Thursday, September 28, 2023

BTRTN: Republicans Finally Take Aim at the Right Target… But Way Too Little, and Way Too Late.

Fast becoming tiny, receding dots in Donald Trump’s rear-view mirror, some Republicans running for the GOP nomination finally realized that the time had come to take on Trump directly. But the headline is simple: while the Republicans had a feisty debate, most everyone simply held serve. That means that no one stood out… so once again, Trump wins.

Among the many enjoyable moments of the Barbie movie was the opening, the sweet riff on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Each film depicted a moment at which a great milestone of insight has been achieved, signaling a monumental sea change in human history. Kubrick focused on the idea that bones could be weapons, “Barbie” on the idea that dolls did not need to be babies. Only time will tell which one was humanity’s bigger game-changer.

On a far tinier scale on Wednesday night, we saw several Republican candidates finally realize that if they didn’t start to point their artillery directly at Donald Trump, they were all destined to become footnotes in a Wikipedia entry about the 2024 election. Ah, dawn of realization! Grand insight!

In the first debate of the season last month, the Republicans assiduously avoided Trump altogether, preferring to launch broadsides at each other, which was a bit like what would have happened if Eisenhower had decided to launch D-Day against, say, Uruguay or perhaps the Galapagos – sure, there would have been far less risk, but then again not much progress would be made toward the real goal.

But there’s nothing like an avalanche of stunningly bad news from political polls to wake the wannabees. A new NBC News national poll showed Trump at 59%. Next? Ron DeSantis at 16%. Then Nikki Haley at 7% -- but at least she gained. She was up from 4% in August.

Last night, some Republicans realized that time was running out to stop Trump, so they finally decided to go after him.  But still, they did not attack hard enough.

There’s nothing new in Chris Christie taking direct shots at Trump. The surprising news is that this time nobody in the audience booed or hissed when he did.  

Bigger news: Ron DeSantis and Nikky Haley each launched incoming at Trump. Three candidates – DeSantis, Haley, and Christie – blamed Trump for adding seven trillion dollars to the national debt. Nikki Haley ripped into Trump for what she considered to be his naïve policies toward China. DeSantis and Christie castigated Trump for not showing up to debate: Christie got in a great one-liner, dissing Trump as “Donald Duck.” Christie laughed and pointed out that Trump built only fifty miles of border wall, noting that “if Mexico knew we were only going to build that much, they probably would have paid for it.”

But it was nowhere near enough. In fact, there was an astonishing irony in that the Republicans on the stage each took turns throughout the night talking about the vital need for “law and order” -- that it should be enforced on the southern border, that we must support our police to reduce the carnage in our cities, that we must fight the war on fentanyl by enforcing “law and order.”

And yet no one -- not even Chris Christie, who repeatedly made points about his “law and order” creds as a prosecutor in New Jersey  – could see the irony. None could bring themselves to mention that their party should not nominate a candidate who is fighting damning criminal indictments, who trash-talks Federal judges and prosecutors, and who led an insurrection that resulting in death and injury to the very police they claim to support.

Ah, the party of law and order is terrified to admit that they don’t really stand for law and order. And Donald Trump once again skated away, again skipping a debate with impunity.

All seven of the candidates put in respectable performances. There were no home runs, but there were no gaffes. No individual broke out of the pack. No candidate performed so poorly that they will feel pressure to drop out. And that brings us to the groundhog déjà vu of Wednesday night: once again the debate helped Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has been employing what campaign historians call a “Rose Garden Strategy.” It is when incumbent Presidents lay low and make like they are too busy attending to the nation’s business to engage in the tawdry slog of campaigning. In that Donald Trump never conceded losing the 2020 election, it makes sense that he thinks he is an incumbent President. And his huge lead in the polling justifies his decision to ignore the debates. Until somebody gains serious ground on him, he has no reason to debate – but much to lose.  

That’s the problem. Everyone knows that the only way the Republicans can avoid another nomination of Donald Trump is if one candidate breaks out of the pack, seriously erodes Trump’s polling lead, and turns the campaign into a two-person race in which the “anti-Trump” sentiment can coalesce behind a single candidate.

And that did not happen last night.

In fact, all the candidates upped their games relative to the August food fight.

