle, and it was particularly devastating, in that he first complained very loudly about the state of the war and then marched his troops straight to Moscow, traversing a large swath of land unimpeded, apparently with mutiny in mind.  They were stopped not by the sword, but by a deal, or so it seems, that allowed Prighozin safe harbor in Belarus with a hefty check.

The optics were crushing to Putin – the all-too-resonating critiques, the abandonment of his cause by his best fighting soldiers, his exposed inability to defend the Russian people, the confusion over whether Prighozin would even be prosecuted for clearly treasonous behavior.  Putin’s Folly in Ukraine, a textbook case of overreach, had finally come home to roost. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but Putin is certainly weaker even as he carries on with strongman propaganda.

As for Trump, one of the truly stunning aspects of his current troubles is that not one of the actions he is under criminal investigation for fell between his Election Day victory in November, 2016 and defeat in November, 2020.  Think about that.  His behavior in the four years between those two dates have been endlessly catalogued and reviled.  Lists have been compiled (including by BTRTN) itemizing the myriad of ways Trump diminished the presidency while he held it, beginning with his nearly insane Inaugural address (“weird shit,” according to George W. Bush), the madness about the size of the crowd that showed up to hear it, and the introduction of “alternate facts” into the national parlance.  But none of the events on that long list are at issue now. 

What is at issue is his behavior in attempting to overturn the 2020 election results, the subject at hand in Georgia and the Department of Justice’s January 6th-related investigations, and the taking of documents after his presidency and his obstruction of their return, for which he was indicted by the DOJ in June.  (He has also been indicted in New York for bribing a porn star into silence about their decade-old affair just weeks before the 2016 election.) 

Just think if Trump had accepted his 2020 defeat with grace and moved out of the White House in conventional fashion.  Certainly there was precedent.  Both Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000, sitting Vice Presidents, had ample cause (far more than Trump) to protest their election outcomes and defy the peaceful transition.  Nixon decided – literally for the good of the country – to forego challenging JFK’s razor-thin win despite reports of irregular voting bought by Joe Kennedy’s money.  Gore pursued the bizarre 2000 election (remember those “hanging chads”?) to the Supreme Court, but accepted the Supreme Court’s verdict and moved on.  Both Nixon and Gore presided over the very certification process -- formally anointed their rivals -- that Trump attempted to coerce Pence to defy.  Had Trump followed their example, and, like all of his predecessors, packed up his boxes for the National Archives properly (save a few errors, quickly rectified, by Joe Biden and Mike Pence), where would he be?  Doubtless in a stronger position to challenge Biden in 2024 than he is now, with indictments, current and future, hanging over him like the sword of Damocles.

But instead Trump overreached in trying to undermine the election – and, by extension, democracy -- through the Big Lie, and then by taking government documents that belong to us, not him, and willfully obstructing their return.  He was correct in assuming he could convince his base of, well, anything, but beyond that, the Big Lie has proven to be political poison, and the document theft also appears to be a political loser.  Trump is losing the middle and a material chunk of his own party, groups he needs behind him to have any hope in 2024.

Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York City and his faithful would still support him.  That statement, uttered in January, 2016, shortly before the Iowa caucuses, revealed a man who thinks he can literally get away with murder, a state of affairs that he has been proving quite convincingly ever since.  Figures like Trump and Putin do not really explore the edge of the envelope – for them there is no envelope, no edge, no act that they cannot explain away, deny and emerge from all the stronger for having survived.  They simply keep going, in a space not defined by envelopes to be tested but more akin to traveling the universe, a space of infinite elasticity.  Until, that is, they are done in by overreach, and they find – usually in rude fashion – that there was a boundary to their behavior after all.  This is what happened to Adolf Hitler in Russia and the Ardennes.  It is what happened to Joe McCarthy in taking on the Army.  And it may be what both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are experiencing now – time will tell.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has clearly decided that the best path to remaining in power is simply to hold himself up as a counterweight to both Putin and Trump.  He does not talk much about either, preferring instead to act in traditional presidential fashion, forging deals, supporting allies, projecting calmness and the stability borne of experience, and hopes the contrast is clear.  His main problems are his age and that he cannot seem to convince voters, even some in his own party, of the fact of his myriad accomplishments.  His campaign focus will be on the economy, the very real improvements that have been made in GDP growth, unemployment and, of late, inflation, and the better days ahead, in part enabled by his investments in infrastructure and alternative energy.  Biden will contrast these proactive investments in the economy with the “trickle down” orthodoxy that still guides GOP economic orthodoxy, despite the numerous failures of tax cuts to grow anything except the wealth gap and the size of the federal debt.

His best campaign calling card is actually the GOP “platform” -- in quotes because there is no such formal plan, only a set of stances, votes and Supreme Court decisions on key issues.  The GOP has committed legislative and judicial overreach of its own, in their zeal to wipe abortion off the face of the country, a plan that is antipathy to of the majority of Americans.  Abortion alone will drive Democrats and the persuadable middle to the polls in droves, agitating suburban women and younger voters alike.  The GOP’s inability to keep their hands off the third rail of Medicare and Social Security reform will drive away the seniors, while their pro-gun and climate change policies also infuriate the majority of voters who can plainly see the human tragedies resultant from GOP neglect.  With issues like these, and a steadily improving economy, Biden can withstand whomever the GOP runs, as long as he does not suffer a sharp, sudden physical or mental decline.

The GOP agenda is aided and abetted by a Trump-driven Supreme Court that is simply not aligned with the views of the majority of Americans.  The Roberts Court (though it is not his anymore, by any stretch) offered a few positive June surprises on immigration and the burial of the so-called “independent state legislature theory,” but the trio of opinions released in the last few days of June -- banning of affirmative action in college admissions, refusing to defend LGBTQ rights, and denying Biden’s attempts to ease the crushing burden of student debt burden -- will further inflame Democrats.

Biden’s overall strategy of standing tall while Putin weakens and the GOP implodes – a modern day version of the Rose Garden strategy – is clearly the correct path, especially for a gaffe-prone 80-year-old who has never been a particularly inspiring orator or force.  Whether it is enough to prevail in 2024 is, of course, and open question, but there is no doubt that his opponents are awash in overreach and cannot stop themselves from offering a very dark vision of their alternative world of criminal behavior, unpopular policies, and botched invasions.



Biden's approval rating remained at 41% in June, but there was slippage on his performance on some key issues.  The "Bidenometer" improved significantly from 32 to 37, driven by increases in the Dow, consumer confidence and the last GDP estimate for Q1.  Gas prices were flat for the month and unemployment ticked up.



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 +37 for jUNE, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 37% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +37, 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.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

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 a recovery under Biden from 0 to +37.

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