Ron DeSantis had a reasonably good night. He can’t help but be smarmy, smug, and self-satisfied – that’s who he is – but he was cooler, more even, and less inclined to get into tit-for-tats with his opponents. He jumped at the chance on his very first response to criticize Trump for failing to participate in the debate. He said Trump was “missing in action,” and told the audience that Trump had a responsibility to be on the stage and “defend his record.” He would return to the theme again at the end of the night when asked about abortion: “the former president should be here to defend his comments.”

DeSantis had a particularly good moment right at the end, when Fox moderator Dana Perino attempted to literally turn what had been a serious debate into a reality tv show: for her last question, she wanted each candidate to name one person on the stage who should be “voted off the island.” It was DeSantis who spoke first and for the group, dismissing the question brusquely, clearly conveying that it was beneath the dignity of the candidates. In that moment, DeSantis looked good.

Throughout the evening, DeSantis aggressively marketed his tenure as governor of Florida as proof of his ability to implement a conservative agenda. Most important: he seemed to be disciplined about not being agitated or put on the defensive when attacked by others.

But of all the candidates on the stage, DeSantis needed to be more than just good. His campaign has been in free fall since it began, and he needed an unambiguous, resounding win in this debate to regain the momentum he once held as the most viable alternative to Trump.  DeSantis did not fundamentally change the game last night. The bottom line on his performance: good… but not good enough.   

Even as some candidates tried to focus the debate on Trump, too much time was wasted in petty screaming matches between the people on the stage. Indeed, it appeared that Fox literally turned down the microphones when multiple people spoke, and muffled the mics of people who were trying to interrupt.  All for naught: after a polite first half-hour, the food fights began.

Nikki Haley, of all people, may have been the been the biggest offender. Her measured, human, and reasoned approach in the August debate had proven to be a winning formula, but on Wednesday night she inexplicably chose to change stripes and initiate aggressive one-on-one side-shows with each of Vivek Ramaswamy (“Every time I hear you speak, I feel a little dumber from what you say… we can’t trust you”), DeSantis, and even her gentle pal from South Carolina, Tim Scott. Haley was her usual forceful and charismatic presence, but the optics were not great… it looked like she spent the evening picking nasty little fights rather than rising above the fray.  It’s hard to see how Haley gained any ground last night.

Surely someone must have told Tim Scott that his strategy in the first debate – laying low, staying out of the skirmishes, and reciting milquetoast talking points by rote –– had to change if he was going to make any headway in the polls.  Last night’s all-new Tim Scott was more pumped up, more involved, and livelier – but he never once criticized Trump. There may be method to his madness. Scott knows that Trump will demand that his VP be an aggressive fighter and 100% loyal to Trump. Tim may be just playing the long game, raising his profile as a scrapper without roiling MAGA world or criticizing Trump… leaving him perfectly positioned for Trump’s VP slot.  If anybody gained ground last night, it was Tim Scott. But it was not enough to change the mojo of the campaign.

Ah, Vivak Ramiswami, the Trump mini-me tsunami, came into the debate still fresh from the microscopic bounce he got from being a glowing, glowering, glob of glib in the first debate. He seemed eager to repeat the formula, coming out swinging, speaking at the elevated velocity of a used car salesman’s closing pitch. Ramaswamy is the only candidate other than Trump himself who understands that more than anything, the MAGA world wants to be entertained.  They want their intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government bile to come packaged in slick, insulting, wildly exaggerated soundbytes. Ramaswamy understands that these are not debates… it’s just the new season of America’s Got Anger!

Back in August, Ramaswamy was the shiny new object, and was the primary focus of the after-debate buzz, but he was dinged for being too disrespectful to his fellow candidates. Last night he tried to roll out Vivek 2.0, a kinder and gentler wing-nut (“I respect everyone on the stage!”). But to little benefit: he was pilloried by Haley, Pence, and Scott for his reckless and naïve appeasement to Putin on Ukraine, and he spent the evening on his heels, often retreating, sounding whiny and tinny. Too many of his answers attempted to reduce complex problems to simplistic answers – every problem would be solved by getting the economy rolling – and his constant big stupid grin undercut any impression of gravitas. Hey, if you buy into Ramaswamy, nothing last night would change that… but his days as the would-be messiah are over.

In August, Mike Pence surprised one and all with a startlingly forceful presence. Last night Mike was out on the fringes of the action – literally, standing at the outermost podium -- and reverted to the same dull-as-dishwater, low-T, man-without-a-constituency that we’ve come to expect. Mike’s problem is simple: centrists don’t trust him for his years of blind loyalty to Trump, and MAGA still wants to hang him. Last night Mike Pence tried to score points by aligning himself with Trump administration policies, but it all sounded so hollow and spineless when everyone knows what Trump wanted the insurrection crowd to do to him. Last night Pence was irrelevant. We may have seen his last debate.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum spent a good part of the evening being treated by the Fox moderators like dead man walking. One could hear him off-camera begging to be asked a question and demanding to be heard on specific issues. He was even scolded by Fox’s Dana Perino for his abrasive interruptions.  When he finally spoke, he was dour and racing to jam in as many talking points as possible before they once again shut him down.

Apparently, we all need to go do extensive homework on what must be some North Dakota Miracle, because every time Burgum was asked a question – about anything – we learned that North Dakota is already doing it, doing it better than anybody, and doing it better because Doug was a businessman. Somebody needs to tell Doug Burgum that his party has heard the “I’m a businessman” argument before.

Chris Christie had a very good night, but unfortunately his superpower is tilting at windmills. Christie is on a singular crusade to bring down Donald Trump, which is sort of like walking into a bar in Boston’s Back Bay and trying to convince the rabid Patriot faithful that Tom Brady is no Eli Manning. Christie was thoughtful, eloquent, calm, and emotionally authentic.  He spoke the truth to a party that wouldn’t hear the truth if Ronald Reagan suddenly appeared as an apparition on the Reagan Library stage and spoke it in plain English, his right hand over his heart and his left hand on a Bible.

Perhaps the highlight of the night came when Fox moderator Stuart Varney saw that Christie had scribbled a name in response to Dana Perino’s silly request to “vote someone off the island.” Christie said that the name he wrote down was Donald Trump -- because Trump had not only divided our nation, but he had “divided our families.” Christie said that Trump had created such a toxic divide that we can no longer talk about politics at the dinner table.

It's too bad, but Chris Christie could well be gone from the stage when the next debate is held on November 8. The qualifying requirements – 4% in national polling – may reduce the debate to three contestants.

Of course, a winnowed field is good news for Republicans hoping for an alternative to Trump. In the absence of any other national coverage, the debates can serve a vital function: there is no chance in the world that anyone can beat Donald Trump for the nomination unless the field is radically reduced. Until the voting begins, the only way to slim down the field is when the weaker candidates see their funding dry up due to lackluster debate performances… and when they disappear from the debate stage for failing to meet more stringent requirements for qualification.

For those who are holding out hope that Donald Trump can still be denied the nomination, it is critical that the race be narrowed to Trump and one rival before Super Tuesday.

Here’s the bet: while the Republican contestants were sharper on Wednesday night than in the first debate, they still have not taken off the gloves in fighting Donald Trump. Time is running out. Chris Christie has the right message but is the wrong messenger.

Nikki? Ron? Tim? Does anybody have the guts to tell the party that if they nominate Donald Trump, the party’s over? Does anybody have the guts to say “law and order” starts with who the party nominates for President?

Last night, we did not see the kind of political courage that it takes to change the game.

So: score another victory in absentia for Donald Trump.


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Sunday, September 24, 2023

BTRTN: McCarthy’s “Impeachment”…When the Ends Justify the Means, that Can Mean the End.

Ah, irony. Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in two impeachment trials, heads for the exits just as House Republicans find time to mount an absurdly, perversely, wholly partisan impeachment of Joe Biden, but leave no time for their real job – avoiding a government shutdown. The last Republican of character has given up… and that spells big trouble for the United States of America.

Throughout our nation’s history, there has always been one nation fully capable of destroying the United States of America. One sovereign nation that could take away our freedoms, destroy our independence, crush our democracy, and tear our Constitution to shreds.

That nation, of course, is us.  We the people built it, and we the people can certainly rip it apart. We the people own it, and we the people can sell it out.

Over the years, we’ve nearly succeeded. We’ve witnessed vicious, ugly internecine conflict from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and on through George Floyd and BLM, from pointless battles in Vietnam to pointed battles in Chicago about Vietnam, from generations of immigrants fighting to be fully integrated into American society to the descendants of those immigrants fighting the encroachment of new immigrants.

Don’t say it’s because modern Presidents aren’t the great leaders we used to have. Google Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. Geez, our Presidents were often the source of the conflicts. Sure, LBJ was a titan of Civil Rights, but his reliance on misleading military leaders caused the most humiliating defeat in our nation’s history… and one of the most divisive issues in our society. Dick Nixon exacerbated those divisions with Watergate. George W. Bush divided the nation with an unjustified and wildly expensive war on Iraq. 

A big reason there is so much division in America is because so many of our leaders lead us there.

So should we not be alarmed about our current state of disunion? It’s just the same old, same old, right?  Been there before, and we always manage to survive, huh? We’re fine.

Well, actually, no. This is different. This is existential. Our democracy could die on our watch.

Throughout our history, the all-too-frequent instances of government corruption, deceit, overreach, demagoguery, and bigotry were ultimately overcome by a plurality of character in government. No government is free of sleazebags, cheats, corruption, and selfishness. But we have been blessed, because in the history of our government, the corrupt have largely been the minority.

Sometimes the margin was thin, but character was in the majority.

Let’s define character in the context of government and public service: acting first and foremost for the good of the country, with motivations about party and personal ambition subservient to doing what is right, informed by a bedrock of shared moral, ethical, and legal beliefs. It means allegiance to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to the laws of the land, and to the traditions, protocols, and norms that enable our government to function.

At a still higher plane, there is political courage: to act on a principle knowing full well that it could result in very real damage to one’s own stature, to loss of influence with the party, or to an election defeat. John F. Kennedy devoted a book, Profiles in Courage, to individuals who took such stands.

Observing the madness in our government today, character and political courage are going the way of the land lines, paper maps, and aol email addresses.

Now, with roughly half of our government owned and operated by Donald Trump, we can no longer feel protected by the belief that character is in the majority.

While we are a nation of laws, the concept that we are ruled by law is a quaint fancy. The United States Constitution is a piece of paper. It is worthless unless there is a common understanding of its meaning, and a collective will that it be upheld.

It is a general framework for how a free people can achieve self-governance. It provides the skeletal structure of a government that can create, amend, and enforce laws. In aggregate, it also provides an overall sense of intention so that women and men with sound judgment and a sense of ethics and fair play could make reasonable inferences about all that could not be spelled out in the Constitution itself. Throughout our history, we’ve often heard reference to – and reverence for -- “the intent of the founding fathers.”

Over time, this gave rise to norms of conduct – protocols and understandings that were developed over our two centuries and respected by both parties that helped grease the smooth functioning of government.  Presidents have the right to quickly fill Supreme Court vacancies. Presidents release their tax returns. Presidents put their personal assets in a blind trust so their decisions are not tainted by economic self-interest. Presidents don’t profit from their service in government. Presidents respect the most sacred tradition of a democracy: the peaceful transition of power. Once upon a time, Impeachment was viewed as a grave matter, and the hazy language of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was construed to mean an egregious violation of Presidential duty.  

For all we say about what is and is not “Constitutional,” there is a whole lot that was never spelled out, and customs and traditions were established to help fill in the blanks.

In a remarkably short period, Republicans have torched it all.

Today, all of it – the Constitution, the rule of law, and all those delicately wrought customs and protocols are getting trampled by a Republican Party that is not only ruled by Donald Trump, but lives and breathes his utterly amoral and craven lack of character. The MAGA wrecking ball is destroying the façade, the superstructure, and foundation – the entire building of democracy.  

We used to have enough character in our government to keep America on the right track.

We had character in government when Republican Senators Sam Ervin and Howard Baker served on the Senate Watergate Committee that helped bring down a corrupt Republican President. We had courage in government when John F. Kennedy took personal responsibility for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. We had character in government when Republican Mitt Romney voted to convict Republican President Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. Twice.  

In today’s cheapened currency, it took character – indeed courage, given the nearby noose -- for Mike Pence to refuse to acquiesce to Donald Trump’s demand that he use his titular responsibility to tally Electoral College results to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

These days, the search for character in government leads you to a 27-year-old former White House aide named Cassidy Hutchinson. To General Mark Milley, who stood guard against a corrupt President who had neither understanding of nor respect for the Constitution. No coincidence: neither achieved their position by election, neither lived in terror of being primaried by right wing wing-nuts, and neither was paralyzed into supplication for fear of losing an election.

Now, with Romney headed for the exits, Liz Cheney long since beaten, Chris Sununu ducking, and Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson gasping for political oxygen, the concept of Republicans with character has transitioned from the “endangered species list” to “extinct.” The only Republicans left standing are the ones who fit snugly into the palm of Donald Trump’s tiny hand.

That means that in the very best-case scenario, we have character only in the half our government that is comprised of Democrats.  And that’s only if every Democrat can be viewed as having character. Having had our fill of Democratic New York governors who can’t keep their pants zipped, and a New Jersey Senator who is indicted for bribery twice, one must conclude that the percentage of politicians who act on character is probably – sadly – well under half.  

And that is a huge problem.

A government divided by party is simply gridlocked. But a government divided by character is self-destructive. It defaults to self-interest, greed, and to destroying the opposition. The goal is merely personal power and control, and in such an environment, the ends justify any means. Democracy is simply an inconvenient obstacle on the path to totalitarian rule.

Want to win the election? Try to assassinate the character of Joe Biden. Is that right or wrong – what Republican cares? The ends justify the means.

The leadership of the Republican Party is a parade of cowards whose lack of character debases our national stature.

What character is not: Mitch McConnell knew better than anyone that he was trampling a time-honored custom of our Republic when he abused his rights as Senate Majority Leader to block Barack Obama from his Constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court Justice. McConnell knew that his action would surely create a new precedent that meant that no President could ever again appoint a Supreme Court Justice if the opposing party held the Senate Majority. McConnell smashed a vital custom, and there is no going back.

What character is not: when Republican leaders who wanted to “lock Hillary up” are so terrified of Donald Trump that they pretend that his dizzying array of serious crimes against the United States of America are not real, and that the charges are simply politically motivated. It is when Republican leaders cower in fear rather than abandoning Trump for his refusal to accept the bedrock of democracy… the peaceful transition of power.  

What character is not: when a limp, spineless weasel named Kevin McCarthy sells his soul to a cadre of performance artists to achieve his personal dream of the Speaker’s gavel, only to grimace in agony every time they demonstrate that in his Faustian bargain they now hold his balls in their hands. McCarthy spends his life on his knees as groveling coward … first before Donald Trump, and now before Matt Gaetz, begging to avoid a government shutdown by promising to bring a bogus inquiry against Joe Biden.

Yes, this is the latest example of what character is not: a sham of an “impeachment inquiry” when there is not a single piece of evidence of guilt, let alone of guilt of a “high crime or misdemeanor.”

When character is gone – when there is no moral or ethical code binding our behavior -- the default behavior is that the ends justify the means.

We now live in a country where two rival factions each believe the other represents an existential threat to the America they know. Democrats ardently believe that Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans will replace our democracy with an authoritarian government if returned to power. Republicans believe that Democrats will turn America into a socialist state which is no longer the exclusive domain of a white, Christian, straight majority.

Where the two factions seem to differ is what to do about it. Democrats are fighting to preserve the rule of law by pursuing justice through our legal system, attempting to prove in a court of law that Donald Trump violated the Constitution. Democrats believe in achieving goals through living the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

Republicans, on the other hand, are looking the other way while a former President leads an armed insurrection to overthrow our democracy. They stand aside as local election officials are threatened, potential jurors are intimidated, and a television network admits to a long and protracted lie designed to undermine public confidence in our elections.

If Republicans had character, this is what they would be saying: “Every citizen deserves a fair trial by a jury of their peers, and if Donald Trump is found guilty of the crimes he stands accused, he must be held to account.” Instead, they are saying that the system is rigged, that the DoJ investigations are political, and that all the charges against Trump are a bogus effort to destroy a political opponent.

So what do Republicans do?

Yep. They announce an absurdly trumped-up impeachment inquiry that actually is political, and that is proffered for the sole purpose of trying to damage a political opponent.

This joke impeachment – this pathetic sham -- is just one more acute case of the “ends justify the means.” The Republican end? Defeat Biden in 2024. The plan? A completely, transparently disingenuous plan to slander Joe Biden for the purpose of staining his reputation.

You can criticize Joe Biden all you want.

Yes, he’s old. Get over it. Anyone who has a problem with an effective octogenarian needs to understand that right now he is the only thing standing between us and a fascist government takeover by Donald Trump.

Yes, Biden makes gaffes. He shuffles. Occasionally trips. Doesn’t flash charisma. He just runs an effective government.

You certainly can say that he exercised poor judgment by not taking his drug-addled son out to the woodshed and explaining to him that he doesn’t get to trade on his name by taking big money from a Ukraine corporate board that he has absolutely no qualifications for. Democrats need to suck it up and admit that Hunter Biden may indeed be every bit as embarrassing and every bit the opportunistic grifter as, say, well, all of Donald Trump’s kids. They need to say that if Hunter Biden broke the law, he should be held accountable.

But no one has presented evidence that Joe Biden took criminal action to help his son, and no one has presented evidence that he criminally benefited from his son’s positions.

Kevin McCarthy, in creating the “impeachment inquiry,” essentially conceded that there was no evidence linking Biden to criminal behavior. Rather, McCarthy seemed to believe that the purpose of an “impeachment inquiry” is to go on a fishing expedition to see if such evidence could be found. This is insane. Impeachment inquiries are called when there is evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors – not to try to find evidence. Yes, Kevin McCarthy is spending our tax dollars in a scam to defame Joe Biden’s character.

Perhaps worse, the Republican impeachment inquiry is just the latest in a tidal wave of Republican “equivalization.” Accusing Biden of impeachable offenses gives Republicans cover to try to minimize Trump’s villainy by saying “Biden has done the same.” 

And anyone who saw “Oppenheimer” must have felt a sickening déjà vu when Congressman Jim Jordan attempted to “equivalize” by essentially accusing Merrick Garland of political corruption in his management of the Hunter Biden inquiry during the recent House Judiciary Committee hearings. Jim Jordan – famous for cowardly "looking the other way" during a sex scandal while a wrestling coach at Ohio State – is an excellent example of the moral rot in the Republican Party.

Once upon a time in America, men and women of character would stand up and put a stop to this type of bullshit.

They would say things like, “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

But we are no longer a country in which a majority of those in government are people of character.

Once a country that would bring down a reckless, destructive, witch-hunting Joe McCarthy, we are now a country that puts a spineless putz named Kevin McCarthy in the third most powerful position in government. We now witness McCarthyism 2.0: this new McCarthy empties the term "impeachment" of meaning, and now it is sure to be the routine outcome whenever the House is held by the party opposing the President.

We have devolved into a country in which “the ends justify the means,” and we must understand that means we are dangerously near the end.  A nation devoid of character is a free-for-all of self-interest, a no-holds-barred combat for power.  No democracy can withstand such an assault.

What’s to be done?

Let’s not hide from the ugly truth. Donald Trump would not be where he is today if voters didn’t vote him in. Our problem starts with a citizenry that votes a Donald Trump into office. We the people elected Trump.  (Of course he did not win the popular vote -- but don’t get me started on the insanity of the Electoral College…)

Sure… when many people first voted for Trump in 2016, they may have genuinely believed he was a savvy businessman who could fix the mess in Washington. But that was then. People who are supporting Trump in 2024 have no such excuse. They have seen the criminality, the personal enrichment, the lying, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the demand for personal loyalty, the retribution against those insufficiently loyal, the insurrection, the attempted coup, the stolen documents, the attempts to stoke rage and trigger violence against judges and prosecutors, the flagrant efforts to undermine of the Constitution, violate the laws, and destroy the norms and customs that shore up our democracy.

Even today, a shocking percentage of we the people can’t see Trump for the lying, manipulative, Machiavellian charlatan he is.

Or don’t care if he is. If his mission is to destroy our government, that seems like a great idea to many of his faithful.

As with so many issues we face today – from climate change to Putin’s threat to global stability to our own precarious democracy – we can trace our problems to an eroded educational system that creates citizens who are incapable of discerning truth from propaganda, reality from spin, fact from fiction. If our citizens are not educated in science, world history, and civics, and are not capable of reason and independent thinking, they will forever be prey to serial liars, Fox anchors, and ruthless demagogues.

We the people created that, too.

And please -- we are not simply talking about underfunded K-12 education in rural Mississippi. The fault lies every bit as much – if not more – with the elite institutions that are great at teaching how to make millions but sketchy indeed at teaching honor. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton each need to examine their curricula to understand how they managed to avoid instilling human decency and an ethical compass in Ron DeSantis, Mark Zuckerberg, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Steve Bannon, Stewart Rhodes, Ted Kaczynski, George W. Bush, Rajat Gupta, Donald Rumsfeld, Eliot Spitzer, Jeff Skilling, and countless other sleazeballs.  

Until we can find a way to rebuild a sense of character in our schools, our offices, and our communities, the wall standing between this country and a slide into Republican authoritarian rule is the election of Democrats who understand democracy, and who are committed to it.  

How important is democracy to you?  


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Sunday, September 3, 2023

BTRTN: The Invisible Presidency

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


Has there ever been a less visible or newsworthy president than Joe Biden, at least in the modern media era?

It’s a great question to ponder as Biden seeks reelection by an American public from whom he has largely been kept hidden. 

We probably do not have to “prove” the premise that Biden is indeed our most invisible president.  But we will offer one data point:  In the month of August The New York Times pushed out a total of 31 “Breaking News” alerts that were, broadly speaking, of a political nature.  Only one of these alerts mentioned Joe Biden by name -- and even that one was not because of an action on his part, but rather when the Supreme Court revived Biden’s policy on “ghost” guns.  Donald Trump garnered eleven mentions, murdered Russian mutineer Yevgheny Prigozhin had two, Rudy Giuliani, Hunter Biden and Clarence Thomas each had one, and George Santos (actually in reference to one of his aides) and Kevin McCarthy (whom the aide impersonated) shared one.  Such a low share of the political space was unheard of not only in Trump’s times, but it is hard to envision that any recent president would go a month – even August – making such little news.

For the leader of the free world, Biden is pulling off a remarkable feat in hiding in plain sight.  This is, of course, a very conscious strategy, one employed for two excellent reasons. 

The first is that Biden, at age 80, is better in concept than he is in the flesh.  Americans surely elected Biden because he embodies all sorts of attributes that were sorely lacking in the Trump years:  deep government experience, steady hands, a calm demeanor, a respect for both domestic and global institutions and norms, and a “humanity” factor in terms of being warm, likeable and empathetic.  Americans, shattered by the decibel level of the Trump era and the disorientation of the pandemic, craved nothing more than a return to normalcy, where people went about their business and politics intruded in their lives in a predictable manner, even during the inevitable crisis of one kind or another.

All that is Biden, and in a very authentic way.  That is the heart of his appeal.  If Joe Biden were 65 or 70, he would probably be one of our more popular recent presidents by now, with near universal approval among his own party and independents and a grudging respect by some mainstream Republicans.  But he is, in fact, 80, and while relatively hearty for that age, he nonetheless projects neither vitality nor clarity of thought.  He has always been a halting speaker (the remnants of a childhood speech impediment) and a gaffe-machine (the downside of his from-the-heart spontaneity), and even though these have long been part of his political baggage, they make him seem even older than he is.

On top of this, it has not been a good era for octogenarians, who still loom large over the political scene.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg diminished her considerable legacy by lingering too long on the Supreme Court, dying (at 87) when the GOP controlled both the White House and the Senate, thus ceding her seat on the bench to an archconservative.  Both Dianne Feinstein (now 90) and Mitch McConnell (81) have recently displayed moments suggestive of a steep decline of capability.  Democrats fear nothing more than Biden suffering such an event, particularly in public.  If Biden were unable to run for a second term, the Democrats would be faced with Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket, and, whatever her true capabilities, the optics of Harris’s short-lived presidential candidacy and her Vice Presidency to date have not been good.  If a Biden withdrawal happened early enough for challengers to emerge – a window that is rapidly closing – it is not at all clear who an electable alternative might be.   For Democrats, the only thing worse than a Biden candidacy is…anything else.

The second big reason for Biden to remain in the shadows is that the actual headliners are themselves making an excellent case for a Biden second term.  Look at those who dominated the August headlines.  There was Trump, with his fourth indictment, a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential results in the state of Georgia.  There was the slate of contender-pretenders that the Republicans offered up in a Trump-free debate, from the dystopian sneering of Ron DeSantis, to the smug mania of Trump-wannabee Vivek Ramaswamy, to the shallow, nice-guy vagueness of Tim Scott and so on.  (The best line I heard was that the debate was “a bunch of single-digit candidates tearing apart other single-digit candidates” – referencing that no one attacked either frontrunner Trump or, more surprisingly, the second place DeSantis.)

The headlines included the death of Prigozhin, almost surely on the untraceable orders of Vladimir Putin; the pathetic Rudy Guiliani; the caught-with-his-fingers-in-a-giant-cookie-jar Clarence Thomas, and the pathological fabulist George Santos.  There was smarmy Kevin McCarthy and talk of a Biden impeachment inquiry, a gift to the 2024 Biden campaign.  What better set of headlines could Biden want than his various rivals continually veering off in an orgy of incredibly grotesque and absurd behavior?  With the vision-less, alternative-less GOP groping its way through a not-dead-yet Trump revival and the world order being so visibly threatened by Putin, Biden’s strengths are once again being perfectly displayed by the words and actions of his enemies.  Why try to change the channel to focus on the man himself, when your opposition is essentially engaged in politically-suicidal messaging?  That would make no sense.

But while the upsides of hiding Biden are reasonably clear, there is a major downside as well. 

The President of the United States has a unique platform, a massive one, the “bully pulpit” as Teddy Roosevelt famously described it.  Biden cannot simply count on his rivals’ self-immolation alone – he certainly needs to tell his story.  He has a record of achievement that he wants to run on and a complex economic situation to explain, and taking a back seat to his opponents forfeits the opportunity to make the case.  Sure Biden has made some speeches – notably a rather bold attempt (given the risks) to brand the current economic environment with the term “Bidenomics.”   (This is risky because American’s are not happy with the state of the economy, likely because of the lagging effect of high inflation on mortgage and auto interest rates and the disproportionate impact of inflation on the “have nots” who are living payckeck-to-pacyhceck.)  But his efforts thus far are from adequate -- America right now needs an "Explainer in Chief" (as Barack Obama once dubbed Bill Clinton).  Even if Biden were a Great Communicator, it would be very tough to break through the gusher of news emanating daily from the indictments.  Given his lack of commitment to being visible, it is simply impossible.  Biden’s surrogates are on the hustings, but – apart from being unpopular themselves (Kamala Harris, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer are even more disliked than Biden) – there is no substitute for the bully pulpit. 

Obama was often critiqued for not successfully selling his achievements; he often gave the impression that he was "above that."  Joe Biden surely knows better and has gone to school on the lessons of that era, but his communications calculus is very different.  And net/net, he is probably right to err on the side of being less visible.

After all, Donald Trump is his likely opponent, and while all these indictments are a plus for the nomination, they are certainly a minus for the general election.  Because of the polarization of our nation, elections truly are won and lost on the margins, and the political factors that drive turnout probably favor Biden at this juncture.  He wants the Trump indictments spectacle (motions, testimony, live TV from Georgia) to be breaking news 24/7.  He wants Putin to play the very public thug.  He thinks the economic story is moving his way.  And he knows that, with the abortion issue, he is holding the high card when it comes to motivating his base and driving turnout.  And he understands the need to keep the "age" issue as invisible as possible.

Don’t expect Joe Biden to emerge from hiding anytime soon.  Back in olden times -- before even Biden was born -- it was de rigueur for incumbent presidents to employ a “Rose Garden” re-election strategy.  That is, the president was viewed as being too busy tending to the nation’s business to be out on the campaign trail, too focused on his duties to stray far from the Oval Office -- and its outdoor neighbor, the Rose Garden.  But both Roosevelts, with their bully pulpit mentality and Fireside Chat communications gifts, raised the visibility of presidents, and the media age made further demands on the public nature of the job.  The public presidency was exploited naturally and to advantage by the smooth talking and camera-friendly John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and even, memorably, by George W. Bush in the early days after 9/11).  But it is not kind to lesser lights, and Biden is certainly one of those.

Joe Biden ran in 2020 largely from his basement in Delaware, able to use the Covid crisis to both model good pandemic behavior and keep a low-profile for political advantage.  We can expect in 2024 that he will campaign with another version of hiding in plain sight, resurrecting some form of a Rose Garden strategy.

Stay tuned.



Joe Biden’s approval rating slipped a point in August from 42% to 41%.  This represents the 24th straight month that Biden has been within the 39-45% range.  The ratings of Biden’s performance on the issues was generally unchanged.  The "Bidenometer" dropped somewhat from 40 to 35, driven by a dip in the Dow and consumer confidence and a rise in gas prices.  Second quarter GDP was also downwardly revised from 2.4% to 2.0%.  But the +35 level still means the economy is in far better shape than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).


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 +41 for July, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 35% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +35, 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 it move upward from 0 to +35 under Biden.

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